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!

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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The Kerlin family and critters wish all of you a very blessed Thanksgiving, full of joy and love and thankfulness!

There are so many people suffering silently and alone in the world.  As we enjoy ourselves with food, family and friendship, we remember those who will go without these blessings this holiday – those who are poor, homeless, grieving the loss of a loved one, those with no family.

Count your blessings, however little they may be.  There may always seem to be someone who has “more” than you in the eyes of the world, but there are many more who have much less.

When it rains, it pours!

Do you remember in our last post that we outlined the necessity for a good fencing system on a farm?  Well (remember this word, “well,” as it encompasses the subject of the current blog), there are a few things even more essential to the farmer than a good fence, important though it be!  One of these is a supply of drinking water, both for animals and for the humans caring for them.

Our saga began towards the end of a long dry spell here in western Pennsylvania.  We have a very low producing well on this property, and despite digging down another 250 feet after we moved in, it would still only give us a renewal rate of about 1/2 to 1 gallon per minute.  Still if we were careful, (after the installation of 3 large cisterns in the basement for a water reservoir) we decided that would still be enough for us and the future 100-150 sheep we were expecting to raise here.  Sheep, after all, only use about 2 gallons of water a day – they are actually considered desert animals (and thankfully they don’t shower or do laundry.)  All seemed to be going along swimmingly (if you’ll excuse the use of this word in the current situation), until Roy noticed that the cisterns were down to 75% capacity, and each day they were lower until they reached 25%, and we decided that we had a crisis on our hands.

So, with much dismay we began looking into the cost of buying about 1000 gallons of potable water to be delivered for our use.  But also we realised that our dream of developing a commercially viable sheep farm was quickly disappearing down the proverbial gurgler!  I mean it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that no water = no animals.  Contact with our local well guy brought us no relief as he told us that wells were drying up all over the area, and that many wells will take months or years to recover!  At our wits’ end and not knowing where else to turn, we asked a very good friend of ours, who just happens to be a member of the clergy (Deacon Phil, to be precise) to bless our well with Holy water.  Just the fact that he and his wife happened to be here visiting us and helping around the homestead and farm that week was a miracle in itself!  We then began a daily novena prayer asking for the intercession of St. Bernadette of Lourdes.  Some of you may know of St. Bernadette, a poor peasant girl who discovered a huge spring of water while experiencing an apparition of Mary, the Mother of God in Lourdes, France.

Now, do NOT tell us that miracles don’t happen, or that God does not hear prayers.  The day after our prayers began, we had a good soaking rain and the water level in the cisterns began to steadily rise.  It seems that our well must be drawing from water capillaries that are fairly shallow.  That may put us at the mercy of the weather, but overall (notwithstanding the previous unusually dry months leading up to this crisis) the rainfall and snowfall in this area is abundant and steady, so it appears to be more of a blessing than otherwise.

But wait, there’s more (states the infomercial)!…

The other thing that became apparent is that the downspouts from the roof gutters fed into a common drain which went underground and drained into the adjacent field.  We had noticed that there was a  3 inch PVC pipe just breaking the surface in the yard feeding into a perforated drain that continued underground down hill.  During the rain the water was actually gushing through this junction, and we realised that we could simply attach a pipe here and feed this into a water capture cistern that could be used for animals or even garden watering.  The previous owner’s attention to detail, preventing water problems in the foundation, became an opportinity to capture the huge amount of water coming off the roof.  What a find!

That same day we noticed the well to be recovering, we invited the previous owner here to drive around the property with us.  He showed us a small grotto, hemmed in with briars, rocks and trees, at the top of which was a small, but freely flowing spring!!

Now those of you who know the story of St. Bernadette of Lourdes know that she saw the apparition in a grotto, out of which flowed the spring of water that became the famed, miracle-producing water of Lourdes!  I am not going to stretch this parallel (or your credulity) any further, but you should know that we were starting to feel both relieved and more than a little amazed.

Here is a picture of our grotto from the bottom, looking up at about a 45 degree angle after clearing out some briars – Brer Rabbit would have had a ball in there!

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And here is a close up showing a shimmer of the water running through the leaves.  We intend to develop this spring and give it an opportunity to fill up a pond or cistern, from which we can pump water to the livestock.

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Now, so far, we have multiple miracles the day after beginning to pray for help!  But there is still more, believe it or not.  Upon rounding the corner at the bottom of the property, the previous owner remarked, “You know that you own over there toward the road”.  He pointed towards a lightly forested acre or two, which we had not really thought about, having many other more pressing things to deal with up to now.  “Yes, there’s a small pond in there which was used previously to water cattle”. “Uh huh.” I replied, not really listening until my subconscious, which HAD been paying attention screamed “SAY WHAT?!!” in my ear.  “Ummmm, could you repeat that?” I replied quietly, my brain still reeling from the slap my subconscious had justifiably just delivered to me. “It needs some work on the wall and is filled with leaves, but it is a good pond fed from a spring”.

Below you can see the property with future fencing lines in red (as we showed in a previoius post) and the newly discovered spring (by us anyway) circled in blue towards the right middle of the picture.  The lines in blue at the bottom right are the approximate property lines for the area we’d ignored until now, and the small circle of blue within it is the pre-existing pond.  It was very low with only a couple of inches of water amid a lot of fallen leaves, and the berm surrounding it was breached in a couple of places, but it was still beautiful!  A little work for a few days with shovels and a chainsaw will restore it back to its original state.  It will only be about 30 feet across and maybe 5 feet deep, but do you know what that means to a farmer (and to swimming hole-loving farm kids)?  The volume of that pond is about 14,000 cubic feet.  There’s about 7.5 gallons per cubic foot of water.  So if filled, such a pond can contain about 100,000 gallons of water!

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Can you see why I was raving on about the power of prayer?  Water-wise, we went from destitute to drowning (please excuse the hyperbole, but I needed an alliterative word to make the impact) in less than a day!  Now our focus will be on developing these sources to collect and deliver the water to where it will be needed.

Friends, farming is one of the best professions for observing the wonders of God’s creation.  But it also makes us realize that we have very little control of things and we must depend upon what is given to us.  Some might say that depending on prayer in this day and age is childish and perhaps even foolish.  But maybe that is why farmers are often the most God-fearing folk around.  We realize that we have are not really in charge.  This does not mean that we should treat God like some celestial slot machine and that prayer will always give an outcome to our advantage.  On the contrary, we should be ready to recieve a “no” answer to our plea.  Nay-sayers might say that all these water sources on our farm were always there and just needed to be discovered in the crisis.  Maybe this is why in our case the response was dramatic, multidimensional (as outlined above,) and almost immediate.  Perhaps letting others know about this was more important than our immediate needs.  In any case, we are convinced, and we hope that you agree, that trusting in God and praying for one’s needs, might be highly beneficial and maybe even a little awe-inspiring!  Thank you St. Bernadette, and pray for us!

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!