Farm update: April 8

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The hills are alive…with weeds! But we call them “wildflowers.”

The snow is finally gone at this elevation, even though plenty can still be seen on the mesa. Our pasture is coming back with a vengeance, and we spend our days walking the land, looking at what plants are coming up and trying to decide whether they’re helpful or harmful to us. Since we bought Quiet Farm at the end of a blistering summer in the midst of a hundred-year drought, pretty much everything was crispy and dormant. We hadn’t yet determined what bushes and trees might survive, and what would need to be removed. We’re giving everything a generous opportunity to stage a spring comeback before we tear it out.

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Farm update: February 18

Despite the snow on the ground, spring is in the air. We’re entering the freeze-thaw cycle (also known as mud season) and our quarter-mile driveway is the worse for it, but all around us, things seem to be softening and readying for growth. We’re excited for spring, friends. This winter has offered much more moisture than last year’s punishing drought, and we’re looking forward to seeing how our fields regenerate once the snows have disappeared for good.

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One of our favorite winter activities has been watching for wildlife across our land; the persistent snow has made tracks easy to see. We’ve spotted coyotes, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, ground squirrels and of course our nemesis, deer. We are trying hard to learn this land, to know what lives here now and what was here before us so we can figure out how to best live in harmony.

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Things that are great, vol. 2

Modern lives contain way too much negativity, a cycle perpetrated by a fear-mongering media looking to sell us stuff we don’t need. In the interest of combatting that mentality, then, we present our second “Things That Are Great” link round-up, highlighting news stories and trends that we think are worth celebrating. (Read our first positive link collection here!)

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Photo clearly not taken in Colorado.

If you had to guess at the largest irrigated crop in America, you might well assume corn or soy. You’d be wrong; however; according to a 2015 NASA study, lawns represent about 40 million acres in the U.S., or about three times as much land as corn. All this grass comes at a steep price: 9 billion gallons of water per day, plus hundreds of millions of pounds of fertilizers and pesticides and other chemical treatments, all of which eventually end up in our water sources. And yard waste, including grass clippings and leaves, represents the largest single occupant of our landfills, too. All this for a crop we can’t even eat? Ridiculous.

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Thankfully, though, forward-thinking companies are working to change that antiquated attitude. All across the country, edible landscapes are “unlawning” America. Converting pointless, thirsty lawns into healthy, local human food? Yes, please. These edible landscapers often face a lot of resistance from restrictive HOAs, but progress is still being made, albeit slowly. If you’d like to replace your lawn with native plants, check with your local extension agent – they’re often the best source of information for what will grow best and still look nice in your region.

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A helpful guide to Quiet Farm wildlife

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Lots of people move out to the country to escape from society and get closer to nature. (We did.) This is all well and good, but more often than not that human-wildlife interface becomes difficult for both sides. On the Front Range, for example, dozens of black bears are killed by wildlife officials every year because they show little or no fear of humans and are regularly caught breaking into homes and businesses to scavenge for food. Many more are hit by cars. Mostly, this is because we continue to encroach on the bears’ territory, and because ignorant humans continue to place unsecured trash in places where the bears can access it.

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Here on Quiet Farm, then, one of our biggest challenges will be how to live in harmony with our local wildlife, rather than against them. For us, deer pressure will absolutely be the largest issue we face. There are thousands of deer in the nearby area, both whitetail and mule; we’re also surrounded on three sides by apple orchards, which attract deer and lots of other creatures who love fresh, crunchy apples, too. As we plan our vegetable beds for next season we’re still debating how best to protect those vegetables from the deer; these animals can do thousands of dollars of damage in one hungry night and we have no interest in opening an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

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A crash course in irrigation, vol. 2

Hello, could everyone please put on their interested faces? We’re going to get into the nuts and bolts of learning how to run ditch water on our farm, and we know you won’t want to miss a single moment.

We ordered our water two weeks ago; today is the final day of the season we can have it. We’ve called for half a foot for two days, the minimum we can request and hopefully enough for us to test our gated pipe and our repairs. There will be no more testing this season after this run, so we need to learn all we can.

