Max here... Just today, Diego Footer from Permaculture Voices, and Curtis Stone from The Urban Farmer published a video discussing 10 farmers to pay attention to. I was stoked to see Ben Hartman on the list whose book "The Lean Farm" has totally revolutionized the way we see and organize our farm. Richard Perkins and Connor Crickmore are two more farmers we have enjoyed following and learning from, through Diego's podcast, and the recently published video "Gracie's Backyard." I need to look up the other farms to learn more about them, except one that really surprised me...
I was completely surprised to see our farm on that list! Thank you Diego and Curtis for the good word, and that motivates us to work even harder to create a farm and business worthy of the recommendation. If you watch the video, fast forward 31 minutes to hear them discuss our farm and webstore.
Hey Folks, Max and Deirdre writing together here...
A few weeks ago, we took an amazing trip with the whole family to Maine. Back in March, our good friend and band member Margaret asked us if our band Hidden Fifth wanted to play a concert as part of a Catholic Rural Life Festival being organized by Fr. Paul Dumais of St. Joseph's Catholic Parish in Farmington, Maine. Although we hadn't played a full theater show in 4 years, we were up for the challenge, and said yes! Boy, are we glad we did!
The Festival spanned 4 days of amazing events from Sept 14-17. Fr. Paul described the event as a "Conversation on Nature and Grace" bringing together Catholics to both reflect on the ramifications of our faith on rural living, and to celebrate that life fully. One good way to describe it was a combination of a spiritual retreat, and a grand celebration of rural values such as food, farms and folk music and dancing. The festival combined common prayer, classes on homesteading skills, lost culinary arts, common meals, talks, presentations, contra dancing, and our concert.
Upon arrival, we were hosted at the beautiful Morrill Farm B&B in Sumner, ME. The B&B is on a working farm with dairy, pastured broilers, and a beautiful farmhouse and barn from the 1700s! The Family has also built their own private chapel on the property, and part of the festivities for the weekend took place there, including a procession through the fields, and blessing of the fields and barn. We got an extended tour the first morning, and were enthralled by the beauty of the farm, and the hospitality of our hosts.
We played our concert on Friday night for festival attendees and the show was open to the public. It was a fabulous evening of music and dance, and we don't know whether we or the audience had a better time that evening! We definitely want to play a show in Maine again! The venue was a beautiful old Church converted to a concert venue.
Saturday night we attended a 5-course farm-to-table dinner featuring food from 14 local farms! The parish provided free babysitting for the kids, who got to eat wood-fired pizza cooked on-site, homemade french fries and homemade ice cream from a local dairy farm. We thoroughly enjoyed being able to eat our meal without chasing kids around, and the nice ladies helping out commented that Declan really knows how to eat a lot of pizza! Since we don't generally feed him pizza at home, we guess he figured he had better stock up! We have no doubt that Siobhan took advantage of the quantity of pizza too, and the fact that Mom and Dad weren't in the room to curtail consumption.
The dinner was followed by a contradance, and we danced every single dance. Deirdre started out by wearing Declan on her back, and then when he fell asleep (we had some late nights that trip!), we put him down on a lambskin in the hall, and kept on dancing! Siobhan danced almost every dance, and did a great job for a 4 year old dancing at 10 pm!
We were also excited to meet 4 staff members from the national non-profit Catholic Rural Life. We have been members of CRL for the last year, and it was exciting to talk to them about our farm, and new website www.youngchristianfarmers.com. They gave some great talks over the course of the festival.
It's hard to convey just how amazing of a trip this was for us. All of our life's passions came crashing together at this event. Folk Music + Farming + Faith + Community + Contra Dancing + Local Food + Beautiful Rural Nature + Traditional Skills + Stimulating Intellectual Conversations. We could not even soak up all the goodness that was happening there in the four days that we had. It inspired us to live out our values to the fullest, and we were so honored to take part in, and even contribute to the festivities. We could go on and on and on, but we'll let some of the photos speak for themselves.
