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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Dishing up the Dirt on Homesteading


One of the very primitive,
back woods locations
where I lived for a time.

I have been a modern day homesteader with two husbands in  three states and as many eras (70's western Colorado, 80's western Washington state and since 2008 here in Maine). My kids grew up largely off grid on homestead #2. I have always been connected to the earth, as have "my people." Some would grow, I'll tell you the story some time) since toddler, in my family's small yard in a sorta small town. Every summer we visited grandparents in Iowa and I helped with their large garden,
My maternal
grandparents.
weeding, picking and getting pummeled with early hail as i helped Grandpa put protection over his tomato plants. It seems I have always wanted to be away from people and close to nature and I have managed to do so whenever I could. Many of my ancestors farmed; others were itinerant workers who seemed to have traveled about several states in the midwest, using their equipment to help plant and harvest grain crops. It's in my blood, it would seem. I was planting things (not always things that

Life does not always cooperate and changes of situation ended me in an occasional city as that was where the jobs were, for my late-in-life chosen career.

I guess I was was a late entry into the "first" back to the land
Building a greenhouse
addition to our home
from PVC, early 80s
movement. Took another turn at it 10 years later and had to bail when the marriage went south. Twelve miles outside a poke-n-plum town is not a good place to try to find work and with heavy heart, I visualized myself as a "potted plant" so that I could follow the work that called me during the dot-com boom.

When given the chance, by unemployment insurance and other factors, I moved to my "dream location" -- or one of them. Maine was closer than Alaska.

Having been tech savvy for ages, I have frequented homesteading boards on a variety of venues. For most of the time that tech and homesteading have been able to share a universe, most of the participants on the boards -- at least those posting and responding -- have been "actual homesteaders." That is, people, whether living on a smaller plot in a town or a larger one "in the boonies" who are actually making a stab at doing the work. Occasionally there would be a "newbie" with questions, but they were much less common.

Recently -- like in the last month, I would say, I have noticed a significant increase in the number of aspiring homesteaders posting on my usual forums. Many are looking for land and all are looking for information, suggestions and direction. So, here goes. From the point of view of an experienced (and admittedly "older") homesteader... numbered but in no particular order other than the sequence in which I captured my thoughts.

1. Homesteading is harder work than you have ever done. I will grant the possible exceptions for those who have/do work in a foundry or the timber industry.

2. You will have longer hours. Unlike a more typical "job" or career, you can not really get away. You will be "on call" 24/7/365 for emergencies that will range from "fox in the hen house" to "hail on the garden." I know some folks have had success with farm sitters in order to take a vacation, but if you try this option, make sure you know their skills and they know your homestead. Milking someone else's goats is never quite like milking your own. Ask me about that some time!

3. "But I will be my own boss!"  WRONG, in so many ways. It's almost as bad as being a church janitor. You will be at the mercy of each and every bird and beast, the season, the changing length of the days, and of course the weather.

4. Unless you have won the lottery or are a "trust fund baby"
Starving Artist With
Food Stamp
I felt like I had won the
lottery when I found this $1
token in an old jacket pocket.
someone will still have to have off-farm job. Maybe both of you.
And while we are on this topic, have you heard the joke about the farmer who won a million dollars and was asked what he planned to do with it? Do you remember his response? Just keep farming until it runs out is more truth than you want to believe.

5. And while we are on the topic of money, monetizing a
Our short-lived
collaborative
marketing venture
homestead is uphill battle. While you may plan, and hope to sell veg, fruits, home made goodies and even home raised meat, there are often expensive hurdles in the way to do so legally. And even if you surmount the hurdles, most likely you will be competing with others in your area that have been serving the locavore market since before you bought your land. Breaking into a market is not easy. And unless you are lucky enough to have a location where a farm stand by the drive is practical, it will mean more time off the homestead, "babysitting a parking lot" in town.

6. Work at home, on the other hand, can supplement your income. When I moved to my current homestead, I was running a small
At work, painting a
Dutch (Deutsch) hex sign
business doing graphic design and starting a side-line painting "Pennsylvania Dutch" hex signs. Both businesses, being based in virtual space, were quite portable, with a catch. Many of the properties we looked at in rural Maine did not have sufficient connectivity for me to ply my trade and we ended up in a less-optimal location. But compromises are often necessary and we are now planted her. The other issue with working at home -- like an off-homestead job, is that both eat up your time.

