farm life

How’d You Learn to do X?

The second question I’m asked about having a farm after “Where do you find the time?” is “How’d you learn to do X?” Generally, X is often about something related to livestock care, but I also occasionally get questions about gardening or other aspects of farm life.

I learn about things the way I assume most Internet-savvy people learn these days. I search online, read books, watch Youtube and participate in online communities related to my interests. Though that means I spent a lot more time in Facebook groups these days than I ever thought I would.

Searching

Most of the time I start with a search. This could be anything from ‘types of dairy goats’ to ‘tomato plants with yellow dust’. Most of the time there is some help already available in the form of an article or a forum post. Though of course there are plenty of times where there is not just one answer, some of the answers involve methods I don’t want to use or I can’t find a solution through my search. Though this has been much rarer than some of the technical searches I’ve done over the years.

Wisdom of Ancients from XKCD
Wisdom of the Ancients from XKCD

Books

Sometimes my searches lead to books on a topic or I’m interested in something and look for related books. For example, Vegetable Gardening in the Pacific Northwest has been my main reference when planning when and how to grow vegetables. I could certainly get the same knowledge from searches but I find it more effective to have the information in a physical book where the information is divided into months. Each month, sometimes more than once I month I look to see what is coming up next month or what I should be working on this month.

The topics of the books I tend to read for this sort of knowledge are in various interconnected categories from permaculture to integrated pasture management to livestock care to an analysis of problems in the US food system to cookbooks. I am someone who likes to deep dive into topics. I’ve been reading about food systems and cooking for a long time, but it has more meaning these days because I feel more in control. Living in an apartment before I could try to make good purchasing decisions, living on a farm I can grow the food myself or source it more easily from someone I know.

Youtube

Previous to farming I was not a fan of learning from videos. Unless it was something very visual I generally though I could get the information faster by reading. With farming, this has changed greatly. Partially because I find it more visual but also because in the videos you can take in additional information about how people do things. Perhaps the video is about brooding chickens, but you can see other aspects of how the person has their barn set-up for example.

My favorite Youtube channel of late is Justin Rhodes because of his family’s Great American Farm Tour. Justin and his family have spent the majority of the past year crisscrossing the United States visiting all kinds of different farms. From a family growing 2,000 pounds of a year in their suburban yard to Joel Salatin’s large operation. For those reading this who aren’t farm nerds, Joel Salatin is one of the originals doing the type of pasture raising of animals to which I aspire.  Often through watching Justin Rhodes’ channel it leads me down other paths to the channels of the farms his family is visiting.

Facebook Groups

Facebook really is connecting much of the world. At least the world I’m from which I’m trying to find out information. I belong to a variety of groups related to goats, cows and livestock guardian dogs. I believe I am able to absorb different approaches and potential issues simply by reading the types of questions that are asked. I don’t make it a point to read every post and there are some groups that are the more hostile side of the Internet. I tend to leave those and go elsewhere.

Local Questions

Beyond all these methods, sometimes I just ask the neighbors. If I have a question specific to my own farm or where to get the best chicken feed in the area they are often a better source. Many of the businesses I might get supplies from aren’t online or are very difficult to find through search.

I probably haven’t revealed some amazing method I have for learning things in this post. It is a similar approach that I would take to learn anything. Though if I was trying to learn something in the open source world I would probably exchange Facebook Groups for mailing lists and books for documentation for the most part.

farm life

Where do you find the time?

“Where do you find the time?” This is the most common question I get regarding our move to a 24-acre farm 6 months ago. Since I mostly stay put these days I don’t burn a bunch of time in travel or simply the stress of not being home. That gives me quite a lot of time I didn’t have previously. I think the other part of it must be that if people haven’t cared for livestock before then it seems like they must be way more work than they actually are. That isn’t to say they don’t require daily care, currently multiple times a day.  The amount of work is similar to the amount of work taking care of a dog or cat. Though with each species it adds the equivalent amount of work to care for a dog or cat. There are also different types of projects, from the daily pulse to keep everyone alive, things that need to be down every few days and the one time or infrequent projects.

Daily Chores

Our daily absolutely required chores take about 40 minutes per day for one person to do. It is roughly 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening. I also spent about 40 minutes working with Ada Floofington our livestock guardian dog. She is 7 months old and still very much training for her future job protecting our livestock.

Morning chores:

  • Release chickens and ducks from their houses, check if they need feed.
  • Feed the goats, we feed a pelted goat feed so it is simply a matter of scooping it into their bowls.
  • Feed the pigs, at the moment we are giving them pumpkins. We break up a pumpkin with a shovel and throw it in there with them.
  • Put the goats and pigs outside if the weather isn’t too bad. They have shelters in their pen but on really rainy days we leave them inside.
  • Feed the cow. We call her in from the pasture and she gets a specific cow feed which we scoop into the bowl. Once she is done we let her back outside.
  • Feed and walk the dog. Ada and I go for a 40-minute walk. This is exercise for us both, but I’m also still doing obedience training with her and she is learning the property so she knows her territory to protect. Once we are done she goes into her pen next to the pigs and goats.

