Fencing: not the swashbuckling kind!

One of the fundamental requirements for farming is the necessity for keeping livestock in and other animals, particularly preditors, out.  Kind of a simple proposition really, and one that is often glossed over with discussions about the other requirements for raising livestock.  “We’ll put fences there…. Let’s make a paddock here….. We’ll rotate the ewes through here in winter and put the rams in there”.  Grandiose statements, and necessary ones for sure.  But the rubber hits the road, or perhaps more appropriately the shovel hits the dirt, when you are faced with a perimeter of almost a mile and the pretty drawings you have made about how you will divide up the pasture into workable paddocks.  Then reality sets in and you remember with some fondness the tractor and auger that we had previously and which did NOT make it to Pennsylvania.  At this point you regard the steel bar and manual posthole digger with more than a little trepidation, and begin to wonder if we should buy stock in whomever manufactures painkiller pills!

The photograph below illustrates these grand plans, created with unrestrained enthusiasm borne of equal parts ebullience, anticipation and ignorance.

markup of satellite image

So after a little research and thinking about what we did on the previous farm (of happy memory) in Connecticut, we settled on a fence of 6 strands of high tensile 12.5 guage wire stretched to approximately 250 lb tension between heavy corner posts with a series of other posts to make up the intermediate space.  Heavy “H-braces” are supporting the 6 wires, and we are using wooden posts at curves and deep dips for the same reason.  A combined tension of about 3/4 of a ton is nothing to take lightly!

One interesting feature of this fence was the “new fangled” Pasture Pro composite line posts (From Kencove Farm Fence Supplies) which are the thin white ones that you can hopefully make out in the pictures below.  These are very lightweight and flexible, but they are enormously strong vertically.  So as long as they are there to separate the strands, and not have to support any curves in the fence line, they seemed to be worth trying out, as they are fairly easy to put in and are completely resistant to electric current, making any “grounding out” of the fence charge on line posts a thing of the past!  Time will tell if this experiment was a success or failure.


So, having put in the posts around the house and down the driveway, we are currently about 1/10 done – and that is just the perimeter fence line!!  Still, as I just said to our neighbor, it is the journey that counts in farming.  If you always want to reach the destination, you will always be disappointed.  Farming is a job that has no end, and for that we are thankful.

In that regard, please note the patch of bare earth adjacent to one of the gates we put into the fence line.  We have planted our garlic to over-winter there, hopefully to be the first fruits of the new Morning Star Meadows Farm.  And on the same theme, as well as completing the other 9/10ths of the perimeter fences, we have to do all the interior fences,  sort out a watering/irrigation system, build a chicken coop, plow the rest of the garden, plant an orchard, buy our starter flock, and a myriad of other things that are all ongoing, like continuing to home school the brood and support our son who will be moving to Washington DC soon and 2 daughters in college for nursing!

So, as you see, things are rarely boring here on the farm, and if you are interested, we’ll continue to show you our progress.  If you are in the neighborhood, drop in – “take yer shoes off and set a spell.”  And if you feel like skipping the local gym and getting the workout of a lifetime, I am sure we can fullfill your desires!

Well, when we left you last week, we were lamenting the fact that our pastures were dotted with poisonous hemp dogbane.  So you can imagine our surprise when we arrived for the talk we most eagerly awaited at the Mother Earth News Fair last weekend and heard, before the talk began, one of the speakers quietly talking about dogbane to the person sitting in front of us!  We were all ears, trying to listen to their conversation, dying to interrupt and say, “We have dogbane!  What can we do about it before our sheep arrive?!  Surely they will all eat it and die!”  And then we heard music to our ears.  Apparently Penn State issued a bulletin last year saying that dogbane is not as toxic as it was once believed to be – that apparently someone mistook it years and years ago for the highly toxic plant (that doesn’t even grow in PA as far as we know!) oleander, and its bad reputation stuck, and that was that!

Previous agricultural publications about hemp dogbane made it a serious “bad guy” for your pastures, advising farmers to spray broadleaf weed killers of various types liberally and often to destroy this weed wherever it was growing.  This was a big oopsie for the extension service!

