Personal Update

Pigs, Pride, and Permaculture

The pig paddocks have had too much impact!

It was the smell of failure.

Insidious. It seemed to creep up so slowly.

I was standing at the edge of our pig paddock, and all I could smell was the overpowering odor of pig manure.

Actually, I was at the edge of one of two pig paddocks, and we still had a third paddock on the other side of the farm. But these two paddocks had too many pigs on them for too long. Their impact on the land had been too much.

This system was failing. This system was screaming at me to be fixed.

Something had to change.

My wife and two daughters (3 and 5-years-old) were pinned under the four wheeler.

A week earlier, I was travelling back from my brother’s wedding.

The plane landed, and my phone started buzzing with texts sent while I was flying:

My wife and two daughters had been in a four wheeler accident. 

The four wheeler flipped.

All three were pinned underneath.

They were heading to the emergency department.

My 5-year-old was scraped up but doing well.

My wife was bruised and needed CT scans… no significant injuries.

My 3-year-old daughter was complaining of abdominal pain, was vomiting, and had blood in her urine.

She had a CT scan… some significant bruising. Probable kidney contusion. But everything was okay.

By the time I was able get home, the emergency had passed. But the near tragedy was, and is, still fresh.

We have fallen in love with this land, but we were not enjoying it like we should.

We have only been at our farm for two years.

The first year had been wonderful.

But things had changed during this second year.

With the stench of manure in the air and the bruises on my family, I knew something had to change.

The near tragedy shook us out of the routine we had fallen into.

Our Vietnamese Potbelly – Gloucestershire Old Spot piglets.

How had it gotten to this point?

Over the previous few months, I had observed multiple issues with our pig system. It had started moving in the wrong direction. When we first started with pigs, our thought was to incorporate a wide variety of breeds in our herd. I wanted to see what worked best for us and for our land. Included in our herd were a couple Vietnamese Potbelly Pigs. This small breed was very resilient, but it was just too small for what we were aiming for. Unfortunately, I had not separated the boar from our two potbelly sows… I had too many things on my list, and I separated them too late. Well, not surprising, we had undesired litters from each of our Vietnamese Potbelly sows.

So we now had three separate herds: 1) young uncastrated males (we didn’t castrate them, because I didn’t get to it… too many things going on!), 2) young females and older females we didn’t want bred, and 3) our main herd (boar and selected sows). Keeping three herds fed, watered, and on fresh pasture is a lot of work, especially when the weather is getting hot.

The pigs have a heavy impact on the land. We anticipated this, and we had designated an area for us to rotate our herd. Unfortunately, with the extra pigs and multiple herds, the land didn’t have enough time to recover by the time we needed to move the pigs to the next paddock. The result was degraded soil with no cover and an excess of manure building up.

Get to the root cause!

But the pigs were just one example, or better yet, a symptom, of the underlying problem.

I am a strong proponent of getting to the root cause of problems. Finding and fixing the failure is important, but discovering the underlying reason that the failure occurred in the first place is paramount to preventing similar problems in the future.

We needed to search for the underlying cause.

So what went wrong?

First, I know I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. We have had many successes on the farm. With our pigs specifically, I know they were actually in much better conditions than most other pig operations I have seen. But these were my pigs on my land under my management. And this is not how I wanted to raise them.

Second, we lost sight of what our goals were. As a general rule, I don’t publicly share our personal holistic goals, but I can say that our overall priorities are faith, family, homestead, environment, farm, community. I generally aim to live by two guiding tenets:

  1. The Permaculture Prime Directive: The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for own existence and that of our children. A Greek proverb that falls right in line with this is: A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
  2. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Third, we over committed. We stretched ourselves too thin. We pushed ourselves too much. I also work off the farm, and so this burden frequently fell on our intern, our WOOFERs, and my family. Instead of doing a few things well, we were doing too many things… some were working great, some were working well, some were not quite working, some were not getting done, and some were failing. Because we were too busy, we were not enjoying the journey. We had stopped doing a number of the things that were important to us. Yes, we were accomplishing a lot, but we were not accomplishing the things that mattered the most to us.

Fourth, I had not heeded my own advice: Revisit the Permaculture Principles on a regular basis. David Holmgren (co-founder of Permaculture) has 12 amazing principles that I regularly use… well, maybe not as regularly as I should have! The following section touches on a few of these principles and how we are using them to get back on track.

Permaculture Principle One: Observe and Interact.
I had observed, but I didn’t interact. We just kept on doing what we were doing. It is hard to take the time to make changes when you are just trying to keep up, even if those changes will make things better in the long run. But we need to take the time to implement changes based on our observations! 