7. Accept it: cash flow issues are a given. Even if you are lucky
One of our first "tractors"
"Fergie" our old, used,
Massey-Ferguson tractor
arrives on the homestead.
enough to not have a mortgage, rural incomes skew lower and tools and equipment prices do not. Even the small commercial farmers that I know, struggle to keep old equipment running.

If you decry the cost of living in town, remember that rising prices of necessary tools keep pace with that of consumer goods.

8. You will learn why, back in the "old days" folks had large families. Many hands do make light work and if there are only two of you, get used to the idea of living a life of projects in process. Probably even if there are extra hands, as well. Pioneer kids were raised in a different world, with many fewer pastimes and distractions.

9. To end this list, let me remind us all that we do live in the modern era and can usually, if necessary, count on services like the police and fire departments and for that matter even the relative proximity and ease of access of various stores.  When I was starting on my second round of homesteading, I had three young daughters who were fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series of books. We read, and re-read them all and often when a problem came up someone would ask "How did the pioneers do it." The usual answer was "mostly they died a lot." This kept us appreciative of our position in time and space and the ability to choose "appropriate technology" from various eras, as needed.

So, all this being said, why do I do it? As bizarre as it sounds, it give me joy! Even though I am old and my partner in all this insanity is disabled, even though on any given day we both have to work through serious pain upon arising -- or even just to get up, we both know that the aches and pains represent true gain: fruits, veg and meat in our freezers and on our shelves. Food that we do not have to wonder about where it came from, how it
Farmers
-- and homesteaders--
DO kick ass!


was grown, how it might have been contaminated between the source and our plates. And digging in the dirt, even more than plying my "trade" as a folk artist or actually spinning and plying the wool that our sheep give us, keeps me sane. I am thankful, though, for those sheep and my love of fiber, as much as I am the rest of our little homestead, as the spinning gives me balance and contributes much to my spiritual practice. But that is a story for another time. 

Good luck on your homesteading ventures!

Monday, August 27, 2018

Finding Time

It's hard to find time to write. I think that must be true for everyone who is not already a published -- and well paid -- writer or working for someone as a writer. The rest of us try to find bit of time to fit the words in between whatever daily life consists of.  Here at Fussing Duck Farm, which is also the home of DutchHexSign.com, things are no different.

The farm has a flow of its own. Most years, at least, spring planting, early harvest and late planting, weeding and final harvest line up at least as well as the ducks on a typical day. I do have self aligning ducks, at least much of the time!

The flow of hex sign orders, over the years, has proven to be far less predictable. Not having a budget for paid advertising and having to rely on word of mouth, an occasional article in the local media, longevity of the site on the Internet and, of late, a social media presence has meant slower growth than most entrepreneurs would accept. But having worked in the tech industry during the early boom and bust years, I have seen first hand what "overgrowth" can do. And I deliberately chose the slower path. During the last few years, each year has seen not only a growth in the number of signs painted, but also the development of a "boom" period of orders during the year. Unlike many businesses, which expect higher traffic during particular seasons, or leading up to a holiday, there seems to be no correlation with anything in my peak times. They have not (yet at least) happened during the winter, when time to cut and paint wood, would not be fighting for a share of the daylight hours with extra chores for animals, vegetables and fruits.

Life on a small subsistence farm/homestead always seems to be a matter of juggling tasks. Aging, and ailing bodies does not make it any easier.

Today I moved the electric pasture fence on account of having had a young sheep on the lam yesterday. I got a late start, and hoped that by moving the fence, I could not only confuse him as to where the unauthorized exit was, but also supply some better green forage. Didn't work, as he was out less than an hour after I finished chores. I got him, and the rest of the sheep and the goats, since they all come running at the sound of the sweet feed being shaken in the jar, and I was glad to see Tractor Guy back from his early appointment in town to help wrangle his goats. I was planning to do a major reset of the fence this late afternoon/evening and that will go on as planned. However, with
Major Tom, being carried by Tractor Guy,
when we collected him and Enterprise
(center back) from the University of
Maine, Orono, earlier this year.
the wooly Houdini in the flock, they will get hay in their confinement pens tomorrow until we get back from another trip to town. We both have to go. Wednesday, you can be sure I will be keeping a close eye on Major Tom, the lamb that goes AWOL.

