Many Hands Make Light(s) Work!

At our previous farm in Connecticut we built an appealing quintessential, old fashioned, New England post and beam barn in a Pennsylvania bank barn style (yes, our hearts were always in Pennsylvania I guess), which was authentic to the point of having no electricity and therefore no lighting.  No doubt this was very quaint and “New Englandy”, but it was also somewhat restrictive functionally, and when we needed power, we used over a hundred yards of heavy gauge extension cords or started up the generator.  But this time we mean business in all senses of the word, and so we decided that we needed light and power available in the barn.

As you observed in a previous blog, we had the power company and an electrician bring power down to the new structure underground from the transformer near the house.  And this past week we were graced by a visit from our very dear friends, Deacon Phil and Linda Hayes from Connecticut.  Deacon Hayes has an extensive history with electricity, so we tapped into his vast knowledge base and skills and worked with him to wire up the barn with lights and with power outlets.  Our children are homeschooled, and a large project like this is used as a “hands-on” shop course to supplement traditional schoolwork.  And as Deacon Phil “schooled” us in the barn, Linda took the opportunity to help out with more of the other schooling that she had assisted us (and numerous other families) with while in Connecticut.  It was just like being back there again!

Below you can see seven of the eight banks of three 4 foot long LED tube lights that illuminate the entire 60×40 foot structure.  We used LEDs partly because they use very little power, but especially since they have an active lifespan longer than ours, and the rafters are 12 feet in the air.  Not having to think about replacing them was worth the extra cost!  Additionally they are plastic vs. the glass of a fluorescent tube.  Breaking one of those on the gravel floor of the barn would be a disaster!

IMG_6795

Outside, above each garage door, we placed a set of motion sensing flood lights, so we can light up the entrances.  This will be especially useful during lambing season when we are moving ewes in and out before and after lambing, and walking to and from the barn during “the wee hours” to check on the ewes and their lambs.  These lights at the front were one of our son’s “solo” runs as electrician apprentice, since Deacon Phil and Roy were temporarilly distracted up at the house, and he used this time to wire in and mount the lights by himself!  We think he has earned an “A” for his shop “course”!

IMG_6792

Front view

The lights at the rear were our first attempt at wiring and mounting flood lights.  We figured that any mistakes out back would be learning opportunities that would be viewed by less people!  These lights were quite expensive and it surprised us that they had no electrical mounting box included, so we had to go and buy one from the local store which, incidentally, was not a good fit for the other hardware, but was eactly what they suggested in the instructions.  Imperfections were made watertight with gobs of silicone caulking!

IMG_6800

Rear view

This side view shows the lights mounted closer to the door, since there was no gable to enable them to be placed higher like on the front and back.

IMG_6803

Side view

Here is the “nerve center” of the operation containing the breaker box and the spaghetti mix of wires coming into it.

IMG_6806

In all we have 5 high end (read expensive) dual type circuit interruptor breakers (arc fault and ground fault) for the power recepticles.  We will be using these outlets to, among other things, power water heaters, and our experience has been that they can draw a lot of power.  We therefore used 20 amp breakers and 12 gauge wire and limited the outlets to one or two per breaker for those circuits.

The light circuits were less concerning as they draw much less power, and we used the more standard 15 amp breakers for those.  However, the challenge with the lights was that we wanted to have each bank of lights on a three way switch that operated from each end of the barn.  This created the necessity for running two long cables to join the switches for each set of lights.  This was a pain and expensive to say the least.  Also, working out the logistics of wiring in the three way switches so that they worked as they should, kept us entertained for about two full days!

Here is another perspective on this job:

IMG_6808

Lots of wire!

There are over 10 wire cables (each containing a power wire, return wire, ground wire and an accessory wire for the three way switches) running the full 60 foot length of the barn, not to mention a multitude of wires running back and forth to switches and lights etc.  We used over 1100 feet of wire cable (with 4 wires each) meaning amost 4/5 of a mile of wire to complete this project.  Note that this is all “Romex” cable which is PVC covered wire (2 or three insulated wires as well as a ground wire) in order to meet or exceed the code requiring extra covering for the wires.