Our speakers, Shawn and Beth Dougherty, were surprised to find out that hemp dogbane was declared to be so toxic, considering their mob-grazed Dexter cattle had been eating it for years with no ill effect.  They then discovered this 2016 bulletin, and things began to make sense again.  Now here’s the kicker.  Beth and Shawn quote the bulletin on their blog, and others quote from it on forums online, but click the link they provide on their blog, that was active at the time they included it, and you get a website for Penn State Extension service that no longer has a TRACE of information about dogbane on it!  We are not sure of the cause of that article’s disappearance from the web, but that being said, I am waiting to hear from Beth who intends to speak with her contacts at Penn State to get to the bottom of this mystery!


So we started off our time with the Dougherty’s on the right foot!  We were so happy that we now wouldn’t have to hire in a weed spraying company to search out and destroy all of the dogbane, of course taking with it innocent broadleaf weeds that would be excellent fodder for our sheep.  The pollinators on our property will be happy, too, as dogbane is a favorite of theirs!  By the end of our time with the Dougherty’s we found out that not only did we have the same farming practice beliefs in common, but we also have the same number of children and the same Christian beliefs!  Of COURSE we bought their new book!

Take home points for us from the Dougherty’s talk on intensive rotational grazing were mostly confirming our desire to mob graze our sheep, stockpile pasture, and to now worry less about the weeds and pastures!  We learned that by intensively grazing the sheep, we will heal and improve the pastures.  We also learned more about making use of springs and seepage on our land to provide water for the animals.  By their 20 plus years of experience shared in the talk and in their book, we can hopefully get a jump start on things here and avoid mistakes that would otherwise slow us down!

We also attended talks on the farm business side of things.  A very good attorney from the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund gave excellent advice on what we will need to know to start a farm business here in PA.  Hers seems like an excellent and necessary organization to be part of in these days where small farmers and businesses are under incredible pressure and scrutiny by the state and federal government.

Later in the week we attended a “pasture walk” at a local cattle farm that also practices mob grazing with their Red Devon cattle.  They, too, have been practicing this intensive rotational grazing for 20 plus years, and have converted a conventionally farmed property into lush and healthy pastures with beautiful healthy animals!

We feel so blessed that we have been able to learn from these farmers’ years of experience.  The results of their “experiments” with this relatively new way to graze ruminants (compared with simply grazing the cattle out in a big pasture with little or no rotation), is further support for us to use mob grazing with our future sheep flock!

So what does all of this mean at this stage of the game?  We don’t even have any livestock!  Now that the power company has mapped out the underground electric cables running through the front yard, Roy took time to put up snow marker posts around the homestead to mark where our fence posts will go.

IMG_8576       IMG_8575       IMG_8577

He’s also drawn a diagram of the property, roughly noting location of the fence lines that will eventually go up to provide the easiest way to break up our land into many small grazing strips.  The “spokes” of the wheel will be further divided across from side to side into grazing strips with temporary electric fencing.  Gates will be strategically located for access to pastures from the homestead and from points around the perimeter of the property.


Each grazing strip will provide a day of grazing for the “mob.”

Today while Roy took the family to a hunter safety course, I was able to mow the one mile perimeter of the property.  Blue and I took a stroll around on the newly mown path after that, and when Roy got home we did our own Morning Star Meadows pasture walk!  Luckily we didn’t encounter the bear we were warned about!  We are really getting a feel for the lay of the land, the predominant pasture growth on various parts of the property, the patches of plants indicating potential for springs and seepage, and just overall how great the meadows of Morning Star Meadows really are!  And now we know how much greater they can become as we begin to care for them!

I think I’ve kept you long enough for this week!  Let the fence building begin!

An Eventful Week!

This is Roy writing the blog this time.  I wanted to add my $0.02 at the beginning of this adventure in Pennsylvania, although in full disclosure, there are numerous spousal additions and improvements to my somewhat pedestrian penmanship!

Beginnings are often fraught with discoveries, excitement and starting new things.  This week was no different at Morning Star Meadows Farm, as we shifted our focus away from the tedium of unpacking and more towards turning this beautiful acreage into a productive farm.