We were inspired to reflect deeply on how our faith compels us to work hard to restore the rural family to the American cultural landscape. We encourage all our Catholic brothers and sisters to work for the same goal, which Pope Benedict considered an important need for our times. "The rural family needs to regain its rightful place at the heart of the social order." Even if we don't all live in rural areas, we all as eaters depend on rural families to provide us with our most basic life's necessities, so we are all in this together, and we all benefit greatly from a robust culture of rural living. One concrete way to do this is to become a member of Catholic Rural Life, which needs members like us to support them in their important work of ministering to these rural communities and building them up.
I love it when I can do jobs with my kids that they can actually help with!
Hi Folks, Max here.
A couple weeks ago, we started filming short little videos of different things on the farm to help stay connected with our customers at Ojai Farmstand. I realized that the videos will also be a nice addition to the Blog. So, we will be incorporating them here as a "Vlog" aspect to the Blog. (Vlog stands for Video Blog.) The video below is the first one we made a couple weeks ago, and I just explain the idea. We'll show different parts of the farm, and what we're doing there, and also just talk about different things we find interesting.
Hi Folks, Max here. It's great to be sitting down to write again, it's been a while since I felt like I have time for this. The girls are napping on this warm summer Saturday afternoon, and Declan for the moment is keeping himself entertained to give me a moment for writing.
The last several months have been packed with farming, and they certainly have not been without their challenges. I was struck recently with the thought that in our enthusiasm to start this blog, we have focused mostly on the glamour, and haven't talked much about the challenges. I am a very positive-thinking type of person, and I certainly don't like giving off a negative vibe, and I think that was one of the factors that we haven't mentioned the hard times up to this point. But I has some thoughts recently that I want to share with you which lead me to open up a little bit about the challenges as well the fun stuff.
1. First of all, challenges don't have to be negative. It's all about how you choose to see them. This is something our good friend and wisdom-guru Brian Johnson has helped us to see in the last 6 months. Brian makes his living by publishing amazing material that helps people live the best version of themselves, and his advice is stunningly helpful. Two of his insights in particular have been life changing for us: "win or learn" and "anti-fragile" or "the obstacle is the way."
Basically, Brian doesn't ever lose in life, and we don't have to either. He wins or he learns. What many people see as a "loss" Brian sees as valuable data. When things take a turn for the worse, we can take that experience and learn from it for the better. That's how I want to see life! I'm not gonna be a loser!
"Anti-Fragile" means that we aren't just tough, we go one step further. We take obstacles and challenges, and actually turn them into opportunities! When something doesn't go our way, we don't despair. We find a way to take that unexpected circumstance into an opportunity to make us a better person. If approach set-backs with that mentality, something which we thought was an obstacle can turn out to be the means by which we grow closer to our goal.
2. Second, I am a regular listener to Diego Footer's great podcast "Permaculture Voices." Over the last several years, Diego has complied an incredible amount of information in his shows for aspiring and practicing eco-farmers. Two things I appreciate about his show are the fact that he repeatedly emphasizes the need for permaculture-based farms to run themselves as businesses, and he also has no fear talking to farmers about the hard sides of farming, whether that be grueling work, hard start-ups, crop failures, family struggles etc... A regular listener of Diego's show certainly knows that farming is not all romance, and that is really the truth.
So, both those thoughts gave me the desire to share both the challenges and the good times, because we won't be painting an accurate picture of "First Steps Farm Life" if we didn't. We wouldn't want readers of this blog to think that starting this farm is easy. We want people to know it is entirely possible, and we want to encourage others to do it too, but you better know what you are getting into first. Diego does a great job at that. I think we all know, or at least have heard of somebody who started to farm, and couldn't make it work, and gave up. I want to minimize those stories, and having the full picture of farming before starting your own farm can really help.
There are lots of challenges we could talk about, but the one I want to talk about now is fairly unique to our situation. I know that by writing this down, it will help clarify it in my own mind, and help me find ways to turn it to our benefit. In one word, that challenge is "commute."
Let me explain. We don't live on our farm, we live in a two-bedroom, 540 square ft duplex, in the middle of our town. We live on a residential street, with neighbors on all sides, and every day we drive 2.3 miles down the road, to a rural property outside town where we rent 1 acre for the farm. It takes about 5 minutes one way. Not a big deal, right? Well, it has a few consequences that present a challenge to our farm life.
