Coming home to roost

One of the many reasons we were drawn to Quiet Farm was its collection of rather ramshackle yet usable outbuildings. Since keeping chickens for eggs (and entertainment) was always a top priority, renovating the chicken house was definitely high on our project list.

Chicken House 01 sml

The ‘before’ photo, in bleakest winter.

Chicken House 02 sml

The original nest boxes on the far wall indicate that this may previously have been used as a henhouse.

Although the chicken house was moderately sturdy, it definitely called for renovation before we brought hens home. The roof required replacing, the foundation needed to be defended against predators and the interior demanded a good cleaning.

Chicken House 06 sml

With the roof removed and much of the junk cleaned out.

Chicken House 05 sml

Repurposed corrugated steel panels ready for the roof. They’re weighed down with rocks so they don’t blow away.

Our goal with all of our renovation projects is to salvage and repurpose materials whenever possible, and to learn something as we do it. It would be much easier to accomplish everything by constantly buying new supplies at the big-box home improvement stores, but that level of excessive consumption doesn’t fit with our lifestyle and typically stifles creativity, as well. We’re trying hard to do as much as we can with what we have on hand.

Chicken Roof 00 sml

How to install a chicken house roof, in four easy steps.

After removing the existing roof, we laid plywood sheets, covered them with tarpaper, then reinstalled the metal panels. Here’s a pro tip: don’t try to do this on a windy day; we nearly donated all of our roofing materials to our neighbors. Thus far the roof has remained perfectly watertight, but winter will be the real test, especially if we have the heavy snowfall we experienced last year.

Chicken House 09 sml

Trenching the chicken house to bury wire.

There are many, many creatures here who would love a fresh chicken dinner, so keeping the chickens both dry and safe is essential. Because raccoons, foxes, skunks and whistle pigs can all dig, we trenched around the house and buried wire fencing about a foot deep. The fencing is also secured two feet up the walls of the house.

Chicken House 04 sml

Just some of the hardware discovered during this project.

Chicken House 07 sml

Our roost, built from repurposed lumber. 

Chicken House 08 sml

Nearly finished!

We bought old windows from a nearby vintage shop and installed them to provide both light and ventilation. It’s actually much more difficult to keep chickens cool than warm; their feathers provide natural insulation and they don’t sweat like humans do, so it’s imperative that they have access to fresh air when it’s hot. On the other hand, cold, damp drafts can make them sick, so the house needs to be pretty airtight during winter.

Chicken House 10 sml

All done except for paint. The lush growth and gorgeous light proves this is a spring photo.

We collected rocks (we have plenty!) and stacked them up on top of the wire mesh around the base of the house for an additional layer of protection against digging predators. The old wire spools and branches provide shade and shelter for the birds.

Chickens Roost 01 sml

Twelve chickens, tucked up snugly on the top roost bar.

Chickens like to sleep on an elevated perch; they’re descended from jungle fowl, so they’d naturally sleep in trees. Our roost has four bars, but invariably most of the birds end up on the top rung, with one or two lower-ranking birds on the next rung down. Remember, pecking order is a very real thing, and every chicken knows exactly where they fit in the hierarchy.

Chicken House 01 sml

Freshly painted with a new coat of sharp red paint! (Look closely to the right of the house and you can see where the paint sprayer exploded.) 

Our final task was to give the house a fresh coat of paint, both for aesthetics and to protect the aged wood from our harsh weather. Our trusty paint sprayer didn’t like the thick exterior paint or the extreme summer temperatures, so there’s quite a lot more red paint “decorating” the area than we’d like. Nevertheless, the refurbished chicken house is keeping our birds safe, protected and dry and hopefully will for years to come.

Next up on the project list: lots of canning and preserving, plus installing our beetle-kill floors in the master bedroom and closet. Always something in the works here on Quiet Farm!

The Farm Series: I-Guana Farm

As we’ve discussed previously, Quiet Farm is located in the “fruit basket” of Colorado. The Western Slope produces Colorado’s revered Palisade peaches, along with apples, cherries, plums, apricots, table grapes and wine grapes. Fruit grows so well here because the climate doesn’t experience the significant diurnal swings common on the Front Range. (In February 2018, the temperature in Denver dropped 72 degrees in forty hours.) Fruit trees, especially once they’re in flower, cannot survive extreme temperature shifts, so harvesting fruit on the Front Range is hit-or-miss. It’s hit-or-miss over here, too, as all farming is, but with a lot more hits than misses.

I-Guana Farm 03 sml

Last year – our first year as official Western Slope residents – we ate ourselves silly on local peaches, plums, cherries and apples. The apricots, though, were lost to a late spring freeze, so while a few orchards had a very small amount of fruit to sell, it wasn’t widely available and we missed out entirely. This year, between our record snowfall and ideal spring weather, the fruit growers in our area have a bumper crop of just about everything, with apricots no exception. We’re even seeing wild apricot trees, heavy with fruit, growing on roadsides around us. It’s been a banner year.