Luckily, we have one of the world’s foremost fencing companies close by, and today took a trip over to their warehouse and began accumulating the posts, wires, spacers and the other requisite paraphernalia necessary to initiate our first major project ….. fencing our farm!  Although we have put up a lot of fencing in Connecticut, as those who have followed us previously on this blog can attest to, this place will take it to a whole new level with the perimeter boundary fence alone totaling almost a mile, and internal dividing fences likely to amount to a lot more!


And just to confirm our concern about the necessity of our fencing being secure enough to  protect our stock as well as to contain them,  driving home from shopping a couple days ago we were astounded to see a large black bear bounding across the road about 35 yards in front of the van!  It was so quick and agile as it slithered under the roadside guard rail, making us very aware of how much we need to protect animals (and humans!) on the farm.


The other major (and a little bit scary) discovery we made while cruising around the pastures on the UTV was that our fields, from a distance, pure and verdant, upon closer inspection (with a bit of Googled plant identification) is rampant with toxic plants!  We have a very toxic weed called dogbane (a hemp plant that would be great if we needed to make rope, and would be awesome if we had an apiary, as pollinators love the flowers, but gets its name because it poisoned dogs!) as well as enough milkweed to feed Pennsylvania’s entire population of monarch butterflies!


Incidentally, and as an aside, I have always thought that the person who named “butterflies” was dyslexic.  Butterflies do not look like flies (although they do fly), and they have little to do with, as far as I can tell, in appearance, smell, or predilection towards, butter!  So my contention is that our naming expert really intended to call them “Flutter-byes”, as I contend that this is much more apt name, that actually has some relationship with their penchant for “fluttering by”…. but I digress!

So, now we have to find out how to rid ourselves of these toxic plants without disrupting the growth of all the other lush, safe-to-eat plants already there.

And in addition to these adventures and discoveries, we are trying to fall into a rhythm at the homestead.

Firstly, we had our struggle to get enough water.  After a great deal of time, patience, and $$, we now have a much deeper well and 3 cisterns in our basement to provide for the water demand of our family.

Our family’s wifi demand is still unmet, with rural DSL being extremely slow and unreliable!  I guess Verizon figures us country folk don’t need true high speed internet, so they run the signal way out to the boonies on copper until there is only a trickle of internet coming into our modem.

The boys and I began to erect an Amish style clothesline so that we don’t have to burn through electricity to achieve what God already provided for with all the lovely sunny and breezy days we are experiencing.  Although it sounds nice and tame, this is no tidy suburban clothesline!  This is a 125 foot line spanning two 12 foot posts sunk four feet into the shale and clay of the Pennsylvania hills!  We will wait to post photos of this until completion, and perhaps until the recovery of myself and three of our boys, who are now using muscles not tested for a few months, but will need to be honed for the upcoming fence work.

All in all, though, we are all feeling more at home.  The sauerkraut is fermenting in the crock, its frequent “burping” providing a familiar background sound intermixed with the chime of the old clock, running once again after a lengthy time in storage.  We have had our first real dinner party – only one guest, but it still counts!  School is humming along for the children at full speed.  And there is also a continuing education for Robin and me as this weekend we will be attending (after a Saturday morning stop for freshly made Amish donuts just down the street from our house!) the Mother Earth News Fair at a nearby conference center, and next week will be doing a pasture walk at a nearby cattle farm with the county conservation district people.  Lots of learning and networking, planning and hard work.  The awesome beginnings of something great!

And so it begins…again!

Well today was a very fun and exciting day for Morning Star Meadows Farm! Roy and I attended a one day workshop focused on raising and marketing sheep and goats run by Penn State University.  Luckily we only had to drive about 40 minutes to the venue – a sheep farm that dates back to the late 50’s. While much of the material covered included things we already knew, we were able to network with people and get a feel for shepherding in southwestern PA.  For example, we found out that the Amish will do a great job building our barn, and that killing weeds with a propane torch along the fence line could be a new, fun, and probably somewhat dangerous hobby for the boys!

The MOST exciting thing that we learned more about, though, is that this area just received what amounts to a $3.5 million dollar grant to help reclaim areas impacted by the coal industry into agriculture. With the work they have done thus far, they are realizing that there is a real need for more lamb in this area, and they would like to spend the next 3 years helping new shepherds get going with their farms to hopefully double the amount of lamb available, connecting consumers to farmers, farmers to farmers, farmers to slaughterhouses and meat cutters, and in the process, taking care not to flood the market and depress prices. This is coming at just the right time for us prior to our setting up our infrastructure here.  It also helps confirm our decision to raise sheep again – but on a larger scale this time around!

