winter

The Great Pig Barn Flood of 2014

(I really hope this is the only Pig Barn Flood of 2014)

We had a big list of stuff to do today — clean out the hens’ nest boxes and add new bedding; clean out the rabbit cages and maybe put one of the does in to breed; make a cow-proof area outside the barn so we can put them out and more easily spread bedding without riling them all up; install a cat flap so our new barn cats can come out of their shelter-mandated acclimatization period. But when we got out of the house to start doing the regular chores, we found — surprise!! — that the north barn, which houses our five breeder Tamworths and our ten Landrace gilts (that’s young female pigs), all on a dirt floor in a three-sided structure, was totally full of water!

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The Landraces (aka the pink pigs) were slogging around nearly up to their elbows in water, with barely any dry land in their pen. The Tams didn’t have it quite as badly, and their little crater-nest that they make to sleep in was still dry, but it was still pretty soggy and they were having a hard time getting to/from their water and food tubs.

So the day switched from some mundane scheduled tasks to CRISIS MANAGEMENT TIME YEAH!

The north barn is fronted by a concrete pad at least as wide as the barn itself, so we had an obvious second-best place to put the pigs. We spent a couple of hours getting fence panels into place and mounting electric fence so they don’t push on the panels, then we cut the electric fence inside their existing pens and opened up doorways for them to move out from the flooded area to the relatively dry concrete pads.

But pigs are both too smart and not smart enough for that. They learn very well about the electric fence — so well that once electric fence has been in a place, they are very reluctant to cross that line ever again, even once the fence has visibly been removed.

So, we had some time to work on setting up the feed and water tubs outside out of the puddles, and to figure out, with some friends’ help, how to get them housing in the new area, since the concrete pads have no roof. The Tamworths get to sleep in the stock trailer with plenty of hay for bedding (and a farrowing nook created for the sow whose teats are swelling, indicating that she’s getting close to giving birth!). The pink pigs get their previous shelter of an abandoned pickup truck canopy, hoisted up on a couple of bales of hay so they can all fit under it, since normally they would dig down to make room for everyone in a little nest.

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After that photo was taken we put down another bale of loose hay underneath the canopy so they have some coziness to snuggle down into.

But as of the evening dog walk a couple of hours ago, all the Tams were out but only one of the pink pigs had figured out how to cross the former electric fence line and get out to the food and the shelter. I do hope they figured it out and aren’t sleeping in a puddle.

It’s not a great solution — would rather have them completely under cover, and also on the concrete there’s no way to gather their manure to reuse the nutrients and prevent runoff — but it’s what we could get together today, and it should last while we figure out how to improve drainage in the barn.

Frozen farm

Given that this is our second several-day cold snap this winter, we should’ve prepared a bit better this time. Since we don’t have crops in the ground, though, really the big issue is keeping the livestock watered and warm.

The pigs, goats/sheep, poultry, and rabbits are all in three-sided barns with dirt floors. Normally we like this: fresh air is good for the critters, and having them on dirt is better for their bodies than concrete; plus the pigs really like to be able to root around. But the pigs sleep directly on the ground, so our first step in preparing for freezing weather is to bring each group of pigs a bale or two of hay to nest in. They all sleep in a warm pile anyway, but they like the added insulation from the cold ground.

The sheep and goats have their winter coats on and don’t seem to mind the cold, though we do give them some extra calories in the form of alfalfa pellets when it’s very cold. (We did lose a lamb in the last cold snap, but she was already very sick with worms.)

The chickens and turkeys also seem more or less indifferent to the cold. They go out and stand in the snow on one foot, alternating feet every few minutes. The geese are pretty mad that their bathing puddles are all frozen over, but then the geese are pretty mad about everything, so we don’t worry about them too much.

The cows are also in the barn, though theirs is not the same three-sided arrangement, but a large open barn with really just one wall, and the rest is open-air. They are somewhat protected by the large haystack, and they also have their winter coats on and the ability to huddle up, so they don’t seem to care about the cold either.

Watering everybody is another story. We try to keep the hoses drained, but don’t always succeed, so we often have to haul water in 5-gallon buckets from one end of the farm to the other. We use a super-handy garden cart that can hold seven buckets. But this cold snap, even our spigots froze, so we had no running water anywhere on the farm (including in the trailer we live in). Thankfully our neighbors at Tahoma Farm had running water, and they let us come and fill up our big white coolers that we use for making meat deliveries, so we were able to water everyone from those. They are insulated enough that water left in them overnight doesn’t freeze, which is convenient.