Meanwhile, I have packaged up the last of the large hex sign
36" Mighty Oak hex sign
orders from the queue, to be shipped tomorrow.  This Mighty Oak sign will be on its way, finally, to a very patient client in NC. I do my best to keep everyone informed during backlog times.  The order queue currently holds 11 individual signs that need to be painted for 9 individuals. After working so long as a commercial artist, both on the web and in print -- where everyone wants everything yesterday (on a good day) and last week (most of the time) I am thankful and amazed by my clients understanding and patience.  When the timeline gets stretched beyond belief and reason, in my mind, I always offer a cheerful refund but I have yet to have anyone take me up on it! Instead I get responses back like this one from a client this week: "Thanks for your reply, and your commitment to artistic purity and motivations. I look forward to seeing your work when received."  In these days of instant this and pre-made that, I am grateful and humbled by the responses I get.

So I guess I better get at it, eh? I currently have one of the 24" sign blanks with primer drying and I have brought one more of that size and four smaller ones in to begin the sanding and priming process, while the heat and sun keep me indoors.

Flax plants
growing in the garden
Flax lays on the ground
"dew retting." The dew and
ground moisture rots part
of the plant so the fiber
can be removed.
Flax laying in a
tub of water for
"water retting."
While I wait for the filler putty and primer to dry, I am going to attempt to quickly sew up a nightgown and a light weight summer dress, copied off an old dress, with some of the wonderful linen fabric that I picked up last month at bargain prices, thanks to a friend having brought it to my attention. As you can see, linen is on my mind this year, because of my attempt to grow flax this year to process into a bit of linen fiber.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Rain, Pain, Death and Life

It has been a hot, dry summer thus far, so when the forecast said rain in a reasonable quantity and the elements delivered, we did not fuss. Yesterday was one such day with nearly an inch of rain -- much more than what has usually come on days when it was forecast. Seems for some reason, as the storms move in from the west, they part as they approach our farm and the rain falls to the north and south, but less often here.

Despite the heat, we have been doing out best to continue on the things that demand our attention. For me that's been weeding, digging garlic and potatoes and for Tractor Guy... well his concerns have been on being called for jury duty this past week. Because of health and other issues, asking to be excused was not out of the question, even though his honor leads him to always try to be the best citizen he can be. "Democracy is a participation sport," he says. The timing of the receipt of the notification and the requirement for offering doctors' letters, and the time required to obtain such written opinions were not on his side and so he planned to be prepared to serve, despite having to travel nearly 2o miles, without having any personal transportation. I was prepared to clear my weekday schedule for the next two months to make this possible, but since his first meeting at the courthouse was only half a day, I planned to do our major shopping and run some other errands while he was occupied.

Little did we know that the clerk of the court, despite what was written in the letter from the count, was willing to accept requests to be excused on that half-day orientation day, and I had literally just barely dropped him off and left the area before he was excused. There is no place to wait at the count, and he had no way to contact me once I had left, so he -- on legs that barely work, in the bright sun of an uncomfortably hot day -- began walking to the only place in my afternoon errands that had both a location and a time. I was meeting an Internet friend for the first time, at a local restaurant, to hand her a share of vegetables. His only concern was to make it there before I left; in actuality he got there not long after we both arrived, after soaking up the shade of every struggling little street tree and lamp post (I have said that Tractor Guy is a BIG dude, haven't I... in more than one direction! The idea of there being enough shade from a lamp post to make a difference to his abundant body still blows my mind!) He made it, and by the time I got back out to the truck, he said he could finally feel his hands again and they were beginning to work, after swelling badly during the VERY long walk. But someone with his medical and physical issues cannot do that kind of exertion without having to pay the piper a very large fee, and I am pretty sure he's not all paid up yet, four days later.

This is what 8 fryers, cut into pieces and
chilling/aging in the fridge look like!
Nevertheless, and regardless of the rain -- which should have been the call for a low key, low activity day here in the house for both of us, since I got pretty well worked over by my massage therapist on Thursday and the physical therapist Friday -- I had set yesterday as the day to finish harvesting the meat birds. They have been ready for a couple of weeks, I have been "picking them off" a few at a time, but with the grower feed running short (turkey juveniles eat the same stuff, but there are only 2 of them so it will last much longer than feeding the gluttons in the meat bird pen) I said "today" for what I thought was the remaining 7 birds.