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At the headgate before sunrise.

The morning of the irrigation call starts with a pre-dawn alarm and a drive to the headgate (about a half-mile north of our farm). On the stile post we find a metal tin with the day’s water requests: where the water is going and in what quantity. The paper below it lists which households are on which ditch lateral (west or south).

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This is the Stevens and Linder ditch ticket; there are four requests with the totals listed (names underneath ours removed for privacy). All four of the day’s requests are located on the west lateral so the first task was to shut the headgate to the south lateral, thereby directing all the water to the west.

The ticket shows the quantity of water requested by us (.50 or half a foot), the corresponding gauge chart conversion (.47) – to be remembered to help set the flow gauge on our property – and lastly the water shrink to be expected due to ditch loss (6%). Requests three and four on the ticket won’t suffer the 6% water shrink because they’re on decree water and it doesn’t apply. Those folks have senior water rights which allows them decree water (free and separate from their water shares) even at the end of the season. For almost everyone else this season, there was no decree water at all; the reservoirs are too low to allow it. We’re supposedly in a hundred-year drought, but even that is a misnomer; we’ll almost certainly see a drought this severe or worse again in our lifetimes. Extreme drought is the new normal here, and learning how to properly manage our water rights will be key to our longterm success.

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Farm update: October 8

Hi! How was your weekend? We survived our first Applefest and we think we’ve made all of the necessary repairs on our irrigation system so that we can call for water in two weeks (more on that soon). I made yogurt, but I’m still searching for a source of truly local milk that I can get basically straight from the cow. Most of the cattle around here, however, are raised for meat, not dairy, so I’ll keep on looking. Here a few other things we’re up to:

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It was all very dramatic here for a time.

We were thrilled to have nearly a week of cool, damp weather (the mesa got its first snowfall!). This is such a rarity over here that you could almost hear the valley’s farmers cheering when the rains came. The high winds destroyed our flagpole (N rescued the flag) and the heavy rains helpfully identified some heretofore unknown leaks in our house, but we are still inestimably grateful for the moisture. Even the pasture came back a bit, with tiny green sprouts everywhere. Water is life, make no mistake.

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Quiet Farm’s first official crop! I’ll sell them as fancy microgreens and charge a fortune.

Speaking of tiny green sprouts, I attended a women’s farming conference last weekend in Estes Park and I planted some arugula before I left so that I could say in all honesty that I’m a farmer! Spicy, peppery arugula is one of our favorite greens, and it grows so well, especially in spring and fall, that I used it to test the soil fertility in an existing makeshift raised bed shoddily constructed (not by us) from cinderblocks. The arugula sprouted beautifully – along with tons of grass and possibly some thistles. Since there is no grass (or thistles) nearby, I’m at a loss to explain this, but now I have to painstakingly weed my tiny arugula. Pro tip: know your soil before you plant. This is not a good use of farm time.

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Local sunflowers drying for seed harvesting.

This spring I attended a seed saving class, and I’m looking forward to participating in an even more intensive teacher training in a few weeks. Saving seeds is an important part of food sovereignty; if we really want to opt out of our industrial food complex, we need to own the seeds, too. So we’re working on building up our own Quiet Farm seed bank, and we’re collecting, drying and storing seeds whenever we can. Once we grow our own vegetables, grains and herbs, seed saving will become an even bigger task each fall.

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Our compost pile. It’s not pretty, but it’s so valuable.

Just about any gardening or small-scale farming book you’ll ever read will extol the virtues of compost, and we’ve got ours started. We identified an otherwise unusable plot about equidistant between the kitchen and the future raised beds, so it’s easily accessible to all. We began with lots of old straw bedding and manure from the animal pens; we’ll need to clean the pens out anyway before we purchase our goats and it makes a beneficial addition to the pile, especially since the manure is well-aged. All of our kitchen waste, leaves, weeds and other organic material go in, too. At the moment we’re watering it frequently because it’s been so dry, but we’re hoping for a long, wet winter and it will be perfect for building up the fertility of our raised beds next spring. As a rule, never let even a scrap of organic material leave your property.

