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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Storm Shelter Blunders and Waiting Projects

We are now entering our 6th summer living on the farm.  Isaac, just like each of the other kids when they were born, accompanied a major life change. (Which makes me a bit curious to see what will happen with this baby!) We moved into our partially finished house on the farm in October of 2008, and Isaac was born in November.

I would think that after 5 full years of living on the farm, we would be a bit more settled in. With Ethan still working off of the farm, however, and with the kids at home and homeschooling, there is still much settling in to do.

If you would switch one of the above - either Ethan being on the farm full time or myself being on the farm without kids, I'm sure we would be settled in.  The fact is, starting up our farm would be impossible without Ethan working extra jobs, and we have kids.

I have had a number of young couples considering farming and family ask me if it is a good idea to start a farm and start a family at the same time or if it is a good idea to start a farm with a young family.

My response . . . it is hard.  It would be so much easier for me to not have children right now so I could be a better help to Ethan in our farm setup. Either I could go to work and provide more income to allow Ethan to be on the farm more, or I could do more of the farming. Everything would move along so much faster - getting settled in, getting the business established, and turning profits sooner. But I wouldn't trade our kids for any of that. They are a blessing, and they add richness, joy, and fullness to what we are doing. I can't imagine farming without them.

So with that introduction, here are some projects that I worked on today. Projects that I wish were further along then they were, in terms of weeks and years, but they aren't. Projects that I'm sure would be done if we didn't have kids or if I wasn't expecting, but projects that will get done in due time.

First off, the storm shelter. The picture below (sorry for the post in the middle) shows the dirt work around our storm shelter before last spring.  It was roughly done with a skid loader when they installed the shelter in 2010, and for 3 years after that it was used by any animals that made it to the yard (which the cows and sheep did often before we got our yard fence in) for king of the mountain.

The dirt work badly needed to be redone, not just for visual appeal and the ability to plant on it as I wanted, but also to keep the storm shelter insulated properly to be used as a root cellar.  It had been put on hold amidst our settling in for too long, so late last spring I spent 8-9 hours one day with a shovel on the storm shelter moving dirt and shaping the storm shelter mound.  I remember vividly because it was about 98 degrees that day and I ended up sick with mild heat stroke that evening. (Yes, having children slows me down, but I am also very stubborn when I want a project done badly enough.)

Even so, I got the project done.

Or so I thought . . . until this winter.

One day, after a thaw and refreeze, I went to go get some produce from the storm shelter, which was packed with potatoes, apples, carrots, and squash. 

I would soon discover that with the dirt work I had done the spring before, I had made the lowest part of the storm shelter's base right in front of the door. Perfect for melting snow to collect and refreeze into a solid chunk of ice, making it impossible to open the door.

Thankfully, Ethan came to my rescue a couple of times and chipped through inches of ice so that I could gather up a couple week's worth of produce to store in the house to be used, but with his full schedule of off farm work, I only asked this of him a few times.

So the majority of the winter my produce was frozen shut in its cozy root cellar. By this spring, bags of potatoes has sprouted (I used them for my seed potatoes) and the squash and carrots were done for.  Thankfully, the boxes of apples remained good and are making rounds through my food dehydrator to be apple chips now.

This spring has been a slow spring for me.  Since the start, this pregnancy has knocked me down a bit more than the others. I have just entered my 5th month and have been over the sickness stage for a couple weeks now, but I can still tell that this pregnancy is effecting me a bit differently.  The humidity of the last week or so has especially been hard, mainly making the air feel much heavier and more difficult to breath than it has before.

All of that to say, I am a bit behind where I would like to be concerning all things outside. But it is a season, and one that is well worth it.

So this evening, seeing that the forecast was bringing rain, I decided to start my grass seeding - hoping that it isn't too late yet.

Over the last week I have very slowly been trenching out around the storm shelter to provide proper drainage in front of the door. I finished up tonight by tilling the area I trenched to smooth it, and then I seeded it.  My kids by the way, joined me by helping rake seed in and bringing the straw over in a wagon and spreading it. (If you look closely, you will see the rock walls I made last spring on either side of the door to prevent erosion, along with the fence that surrounds the shelter to keep livestock off! There are also marigolds starting to grow which self reseeded from last year's flowers.)

Along with tilling and seeding around the storm shelter, I also tilled up and seeded two areas of hard packed dirt on the side of our house, another project that has been waiting to be done since we built our house, as the construction equipment followed by heavy traffic areas of feet and market loading (from the sliding door) has prevented grass from growing. (You might also notice the tree cages stuck in the straw that I put together in the shade of the porch today - for trees that I wish I could have acquired and planted the year we moved to the farm.)

And then there is the garden. This afternoon, when my lungs were telling me to move at a snail's pace, I did a bit of weeding . . . or mostly eating strawberries straight from the patch. I am kind of embarrassed to put a picture of my garden up. Most everything is planted now, but it is all weeks behind schedule.  I would also like to have it mulched by now, but I will hit that the next cool/non humid week that comes up.

The reason for my post. My personality is one that likes to have my ducks in a row, things tidied up, and checks flying across the checklist of things to do. I often look around at all of the projects I would love to have done here on the farm.  Projects that fall behind running the farm and projects that fall behind being a wife and a mom.  Projects that I wish would have been completed years prior and projects that rely on seasons which are passing quickly.