Continue reading

Farm update: July 8

Hail 04 sml

This is not some sort of newfangled organic fertilizer.

Welcome to high summer. It’s hot, dry and crispy here at Quiet Farm…except when it’s hailing. We’ve had three significant hailstorms so far; the one pictured above did some pretty severe damage to our vegetables. Between the late start, our overwhelming whistle pig infestation and this extreme weather, we’ll be thrilled to harvest anything this season. Growing food is not for the faint-of-heart.

Continue reading

Farm update: June 10

Seedlings 02 sml

Still relatively safe on our west deck.

Why aren’t these plants in the ground, you say? Because our fence still isn’t finished. I know, I know…we’ve been going on about this game fence for what seems like decades; trust us, it’s twice as long when you’re actually building it. And we’re progressing, we really are – but it isn’t complete. And so these seedlings wait patiently on our sun porch, getting leggier and more rootbound every day. We’re glad this is a year focused on building infrastructure and learning, because if we actually had to harvest these crops on a specific schedule in order to make money, our season would already be shot. Most of them will thrive once they’re finally planted into raised beds, but some, like the pak choi, have already set flowers and are on their way to going to seed, so their life cycle is nearly complete. Had we known the pest pressure we’d face here, we would have started building the game fence last fall. Live and learn.

Whistle Pigs 01 sml

Look carefully…there are at least four visible in this photo. And probably four hundred hidden in the rocks.

Speaking of pest pressure, our resident whistle pigs have had a wildly successful breeding season. Not familiar with whistle pigs? They’re part of the large marmot family (Marmota monax), commonly known as ground squirrels, and they’re related to woodchucks, gophers and prairie dogs. They do actually whistle to warn their brethren of impending doom (like when we stroll down the lane to pick up the mail) and they live amongst our extensive rock collection. While they haven’t done much damage to crops yet (mostly because there aren’t any – see above), we do believe they’re orchestrating a stealthy and coordinated campaign to creep ever closer to the vegetables. They are exceptionally quick despite their awkward bulk, and they have lush, glossy pelts – perfect for a fashionable winter hat! Right now we’re offering a special: come collect one rock, and you get a free whistle pig. (Some trapping required.)

Continue reading

Farm update: May 20

Our average last frost date here at Quiet Farm is May 13; as a rough guideline, this means that it’s generally safe to plant warm-weather crops (tomatoes, peppers and so on) outside after this date. Except that we had about an inch of light, fluffy, powdery snow plus some shockingly low overnight temperatures this past week, and if we’d had all of these plants outside they would have died a chilly death. While some vegetables can handle low temperatures, our summer stars want heat and more heat, so ours are still safely tucked away in the sunroom. What do we learn from this? Always check the forecast, and never trust Colorado weather to do what you expect.

Seed Potatoes 01 sml

These seed potatoes are bred for the Rocky Mountain West.

We’re expecting another week of cool, wet weather, which makes it impossible to pour concrete for our fence posts. But there is always something that can be planted, even if it’s not tomatoes and peppers. Our locally-grown seed potatoes have been planted in “potato towers,” which we constructed from galvanized fencing and layers of newspapers, compost and straw. I planted a little over a pound of each variety; theoretically each pound planted should yield about ten pounds of fresh potatoes in maybe July or August. I’ve never planted potatoes in towers so am excited to see how this experiment turns out! (If you want to plant potatoes, buy certified seed potatoes and don’t plant those from the grocery store – they’ve typically been treated to prevent sprouting and therefore won’t grow.)

Continue reading

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!

Broad Tailed Hummingbird 02 sml

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!

Continue reading

Farm update: April 8

QF Purple Flowers 01 sml

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.

Continue reading

The cranes are here!

Crane Days 01 sml

There are so many benefits to living where we do now, including but not limited to lots of fresh, local fruit in the summer. But just now, coming off a long, dark winter, we’re most excited to see one of the true harbingers of spring: the greater sandhill crane on its annual migration between New Mexico and the Yellowstone ecosystem (northern Idaho and Montana).

Cranes 03 sml

Greater sandhill cranes are big, gorgeous, elegant birds; adults stand about four feet tall and have a six-foot wingspan. They’re most easily recognized by their sooty gray coloring and the red patches on their eyes and head, and that they flock by the thousands. Their plumage can take on a rusty red sheen, because they often preen by rubbing their feathers with iron-rich mud.