Below is a view of the “people door” and adjacent breaker box beside the staging used to access the ceiling rafters in relative comfort – compared with being balanced on a step ladder that is!  A HUGE note of thanks to a most awesome neighbor who graciously allowed us to use this staging for the week.  Thank you, Bob!  Note also that the staging marks the approximate position of the small 10×10 foot insulated room we will build as a place for a space heater, a small refrigerator for vaccines and medicines, a desk and filing system and a warm refuge for the more fragile lambs and humans!  I foresee a cot set up in here some nights!

IMG_6809

Staging in the area of the future room

So, now we have a barn with lighting and power (water will have to wait and will be another story)!

We will next change tack and begin building a moveable hen house for our layers.  Below is the lumber and some hardware we will use for this project.

IMG_6807

Next project!

Differing from what we did in Connecticut, we intend to build a light moveable coop so that we can change location every few days and provide the girls a predator-protected home.  This will benefit the hens by giving them safe access to fresh pasture regularly, and us by putting the manure directly on the pasture as fertlizer, saving us the labor of cleaning out manure from a stationary coop and composting it and spreading it.  More on this in a future blog.

And so as we bid farewell to our friends and mentors Deacon Phil and Linda Hayes from our well-lit barn, we look forward to seeing them again soon in the spring or summer.

Build it and they will come!

The title, as some of you might recognize, is a misquote from the famous 1989 Movie Field of Dreams where the lead charater, played by Kevin Costner, hears a voice say, as he stares off into his cornfield, “If you build it, he will come.”  In our case, we are gazing into our meadows and referring to our future flock of sheep, not any ghosts from the past!

Barn building, as you see, is proceeding rapidly, despite sub-zero temperatures, snow, and now, as the ground warms up, a bountious and incredibly tacky layer of mud and boot-clinging clay.  Much kudos is due to our tireless builders who persevere despite all of the above that Old Man Winter has been hurling at them.  I am NOT a cold weather person, having been brought up in the tropics of Australia, and am in awe of those who shrug off frozen extremities and potential frostbite without complaining!

Below you can see our intrepid building team installing the metal roof.  We hope to harvest rainwater from this in the future to supply the barn with water. According to data from the internet, we can collect many tens of thousands of gallons from a roof of this size should we have sufficient storage capacity.

IMG_9457

As well as three large doors for vehicle and stock use, we also have a smaller “people door” installed so that we can access or egress easily.  Behind this door we will build a heatable office/sleeping quarters/storage room/sheep NICU!

IMG_9535

Well, roof installed, large doors in and now they are making a platform for the cupola that the builder has fabricated, that will transform this large shed into a bona fide barn!  Apart from aesthetics, a cupola actually has a function, working as a large roof vent, keeping the barn well ventilated.  This will be important when we have a lot of animals inside, such as during lambing season, though this may require supplemental fans at some point.  Note also the tranlucent sheets spaced evenly across the roof to allow natural light into the barn and decrease the need for electric illumination.

IMG_9570

Something that we did not have in our previous barn was electric power.  We dealt with this in a variety of ways, using gas generators and bringing power by heavy extension cords from almost 200 yards away.  But this time we promised ourselves that we would have power installed, as you see below.

IMG_9537

Running conduit to the junction box

And although we will have the power company and local electrician install the major facets of the system in the barn, we are intending to have a very good friend and retired electrician (also a Deacon, ex-submarine commander, builder, and overall nice guy!) help us to plan the majority of lighting and electrical outlet placement within the structure.

IMG_9539

Electrical conduit ready for wiring

This inside view gives a nice impression of how well the roof and window lighting works.  There is lots of space now, but I imagine this will fill up rapidly!

