Hello! I am writing to you from the comfort of the air-conditioned library in Viola, Wisconsin, just a few miles away from Mastodon Valley Farm, our current home. The days have been getting intensely hot lately so we have opted to hide in the afternoons. Time has sure escaped us and we’ve been here just over 5 weeks now. Before too much time passes, I want to share some of our recent happenings. I will highlight a few things from each week:
We spent one week driving from Oregon to Wisconsin, making stops in Idaho, Montana, and South Dakota, and arrived to our new home on May 3. We are living in Peter and Mo’s homemade yurt about 1/4 mile from the road and up a steep trail into the trees. There is no electricity or running water on the property so we use coleman stoves and lanterns, and recharge our batteries here at the library. There is a magnificent spring on the farm, where we collect our drinking water and fill 5-gallon buckets of water to give to our animals and garden.
We dove into a few projects immediately, and forgot to eat for the first few days. When we arrived we had about 4 days to come up with an off-grid brooder for our chicks that would be arriving at the end of the week, and we were anxious to get our garden started. So we worked a few 14 + hour days building the first Rocket Mass Brooder:
Using the technology and skills we had gained last year working at Wheaton Labs, we decided our best option would be to build an insulated box attached to a Rocket Mass Heater core, with a single line of duct passing through one end of the box, surrounded by cob. We figured the mass would be enough to keep the chicks at the required 90 degrees. Our alternatives were to build an insulated box and add another heat source, like hot water bottles or hot stones. We figured the maintenance of starting a fire in our Rocket Mass Brooder would be less and more efficient than trying to heat rocks several times a day, or boiling water several times a day. We came up with many designs, but due to materials available, and time, we went with a quick insulated box (8 ft. by 4 ft.) and built a Rocket Mass Heater out of cob materials found on the land, with 6-inch ducting. On top of that, we built a simple pole shed over the structure.
The night before the chicks were to arrive, we were still working on our brooder. Tony planned to stay up through the night, to burn the core to dry out all of our cob. But before midnight, a good chunk of the heater collapsed. We should have known that it takes at least a week of warm, dry weather and frequent firing for a rocket mass heater to fully dry. The next morning we picked up our chicks and were able to keep them at someone’s house in the basement for the first couple of weeks until we repaired and finished our brooder…
The day our chicks arrived, we changed focus and began preparing for a batch of 100 laying hens that we’d be picking up the next day. We have plans to build a Salatin-style eggmobile soon, but in the meantime we put an old shed onto skids and have a semi-moveable coop. By the end of the first week we had 100 broiler chicks and 100 hens in our care:
The hens range on some wonderful pasture during the day, and are kept in the coop inside electric fencing at night to protect against predators. We are looking forward to building a mobile “eggmobile soon” to give the ladies fresh pasture more frequently and to give the land a rest.
The second week we shifted our focus to our big 1/4 to 1/2 acre garden. We started with a patch of south-facing pasture and ended with 10 150 foot rows of 30 inch beds, mulched. Peter used his tractor and plowed and tilled the area for us, then Tony and I spent a few days with a pick and shovel shaping beds, and pulling out bits of sod. By the end of the week I had planted potatoes, peas, onions, leeks, arugula, mizuna, spinach, kale, and other brassicas.
Without a greenhouse, I started many plants in trays and kept them in the Yurt for a couple of weeks, but after a while I set up a floating row cover and kept the little plants in the garden:
All of our starts from oregon survived the week-long trek, by the way!
By week three, we had fully dried out our Rocket Mass Brooder and the mass was finally warming up to 95 degrees or so. So we brought the 2-week old chicks to their new off-grid home!
With the heat from the mass, and the body heat of 100 chicks in an insulated box, the chicks stayed plenty warm, even with a few freezing nights. We have a second set of 100 chicks arriving at the end of June, and we will keep that bunch in our off-grid brooder from day one.
We spent the rest of the week planting more in the garden, and setting up an elaborate tomato tunnel trellis. By the end of the week, we planted almost 300 of our tomato and tomatillo starts!
oh, and we found a few dozen morels!
Now that we had our garden going, and our chickens taken care of, we decided we could add some turkeys to the mix. So we spent the week building a skiddable turkey shack, meant for 25 turkeys. We were also intending to build a “broiler pen” for our chicks, who were getting to be quite rambunctious and active by then. But we were feeling bad about the thought of confining our Freedom Rangers in a pen, although moved once or twice each day. So we decided we’d let the turkeys and the chicks live together in their shack with roosts, and have the ability to range freely during the day. So Tony and I went for another drive in his truck and picked up 25 5-week old turkey poults and introduced them to the 100 broilers:
At first, the turkeys were interested in running away into the woods, so to prevent that, we kept them secured in the coop for a few days to get them used to their home, the food, and the water. Now, they have free range during the day and kept safe behind electric fencing at night.
The turkeys and chicks have integrated well now, although at first they were segregated.
We started off the week with a trip to see my grandparents and aunt in Galena, Illinois, where we picked up a couple of wine totes for water storage and 6 piglets. Tony and I own one of the piglets, and the other 5 went to Peter and Mo. They have 16 pigs, so with our 1, there are now 17 pigs on the farm.
This last week Tony and I traded off going on some trips. He visited home for a couple of days and I went to the Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference for 3 days (more on that later). So we’ve been spending our time maintaining the animals we have, and working in the garden. We had a problem for a good week with our tomato plants dropping over dead in the night. We thought it could be mice or rabbits but eventually discovered that we had a few CUTWORMS in our midst. Cutworms come up from the soil just after dark and eat their way through the stems of plants, completely cutting them off. We used some diatomaceous earth, and haven’t had any more fatalities in the last few days.
We also helped Peter and Mo harvest a butt-load of Stinging Nettle and we had a “Nettle Pesto making party”, where 100 little jars were produced.
Tony also turned 30 on June 4th! We spent the day cleaning and preparing our eggs and going to a farm bar-b-q where we sold our first eggs. We are surely farmers now. =)
This week we have also been setting up an elaborate grain sprouting system, where we are soaking and rinsing grain and preparing 4 buckets of sprouts every 12 hours for the pigs and the poultry. We are in the process of building another skiddable shed to house our 40 bucket sprouting station. We will post photos when we finish it.
We have certainly not been bored. It it is a whole new ball game to manage all aspects of a farming enterprise. We were over-working ourselves at first, but have been taking things easier lately and trying to enjoy what we’re doing. We have a wonderful support system here on Mastodon Valley Farm. The season will be over before we know it.