This week we plan to tear up the oddly rumpled carpet in our sun porch and replace it with some durable and water-resistant flooring, since it will shortly become a mud porch. We’ll repair two broken window mechanisms and patch our newly discovered leaks. We may take down a couple of dead trees, and hopefully establish our woodpile, too. Thanks for reading, and have a lovely week!

A crash course in irrigation

Before we moved to the Western Slope, we were told again and again to make sure we buy water, not just a farm. Over here, water and land are sold separately, like toys and batteries. Just because water runs through, on or over your property doesn’t necessarily mean you have any right to use it.

The good news is that Quiet Farm does have adequate water, in most years. The bad news, however, is twofold: first, the Western Slope is in an unprecedented drought and at the moment no one has enough water. And second, we know precisely nothing about irrigation management. When you live in modern suburbia you just turn on the tap and the water flows magically, right? That is so much not the case here.

Water Droplets
Irrigation management on Quiet Farm doesn’t look like this.

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It looks like this: our Parshall flume (or weir) with attached flow gauge. No, we don’t know what any of those words mean, either.

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This is our water pump with screen to catch wildlife – raccoons, ground squirrels, marmots, whistlepigs, ponies, etc. – when they fall in. Looking forward to THAT happening.

We now own two shares of one of the Western Slope’s strongest irrigation ditches. There are dozens of ditch and reservoir companies; the vast majority of the area’s water comes from hundreds of lakes and reservoirs up on the Grand Mesa which are filled with precipitation each winter. When there is no snow, like last year, then there is no water in the ditches or reservoirs. And so water becomes a very valuable commodity.

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This is known as an “ag tap,” an abbreviation for agricultural. The water from this tap, however, is from our domestic supply. Confused? So are we.

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This is downstream of the water pump and will help irrigate our land with irrigation water. We think. Or maybe not.

When we want some of our water for irrigation – which we can have between the beginning of April and the end of October – we order a precise amount from the ditch company, accounting for absorption and loss along the way. Ditch riders, who live up on the mesa during the season, use a complicated system to send the water down the correct ditch to our property on a specific day. We have to be out at our headgates at about 6AM to start our run, and the water we use is debited from our account, just like a bank. We can lease, sell, trade or give away our water as we see fit, but if we order water, it’s coming to our property whether we’re ready or not. So figuring out our irrigation system is of paramount importance to our future success.

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Our water will run through gated pipe, a common sight in our area. Big farms will own thousands of feet and it’s set up according to your property’s individual landscape and contour. The black gates open and shut to control the water flow.

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A lot of our gated pipe currently looks like this, which is obviously not workable. Even we know that.

In case you’re worried that we’re actually living in Little House on the Prairie, our house has a domestic tap, which is just like water in a normal house. Except that domestic water here is crushingly expensive, especially compared to Front Range rates, which means we absolutely cannot run a farm on domestic water without bankrupting ourselves. No more domestic taps are being issued in our area; local government doesn’t think we have the water to support additional growth – unlike on the Front Range, where greedy, short-sighted counties sell their water to the big cities and then wonder why their towns die. Domestic taps are worth tens of thousands of dollars over here, if you could even buy one.

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Apparently little critters like chewing on the gates inside the pipe. The gates cost $3 each, and we have dozens missing. The few remaining intact ones are probably being eaten right now while you’re reading this.

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The end of the line. Of course, if the pipes aren’t connected properly we’ll just flood everything and there is no way to turn the water off once we’ve called for it. So good luck with that.

We’ve got just about a month to figure this system out, because once the water goes off at the end of October we’ll have no way of testing our work. And when the water (hopefully) starts running again next spring, we want to be ready to get our pasture in good shape.

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Good news, though! We’re unknowingly growing a pasture of invasive elm trees that will need to be removed by hand…

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…when we’re not growing anything at all. Surprisingly, bare pasture is actually worse than having even invasive plants in the ground.

The moral of this tale, friends, is not to take water for granted. The daily luxury of fresh, clean, potable water is an absolute gift and one that not even everyone in the U.S. has access to. So treat your water like the precious resource it is, and know that it is finite. And wars over water will be much more devastating than wars over oil.