IMG_9543

Lots of room…for now!

Here is a time-lapse of the installation of the cupola today!

Cupola installed!  As you can see, it gives a nice agrarian feel to the structure.  Zooming in, the second picture shows the weathervane adorned with a ewe and her lamb!

IMG_9578

fullsizeoutput_6a8

And until our flock of sheep arrives, our adopted herd of deer (viewed indistinctly below from our front door) continue to enjoy the pastures, even under quite a few inches of snow.  In fact this model of ruminants grazing pastures in the snow will be a model to emulate as we attempt to continue to pasture sheep on the fields for as much of the winter as we can.

IMG_9420

Our first pastured herd!

And finally, I leave you with a distant view of the house at the top of our hill in the midst of our pastures, taken from an adjacent property on an even higher hill!  We thought that we had a good view of the adjacent Laurel Ridge and Ligonier Valley, but this view really “takes the cake”!

27046368_1955653934701233_1542292024_o (1)

Year-End Activities Preface the New Year’s Beginnings!

Some people find that endings are sad.  Think about the words we use. “It’s done!  Finished!  No more!”

For some, these words give the feeling of a loss of something which will leave a gap; but the space left by an ending is usually filled with the excitement of a new beginning.

As we round out the year here, we have gone through many endings, such as the sale of our farm in Connecticut and Roy leaving his career that started before we were married.  The loss of our old life in Connecticut has made way for the wonder and thrill of beginning a new life in Pennsylvania.  And of course as Christians, we mark the end of the year with Christmas, celebrating the birth of the Christ, the ultimate new beginning!

Farming is filled with many opportunities to see this cycle of endings and beginnings.  The photograph below shows our wonderful neighbor Steve mowing our hilly pasture so that the grass can begin to grow again in the spring with fresh new growth.  Mowing the pasture produces decaying mulch that eventually adds new topsoil, and the rootlets dying back under the soil leave capillary spaces that will soak up the water in spring like a sponge, encouraging new growth to burst forth.

Soon we hope to be able to produce these results with sheep slowly grazing the pasture, rather than having to burn all that diesel to make way for the spring.  This cycle of endings making way for new beginnings, the loss of the old supporting a new beginning, is the way of nature, the way that God designed it.  And it IS good!

tractor small

And speaking of new, we showed you the start of the new barn in the previous blog.  Things have advanced significantly in a very short time, assisted by new ways of doing things.  Below you can see the placement of preformed rafters creating a roof structure in about 3 hours!  With the crane mounted on the front of the trailer, this process takes a fraction of the time it used to take.

roof small

And here, the first pieces of siding are placed on the wall.  Bear in mind that it is currently about 16 degrees with a 15 mph wind, so we are in awe of the builders who are braving these inclement conditions to contiue erecting our barn.  It was tough enough to go outside and take these pictures, let alone spend a day working out there.  Their laconic understatement was only, “Things would probably go a bit quicker if it was a bit warmer!”

barn snow small

One thing that doesn’t change around here is the beauty of God’s creation.  The starkness of the winter landscape we know now will give way to the freshness of the burgeoning spring, and a magnificent sunset like this will lead to a wonderful new day.

sunset small

The old adage “God is in His Heaven and it is good” is certainly true and is worthwhile meditating upon in this season where things look cold and stark and dead, because we know what is really happening.  And it really is good.

We at Morning Star Meadows Farm hope that you had a wonderful Christmas and wish you a happy and exciting New Year!

Breaking ground!

What is a farm without a barn?  It is a place with a very cluttered basement and garage, with machinery rusting in fields.  In addition to general storage, barns also provide for storage of fodder and temporary shelter for livestock in difficult conditions or when lambing/calving etc.  So although farmers generally try to minimize capital outlay, the purse strings will usually be loosened somewhat in order to put up a barn.  Since this property was not used as a farm in recent history, there is no barn (also no fences or other infrastructure either, but we’ve dealt with that in a previous blog or two), a situation that we are remedying.