 

Permaculture Principle Four: Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback.
It is so easy to let our pride get in the way of accepting feedback. It isn’t always arrogance. Too often we will just keep doing the same thing or wasting a lot of energy trying to accomplish something, because we think we are smart enough to figure it out. We tell ourselves, “If we just work on it a bit more, longer or harder, we can make it work!” And we may eventually figure it out, but at what cost? Remember the quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

 

Permaculture Principle Nine: Use Small and Slow Solutions.
One of the first things I wanted to do on our farm was to try a little bit of everything. We would see what we liked, what worked for us, what didn’t work for us, and then we would pare down. Unfortunately, trying to maintain so many systems was overwhelming. Also, trying to pare down is actually a lot more difficult than I was expecting.

We thought we were starting small and slow. Compared to many farming ventures, we were not doing a lot. But for us, it was still too much. Over the last few months, my wife has told me many times, “This is starting to feel too big.” She has more wisdom than she credits herself, and if I was a bit more self-aware, I would have made the connection between her words and this principle.

However, we also need to use small and slow solutions to fix the problem as well. We could have decided to completely give up, sell the farm, and move back to suburbia. I think many young farmers get burned out and then walk away from everything. But that wouldn’t be a small and slow solution. We are choosing to pare down a step at a time… trim back slowly.

 

Permaculture Principle Twelve: Creatively Use and Respond to Change.
Everything is constantly changing around and within us. This is life. We can passively let these currents push us around. Or we can be intentional. We can use these changes. We can learn from them. We can respond to them. We can also make our own changes to influence those currents.

We found ourselves in a place we didn’t like. While we had systems that were working, we also had systems that were failing. And so we are doing something about it. We are observing, accepting feedback, interacting with our systems, and using small and slow solutions to get ourselves back on track with our personal holistic goals.

We have since made some changes to our pig system. We moved things around and now have two pig paddocks instead of three. By doing this, we have already cut our pig chores by a third. We are also giving the land more time to rest… and the smell is almost gone already! In addition, we took the time to process some of the larger pigs that did not fall in line with our breeding goals. This has cut our feed bill, and we now have some high-quality pork in our freezer and for sale. We will continue to cut back on our pigs until we have a much smaller breeding herd. Our focus is quality, not quantity.

We are implementing a number of other changes. For example, our first batch of broilers (meat chickens) is about 2 weeks from their processing date. This first batch of birds was for our own personal consumption. Last year, we raised a second batch to cover the expenses of the first batch. However, with being stretched too thin, we decided not to raise a second batch this year. That means our chicken is going to cost us more, but we will have more time to enjoy it!

We are continuing many of the things we love including raising our pastured lamb and laying hens. Most of our other changes are small, like they should be. But cumulatively, they will continue to guide us back toward our goals.

We love raising our sheep on pasture.

This Permaculture Life is a process. It is not an endpoint. There is constant evaluation and interaction and evaluation and interaction… and this goes on and on. And it can be a lot of fun. But we must be intentional.

I’ll end with some of my favorite quotes.

Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret?
There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.

– C. S. Lewis

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.
– J. R. R. Tolkien

Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
– Matsuo Basho

We are what we believe we are.
– C. S. Lewis

 

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The Trouble with Facebook Permaculture

Facebook Permaculture.

That’s my new term for the day. And it has really been bugging me.

The problem is that I’m guilty of it myself.

I need to say that at the onset. I don’t want to come across in a condescending way, because I do it.

I don’t think we really mean to, but it happens nonetheless.

We get excited about getting something done. We are proud of it. We want to tell people about it. So we do. We get on Facebook or Instagram or whatever social media, photo-sharing website/app we use, and we show the world the wonderful thing we have just accomplished.

We are happy when others “like” our post. We love the positive feedback.

Now, before I get too far, please don’t get me wrong… sharing our successes and accomplishments is important to do. In fact, we ought to do this.

I often think of the people in the mid-1960’s and 1970’s “back to the land” movement. They were one of the first groups of people who left the city to try and be self-sufficient. Most members of the previous generations knew how to be self-sufficient, because that was how they were raised. The earlier generations grew up with backyard gardens and chickens and a more self-reliant know-how and confidence. But by the 1960’s, at least in the United States, there was a gap in the transfer of this knowledge. The people who left the city and moved to the country didn’t have first-hand knowledge. They had to learn it or figure it out.

They may have had a few Foxfire books.

If they were lucky, and not too arrogant, they were befriended by a neighboring farmer or homesteader from a family that never left the homestead. They were fortunate if they had some early successes to build the confidence when tough times came… when a harvest was destroyed or an animal was lost.