1. First all, we don't get to live on our farm. Emotionally, this may be the most difficult and disappointing for us. Both Deirdre and I have this insatiable craving in our souls for rural living. We want to fully live the farm experience, day and night. We wanted to raise our children on the farm as a way of life, and have that be their home environment. Our home is of such immense importance to us, and we value so much making our home a beautiful, enriching place to live. We want to be able to throw that love and energy into our farm, but when home and farm are two different localities, we find ourselves torn.
Do we spend our precious time, money and energy into building a front-yard garden that will enhance our home, or do we invest those resources into productive beds on the farm, that will return a greater profit to make us financially stable? If home and farm were in the same place, this would not be an issue. Are farm would BE our front yard garden, and we would have the double incentive of knowing that we are making a profit, and beautifying our living environment at the same time!
2. Moving beyond the emotional pull, there are some very practical ramifications too. One is that we have to pay rent for our farm land, AND we have to rent an expensive urban home at the same time. That's a lot of money. We would be willing to live in a trailer on our property to save money while we get started, and that would have saved us tens of thousands over the first 3 years. Too bad it isn't legal, and our landlords like to stick by the rules! We are left with the bill.
A few months after starting the farm, we quickly realized that our 1 car was not enough. We had to buy a 2nd car, because while I commute 2 miles away to go farm, Deirdre needed to be able to get around too, including to go teach her Irish dance class once a week. We tried to do without for the first few months, but after wasting tons of gas and productive time dropping each other off, and picking each other up, and biking with a load uphill in the dark at the end of a hard day on the farm, we had to get the 2nd car. We found a great used van for $2600, but man, we didn't exactly have that lying around to spare! Now we have the cost of registering and maintaining both vehicles.
3. Another expense, whether we bought the 2nd car or not, is the commute itself. We usually end up driving back and forth 2-4 times round trip per day. That's 10-20 miles and 20-40 minutes per day, burning gas, and using our own productive time just to get there and back. Sometimes the trip out at the end of the day is just 5 minutes to turn the the swamp cooler off in the greenhouse, or switch a new line of sprinklers on. But that 5 minute chore turns into a 15 minute chore when you don't live on site!
4. That brings us to #4, which is that sometimes we just don't go out and do that 15 minute chore. At the end of an exhausting day, with cranky kids at 9:00 pm, getting in the truck and driving out to check the greenhouse does not sound like fun. There have been plenty of days that we decided to just leave things the way they were, and then we come out the next day to to wilted plants that badly needed a shower the night before.
5. #5 is kids. If Deirdre and I were just a couple, this aspect of farming would not be nearly such a challenge. It's not too hard to jump in the truck and drive out to the farm with another adult. But once you make a decision that you want to this as a family, and you want your kids to grow up around the farm, then logistics get more complicated. The hat, water bottle and sandwich I would have grabbed for myself turns into baby carriers, stroller, diaper bag, 4 water bottles, snacks, books, baby dolls, and the kitchen sink. A 5-minute prep becomes a 30-minute packing routine. By the time you make it out to the car and get it loaded up, somebody has to go to the bathroom, or is crying because the car-seat buckle is too hot. The bottom line is that it takes a LOT more time to get out there with the family!
6. You can't have two sets of everything. With all the constant hauling stuff back and forth between home and farm, something often gets left behind in the wrong place. I use my tools at home and at the farm, and all too often, I forget that I left that wrench behind, and need to hop in the car to go get it.
That gives you an idea of what "commute" means in our context. Most commuters probably don't load their family into the car and take them to the office each morning. I admit, this challenge is definitely a unique set of circumstances!
On the flip side, here are some positives, and also ways we deal with it.
1. We came to this farming dream without any home or land to our name. By being flexible and willing to consider the commute, we were able to get started without owning anything.
2. If we lose our ag lease, at least we don't lose our home!
3. We get the advantages of living in the city, like parks, easy shopping and community, and have a private rural spot outside of town!