The rabbits’ waterers freeze solid overnight, so we bring them in and immerse them (waterers, not rabbits) in a big stockpot on the stove until they thaw. Then we fill them up with warm water and put them back out until they start to get slushy again. Next time we’ll plan to have twice as many waterers as cages, so we can have one set of waterers inside thawing while another set with warm water is outside.

Today we got the hoses and the spigots thawed enough for us to fill up our coolers ourselves, plus a few backup containers which we stored in the shop. And we made a checklist that includes all this prep, so we’ll do better next time.

Beehive updates

A while (a long while) back I was asked how the bees are doing — I’ve been pretty silent about them since I got them in April. This was largely motivated by despair. It turned out that the startup costs of keeping hives were too much for me this year, and I didn’t get everything in place in time — they need to have new boxes (honey supers) and new frames added at a certain point, but at that point I was super broke and busy with too much other stuff. Also it was so discouragingly rainy this year; it was hard to find a day that it was warm and dry enough to open up the hives.

So anyway, I didn’t get them any honey supers, and then one day I noticed that one of the hives was totally covered in dead bees, and I don’t know why. The other one was humming along, then suddenly wasn’t: there were basically no bees around it. I figure they swarmed because I didn’t get them enough space. It’s super common for them to swarm. I observed a swarm at someone else’s hive this summer. It was really cool. She was able to get them down from the tree and use it to start a new hive.

So then I had two dead hives, and I felt sad and guilty.

Then either the bees that were left after the swarm rebuilt, or a new colony moved in to the empty house, because there were bees on that one again! Very exciting. But I still didn’t get them a honey super, because I just didn’t have time. So I was left with an already-dead hive, and one that I was figuring wouldn’t last the winter.

Today I went out to the greenhouse to see if my pepper plants were still kicking (they were, and there is tons of fruit still ripening, which is pretty exciting), and as I was examining them I heard the unmistakable buzzing of a whole lot of pissed-off honeybees. I went to see, and found the hive knocked over and frames all over the ground, but quite a lot of bees still living. I have no idea how long they had been there; it can’t have been long, because we’ve had several days in a row where the daytime high temp didn’t get above 40, and I think that would kill them if they were that exposed. Fortunately today is significantly milder, and not raining. I should’ve taken a picture, but I was too busy frantically trying to get the smoker going, find some gloves, and try to get them put back together before dark.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much honey there was. No idea if it’s enough to get them through the winter, though. But given this latest drama, I don’t know if they’ll survive, anyway. There are a lot of ways for a beehive to die! The exposure might’ve killed all the larvae and eggs, even though it didn’t kill the adults. The queen might’ve been crushed or otherwise killed. I don’t know if they’ll be able to get the hive up to temp for tonight. Probably 1/3 of the still-living bees were all over the ground when I left them; I don’t know if they’ll get back home even though they’re very close to it. (They don’t move much when it’s below 55°.) When I put it back together I didn’t get the frames in the right order, which is important because they cluster together at the center of the box and eat what’s there. (In bee class they told me that if there are frames with honey just one frame over, they’ll still starve to death rather than go get it. I suppose it is related to temperature.) I tried to keep the honey ones in the center, but who knows if I did it right?

I’m simultaneously thrilled that they have survived this long, and totally discouraged by all the ways that they still might die because of this latest mishap. I am interested to notice, however, that I am gaining confidence in handling them, and also that I am still totally fascinated by them and a little bit in love with them. Go, little bees, go!

Catch-up time

Catching up — or trying to — on so many things these days. Hundreds of backlogged farm-related blog posts piled up in my RSS reader. Quilt fabric I bought about this time last year, washed, and stuck in the cupboard. (The other day I ironed it. It’s a step!) The Washington Young Farmers Coalition is regrouping for the winter and planning next year, and we had an all-day meeting in Seattle yesterday. And Dropstone is regrouping too, as I mentioned — when we started farming, we said we’ve give it a fair shot for three years and then discuss, and it’s been three years, so we’re starting to discuss. Garth and I had a meeting last night to set the agenda for a “retreat” we’re going to try to take — even if it means “go to the pub for the afternoon” — and here are some of the questions we’re asking ourselves.