Unfortunately, far too many of these “back to the landers” gave up. This whole “living off the land” thing was way too hard. It was all but impossible. So the “back to the landers” went back to the city. Defeated. Disillusioned. Depressed.

Today, we are incredibly fortunate to have the enormous wealth of knowledge found online. We can find how-to’s and problem-solving-solutions within minutes of when we need it. We can find success story after success story. We can find inspiration.

This next generation of “back to the landers”, of which I am one, are not giving up quite as quickly as before. I have no scientific data to support this claim. But I daily see success story after success story from people who are not giving up, not throwing in the towel, and not moving back to the city. It’s not that we are better in any way. I firmly believe that this generation of “back to the landers” are succeeding, in large part, due to the vast resources we have at our fingertips, which sadly the previous generation did not have. We run into roadblocks, and we can more easily find solutions and work-arounds. We are able to Google our way to success.

But this is only because we share those successes.

This is because we are getting on blogs and Facebook and Instagram and telling the world what we did and how we did it.

So for that I am immensely grateful.

But there is a down side to this story. And this is not only found in Permaculture or Homesteading or with the “back to the landers”. It is found throughout this entire generation of people who compare themselves to those they see on social media.

“Gosh,” they say, “Everyone is so successful with everything they do. What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I be so successful? I’ll never be able to ____  Maybe I should just stop trying. Maybe I should just quit.”

This is especially true in the Permaculture world.

We share photos of our huge harvests, of our beautiful pastures, of our new lambs or piglets or chicks.

But we don’t share struggles. We don’t share our failures. Some do. But most do not.

It is not malicious.

It’s just not fun. It’s not exciting. We are not proud of failing.

Our compost pile... that will be in the wrong place for over a year before we are finally done with it.

Our compost pile… that will be in the wrong place for over a year before we are finally done with it.

When all we do is share our success, we make it appear that failures are not common and are not part of the path toward success.

But I think it is important for us to be real.

So I’ll start…

  • We had a litter of piglets that were all stillborn.
  • We had another litter of four piglets, and only one survived.
  • We had a dump truck load of compost that is still sitting on the driveway. We used almost half of it, but we probably will have that pile sitting there for another 6 months… much to my wife’s chagrin.
  • We randomly had one of our ewes die. No idea why.
  • We had two of our pigs die. Not at the same time. But it happened, and we don’t know why.
  • We had a significant drought this Summer, and I lost close to half of the trees I planted a few months earlier.
  • I sliced my finger while breaking down chickens after processing, and I needed to give myself stitches.
  • We got our garden going too late this year, and we didn’t get a harvest from the broccoli, cauliflower, or Brussels spouts. (You can see the photo at the top of the page… this was a quick harvest before the frost… all we got was cabbage, but none of the other crops had time to mature, because we got them going too late.)
  • We still have a section of perimeter fence down from a windblown tree, and I have yet to get it cleared and the fence repaired. And I’ve known about it for at least 6 months.
  • Our geese made multiple nests, laid eggs, and abandoned all of them.
  • We lost every single one of our 23 Guinea Fowl to an unknown night predator.

That’s all I can think of in about 30 seconds. But I am sure there is a whole lot more.

We have had a lot of bad and sad and frustrating things, but the good thing is that our successes have outweighed our failures and our delays. And that is really important.

But it is also important for people to see that this life is not always simple or easy or carefree.

I’m not planning on quitting and moving back to the city. Not at all!

But I am trying to keep it real.

 

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The First Year at the Bauernhof!

This week marks the one year anniversary of moving to our farm, the Bauernhof Kitsteiner.

It has been busy. It’s been exciting. We’ve had successes. We’ve had failures. We have had sad times. We have had a lot of fun.

I am going to go through each of the projects we have taken on this year and provide an evaluation of each one.

 

SHEEP

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One of my sons with our flock of Katahdin Hair Sheep.

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This is me with one of our new sheep.

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This is me with our first lambs born at the farm, twin boys!

Overview:
We have a small flock of Katahdin Hair Sheep. We started with 10 ewe lambs. We lost one early on to an unknown injury/illness. We were able to borrow a Katahdin ram from a neighbor, and so far, 7 of our 9 ewes have delivered. We had 3 ewe lambs and 5 ram lambs delivered with no complications and no need for bottle-feeding. There was one set of twins.

Lessons Learned:
Our ewes range from medium to small in size. This is directly due to less-than-ideal genetics. If we would have taken some time to visit a few other flocks, we would have quickly been able to see that these sheep were pretty small compared to breed standard. But these sheep were local and easy to obtain, they have all been great mothers so far, and they have performed well on our poor pastures. So far, this has been a good start for us… but I still wish we had bigger sheep!