Below is the eastward view from the bottom of the driveway, with the corner of the fence visible at the edge.

IMG_5141

We engaged the services of Justin Matson, a very experienced contractor in the local area who is also a successful farmer and understands agricultural needs.  He recently put up a similar sized shed/barn on his own property as part of his construction business, which we went to see, which convinced us that he should do the same for us!  Justin doesn’t have a website, as he relies on word of mouth for his business.  So if anyone needs something built in southwestern Pennsylvania, from houses to sheds and barns, let us put you in contact with him!

He brought a bulldozer and track-steer the day before starting work, and we were wondering how he was going to negotiate the tight driveway turns.  But such considerations are never an issue for an experienced bulldozer operator.  He simply drove straight through a barrier of dense trees and briars without any impediment!

IMG_5147

Here again is the eastward view after the attention of that bulldozer for a couple of hours.  Although the site for the barn is fairly flat, there is a substantial amount of earth that still needs to be moved to ensure it is all level, and appropriate drainage is in place, etc..

IMG_8970

This is a view looking north from the top of the driveway near the house, a good 100 yards from the barn site.  This will be a path well trodden by us during lambing season as we go to and from the barn day and night!

It is always surprising how much land needs to be cleared when building something like this!

IMG_8975

And finally, after the ground is cleared of topsoil, a firm, flat covering of shale is used to help form the foundation of the “apron” of the barn leading into one of the three garage doors (and one standard door) which will be used for access and egress.  A similar foundation is to be used for the barn flooring, and we understand that over 6 large dump trucks of the material will be needed in all.

IMG_8982

As I type, a load of lumber is being delivered at the bottom of our driveway!  Building will commence soon!  God bless these guys for persevering today in 15 degree weather.  I don’t even want to think what the wind chill is!

Stay tuned for further photographic updates as we proceed with erection of what will become a major feature of Morning Star Meadows Farm in the future!

Good neighbors

Towards the end of summer I was out with our little ride-on mower, mowing the perimeter of our property.  I also was taking it down a couple of hills, trying to cut some cross paths here and there for fun.  As I came across a hill, I was nearing our perimeter, and there was one of our neighbors on his much more powerful and solid, double rear wheeled tractor with a large pull-behind mower.  I smiled and we both shut down our vastly different mowers so that we could have a conversation.

He introduced himself and said that he felt badly that I was struggling to mow, and so he had started up his tractor to help us out and had already started mowing the perimeter to assist me while I was out there with my piddly mower that would have gotten stuck in the dense pasture if I had ventured out too far into it!

Steve had mowed our property for years before we arrived, so it was all familiar territory to him – with its dips and steep hills.  We talked for at least 30 minutes about everything from hunting to getting back to a time when our lives weren’t so connected and controlled by cell phones and social media…a time when neighbors were outside like we were right then – bumping into each other as they worked or recreated on their properties.  We knew we had a lot in common from that point of view.

That day he generously offered to mow the property any time we needed some help.  We had intended (and still do) to get a more substantial and safer walk-behind mower, but for the time being, mowing the pasture didn’t seem like a big priority, so I thanked him profusely and said that if he still wanted to help that day, I would greatly appreciate his mowing a couple of paths across the back of our property for the time being.  He graciously complied, and we followed up with an evening delivery of homemade cookies to his door later that day!

After our visit with the Dougherty’s in Ohio, we came to the conclusion that mowing the property might not be such a bad idea after all.  Allowing the pasture to go fallow for too long without animals would allow for some less desirable plants to try to take over.  We knew it would be a while before we would have enough livestock to graze all of this land.  Mowing would somewhat mimic the presence of animals to the best extent could at this stage – cutting the seed heads, putting down green manure, pressing the seeds into the soil by the weight of the tractor wheels.  PLUS it had the added benefit of allowing us to see what lay beneath that lush growth – the lay of the land, the steepness of some of the hills (!), and the location of springs and seeps that we hope to develop as we build up the farm.  We walked a bowl of homemade stew over to Steve one evening and told him we’d like to hire him, and he was over getting started before long!