  • Where do we want to be this time next year?
  • In 3 years? In 5 years?
  • What do we need to do to get there?
  • What can we do in the meantime if we can’t make steps towards that right now?
  • What do we each individually want out of the farm?
  • What do we each individually want out of our local community?
  • If health insurance were not an issue, what would Lauren’s work situation look like?
  • If health insurance were not an issue, what would Garth want Lauren’s work situation to look like?
  • If Garth could have any job he wanted, what would that look like? (Given that the space shuttle program has been discontinued, “astronaut” is ruled out. Poor Garth.)
  • If Lauren could make any employment situation for Garth, what would it be? (For example, “Garth spends two out of every four weeks of the summer mining for gold in the Northwest Territories” is a plan I nixed.)
  • What are your favorite things about farming?
  • What are your least favorite things?
  • What are some things we currently aren’t doing that you would like to do?
  • What are some things we are currently doing that you would like to stop doing?
  • What are the things that you absolutely do not want to give up?
  • What are things we haven’t tried yet that you would like to try?
  • What lessons have we learned? How have we improved?
  • How do we still need to improve/change?
  • What do we still need to learn? Topics/subjects, specific skills, …
  • What are your fears?
  • What are our assets?
  • What are our key relationships?
  • Are there any relationships or niches we need to develop? If so, how can we do that?
  • Is there anything we can ask for from our current relationships? Anything we need that they can help us with?
  • What would be different if we are farming for selling vs homesteading (growing for ourselves)?

Anything else you can think of that we should be asking ourselves? Anything YOU want to know about us or want us to consider?

The state of the farm

(You know, like the State of the Union. We just had the State of the State recently.)

Ruminants
One Romney mutt lamb, and two Soay. Romney will be in the freezer someday, when there’s room, but we’re not sure what we’ll do with the Soay. For now, they are behind electric fence in the yard, because Ruby started chasing them. We are feeding them alfalfa pellets, which they love.

Poultry
Fifteen hens, one rooster. One hen who’s recovering from molting — the first molt we’ve had! I don’t know why; even the one hen left from our first batch, who’s now 3 years old, never molted — and one who’s just generally down; her comb is pale and she sleeps in the corner, but she also runs around and pecks like everyone else during the day.
Garth calls the rooster “Tom Servo” because in the MST3K opening credits, the character Tom Servo is introduced just before the character who pronounces his name “Crooooooooowwww” — and that is what the rooster does, for sure. He crows a LOT. He also makes sure the hens are all to bed; the other day he was the last one still up, but wouldn’t let me herd him into the coop, and then I realized that a hen was still out. As soon as she went in, he did too. He also makes sure to tell the hens when there is something tasty, with a special cluck that is like the cluck the mamas make to the babies. And when there were hawks overhead in the summer, I went running out to make sure everyone was OK, but he had them all hidden away under the grape arbor or a nearby bush. So, we like him. His spurs are starting to grow, and I hope he doesn’t become too aggressive, because he is a good patriarch, and also we’d like not to have to buy chicks at the store anymore.

Also there are two lady ducks (Khaki Campbells), one definite drake, and three of undetermined sex, but probably all male. I’d be happy to keep one drake, so maybe we wouldn’t have to buy ducklings either, but we most definitely do not need FOUR drakes. So, I’m trying to figure out when we can process them. Ducks are really hard to pluck so I’d want to use our heavy-duty equipment, but I don’t want to fire up all the stuff just for three ducks. So I don’t know what will happen with them.

Right now we are getting about two chicken eggs and one duck egg a day. Tomorrow I’m going to take a dozen in to a friend, which hasn’t happened in a couple months.

Preserves
The freezers are stuffed full of meat and veggies and some dairy. In 2010 we got a quarter of a cow, and half a pig in January and then again in August. Add to that the ~20 chickens we kept for ourselves, plus a couple still from last year, plus ducks from last year, plus leftover lamb from the harvest party, plus the two goats. That takes up one 15 cubic foot freezer and some of the next one, which also holds frozen blackberries, peaches, blueberries, cranberries, green beans, carrots, onions, celery, shallots, peas, corn, …

We’re slowly starting to empty the freezers, but I’m already trying to figure out how we can keep ourselves on a freezer-emptying regimen so we can get one of them fully empty and ready to defrost and clean before the next quarter cow arrives.

The canned/jarred preserves are holding up pretty well too. It appears that our jam consumption is such that we don’t need to make jam every year. I made a lot in 2009, and then in 2010 I did just a couple of small batches, and we still have plenty left. I did some peaches this year too, and lots of tomatoes (mostly purchased, not much homegrown). I’m trying to hoard them just enough — not so hoardy that we never use them, but not so free-handed that we run out in like February.