Moving Forward:
We have 7 proven ewes. We have 2 that may be pregnant  (the ram visited on two different occasions, so they still have a shot). We have internally increased our flock by 3 ewes. We are also adding 8 more ewe lambs (from larger-sized genetics!) this month, so this will bring our flock up to 20 ewes. Our goal is to have 40-50 ewes on our farm. They seem to be performing well on our land. Things are moving well with our sheep.

 

PIGS

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Our pigs snuggled together on a cool morning.

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Our Guineas jump right in with the pigs during feeding time. All the animals love the fermented grains!

Overview:
We have a small herd of heritage breed pigs. We currently have 5 females. These are 1 American-Guinea Hog mix, 2 Vietnamese Potbelly Pigs, 1 Gloucester Old Spot-Large Black-Mulefoot Hog mix, and 1 Gloucester Old Spot-Large Black-Berkshire Hog mix. We have a young, unproven Gloucester Old Spot boar who should be sexually mature any day now. In addition, we have 2 castrated male American-Guinea Hogs which we will be processing this coming Autumn.

Lessons Learned:
I love pigs! But they can be hard on the land. If the pigs are left too long in an area, then they will make a wallow. This is not a bad thing, it’s just a pig thing. It can be bad if we didn’t want a wallow where they made one. But it can be great if we use their earth-moving tendencies to help us till the land before we use it for something else. With pigs, it is all about timing. If they are in one place for more than a few days, especially if it is wet (rain, lowlands, etc.), then they will start to really till the land. Some people will place rings in the pigs’ nose, but we have not chosen to do this at this point. The pigs have been tilling the area where we will be placing our forest garden and annual garden.

Moving Forward:
Our long term goal is to raise pigs in a savanna-style system… grass in the Spring and Summer and then fatten them on nuts (mast) that fall from our oaks, hickories, and walnuts in our forest in the Autumn. We are also planting many apple and chestnut trees on our property for ourselves and our pigs. We still need to get our fencing systems set up in the forest to implement the full plan.

 

LAYER CHICKENS

We keep a flock of laying hens that produce eggs for us and for sale.

We keep a flock of laying hens that produce eggs for us and for sale.

Our chickens came next. We used Salatin-style chicken tractors to disperse the sheep and pig manure. They also ate more grass and gave their own fertilizer.

Our layer chickens are mostly free-ranged.

Our EggMobile!

We do provide a nightly, mobile coop for our layers

Overview:
We have a mixed flock of free-ranging, laying chickens with about 45 hens. We have Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshires, Ameraucanas, Buff Orpingtons, and a single Golden-Laced Polish. The birds are moved around the property in a mobile coop. We are averaging 36-40 eggs a day.

Lessons Learned:
I have read that chickens will take a grassy area down to bare dirt, and so we decided to run our chickens after our pigs to prepare our garden area. Yes, they did take down some of the grass, but not all of it and not very fast. We eventually put up a poultry net around the coop to prevent them from ranging too far. I am sure if I left the chickens in the same spot for a longer time, they would eventually take it down to bare earth. But as we were waiting for this to occur, our egg quality and numbers declined. Our yolks became more pale, and our daily number of eggs (which was really quite good) decreased. We eventually took down the poultry netting and let the chickens go back to free-ranging. We also initially kept our roosters, but they were not really fond of our small children. The roosters never really bothered me. I think they either saw me as alpha or as a non-threat. Unfortunately, they ended up attacking everybody else who visited the coop. We were really not happy to do it, but our goal is a no-stress farm. Roosters randomly attacking people living or visiting the farm is actually pretty high-stress. So the roosters had to go. Finally, a word about chicken poop! We installed a half-inch hardware cloth (wire mesh) on the floor, but it catches everything and prevents it from falling through the mesh. We will need to replace it with a larger mesh in the near future.

Moving Forward:
Our coop can house about 75 birds, so we are going to increase our chicken egg production by adding some additional layers. We just received some Colombian Wynadottes, and we will be adding some Cuckoo Marans and Speckled Sussex in a few weeks. We will continue to run the layer chickens after the pigs and sheep as these animals are rotated around the property.

 

BROILER CHICKENS

We run Salatin-style chicken tractors.

We run Salatin-style chicken tractors.

A view of our farm in Bulls Gap, TN

A view of our farm in Bulls Gap, TN

Overview:
Last year we ran 200 fast-growing, Cornish-Rock Cross broiler chickens in two Joel Salatin-style chicken tractors. We processed the chickens at our farm between 8-9 weeks of age. We sold about half of the chickens and used the rest for ourselves.

