We’re one month into 2017. Dani and I have been diligent in our work, although we have also made sure to get enough fun in to keep ourselves from going crazy. It’s all been book work, online research, copious note taking and working with software. But the real, physical side of things are beginning to manifest.
The seeds have all arrived and Dani has painstakingly sorted, cataloged, and stored them. Dani continues to do the heavy lifting in the garden planning including bed plans, rotations and the schedules for seed starting/transplanting as well as the direct-sow plans. Details are still falling into place but it’s likely seed starting will begin in one week or so. As we build the seedling nursery in our living room – because there is no other place for it! – it underscores the proper utilization of our space; in 1-2 months we will also have a brooder with baby chicks in the same place!
Our 700 sq ft place is not actually 700 sq ft in the winter because a large portion of it is the “front room” which only stays a few degrees above ambient, outdoor temperatures. We have one spare bedroom, but it is always closed off to save heating energy. Consequently that room is always about 50 degrees. So neither of those two spaces are anywhere near warm enough for either seeds or chicks. The remaining space is about 500 sq ft and is comprised of a minuscule bathroom, our bedroom (which has about 18 inches of clearance on three sides of our bed), the small kitchen and our living room. Hence our living room gets to be the nursery and the brooding area. It’s exciting to think we’ll get baby chicks keeping us company for several weeks! But the reality of keeping a brooder clean enough to be housed in the center of our living space is not lost on us.
And that leads to my tasks. What have I been up to in the past four weeks? I’ve read four building/carpentry books. My notes so far are about 11,000 words. I still have a 5-6 hour building video course to work through, too. Once that’s done I will consider myself ready to at least ask intelligent questions. This Spring we will build a chicken coop, many raised beds, a garden shed and attendant fencing. As soon as we have the means to buy building materials then will follow building a solar thermal greenhouse, repairing two sections of our house’s post foundation, and designing/building a big garage/shop. There is a lot of building work to do.
I’m only 1,100 words into my chicken notes so far, but that has been the most recent study activity and I’m not that far along. I still have yet to finish re-reading two general chicken books that I read last year, then read two more books on coop design, then read about a dozen articles on chicken nutrition and growing your own feed. Yes, I’m going to try growing and storing as much feed as I can. I didn’t buy a scythe last year for no reason!
But growing implies soil that can grow something. Our land was all forest at one point. Once it was clear-cut nothing ever was done with it. Most of the organic material in forest soils is in the top layers that the trees protect from the weather and renew annually. With untold decades of no trees and no soil husbandry we have two acres of weathered, compacted silt loam. Dense as hell and chock full of stones, our soil has almost no activity below the first half inch. Japanese beetles and Asiatic garden beetles love it, however, because they have all the shelter they need and no competition (apart from the crows and skunks that love our yard and forage for white grubs frequently).
I’m hoping to change all that through sustainable soil management processes. The most amazing soil book I’ve read (granted my experience is very limited) on the matter is Building Soils for Better Crops by Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es through the University of Vermont. This amazing book was loaned to me by my friend and mentor in all-things-woodsman-and-blacksmithing, Rob, the Troy Tree Guy. I’ve since bought my own copy because this is invaluable reference material for any prospective farmer (micro or otherwise) that is concerned about sustainability and ecology. The other book helping through this process is another amazing and rare find, the Northeast Cover Crop Handbook by Marianne Sarrantonio. I had the pleasure of getting a little one hour presentation about green manures and cover crops from Marianne at the Common Ground Fair last year.
I’m only halfway through the first book and have merely thumbed through the second. Yet I have compiled 23,000 words so far in notes and prospective plans for our “Favorite Day Farm” (or whatever we end up deciding to call it). So reading these books, all the chicken books, the remaining build courses, and all subsequent note taking are all to be completed in February. We’ll also finish our high-level “build out” of the farmlet including goats, barns, fencing, power, irrigation, and crop fields for feed, bedding and green manures.
2017 will see my first efforts into growing feed and bedding as well as all the green manures needed to adequately maintain all our raised beds (nine 100 sq ft beds, intensively-planted). The raised beds will not be cover cropped in the off season; we will do a lasagna bed treatment on them overwinter. In order to minimize organic fertilizer needs for the raised beds I have to grow the right amounts of the right kinds of green manures at the right times. That means developing cover crop and rotation plans for the fields supplying the green manures for the raised beds. Planning that all needs to happen in February as well – at least a good first stab at it. Such a herculean task will take years to refine. But I must at least start this season; I must try to build soil on the property that can grow something other than dandelions and can be manipulated with tools more subtle than a mattock.
Tremendous compaction and tremendous deprivation of organic matter are not trivial soil problems. But our silty loam has very good “bones” for agriculture. I have a plan continually deepening that not only gives me hope but out-and-out optimism. Like in brewing or cultivating sourdough, nature does the heavy lifting – all humans have to do is some timely, strategic guiding.
One month down in 2017 and one month to go with all the “book learning” and planning yet to finish. Things have gone very well so far. I’m feeling good; March will descend with us as ready as we can be. One year ago we were wrapping up our Ambling Full Tilt journey. One year ago we had no idea where we would live. One year ago we had no home.
Now we are home. Now the real work begins.