Evening chores are the same as morning chores except in reverse. We lock the chickens, ducks, goats, and pigs back in their pens for the night. I don’t walk the dog at night, she does get put into the barn with everyone else. Part of these chores is also checking on the welfare of the animals. Occasionally that means taking their temperatures or otherwise checking on their health. We have been fortunate so far to have not had too many major problems.

 

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Pumpkins we are currently feeding the pigs. The day after Halloween a truckload only cost us $20.

Weekly/Semi-Frequent Chores

There are the chores that need to be done semi-regularly. They are mostly about keeping all the poop these creatures create at bay. I tend to have a “poop day” every few days which takes about 30 or 40 minutes. With many of the animals, I use deep bedding techniques which means the bedding and manure are composted in place. So it is a matter of adding additional bedding on top. With the pigs, I muck their stall, though they are neat and always go in the same place so it is pretty easy.

Somewhat related to manure management I also move our electric fences. I usually don’t move the entire fence, I just move part of it to give the goats and pigs something new to eat. This can take anywhere from a few minutes, to an hour depending on if the fence has a short or more recently if I get tangled in blackberry vines.

I also garden so outside of the livestock, so I’ve also done weeding, planting, mulching and other activities. Though at the moment it is November so this is pretty minimal.

Projects

In addition to the regular pulse, we have projects. If you read most people’s advice on beginning to farm it is to not take on too many projects at once. We’ve tried not to do that though, but who knows if we are succeeding. These are items that we won’t need to work on forever, or they are much upfront work but will be less in the long run.

The biggest project such as this that comes to mind is livestock guardian dogs (LGD). Currently, we have Ada who I’m training, but in a month we are getting a second puppy. With Ada, she actually is slowly requiring less attention over time. We went to obedience school and did daily homework for it. I’ll do this again for the new puppy. Both dogs will require a lot of attention of the first year, but then hopefully they will actually help reduce some of the work with our other livestock. You see we have many coyotes away, so we lock all our animals up to keep them safe at night. With two giant dogs, this becomes less necessary. Then the pigs and goats can stay out at night, at least when the weather is okay.

Ada and Petunia

Another project which will change in scope, though still be much work is our milk cow, Rosie. Did you know you have to train a family milk cow? I work with her a few times a week to make sure she knows how to pick up her feet, walk on a lead and let me touch her everywhere. Though in two years when she actually is producing milk she’ll be just as much work, if not more since we’ll be milking her daily.

We’ve also built a greenhouse, cleaned up the barn and built housing for various animals. These are all onetime projects, which other than repairs we won’t have to do for quite some time.

Besides its a Hobby!

The other thing about the work is it is a hobby. Where do people find time to cycle, hike, knit, sail or any of their other hobbies? If I didn’t enjoy it I’d do something else with my time. Maybe my feelings will change later, but at the moment I’m loving farm life.

Cuddling Chicken

 

farm life

Reflections on Staying Put

This week I hit a milestone, which for most of the world isn’t much of a milestone at all. I slept in my own bed every night for 3 months straight for the first time since 2009. Unlike the rest of the world in some of my circles of friends, this is an achievement.

I write about this achievement on the day it is announced that the Nobel Prize in Medicine goes to three scientists for their work studying circadian rhythms. Switching time zones frequently has so many potential ill effects, I don’t think we’ll even come up with them all ever. After losing my father to melanoma in 2015 I also began to wonder about the possible effects of so much air travel as well. Flight attendants and pilots are twice as likely to get melanoma, what about frequent fliers? There hasn’t been a specific study that I have found on that, but it isn’t hard to imagine there might be at least some increased risk.

Positives from Staying Put

There have been so many positives from being in one place. One simple one is I’m home when people happen to be in the area! In the past, people would frequently visit nearby and reach out, I almost never was home to see them though. Now? Even though I moved to rural Washington State I’ve had more visitors than the entire three years I lived in Portland. Whereas I do miss seeing many of my jet-setting friends I run into in a different city every time, I’ve gotten to catch-up with many others.

Another big thing? I’ve been able to learn and take up hobbies that require you to be in the same place. I planted a real garden for the first time ever and had the time to harvest it! I’ve gotten a Livestock Guardian Dog (Ada) and I’ve had the time to train her (though she and I have a long way to go). I’ve been raising and training livestock (goats, chickens, ducks, pigs and a milk cow). These are all things that would be impossible to do if I wasn’t regularly home, they don’t let you bring your jersey calf on the plane.

Negatives

For the most part, there haven’t been too many negatives from staying home. The main one has been occasional FOMO (fear of missing out) and also not seeing some friends. This is far outweighed by the positives.

Many of the Other Positives

There have been so many other positives it would be hard to list them all, though I wanted to have some more in here.