4. We live only 2 blocks away from our downtown weekly farmers market. Being able to run the kids home mid-morning for a snack and bathroom break is a huge advantage over growers that have to drive to get there.
5. Sometimes getting away from the house and kids lets me focus on farm work without family distractions.
There are several ways to cope with this handicap and make it more workable.
1. Most importantly, better planning ahead of time. Know what you need, pack it up first. Plan what needs to be done, and get it done all at once, so you don't need to drive out again later because you forgot.
2. We bought a timer for our sprinklers which we can set to turn on and off at a certain time. We still need to open up the right lines manually, but at least we don't need to drive out to turn them on AND off every time.
3. Some days I just bring my lunch out with me, and don't come home until the end of the day. That is hard, because I miss my family, and one of the main reasons I am farming is to spend more time with them. But some days, it just has to happen, and it helps cut down on gas and time, and lets me focus with no distractions.
4. For the future, there are more things we could automate and get hooked up to timers. That is a goal for the future.
So, that's our commute! Finally, we know that if we can succesfully handle the management challenge of a farm-at-distance, we will be all the more equipped to set up a productive, profitable hometsead farm in the future. Remembering that we are building a skill-set now that will stay with us wherever we go is the encouragement that keeps us going when the going gets tough.
One final note: although this is a challenge, it is a necessary one for us if we wanted to start farming in our current situation. I would not want others to be scared away by this challenge, and if a distant farm is the only way for you to start farming, then go for it! Take this advice to know ahead of time what you will be dealing with, and take these as suggestions for ways to make it doable.
That's all for now folks. Until next time...
Max Here... so I saw this sign several months ago as I was driving back home one day. I slowed down the car, and thought, "Boy that would be cool. No way we could do that though! Too busy, and I don't know how to grow olives!" ...and kept driving home.
Fast forward a few months.
Yep, we leased the orchard! Long story there, maybe we'll tell that one another day. But on March 1st, we signed a 1-year lease for 5 acres of olive trees about 15 minutes from our house. Some of the trees are almost 200 years old! I have spent hours reading about olive tree care lately, and Deirdre and I are excited to try our hand at producing olive oil at the end of the year.
What really sold us on the orchard was that our new landlords are allowing us to raise chickens on the orchard property. This is something we have done in our backyard for the last several years, and this was part of the original farming dream. The only reason we don't have chickens on our first farm was a "no-animal" requirement of our landlords. Joel Salatin's "Pastured Poultry Profits" book was my original inspirational model that got me wanting to farm. Just today, I took the first batch of 50 broilers up to the property! We started them at home, and they will be ready to process just in time for Easter.
Egg layers will follow shortly, as soon as we can build a mobile pen for them, and buy chicks to start a flock.
We are incredibly excited not only to be able to eat our own meat again, but also to sell it and share it with others! We are so tired of finding it so hard to source genuine real food, especially meat that does not come from a factory system. There are certainly good growers out there, but real meat grown outdoors on real farms can be quite pricey. Our goal with these broilers is to offer the best quality bird possible, make a profit for ourselves, but at a price that more people (especially families with kids) can afford, if they really appreciate good meat.
The birds we are raising are absolutely unparalleled even in health food stores selling pricey packaged birds. Raised outdoors, on grass, eating bugs, green material, organic feed, and sprouted whole grains! Their pen pictured below is pulled to a new spot every day, so they move away from the last day's manure, and have new ground to eat. This also spreads their manure out evenly as a fertilizer for the orchard. The hope is that they will also help disrupt the pest cycle of the olive fruit fly, the main pest we have to deal with in the orchard.
If you are local, head over to Ojai Valley Farmstand to pre-order chickens for Easter! If not, then just enjoy the beautiful photos!
Deirdre here... I am super excited that we planted Chamomile seed last weekend and it just sprouted a few days ago! Since it has actually been raining here, the soil has been moist enough that the chamomile came up without having to put any sprinklers on. Yay! I planted it in our short 50 foot beds which hopefully we will devote to herbs and flowers, two of my favorite crops! We are looking forward to drinking our own Chamomile tea and this will be a great beginning to growing more herbs! Next on the list we plan to plant some mint, another one of our favorite teas with lots of health benefits as well.