Lessons Learned:
This is a fast turnaround farm product. We had no problem selling our pasture-raised, organic-fed chickens. In fact, we had to limit our sales so that we could actually eat some our own chickens! The meat was outstanding. These birds grow fast and grow large. The only way to make any money raising broiler chickens is to process them ourselves. But this is a lot of work. We processed 100 broilers a day on two very long days about 2 months apart. More hands make the work significantly better, but if you need to pay for those hands, your profit drops. I wanted to save the livers and gizzards of as many birds as I could. Personally, I love organ meat, and when it comes from animals raised the way we raise them, I think the organ meat is extremely healthy. But if you want to keep the liver intact, you need to be a lot more careful during the evisceration process. This really slows down the process. I watched many videos of Joel Salatin eviscerating his chickens, and I am amazed at his speed. I work well with my hands, but I probably need a few thousand more birds before I get at fast as Joel.

Moving Forward:
We are increasing our broilers from 200 to 300 this year. This is not a huge increase. But we really want to improve our process. We are implementing Small and Slow Solutions and Applying Self-Regulation and Accepting Feedback. We don’t want to burn out with this great system.

 

DUCKS

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A Rouen male (drake).

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An immature Rouen drake (male) on the left and a hen (female) on the right.

Overview:
We started with 30 Rouen Ducks. We ordered a straight run (meaning they would give us unsexed birds). We ended up with about 10 females and 20 males. We initially ordered the ducks for a few reasons. One of my sons is allergic to chicken eggs, and it appeared that he was not allergic to duck eggs. Unfortunately, his allergy eventually extended to duck eggs as well. Bummer! The second reason was we were considering selling the duck eggs, but we wanted to test the market a bit first. The third reason is that I like duck meat. Finally, we have three ponds on our property, and I thought ducks may be a nice addition.

Lessons Learned:
So the egg-allergy angle failed. The duck meat is really good, but they are really hard to de-feather. We can skin the birds and avoid having to de-feather, but a nice, crispy skin on a duck breast is delicious. But again, ducks are really, really hard to de-feather! We tried the chicken plucker, hot wax dips, hand plucking. None of it works well. I did process (and de-feather!) all but 5 of the males and kept all of the females. But then an unknown predator (hawk? fox? raccoon?) killed 3 of our females. We now only have 7 females remaining. They are laying pretty good now, 3-5 per day. That’s decent for this breed. We now have three nests that indicate our ducks may be getting broody (ready to sit and hatch some ducklings). We have also not had any problem selling our duck eggs. Finally, after doing more research, our ponds are not quite large enough for the number of birds we have. Too many birds on a pond, and the pond will quickly get out of balance. Too much manure dropping into the water will result in algae blooms and fish die-off. Too many ducks on a small pond will quickly kill the pond.

Moving Forward:
We like the ducks a lot. We are hoping they will go broody and raise some ducklings. We will keep the females and process (skin!) the males. We will continue to sell any excess duck eggs we have. We are still trying to see if ducks will work for us in the long run.

 

GEESE

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A young Pilgrim gander (male).

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A mature Toulouse gander.

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The white Pilgrim gander with the Toulouse geese

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Goose eggs are large, and a double-yolked goose egg is enormous!

Overview:
We started with 6 pairs of sexed goslings. We had three male/female pairs of Pilgrim Geese and three male/female pairs of Large Dewlap Toulouse Geese. We lost one due to a leg injury. We lost another to a poultry netting injury. I had to process one due to him being really mean (my kids called him Vader, and they were pretty scared of him). We then lost another four to another unknown predator (fox? raccoon? opossum?). We now have one male Pilgrim and two female Pilgrim Geese and two male Toulouse Geese.

Lessons Learned:
Our goal of having a few pairs of breeding geese has not gone well so far. We made a nice, A-frame nest box for the geese, but the geese ignored it. Both of our female Pilgrims made nests on their own next to the pond. Despite what I just said above about keeping the birds off the pond, we decided to let the geese have access to the water. Geese prefer to breed in water, especially the large breeds like our Large Dewlap Toulouse. The Pilgrim Geese would breed in the water troughs we used in the pastures. But the Toulouse only bred once they got on the pond. So that was a good move on our part. But then we lost our last female Toulouse, so… no more pond for the geese. On top of all this, before the geese started to make nests, we were able to collect a number of eggs. A single goose egg is at least the size of three chicken eggs. They taste great. This was an unexpected bonus for us. Another lesson learned is that my kids are a little scared of the geese. Getting “goosed” is a real thing, and it can be scary for a small child. Again, we don’t want stress on our farm, so this is a bit of a conundrum for us. We all kind of like the geese even though they have not worked out as planned and they can be intimidating.