  • Rescuing and taming three stray kittens
  • Cooking and eating meals where the food mileage is less than 1. I grew the veggies and the beef was from the next door neighbor’s cow
  • Having a regular sleep schedule
  • Being able to go to the doctor multiple times for a nagging issue (I guess a positive though the issue itself a negative)
  • Knowing my neighbors and other people in town
  • Volunteering locally
  • Still keynoting 2 conferences remotely
  • Sometimes just sitting out and watching the clouds
  • Being able to say “look that rainbow is back AGAIN!”
  • Hosting 6 guests on AirBnb
  • Being the person the various animals run over to when they need something
  • Attending a weekly class (puppy school)

It is easy to be tempted to get swept up into the travel again. The past three months where not intended to be at home, various circumstances caused it. I hope though I can weight the positives and negatives better now and not get caught up in the jetsetting. That said, I do have a trip coming up this month. I am headed to State of the Map US in Boulder, Colorado. Maybe I’ll see you there? Sadly I’ll be cowless. Remember though, you can always come visit me at home in a cow’d state.

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MBI · single meal

How’d I do on Lunch?

Sometimes eating at the Most Basic Ingredient level is simply a matter of planning ahead and preserving. Today around lunch time I was starving and thinking that we didn’t have anything quick and easy in the house. Previously  I would have just grabbed a microwave burrito, okay let’s be clear previously last week during lunch.

I had forgotten though I had defrosted some soup I made a month ago. I also already had everything bagel seasoned bread from a few days ago as well. A little toasting and reheating later, lunch! Fortunately for my future lifestyle, unfortunately for my immediate quest we are moving shortly so I can’t do a bunch more of this sort of precooking until after we move.

How do you think it looks? I can tell you it was delicious!

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MBI

Most Basic Ingredient versus Most Local Ingredient

Basic ingredients don’t have to be in opposition of local ingredients, but lately I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the value of each. Let’s look at an example, this morning for breakfast I did very well on basic ingredients, but not so well on local ingredients. I had smashed avocado on toast.  I made the bread and all the other ingredients are pretty basic. When you start look at where they came from is where the problem lies.

The bread I made contained flour, yeast, salt, water and seeds. The flour was from Bob’s Red Mill which is a company based in Portland, but I’m not quite sure where the flour is sourced. The salt certainly not local, nor the seeds. Bread making has been a recent hobby for me, next I’d like to look into locally sourcing the ingredients. The other ingredients were certainly source from nowhere near Portland. If I had to guess the pepper was probably the farthest away. I recently read Eight Flavors the Untold Story of American Cuisine. Sarah Lohman gets into the history of pepper in the US in one of the chapters, I highly recommend the entire book though I was thinking about the pepper chapter today. This is partially because Indonesia where it is native to is dear to my heart.

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Could I give up the ingredients from far away? Certainly, though it does tempt me to begin a quest to grow my own avocado tree in the PNW.

MBI

Quest for the Most Basic Ingredients

Over the past years I’ve been influenced how we as individuals and cultures interact with food by writers such as Michael Pollan and Mark Schatzker. I also have had an obsession with watching cooking shows beginning with Yan Can Cook when I was in elementary school. I could and probably should als0 write an entire other post on diets and the body positive movement (since I like to procrastinate you should at least read Lindy West’s memoir and Kelsey Miller’s Anti-Diet Project).

These influences have led me to my current project to buy the Most Basic Ingredients(MBI) possible. Often I document for myself these types of goals, but why not share this experiment with the world? Why do I call it MBI? Well I work in tech and there is an obsession with building Minimum Viable Products(MVP) in some circles. A MVP is the most basic thing you can build as a product and put out into the market place, my MBI is intended as a counterpoint to that. The most basic piece you can purchase to make food. In a world of heavily processed food as an individual I’m simply trying to get back to the basics. What is at the root of what I am eating? Not the fastest way, not even the easiest way, the most basic way.

It bears mentioning that I come from a place of a lot of privilege. I have a good job, I work remotely and I don’t have any dependents. I can afford to do some experimentation, I have the time to do it and by working from home I can do multi-step processes that require you to check-in over the course of the day.

So to start here is what I bought tonight at the local grocery.

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  • Dozen eggs
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 2 avocados
  • 1 bottle of kombucha
  • Cane sugar
  • Half & Half
  • Gallon glass jar
  • Box of black tea (not pictured, since I forgot and had to run back)

Cost: $41.23 (the jar was $15.00 so that was a big of a splurge)

I think I’ve done pretty well on the raw ingredients. In this case I consider the sugar raw (despite some refining) and classify the half & half about the same. My least raw item under my unscientific classification is the kombucha. Though the goal with some of these ingredients is to start making my own. I hope to continue sharing what I do with these sorts of purchases as I document my path to MBI. At the very least I hope to be drinking some MBI kombucha in the next month or so.