Cranes 04 sml

In Colorado, a flock of about twenty thousand birds gathers in February and March in the San Luis Valley, where they rest and forage before heading further north. About five thousand of these birds then make their way straight over Delta County, where we live, often stopping at Fruitgrowers’ Reservoir just to the east of our farm.

Cranes 05 sml

Greater sandhill cranes are the oldest birds still living today; fossil records from two and a half million years ago indicate that they’ve changed hardly at all. Rock art and other artifacts in the San Luis Valley show that cranes have been important to the region’s people for as long humans have inhabited the area. Their annual migration is a sure sign that we’ve survived another winter, and spring is on its way.

Cranes 01 sml

Sandhill cranes sleep in shallow, calm water to keep themselves safe from predators, so a reservoir like Fruitgrowers’ is a perfect stopover location. These birds are opportunistic feeders; they most often eat plants and grains, but they’ll also feast on invertebrates and small mammals, if available. The Western Slope and the San Luis Valley offer thousands of acres of fallow cornfields in which to forage.

Cranes 02 sml

The cranes are most active at dawn and dusk when they “commute” to and from their daytime feeding grounds. The population along the Platte River in Nebraska is so large – half a million birds – that the cranes’ noise can drown out normal conversation. Sandhill cranes have a distinctive call, and the birds can frequently be heard even when they can’t be seen. The cranes are often spotted along the same transitory route in fall, but they rarely stop over in Delta County. Local experts believe this is because the reservoir is dry in the autumn, so there is no place to for the birds to sleep safely.

Cranes 09 sml

Although sandhill cranes aren’t quite as demonstrative as the famous dancing prairie chicken, the birds will perform for their prospective mate. Sandhill cranes mate for life and can live up to twenty years, a remarkable lifespan for a wild bird. These cranes don’t nest here in Colorado but instead lay their eggs up north; the female typically lays two eggs and the male guards the nest. It takes a month for the eggs to hatch and two months for the chicks to reach maturity, although only one chick usually survives.

Cranes 07 sml

We are thrilled to share space with these magnificent birds, and we look forward to their migration every spring.

P.S. If you’re interested in seeing the cranes in huge numbers, the two best locations are Monte Vista in southern Colorado and along the Platte River in central Nebraska. Both are definitely worth the trip!

Cranes 06 sml

 

 

 

 

 

Farm update: February 25

It hasn’t really been the most exciting week here on Quiet Farm, dear readers. We’ve been busy with boring but grown-up things like obtaining contractor quotes for electrical refits and game fencing (tedious), comparison shopping for auto insurance (horrible), changing oil in the cars (chilly), and taxes (the new 1040 is rather streamlined!). While necessary, none of those tasks make for very interesting tales.

Snow Removal 01 sml

Like a real farmer!

Winter continues its slog. After another six inches of fresh powder we did finally see our bluebird sky again, which was a welcome change. N borrowed our neighbor’s tractor to do some plowing; we’ve also been out shopping for our own tractor and ATV, since our current Snow Management Plan – i.e. ignore it and hope it melts – is definitely not panning out.

Game Fence 01 sml

All this just to protect some vegetables!

This uninspiring pile of materials is the beginning of our game fence. We can’t install it until the ground is a little more workable, and the hungry deer are taking full advantage of their current unrestricted freedom. We thought seriously about installing the fence ourselves, but once we realized we’d need to rent heavy equipment (skid-steer, auger and probably some other complicated, expensive, possibly dangerous things) we decided to hire it out. It’s going to cost us many thousands of dollars, but some jobs should be left to the professionals. We hope the deer will learn to respect our boundaries.

Continue reading

Farm update: January 14

We’re striding into 2019 full of vigor, purpose and excitement. We’ve erased and rewritten our Quiet Farm project whiteboard – it has three columns, Now, Soon and Later – and although we’re totally overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks, we’re looking forward to an incredible year. First on the list is to finish our home renovations, then to build out our commercial kitchen so we have an amazing space ready for classes and workshops and events. Over the course of the year we’ll continue to share everything we’re up to here on Quiet Farm, and we’re so glad to have you along for the journey!

Fire Water 01 sml

Late last year I made my first batch of fire cider, a legendary homeopathic folk remedy popularized by the herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. Recipes vary, of course, but most include raw onion, garlic, horseradish, ginger, lemon, chiles, apple cider vinegar and honey for sweetening. I also included lots of turmeric, a powerful anti-inflammatory, plus extra citrus for the vitamin C boost. I usually take a shot each morning and follow it with lots of water; this brew is intense and can definitely upset sensitive tummies! But I believe firmly in supporting our immune systems with good food and potions like this and ideally not getting sick at all. (Oh, and wash your hands with hot, soapy water. All the time. Regular handwashing is the single most powerful weapon we have against colds and flu.)

Continue reading