Moving Forward:
Geese can live a long time. 15-20 years is not out of the question. In fact, there are reports of geese living well over 60 years. I believe that author Harvey Ussery shared a story of a goose living over one hundred years of age in the UK, and was till raising a brood of goslings each Spring, but she unfortunately died from a tractor accident. My point is that a single, first season with the geese is not enough time to make a decision. We plan to keep the geese for now. We are running them with the ducks, and this is working well for now. We will see what the next year holds.

 

GUINEA FOWL

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Our flock of Guinea Fowl

Over 100 eggs were in this Guinea nest found by one of our WOOFERs (Jordan).

Over 100 eggs were in this Guinea nest found by one of our WOOFERs (Jordan).

Overview:
We ordered 23 one-day-old Guinea keets. We now have 22 adults. We lost one, but we have no idea what happened to it. It was just gone one day. We purchased the Guineas to eat ticks as we are in an area with a lot of ticks.

Lessons Learned:
Guineas love ticks! We used to have ticks crawling everywhere on this property, even on the front porch. Within a few weeks of letting the Guineas free range, I don’t think we have had one tick in the 4-5 acres surrounding our house, and we only rarely see them in the pastures. The Guineas range pretty far, covering all 45 acres of our property that are in pasture. They don’t roam much into the woods, and that is where we end up seeing ticks. A bonus is that Guinea eggs taste great. They are a bit smaller than chicken eggs (it takes 3 Guinea eggs to equal 2 chicken eggs). The problem is that Guineas do not lay in nest boxes. They will try to find a secluded location and lay eggs there until caught. None of the hens have gone broody, so occasionally we find a Guinea nest with 50-100 eggs in it! We will eat many of them, but if we are unsure of the freshness, we will boil them and feed the boiled eggs to the pigs. Guineas, just like most birds, enjoy a good dust bath. Unfortunately, they have decided the brick flower beds that line the front of our house are perfect for them. Did it matter the flower beds were filled with flowers? Not to the Guineas. So now we have dirt filled flower beds. The only thing that survived in there were the Rosemary, Lavender, and Mint. So, that is what we are going to fill the beds with. I am not a big fan of these type of flower beds anyway (they get too dried out and require watering too frequently, the soil is not very deep, etc). So the Guineas kind of helped make a decision for us.

Moving Forward:
The Guineas have done their job exceedingly well. Nary a tick to be found unless we venture into the woods. We get eggs as a bonus!

 

DOGS

This is our Scrubs. He travelled the world with us and got us to the farm. We still miss him.

This is our Scrubs. He traveled the world with us and got us to the farm. We still miss him.

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Our male Australian Shepherd, Ritter.

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Our female Australian Shepherd, Arabelle.

Overview:
We had a Dalmatian for about 8 years. We travelled the world together (literally… he lived with us on three continents!). Scrubs made it about 1 year on the farm with us before he died of a presumed liver cancer. That was a really tough time for us. It still is if we think about him too much.

Lessons Learned:
Dogs are an integral part of farm life for us. They offer protection. They offer friendship. We will never have a farm without a dog.

Moving Forward:
Two new Australian Shepherd puppies arrived on the farm within the last month, and they have already become part of the Bauernhof!

 

TREES

We ordered a bunch of trees from Versaland!

We ordered a bunch of trees from Versaland!

Overview:
We have planted about 200 trees so far. These are a mix of Apple, Cherry, Persimmon, Pawpaw, Black Locust, Redbud, and Oak. We still have a number of Chestnuts and Apples to plant, but we are waiting to finish our swales first (see next topic).

Lessons Learned:
Planting takes time. If the soil has not been prepared in any manner, planting takes even longer. We are trying to strike a middle ground between the $100 hole for a $10 tree approach (this means you take a lot of time to perfectly plant a tree) and Mark Shepard’s STUN approach (Simple, Total, Utter, Neglect… plant as many inexpensive trees as possible, as fast as possible, and know that you will lose some). Irrigation is a big deal as well. Fortunately, we have wells and long hoses that can reach each of the trees we planted. If we have not had an inch of rain in the week, we irrigate. This has worked well so far, and we have only had to irrigate twice. But irrigation does take a lot of time.

Moving Forward:
We will continue to plant many, many, many trees!

 

SWALES

BK_2016_Update_12_swale

The first swale on the Bauernhof will be just under a half-mile long.