Max here... We were working the last couple days to get these new beds ready for planting garlic. We have never planted in these beds before, I shaped them with the walking tractor not too long ago. We grew our first bed of garlic somewhat successfully last year, and this year, I wanted to try growing more.
Something funny happened when I was ordering my seed garlic. I ordered 25 lbs instead of the 5 lbs I ordered last year from High Mowing Organic Seeds in Vermont. A few days after ordering, I was talking to another local farmer, Steve Sprinkel. I often buy produce from him for our online farmstand, and I was picking up an order from him when he randomly asked "Hey Max, do you want to buy any garlic for planting?" "What variety?" I asked. "Inchelium." He said. Inchelium was the very same variety I had just ordered 25 lbs of from High Mowing! Fortunately, they let me cancel the order, and I bought all my seed garlic from a local farmer in my own valley! And it was a better price too! I love it!
We were working as quickly as we could to get the beds all prepped and planted before rain came. We have been getting quite a bit of rain this winter, which is a much needed resource for us. In fact, I have not turned our sprinklers on at all in the last several weeks, the rain has been consistent enough to water all the veggies. To prep the beds, we used our broadfork for gentle deep tillage, spread an organic fertilizer because garlic needs a lot of nitrogen to grow well, spread compost and old micro green soil on top, and ran our power harrow over it as the final step. I have been coming to realize that our soil is a bit heavy on the farm, and really benefits from more compost and other organic matter being added to it. That may sound like a no-brainer to those of the organic mindset, but sometimes I am surprised just how much compost a bed can take to get it really producing well. I am definitely going to make a goal of building up the soil in our beds even more in 2017.
We got all the largest cloves planted in four beds, and covered them with row cover to keep the nicely prepped soil and compost from washing away in the rain. With beets that we transplanted a month ago, the rain came and washed some of the soil away because it was newly tilled and soft. I didn't want to make that mistake again. I covered the other two unplanted beds for the same reason, and we have a box of smaller cloves to plant in those beds. I am planning on planting them closer together, and harvesting them young in the spring as Spring Garlic. Having garlic available at the Farmers Market is really nice, because whatever we don't sell will just hold over to future markets. It's a totally different story with most other veggies, which need to be sold fresh, or you lose your money in growing them.
The two pics below are of our little wheat patch which is growing very nicely!
Max here... A couple weeks ago we planted our first patch of wheat as an experiment. That square patch of green is where we planted it -- just beginning to be visible after several good rains. We have always wanted to make bread from flour that is fresh ground from wheat berries. Before Deirdre and I were married, I went to school in Austria for 4 years, and would buy my flour from a lady who had a little farm store. I would simply tell her how much I wanted, and she would take the wheat or rye berries, pour them into the grain mill, and I walked home with flour still warm from the grinding stones. Talk about fresh!
Ultimately, we want to grow more food for our own family's consumption, from grains to meat to veggies to eggs to honey to dairy and beyond. More of our efforts are directed now toward establishing a healthy cash flow from crops that sell well, but we are really excited to begin experimenting with grains. I simply scattered 10 lbs of grain over the area, and then tilled it in with our power harrow.
As a Christmas gift, Deirdre's brother gave us a copy of a brand new book by our friends in Ohio, Shawn and Beth Dougherty called "The Independent Farmstead." I just started reading it last night, and it is a refreshing dose of homesteading wisdom. Most of my farm reading material lately has been on systems of commercial production rather than homesteading, but we have a goal to acheive both with our farm. The book mentions in the very beginning that many people want to homestead, but don't realize all the implications, and aren't able to support themselves financially when they try to do it. Our vision is to have a farm that grows the majority of our own food, and still brings in enough cash that we don't need to work off-farm.
Yesterday it started raining about 9:00 AM, and continued all day and night. We were working the day before to prep these beds and get them transplanted before the rain came, because we had lots of starts ready in the greenhouse. We didn't get them all done though, so it meant getting up at the crack of dawn and running out to the farm to finish up before the rain came. We made it just in time, and got beautiful swiss chard, lettuces and lacinato kale in the ground.