Today was also fun because last evening this toy tool was delivered to us,


and when we got home from the workshop, we were able to take a ride or 2 or 3 or 4 around the property!

Now we can get down to doing some serious work around the farm before the snow starts flying!

What a different perspective we had of the property as we buzzed around at the bottom of the hill out back!

The amount of pasture is truly awesome, and we can hardly wait to have it dotted with sheep!  As for now it is regularly dotted with deer!!


Our next few weeks will be spent acquiring fencing materials from an excellent fencing company that just happens to have its roots and main headquarters about 20 minutes from here!  That will save us a lot just on shipping charges alone!  Roy has already planned out the fencing pattern, and soon enough he will be digging in posts and we will see what it is like to work with soil that isn’t full of rocks like back in North Stonington!

The first fence line will go around the homestead.  That will keep Blue from wandering back down to the neighbors he already introduced himself to within a day of moving in!  The next fence line will go around the perimeter of the property, which from our calculations will amount to about a mile of fencing!  Once that is in place, we will run fences radially from the top to the bottom like spokes in a wheel.  Those areas will then be further divided with temporary fencing to provide small grazing areas.

Our goal for our farm will be to intensively graze the sheep for short periods in small areas, moving them to new areas on a daily basis during the pasture’s growing season.  This farming practice is referred to as mob grazing, and it is good for the animals as well as the pasture.  Our lambs will be grass fed and finished, so pasture health will be of utmost importance to us.

We also plan to stockpile pasture, saving pasture for winter grazing vs. cutting it and storing it as hay.  This will save us on haymaking equipment, and we will just buy enough hay to cover the coldest, snowiest months of the year only.

And so we begin the next chapter of our farming adventure!  We hope you will enjoy keeping up with our story!

Auld lang syne

Times gone by…

It sure has been a while since I have added to this blog. I truly blame my oldest son who, years ago, urged me to join Facebook. Sadly, I guess, Facebook “became” my blogging outlet, leaving a huge gap of time here on WordPress. Be that as it may, I felt it would be fitting to add a closing entry to this Connecticut chapter of Morning Star Meadows’ existence.

Our life here for the past 20 plus years in Connecticut has been amazing! We arrived in 1996 with 2 children, a boy and a girl, living on less than an acre in an upscale development. We totally fit the mold for the American New England family!

However we soon began to diverge from the norm when we surpassed 3 children, and move with the 4th to nearly 3 acres. It was a bit more elbow room – a garden was started, and a wood stove added – but we were still missing something – still not countercultural enough! And for goodness sake – a dog and a cat just weren’t enough for us!

Roy continually told the kids, “If I win the lottery, we’ll buy a farm!” The lottery was never won, but the itch to farm and have sheep was desperately in need of scratching. A minimum of 3 acres was needed to have livestock in that town, and no one would sell us adjacent land. We started looking as numbers 5, 6 and 7 (the twins) and 8 arrived. If nothing else, we were running out of bedrooms!

This beautiful property was on our radar screen, but the price was originally too high. Miraculously, though, it eventually dropped into (the top of) our price range one day. We drove out to see it and fell in love with North Stonington and our beautiful street, Wyassup Rd. A lake within walking distance! A huge state forest in the back yard! And over 15 acres! When we first viewed the home, we truly believed it had been built for us.

Negotiations went on for a while, and we finally were able to sell our home and buy this glorious place! The hard work of clearing the land began. And finally, our first livestock arrived!

I absolutely LOVE looking back at photos of our earliest years of farming. I just can’t believe how young the kids were (the children, not the goats!) At the time we had no idea what this would all turn into, but we dreamed, and we dreamed big!

Fences went up – small barns were built – chickens arrived – and then it was time to build THE barn! While our old neighbors in the upper market development where we first lived were putting in in-ground pools for their 2 kids, we were spending the money building a genuine post and beam barn that we figured would outlive all 10 of us!