Overview:
We have about 45 acres of pasture with many rolling hills. I have marked out just about one half mile (0.8 km) of an almost continuous contour line cutting across our pastures. I was trying to come up with a way to get some swales built, when I noticed a neighbor had an excavator sitting behind his barn. Our 70+-year-old neighbor, Billy, used to build roads and now has a farm. He has now spent quite a bit of time over at our farm, repairing ponds and building swales for us. What a blessing!

Lessons Learned:
We have a LOT of shale just under the surface of our degraded soils. This takes a lot of time to dig through. Our neighbor Billy has a small, older excavator. Is it perfectly ideal for building swales? No. But does it work? Yes, it does! It just takes a bit more time and finesse, but fortunately, Billy has both. I spent a lot of time thinking about how and where we wanted to put the swales. This is a pretty permanent decision. I almost got stuck in that “analysis paralysis” stage and never made a decision. Finally, I picked a primary reference point and got started. So far, the swales are working well.

Moving Forward:
We still have the other half of the swale to build and plant, but things are going well so far.

 

WOOFERS

BK_2016_Update_21_WWOOF

Overview:
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is an organization that connects people interested in learning about and experiencing farm life with host farms. We signed up to be a host farm. My wife does all the screening. Getting quality individuals is really important to us considering we have 4 small children. Our WOOFERs have their own bedroom above our garage.

Lessons Learned:
We have had 4 WOOFERs so far. They have been fantastic! Two have been Americans, one French/Canadian, and one Kiwi from New Zealand. All have been absolutely wonderful. We focus on getting quality people. We are not task-masters on the farm. Yes, there is an understanding that they will provide work for us, and we will provide room and board (food). But we love sharing our farm with young people who are interested in learning more about agriculture, Permaculture, and sustainable/regenerative farming. We want our WOOFERs to feel they have contributed to something good. We want them to find peace here. And our children are continuing to keep their minds opened by meeting people from all over the world (now, they already have a pretty good worldview considering they have lived most of their lives outside of the USA). The WOOFERs mostly take care of the daily animal chores and help with additional projects as needed. This has freed up time for us to move forward on additional projects.

Moving Forward:
The WOOFER addition to our farm has been invaluable. For ourselves, our family, and our WOOFERs, I hope we always have at least one WOOFER on the farm! (If you are interested, check us out!)

 

MISCELLANEOUS OTHER PROJECTS

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We had a Youth Group from Michigan spend 4 days clearing Eastern Red Cedar seedlings and saplings from our pastures!

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Right side: Before our animals. Left side: After our animals.

Soil:
We will continue to work on building the quality of our soil. We are doing this through intensive, rotational grazing of our animals and adding any organic content to the soil that we can find.

Pastures:
Directly tied into the soil topic above is the health of our pastures. We first had to clear the pastures of the encroaching Easter Red Cedars that were attempting to turn the pasture back to forest (see the photo above). The grazing systems we are using will are already improving our pastures. We do occasionally reseed, but not much. I have also mowed certain sections of the pasture a single time with my riding mower after our animals are moved off of it… yes, I am sure some of my neighbors laugh when they see me on my riding mower in the middle of our 45 acres of pasture, but I don’t mind. Our system is working. We had a lot of Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus), well, we still do have a lot, but it is becoming less and less every day. Broomsedge is a native to our area, but it is a less than ideal pasture grass. It is a great marker of poor soil quality. As we are improving our soil quality, the other more desirable species start to take back the space where only the Broomsedge could grow. We are ending up with better pastures every day.

Gardens:
We will finally get started on installing our Forest Garden and Annual Vegetable Garden this Spring. We are getting a later start than I wanted, but that’s okay. Our goal is to continually moving forward. If the timing is not perfect, but we are making progress, then I am happy.

Ponds:
We have three ponds on our property. Our largest pond was almost lost due to cattle having constant access to it before we bought the farm. Fortunately, our neighbor Billy and his excavator came to the rescue. We repaired a very eroded dam wall, reseeded it, and saved it. We have a second pond that is smaller and also has some significant erosion, but is not currently at risk. We also have a very small pond that is severely eroded and almost empty now. Cattle wore down the dam wall, and almost all the water leaked out. I hope to get these ponds repaired this year. I am also planning on adding some irrigation pipes so that we can water our animals from the ponds without letting them have access to the water’s edge.

Forests:
We have over 50 acres of mixed hardwood forests consisting of Oaks, Hickory, Black Walnut, Black Locust, Redbud, Eastern Red Cedar, and other Pine trees mixed in, along with many other species. There are many useful plants in the understory as well. We also have numerous species of edible mushrooms in the forest. Our forests are a significant untapped resource. We are still thinking about ways to appropriately use them.