IMG_5143

Steve has been working hard, and Roy and I were excited to go out and explore the other day.

IMG_5158

We found a great spring on the side of the hill below the house that can be developed to supply animals on the upper half of the back of the property, and another incredible spring near the grotto at the lower part of the property.  We’ve pretty much identified springs and seeps in all 4 corners of the lot.

IMG_5154

Soon the property will all be mowed, and we will anxiously await the greening up of the pastures next spring.  And as an added plus, the kids are happy that they have almost endless hills for sledding this winter!

They say good neighbors are hard to come by, but we have been blessed by some true gems!

From the news room…

Just heard that the township has issued a permit for our barn construction!  Digging will commence as soon as the utility companies do their checking for underground wires!  So excited to be making this place our farm!  What an awesome Christmas present!

A Visit

Before Thanksgiving we were blessed to be able to visit the Dougherty’s, a farming and homesteading family in southeastern Ohio, with whom we became acquainted when they spoke at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania.  Beth and Shawn are wonderful, knowledgable, and generous folk, of whom we have spoken before in this blog, and luckily for the world of farming have produced a wonderful book The Independent Farmstead.  Having enthusiastically devoured this excellent tome, we were wondering if we could make a visit, since they live only about 2 1/2 hours drive away from us.  We were especially interested in how they handle springs and seeps, since we have been made aware that we will depend on these for the water supply on our farm (see previous blog).

The visit surpassed our expectations, both on how welcoming they were, and in how brilliantly they have adapted multiple strategies to harvest that resource so critical to all our lives.

Below was the first thing we saw on our tour. A small spring exits the hillside and is captured in a large pipe.  What Shawn and Beth have done is to drop a 55 gallon drum cut in half just below it and plumb in a spigot that feeds a hose, which supplies a lot of the water for their garden and animals close to the house.

IMG_4724

The next fascinating invention was where the water from a seep on their hillside is collected by buried curtain drain pipe that is simply dug into the hill where there was a damp spot.  It is angled into a collecting pipe and drips into a reservoir from which another buried pipe fills this small cistern from the bottom. Water is available for use from the pipe in the center, which allows sediment to collect at the bottom, resulting in pristine pure and delicious water for ducks, pigs and sheep! Brilliant!

IMG_4730

Below are the ubiquitous storage vessels where the wondrous liquid is stored after harvesting from the earth.  These are called “IBCs” (Intermediate Bulk Containers) and are used by any industry needing to transport large volumes of liquid.  They are everywhere on the Dougherty’s farm and will soon be a common site on ours!

IMG_4750

An added bonus to our visit was the interesting layer-hen “tractor” constructed of electrical metal conduit and 1×6 beams covered with plastic.  This is very cheap and light so it will be easy to move around the fields giving continual access to fresh green grass, herbs and weeds and protection from predators. We are sure that some version of this will soon grace our own fields.

IMG_4740

Finally, we helped Beth and Shawn move some cattle onto fresh pasture.  this is accomplished quickly and easily using push-in posts and some electric twine.

IMG_4762 2

So, pumped up with new information and enthusiasm, we came back to our farm ready to employ some of these techniques to access water for livestock and vegetables.  We are very grateful to the Dougherty’s for allowing us to visit them, to spend so much time with us, and even to provide lunch harvested from their farm, complete with homemade cheese!  They are real, down to earth (ever wonder where that phrase originates – obviously from describing farmers!) farmers who learned these things over many years and have developed tried and tested means to harvest both food and water from difficult terrain.  We recommend their book to anyone who farms and if you are able to visit, you will find them to be gracious, generous, delightful people who will share their knowledge and time selflessly.  We have gained a lot of knowledge, and we hope, some lifelong friends in the process.