I had been processing outside, which I really like and which was one of the main reasons I picked up the free picnic table last year, but... rain. So my plan was to bring them in for skinning and gutting, and I asked TG to help, since he could do this at the kitchen table, sitting down. You may remember that this is not really his thing, but at the last "chicken plucking day" at our MOFGA chapter, he pitched in on the plucking and even had a go at gutting, which was much harder for him because large hands do not fit well into smaller fowl.

We skin most of our birds and cut them into pieces before freezing, and I have developed a method of processing in which I remove legs and wings and then cut the breast from the back, gently separating the halves. This leaves the innards right out in the open, laying on the back. You can not only easily see what you are doing, but it gives easy access to heart, liver (to avoid the gall bladder) and eventually the gizzard. I knew he could skin the birds and help cut them, and I have no issue with catching, hauling (two at a time), and the butchering, nor with any other part of the process... but I figured extra hands pulling on the skin would save my hands and energy enough to allow us to finish all 7 in one session. Normally I do 4 at a time.

Well... I miscounted. There were 8. LOL But we got them done, the last of that chore for this year. There will be turkeys though; the old hen will eventually be processed for ground meat, and of course Thanksgiving and NewYears -- the young turks -- have their appointed dates.

When I went out to collect fryers #5 and #6, I had the random idea to check in the chicken house, where a banty hen and a Langshan hen have been occupying a nest. There were originally 12 eggs; one got pushed out and was obviously bad (exploded when I threw it out into the field) but every couple of days an egg has disappeared with nothing to show for it. I have been wondering what's up. We do have a rat problem, so they are a concern, both for eggs and potentially for newly hatched babies.

When I disturbed the banty, who was on the eggs this time, I heard cheeping! Baby sounds... but no baby to be seen. I looked all over, inside and out, tried to peer into rat-carved depressions in between the slats of the pallet walls, but found nothing. I suspected that one might have hatched and fallen into a hole, but not been found by a rat, so I asked TG to go out with me and to bring a shovel to excavate next to the holes in hopes of liberating the chick, if we were still able to hear it. He did, and
New baby, under the heat
lamp, now dry.
Yep, it's a banty!
Though Tractor Guy's
hand are big!
we did hear the insistent calling even before I disturbed the hen, but he had barely got started digging outside when a little black chick bolted from under mama towards me and got pecked at by the little hen! The little one was not yet dry, so must have just gotten free of the egg.

I had been planning to move both banty mom and her nest into the house, away from rats, while she attempts to hatch the remaining half a dozen eggs, and now I was worried about the holes and whether the inexperienced young hen might injure the baby, so I handed it to TG to bring in and warm, while I collected the last of the chicken harvest.
Mama Banty on her nest, which I moved
inside, into a tote, currently in the
bathtub, curtain drawn for privacy.

I moved the nest and hen later in the evening, and left the little chick nestled in mulch hay, in a bucket, under the brooder lamp.

Before moving the hen, though a bath was in order, once the messy work was done.


Monday, August 13, 2018

A Harvest Season Monday

Oats, sacred wheat for harvest crafting
and flax hang to dry.
We are well into the beginning of the major harvest season here on the farm. The last few days, I have been delighted to be able to take advantage of some cooler -- though still seasonal, temperatures and spend more time in the garden. I like getting up early and I work with the seasons rather than the clock, but since "leveling up" to level 70, I find seemingly more challenges than upgrades. These long summer days, with late sunsets (which denote the time for me to put the animals away, wash the earth off my stiff, sore body and begin making supper) means bedtime gets pushed WAY back. I seem to need more rest than I used to, so I am not up at first light, or even sunrise, in the summer these days. And I do miss it. When I do manage to roll my stiff and aching bones out of bed, I always have lots in mind for the day.

First job today was heading out to pick up some hay. Even though we are conveying the goats and sheep to pasture these days, we need to have a stash of hay, in case of wet weather.  It may happen this week. If it (a) actually materializes and is (b) sufficient that the herd does not want to go out or needs to be brought in from pasture early, we need it. Four bales fit into the Subaru and that doesn't last a herd of 5 very long.

