Lessons learned

Hello again, and please forgive us our recent absence. We’ve taken a small summer hiatus – not because we’ve actually been on vacation, but because for a period of time there we didn’t have many nice things to say about farming, and we didn’t want our space here to sound whiny and negative. We’re genuinely thrilled to be farming, even when we aren’t.

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One of early summer’s low points.

It’s been just under one year since we found Quiet Farm, and what a year it’s been. There have been highs and lows and successes and failures. And now that we’re one year wiser and can officially call ourselves farmers, we’re working hard on learning from our experiences. We always say that we’re allowed to make as many mistakes as we want, but we have to make different mistakes. If we make the same mistakes over and over, then we obviously haven’t learned anything.

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Deer diary, vol. 2

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Tools at the ready for constructing an H-brace.

Early this year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife delivered our game fencing materials. They also included a thin pamphlet with a few helpful suggestions on how to construct said fence – not really what we’d call “instructions.” As we’d never built even a simple fence before, this meant a lot of time on the University of YouTube. Our game fence is nine feet tall and composed of wood posts, metal T-posts, two strands of grid wire fencing and three strands of barbed wire. That’s a lot just to keep deer out – and each component has to be installed separately.

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Once we’d set our wood posts in concrete, we went around building H-braces at corners. H-braces (seen above on the left and right sides of the gate) are required when the fence turns a corner to keep it supported. The H-braces seem relatively simple – you just notch the vertical posts, insert a horizontal post, then use massive nails (3/8 inch by 12 inches!) to secure the horizontal to the vertical. As with all aspects of this fence, though, this is simpler on paper than in reality. Notching the fenceposts required climbing on a rickety stepladder on very rocky and uneven ground and holding a reciprocating saw at an awkward angle while trying not to fall off the ladder. Not at all OSHA-approved.

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Four completed H-braces on either side of our corral gate.

With the posts successfully notched, we set about connecting the horizontal to the vertical. Driving the heavy, thick nails in proved to be yet another challenge. After hours of frustration, we finally bought an extra-long drill bit so we could pre-drill the holes for the nails. This was an important lesson learned: don’t try to do something the hard way if a power tool can make the task easier.

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Looking southwest at our pasture gate.

H-braces then have to be wrapped with nine-gauge wire in order to stabilize the posts. As with the nails, this was much easier in theory than in practice. The wire was delivered to us in huge coils which were absolutely unmanageable – no matter where you wanted the wire to go, it was set on uncoiling the wrong way somewhere else, usually slapping you in the face along the way. We each bear our fair share of fence scars.

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Using a come-along and a wood clamp to stretch the grid fencing.

Now that the H-braces are up and wrapped, the two strands of grid fencing have to be installed. We could have opted for one-strand fencing, but the fencing comes in 330-feet rolls and the two of us could barely lift one of the smaller rolls. So we chose to wrap two strands, which most small farms do. It takes longer, but it’s much easier for two people to handle.

We unrolled the coils along the fence line, then used a come-along and N’s very crafty wood plank clamp to stretch the fencing. It’s imperative that the fencing be as tight as possible, but because our posts aren’t exactly straight, we had to adapt a bit. We’ll call it “accounting for the curvature of the earth.” Once in place, the fencing was secured to the wood posts using thick staples, and to the T-posts using clips.

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Using the wood clamp and the ATV hook and cable to install the top row.

Installing the top row offered additional challenges, since we had to hold up hundreds of feet of fencing while stretching and then securing it. Our ATV’s hook and cable set-up helped a great deal here, as did some sturdy chains attached to our wood plank clamp.

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We were pleased (and surprised!) to find that all of our fencing materials were made in the USA.

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Waiting for barbed wire along the top and bottom.

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Nearly finished!

The complexity of the fence might seem like a bit much just for some deer…but we have watched these animals easily leap a six-foot fence from a standstill. The power in their strong legs and their lean bodies is remarkable, and the fence has to be nine feet tall to have any hope of keeping them out, especially when they’re moving at a full, panicked run.

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Dear deer: the Quiet Farm salad bar is officially closed. Go torment someone else.

Building our game fence is the most extensive, complex and difficult project we’ve tackled yet here on Quiet Farm, and we are so proud of the results. The fence isn’t perfect, but we did it ourselves for about one-tenth what it would have cost to hire a fencing company, and we learned so much along the way. This sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency is why we’re out here.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

Farm update: June 3

Hello there! Has summer finally started where you live? We’re excited for warm weather and sunshine and to get all of our tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other summer crops into the ground finally.

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The raspberry plants are tiny, like our fruit trees, and are protected with plastic cages.