There is much work to be done, and winter is coming. Pray for snow.

An announcement

Many of you know this, and the rest of you have probably guessed, but N and I found Quiet Farm. (We’re not changing our website, however.) We closed on the property in early August and have just now gotten all of our things moved from the Front Range over to our (new to us) house. We heard too many horror stories about unscrupulous, lazy and irresponsible moving companies, so we opted to do the whole move ourselves. N had plenty of experience driving a 25-foot RV, so driving a 26-foot box truck couldn’t be much different, right? (P.S. We sold the RV. Bittersweet, but it served its purpose for our transient summer. And it’s just right down the road from us, so we can visit it if we want!)

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Quiet Farm is a ten-acre parcel just outside of Cedaredge, on Colorado’s Western Slope. We’re tucked under the Grand Mesa and surrounded on three sides by apple orchards; to the south we can see all the way to the San Juan Mountains. Just over eight acres of the property is in pasture, but both the land and the house have been essentially abandoned and unloved for about five years. It will take a lot of time and hard work and water to regenerate the pasture; historically it’s always been alfalfa, but we’re looking at other drought-tolerant options, too – maybe hops or quinoa?

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Our vision for Quiet Farm is an organic teaching farm and cooking school. We plan to build a certified commercial kitchen in a detached garage on the property. We’ll offer classes on everything from healthy cooking basics to bread baking to canning and preserving to beekeeping to fermentation to knife skills, and any other homesteading topics that our guests might be interested in. We’ll keep laying hens for eggs and pest control, goats for milk and entertainment, beehives and extensive vegetable and perennial plantings. We want to be part of the community and host potluck suppers and farm tours and coffee klatches and food swaps. We want to showcase the amazing fruit and animals and people this part of Colorado offers. We want Quiet Farm to be an agritourism destination.

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We’ll post regular farm updates here, with before-and-after pictures so you can see our progress. It took us three years to find Quiet Farm, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to fully realize our vision, but we’re exactly where we want to be. Thank you for joining us on this journey, and we’re so much looking forward to all of the incredible adventures ahead. We can’t wait to share Quiet Farm with you!

 

Life in a small town

We came upon our new hometown by accident, on our way back from Oregon last fall. We’d spent seven or eight weeks working on farms and looking for farmland up in the Pacific Northwest, until we finally acknowledged that region wasn’t our place. We drove across Nevada on I-80 – a bleak journey if ever there was one – dropped down on I-15 when we hit Salt Lake, then took I-70 eastbound through Utah and back into Colorado.

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We needed a place to crash for the night, and I had booked us an unknown Airbnb in some tiny dot on the map called Cedaredge, in the shadow of the Grand Mesa. I’m a Colorado native and I’d never heard of it; most of the people on the Front Range haven’t, either. Cedaredge is in Delta County, along with Paonia, Hotchkiss, Crawford and Delta; it’s a town of two thousand people and it’s famous for its apples. The town’s annual Applefest, in early October, brings an additional twenty-five thousand people in.

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Sowing the seeds

As recently as three or four generations ago, the vast majority of seeds planted in home gardens were saved from year to year. Gardeners learned what plants thrived in their unique microcosm, and they might have saved seeds from the earliest beans, or the largest cucumber, or the most delicious tomato. Season after season, these saved seeds protected plant diversity, acted as a hedge against famine and in many cases were so treasured that they were sewn into hems of immigrants’ clothes when they traveled – voluntarily or not – to new lands.

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A few samples from the Quiet Farm seed bank.

Now, we think nothing of buying seed packets every growing season. Wintertime brings glossy seed catalogs to the mailbox, filled with mouth-watering descriptions of intensely flavorful tomatoes, trendy kalettes, or spicier peppers. We page through these during the dark, cold days, eagerly anticipating the chance to get our hands in the soil once again, and often we order much more than we need. Most home gardeners have a wealth of seeds left over from previous years, and even this abundance doesn’t stop us from buying just a few more. They’re just tiny packets, we reason. A few more couldn’t hurt.

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