You know the rest of the story – we built up a wonderful hobby farm here in North Stonington, raising our own food, providing our own fuel for heat, and raising sheep for wool. Our idea of making this a business turned into just enjoying what we had and learning from it, not intending to earn a livelihood in the process – but instead invaluable life lessons were learned by us all – way more valuable than dollars and cents.

I wouldn’t trade a minute of our life here these past 8 plus years for any other family’s situation. We have truly been blessed.

However these past few years here have also shown me clearly that nothing stays the same. For instance my fairly regular blogging here really took a nose dive when my father became very ill. As an only child, as well as being a mother, wife, and hobby farmer, writing took a back seat. I was traveling quite a bit to and from my hometown in Pennsylvania to be with my parents. Our farming, and especially our shepherding, also had to be scaled back. I knew that lambing season would be too much for us with me doing all of this traveling (I was getting to know the Amtrak conductors and Red Caps way too well!) Slowly our flock was dispersing to new and wonderful homes.

After my father’s passing, and autumn was approaching, I was getting excited about breeding the sheep again, but Roy reminded me that things in his corporate world also were changing. Remember what I said – nothing stays the same. After 20 years in the company, dodging many bullets with restructuring, Roy felt that his job was more at risk than ever. More uncertainty – more reason to curtail our farming. We began to focus on the gardens, and I had more time to spin some yarn. We watched and waited.

In our free time we started to pull back on projects and dreams of our future here at our farm in Connecticut, realizing full well that our hopes of staying here into our golden years may not come to fruition. We now had an eagerness to head to Pennsylvania. Our oldest daughters were going there in the fall for nursing school, and we wanted to be close to my mother and them. We turned our efforts into erasing the wear and tear done by 8 years of farm living by a family of 10 in this beautiful farmhouse. After so many years of working hard to make this place “ours,” we found ourselves working hard to make it someone else’s. Nothing stays the same.

And so we come to 2017. Roy’s job has been eliminated in a global restructuring of the company, and he has decided to take this opportunity to move on with our family to the next chapter of our life.

In a little over a week, Morning Star Meadows will be for sale. I write that with some sadness, but a sadness that is filled with much hope for the future of our family. We will need a lot of prayer and trust in God to get us through this time, but I know full well that He has a plan for us (just wish He’d let me in on some of the details!) Ultimately our home will sell and we will settle somewhere wonderful in southwestern Pennsylvania. Mom may have a house full of lively Kerlins for a time until God finds our new farm (or she kicks us out!), but we trust that He will come through for us if we turn all to His glory!
Nothing stays the same…but the best is yet to come!

A new kitchen toy review

You would think that after cooking for all of these years I would know about most of the kitchen gadgets that are out there by now.  I’ve found that over the years you just have certain “go to” items in the kitchen, and many of those gadgets you bought on an impulse and thought you couldn’t live without end up pushed to the back of the drawer or cabinet and were only a passing fad.

So I hope, then, that my latest discovery becomes a good friend in the kitchen.  With over 200 heads of garlic curing in our basement, I know that I will need a quick and easy way to use garlic this year.imageWith garlic I sometimes just find it a bother to peel and prep it for a recipe when I’m in a hurry.  But, as an Italian, fresh garlic is a staple, and “garlic in a jar” or “garlic powder” or “garlic salt” just have no business being in my recipes!

Enter…my new garlic toy.  I discovered a version of this gadget at our neighbors’ home when we were there for dinner.  Not only does it slice the garlic in thin wafers for recipes, but it also stores the unused cloves for the future.  Awesome!imageYou just take the top off, drop the garlic in, replace the top and start twisting it.  The shaved garlic comes out the bottom:imageAnd drops right into your recipe.imageA plastic cap covers the bottom when not in use and the whole thing can go into the fridge until next time!  I got this item on Amazon – I like the brand I ended up with -seems durable and the blades are sharp.imageAnd one of our first uses was to add more garlic to those pickles from the last post!

Pickle Update:  They are awesome, and were ready to eat in less than 2 weeks!  I’ve since taken a jar of them out of the crock and put them in the fridge for convenience (and chilled pickles taste better.)  They are flavorful and crunchy!  And we’ve continued to add more cukes to the crock!  So convenient!