A few weeks ago we planted forty raspberry plants, ten each of four different cultivars. We planted both summer-bearing and fall-bearing varieties, in the hopes of having fresh raspberries for months on end. We don’t expect to see any fruit this year, but raspberries typically do well in this area so we’re looking forward to bountiful future harvests. In order to plant these canes, we used the excavator to dig long, wide beds, then we filled those beds with about eight cubic yards of soil from Mount Doom. This meant around thirty-six wheelbarrow loads moved by hand – we farm like it’s the 1850s over here, friends. One day, we’ll have a tractor. One day.

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Greens this fresh make those plastic supermarket packets taste like nothing.

We were excited to harvest our first salad greens and radishes; shown here is a mixture of Buttercrunch lettuce, pak choi, red Russian kale and lacinato kale. Our greens are pretty late this year; next year we hope to have our high tunnel built so that we have fresh greens throughout the winter and early spring. Few things taste better after months of heavy, rich, starchy foods than a bright, crisp salad.

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A male Bullock’s oriole waiting for the buffet to open.

Although we love seeing the hummingbirds at our feeders, we’ve found that the local population of Bullock’s orioles (Icterus bullockii) appreciates the easy sugar hit, too. The orioles are much bigger than the tiny hummingbirds, and when they’re on the feeders they scare the hummingbirds away. Because they’re so big, they also cause the feeders to swing wildly and spill sugar syrup everywhere, which makes a sticky mess. We haven’t yet figured out how to keep the hummingbirds coming while discouraging the orioles, even though their flashy yellow plumage is gorgeous.

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So much tidier now!

We built a new bin structure for our compost using salvaged shipping pallets; you can see the original small compost pile here. (We think pallets are one of the most useful free things you can find!) Now the compost can be kept neater, and it’s simple to throw fresh organic material into the left bin while waiting for the right side to finish “cooking.” When we get that tractor it will be a lot easier to move the finished compost onto the vegetable beds.

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Welcome home, chickens!

And then there’s this news: Quiet Farm has twelve new residents. They are a motley, ragtag bunch, who came to us because a friend was moving house. We have at least two roosters (maybe three; one is sensibly staying quiet for the moment) and an assortment of breeds. They’re still laying pretty well for older birds – certainly enough for our needs – and thus far they’ve had an exciting time exploring their new home. More on the chicken house renovation coming soon!

Have a great week!

 

Farm update: May 6

It’s been mostly cool and rainy this week. We’re of course grateful for the moisture and lower temperatures, which might keep our snowpack in place longer, but the weather has literally put a damper on our excavator plans. Never mind, though; there are always plenty of other things to do!

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A male black-chinned hummingbird getting its sugar fix.

One of our most successful ventures recently has been installing hummingbird feeders around our house. We’ve been utterly astounded at the sheer number of hummingbirds that have appeared, including both the black-chinned and broad-tailed varieties. They’ve apparently informed all their friends that the bar is open!

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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: April 1

Spring is finally here…with the exception of a small blizzard that blew in Friday evening, of course. The weather right now is capricious – gorgeous one minute, hurricane-like the next. But we haven’t yet spent spring on our farm, so we’re ready for all of it. Here’s what we’re up to these days!

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Why the long face?

Despite this photo, our pastures are greening up rather nicely, so we have a new resident at Quiet Farm. Temporary Pony belongs to our neighbor, and since we have grazing land available and no animals to graze it, Temporary Pony lives at Quiet Farm until she goes to her new home later this spring. She is a lovely, spirited horse who likes to sprint along the fence line, and she also runs straight at you full-bore when you’re out in the field – heartwarming and yet terrifying at the same time. It’s a pleasure to have an actual animal here; it makes our farm feel much more legitimate!

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The Farm Series: Western Culture

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Now that we actually have a farm, we can get a bit more serious about researching where we’ll obtain our animals. We plan to raise dairy goats and laying hens, with the intention of producing enough milk, cheese and eggs to supply our own kitchen as well as our cooking school. Because healthy animals produce healthy food, it’s essential that we know exactly where our animals come from.

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We still have a lot of work to do on both our chicken house and our goat barn to get them ready for animals, and we don’t plan to purchase any until next spring. We want to make our reservations now, however, so that when we’re ready we’ve got animals waiting for us. Small dairies especially need to know in advance how many animals they can sell during a given season so they can plan their breeding program.

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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.

The Farm Series: Desert Weyr

Of late, our Western Slope farm visits have taken us to pick delicious cherries and to meet happy pigs. How about we introduce you to some unusual sheep?

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Desert Weyr is perched high on a mesa above the town of Paonia.

In the late 1990s, Eugenie “Oogie” McGuire decided she wanted to craft herself a traditional medieval cloak – from scratch. It would be made from wool, of course. She purchased one ram, five ewes and a loom, taught herself how to spin, weave and sew, and eventually made the cloak. As she says, “It’s more accurate for the 18th century. It took me six years to weave the fabric, two more to get up the courage to cut it, and two weeks to hand-sew it.” But what commitment! Now, Oogie and her husband, Ken, raise a large flock of Black Welsh Mountain sheep on pasture above Paonia.

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