Pets
Oscar and Ruby continue on being who they are. Oscar loved the snow we had yesterday, and spent a lot of time on the porch eating fresh snow. Ruby likes to escape from the yard, so we welcomed the snow as usually it means we can follow her tracks and find where she is getting through the fence. Alas, this snow was too soggy for her — she would run out, pee, and immediately run back inside — and also melted too fast.
H.P. Lovecat, our future barn cat, currently a laundry-room cat, went in for her spay today. She is home, and despite having stitches and also being kind of high right now, does not seem to have any qualms about continuing to jump up into the bathroom sink, where she prefers to sleep.
H.P. and the dogs — especially Ruby — are still getting used to each other. H.P. has been allowed out of the laundry room a few times lately, and she and Ruby have achieved a fragile détente, wherein Ruby sits and whines and wags her tail, and H.P. does whatever she feels like. She is surprisingly bold for a cat who runs away whenever we take a step anywhere near her.
H.P. and the dogs are getting used to each other

Greenhouse
There was a bed of lettuces I carefully started from seed, potted up when it was time, and then planted in neat little rows in the greenhouse — of course have all died and melted and there is hardly any trace that they were ever there. It’s just bare soil.

The radish starts are doing great, though, so I’m looking forward to them, at least.

Greenhouse in January

Spring plantings
I started a few little lettuce seeds indoors, just so that we have something green. They have germinated!! Very exciting.

I am starting to get a spring planting plan together. I will be attending a crop-planning workshop soon, so will have some more ideas then.

The Orchard
I brought my various trees and shrubs into the house for the winter.

The orchard moved inside for the winter
Not pictured: green tea bush.

The goats ate most of the fig and the bay laurel, which were outside the greenhouse. The lemon, lime, and lemongrass were inside the greenhouse, which was blocked off to keep ruminants out. I thought the fig and bay were probably toast, but brought them inside all the same. Good thing, too; they have revived and are growing like crazy.

Fig tree says zoom!

Two lemons will be ripening soon!

Large, medium, and not-yet-formed lemons (aka flowers) on my lemon tree!

The people
Garth has gotten a job in the city, though he works from home most days. It’s flexible enough that — assuming his 4-month contract gets renewed — I might be able to reduce my hours at work for the summer, and maybe have an actual productive garden. And maybe some dairy goats??

We’ve just had a wonderful vacation in Portugal, thanks to Garth’s dad. We didn’t read or knit as much as we’d thought — which made the three knitting projects and seriously like 15 books we brought seem pretty silly — but we had a fantastic time, and we ate lots of delicious food and drank delicious wine and had delicious walks around to look at a delicious landscape. It was great to be in a place where there were no expectations of us! I guess this is what normal people mean by “vacation”?

Dark Days Challenge: Prelude

After at least one (maybe two?) years of thinking about it, and deciding it would be too hard, and wishing I had done it, I’ve finally signed up for Laura at Urban Hennery’s Dark Days Challenge. From November 15 – March 31, eat one meal a week that’s as SOLE (Sustainable, Organic, Local, Ethical) as possible, then blog it. Laura will round them up weekly and we can all see what everyone else is eating, and get inspiration from each other. It’s extra hard in the winter, though it helps if you have been busy preserving all winter. We didn’t can nearly as much as I had hoped — it was a tough season in many ways, but we’re almost through — but there’s a lot of good stuff in the freezer and much still in the ground, plus our two easily-accessible year-round farmers’ markets to supply what we didn’t manage to grow ourselves (Brussels sprouts, parsnips).

Anyway — join us in the Dark Days Challenge! Sign up here, and let me know so we can commiserate in, like, February.

Happy solstice!

So let the sun rise, bring hope where it once was forgotten

Solstice stockings & candles. Also solstice fire, solstice puppy.
Solstice stockings & candles

Just before noon, the snow started again, and I lit several candles on the hearth and Garth put another log on the fire. We made some bloody marys with homegrown and -canned dilly beans (just you wait, we’ll learn to make vodka someday!) and settled down to open our solstice stockings, which I sewed on Friday. Mine contained a super fancy mechanical pencil, and a delicious-looking German marzipan cake, some CUTE pink moleskine notebooks!!, and a beautiful bottle of Basil Hayden bourbon. Garth’s had a little gym-style whistle for calling the dogs in from the woods, and a small length of dinosaur-fossil-patterned fabric he was coveting at the fabric store but which sold out before we got there, a chunk of British goat cheddar, a cute bamboo rice paddle, a sink drain screen that we hope doesn’t suck, and the Seed Savers catalog that came in the mail this week. Garth’s big present was the welding class that he took in November, and I have some long johns on the way.

This afternoon we will walk the dogs in the snow, visit the chickens, and leaf through the first seed catalog of the year, dreaming about what will be in the next year, and reflecting on what was. And also we will drink some fancy bourbon. Happy new year!