But more important than seasonal projects are the seasons of life. And as I have been slowed down even more this spring, I have been remembering the gifts of the season that I am in. A season to anticipate another blessing in our family, and a season to invest in the 4 blessings we have already been given. 

A season that I wouldn't trade for a list of completed projects by any means.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Gobs of Guineas

This is our third year with guineas on the farm.  Last fall someone described their “buck-wheat” call as a rusty gate continuously swinging.

I think they were fairly accurate.  

Even with this continuous clatter, we now have over 100 guineas on the farm. Hopefully that will soon turn into over 200.

The reason I even sought after guineas in the first place was because of their reputation for destroying tick populations. When we bought our property, our 23ish acres of pasture had been in a CRP planting of prairie grasses for well over 10 years.  As we soon found out, the ticks had used every opportunity they could to reproduce in these tall grasses.

Just before a trip into the doctor, to get a large rash checked out where my young daughter had just had one of her many tick bites of the year, I posted a quick post on Facebook searching for someone who might have some guineas.

As the Lord’s provision would have it, on our way back from the doctor’s office, I noticed someone on the way home had some guineas wandering in his yard, which I had never noticed before. I immediately pulled into his driveway and asked if he had any for sale.

He didn’t, but he did have a pile of eggs he told me I could just have to try to hatch out.  While visiting, I also learned that he was the gentleman who had sold us our land, and that he would be more than happy to buy it back from us as land prices shot up shortly after we bought it. Although I didn’t offer him the land, I did thank him for the guinea eggs.

 As I incubated the eggs for my anticipated tick control, I did a bit of research on guineas and found they are also wonderful to have in gardens, as they are high protein feeders ravaging insects.  They also do not scratch like chickens or  dine on the produce – a perfect pest control companion for the home garden.

Later that fall, after the keets had hatched and grown a bit, we were asked if we were raising them for meat. We had never considered it, but with a little more research I found out that guinea fowl is actually a specialty meat – often used in high end restaurants as their game bird. 

It just so happened that the guinea keets we were raising were a jumbo version, and the jumbo version that naturally reproduce vs. the jumbo version that needed to be artificially inseminated.  Perfect for tick control, garden pest control, and another meat enterprise.

 Which leads us back to the 200 guineas we hope to have later this year.  Last year we raised around 75 of these birds, keeping back a breeding flock of 25.  And although we did order some keets in that “may” reproduce on their own to get some early guinea meat, we hope to hatch out many of our own.

The thing about guinea fowl is that they do not lay in nest boxes like chickens do.  Instead, they take great pleasure in hiding their eggs in tall grasses.  Along with that, they are awful caretakers of their keets.  The “gather the young under their wings” does not apply to guineas, and many of their keets are often overcome by the elements or just plain lost. Because of this, I have been busy collecting/searching out guinea nests to incubate and hatch more of our own flock. 

Thankfully, guineas do like to cluster together to hide their nests.  Most of the year they run around in one big pack scaring up insects into the air to gobble them up. During spring, however, I have found they break apart into groups of about 6 or so with a male to accompany them.  This group will lay their eggs in one spot, making a large cluster of eggs in a couple days. 

Before they started laying, I set up a trap nesting spot with hay bales stacked to make a little cave.  When I found an egg in this nest, my search began. This spot has also by far been my most productive nest, and I should have made more in various locations around the farm.

So this spring, when it was just too wet to garden or when I needed to get outside but didn't feel quite well enough to garden, I took some walks to look for guinea eggs.

I found one of these nests on the far corner of the farm while checking on the electric fence. I just happened to scare a guinea up off the nest or I may have missed this one.

Another nest I went searching for, as I knew that there was a group of birds hanging out in this area. This nest was made in a tent like structure of weeds, and I’m sure I would not have found it if I wasn’t intently searching for it.

A third nest was found again in an area where I had seen guineas gather, but I didn’t have to search as hard as I came across it when a guinea was on it, scaring her up again. This nest seemed to be popular as there was a trail of eggs around the next from guineas most likely waiting their turn!
It didn’t take me long to get 150 eggs to set in our incubator, and I have another 50 or so waiting to go in when these hatch, not because I am waiting on the room but so that we can space out our available meat.

Unfortunately, my guinea nests have dried up this last week or so. I know a predator found the location of one nest as evidenced by some egg shells, but I’m wondering if they have just slowed down on laying since my trap nest has even slowly dwindled down. Or they are just getting smart, and I need to do some more searching for nests, although I have gone on a couple morning walks and have not scared up any guineas in the ditches lately.

In a couple of weeks, however, we’ll see just how well these guinea eggs were fertilized this year, and we’ll see how this year of focused guinea raising goes. We have a few kinks to work out, such as corralling these flighty birds to keep them where we would like them and catching them during processing time. We do have some different plans of attacks for the year including sending off the year old guineas who have taken to wandering a bit more than we would like and roosting in the rafters, setting up a roosting area where we can shut the door and actually catch them, as well as some ideas to keep them in the pasture area more.

I’m not sure if guineas will be a permanent part of our farm or a “It was fun while it lasted” part of the farm. Even with the challenges of these skiddish wandering foragers and the times of unwanted, not-stop rusty gate noise, they do provide wonderful pest control, a unique meat, and quite a great deal of entertainment as they charge though the pasture in mass, scaring an array of insects into the air, and darting around to gobble them up.

Do you have any experience with guinea fowl? If so, I'd love to have you share!

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