The forecast called for a chance rain this afternoon, but it did
Mulch pulled back, potato hill is revealed.
not materialize. I have mixed
Brushing off a bit of earth, more
potatoes appear in a close clump.
A bit of digging reveals the mass of spuds.
One hill, in the basket.
feelings. I am stiff and sore from the harvesting of late, but the garlic and 'taters won't harvest themselves. I manged to complete the garlic harvest and completed the first, 50' row of potatoes that I started yesterday. I definitely will be planting whole potatoes in the future, rather than cutting them into several pieces as is the custom these days. I got the idea to try the whole spud approach from watching a BBC historical farming program and like the results. I did not do a proper experiment, as there was no "control row" being planted the conventional way, but I lifted a full bushel of red spuds from my row, and the harvest was as easy as the planting! Each of the hills had a good lot to harvest, and all of the eyes having sent up spouts, I had no trouble finding and identifying the hills from the dried foliage. The potatoes were all in a tight clump, so often one spading and brushing the area by hand as I removed the potatoes that I could see was all the work that was required.

I also finished weeding the struggling onions, second planting of brassica tucked in amongst them, and the third planting of lettuce, which is also struggling and wanting to bolt. A sparse 4th planting will go into the ground tomorrow and I will start more seeds indoors as well.
  
I still have the second row of potatoes to dig, and the other experimental plants, that are growing from single sprouts, picked off some of the potatoes from the end of the storage season. They died back to the ground after an unexpected frost, but came back and unlike the plants from actual potatoes, are still green and fighting the potato bugs to grow; they will get harvested later, once they also die back.

Tomorrow is 28 days from the last weed control cultivation, so with a suitable working temperature and the prospect of rain on the morrow, Tractor Guy and Fergie knocked out that task for the month.

While TG was busy with that task, I attacked the backlog of hex sign orders and cut 3 of the 24" circles, two 12" and two 8" ones out of half inch plywood. I really need to pick up the painting pace and -- hoping for rain as a good excuse to stay inside -- I needed blanks to sand, prime and paint. I can bring them in from the garage in the rain, but have no location that is out of the
Custom colors on the familiar
Abundance and Prosperity sign.

weather for cutting them. With the most recent 48" sign on its
way to its new home, I am contemplating adding the custom paint job on this Abundance and Prosperity sign to my roster of standard offerings. I love the traditional, old timey feel of this version, which substitutes a delightful barn red for both the red and brown colors in my version of the sign. What do you think?


Saturday, August 4, 2018

Not Like a Maine Summer

I have friends all over the world, and all are reporting unusual weather. It's hot in Scandinavia, the UK, much of the USA and here in Maine for sure... along with humidity that I thought I left in North Carolina!

For those of us who do not do heat well -- this IS part of why we moved to Maine, after all -- it is a challenge. We have been relatively dry, as well, so weeding the garden has been hit or miss. Between not being able to pull weeds due to dry soil and the heat/humidity index, non-garden life interfering, and rain (YAY!! Finally!!) we are struggling.

Champion of
England peas
I pulled the main crop Champion of England peas and harvested seed from the Firenza petit pois peas before pulling them. I also harvested a bunch of very ripe Iona petit pois that I will process for use in soup (they get starchy as they age, which is ok in soup, less so as a side dish) but some of those vines are trying to come on with a bit more so I will hopefully have a couple of meals worth. Planted fall peas, again.. still have not got the timing right, but I keep trying.

I managed to weed and add weed block to the tomato plants, and some of them are setting fruit. The vine crops are finally taking
off; I needed to lay down some more cardboard and mulch for them, and fortunately scored some last week when I went to Dover, looking for packing material for the hex signs. I lucked out, really well, as the appliance store also had a half ton of floor tile -- the good kind with no texture that requires a commercial three-stage finish to look good -- for FREE! When I went back to get that (thankfully their fork lift dude was willing to load it into Artie!) they were hauling away the remainder of the cardboard. But I had hauled home enough to finish the vine crop area and package my wares as well.

36" Abundant Prosperity
This 36" Abundant Prosperity sign is on its way to Georgia, and I am on to the next sign in my rather large queue, an Abundance, Prosperity and Smooth Sailing through Life at 24". Orders just keep coming in, so I need to cut circles tomorrow, as well as attacking weeds, laundry and painting. It never ends, does it? But as a working artist, I am GLAD for the backlog of orders and especially glad for my very understanding and patient clients!