 

WEBSITE

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TCPermaculture.com

Overview:
It was five years ago, this month, that I started this website. My very first article on the site stated:

In my years of studying about Permaculture, I have often been a bit frustrated with the majority of the authors.  They are all living and writing and designing in the tropics and sub-tropics.  I plan on living in a temperate climate.  While there are a few books, and it seems more every year, on temperate climate Permaculture, many of them are about the general principles of Permaculture.  Few of them get into the weeds, so to speak, of the actual implementation.  I have found bits and pieces of very good information but never a good central clearinghouse for this information.  My goal for this blog is to create as close to a single stop shop for information on temperate climate Permaculture.  It is mainly about putting all the knowledge I have and will find into one spot for me to use in the future. Hopefully it will also be a place others can use and maybe contribute to as well. 

Lessons Learned:
Since I have started my site, I have been pleasantly surprised at the overwhelmingly positive response from readers. Also, since I have started my site, there have been many books published about Permaculture in temperate climates. This is fantastic! Since I finally have a farm of my own, my free time to actually sit down and write has been significantly decreased. That is okay with me. I was never trying to create the most popular website in the world. I just wanted a site useful for me and others. I have done a pretty good job at keeping up to date with my Temperate Climate Permaculture VLOG. I hope to do a bit better with written articles as well.

Moving Forward:
I continue to try and strike a balance between my spiritual life, family life, work life, farm life, social life, personal life, public life, emotional life, etc. It is always something to be introspective about, and I will probably always need to make small corrections here and there. But this site will be here for as long as I can keep it here!

 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

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Our Farming Life only works with Family

I am amazed at how much we have accomplished in just a single year, but it would be misleading if I let anyone believe this is all my doing. None of what we have accomplished would be possible without my family. Years ago my wife could never picture herself living on a farm, and now she could never picture herself not living on a farm. She is truly the engine that keeps the farm moving day to day. I come up with all these ideas, but she is truly the one that keeps us on schedule and keeps the house running day after day. She not only helps out in pretty much every project on the farm, but she also raises and homeschools our four children, schedules all of our visitors and WOOFERs, and still finds time to be a writer. Incredible and invaluable is too weak a description. My father and mother are also living on the farm with us, and I have been so happy with how well our multi-generational farmstead has run. My father is a retired carpenter and my mother a lifelong homemaker. They have provided skills, expertise, wisdom, community, and support which has allowed this farm to blossom.

I am sure I am leaving out many projects we have worked on this year, but I need to stop somewhere.

I am so excited about the future of the Bauernhof Kitsteiner. I can hardly wait to see what next year brings!

 

 

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Oh, Tennessee

A poem I wrote 18 months after returning to the United States upon the end of a seven year career with the Air Force living on three continents.

Time to start a Forest Garden!

It has begun! We have owned our land for just over a year, and have lived here for almost 9 months. We have experienced all four seasons. We are significantly more tuned in to our land. We are finally ready to start designing our food forest.

A food forest, also known as an edible forest garden, was one of the first unique ideas that introduced me to Permaculture about 15 years ago. While forest gardens are not the sole domain of Permaculture, an affinity exists between the two. And this concept, a small forest containing plants which provide for our needs (the 7 F’s: food, fuel, fodder (feed for our animals), fiber, fertilizer, farmaceuticals (plant derived medicines), fun), was so intriguing to me that I soon became a bit obsessed with Permaculture.

The first goal on our farm was to start producing food for ourselves. We started with animals as they have a fast turn around and could be started on our land as it was. We are finally really getting into a rhythm with their care and maintenance. Any overages (chickens and eggs) are sold for a small profit – well, more of decreasing a small bit of our costs at this point. The next stage is to start our plant production systems. Trees are going to stay put for a long, long time, and so we wanted to make sure we knew the right place to put them. This is why we took a full year before we even started the design process of our food forest. Of course, there are many plant systems other than a food forest, and we plan on incorporating many of these onto our farm.  But we are going to start with the food forest.

We chose a location that was close to our house. It is a southeast facing slope (we are in the northern hemisphere). It is one of our more flat (i.e. less steep!) areas on the farm, so managing it for decades to come will not be as taxing as other locations. There is also an area of lower elevation that holds a lot of water and is just begging to become a wetland/marsh. This will allow us to grow plants that like drier roots up top and water-loving plants down low. Diversity is king… and it’s a whole lot more fun!

A view of the future forest garden.

The site of the future forest garden.

We are currently pulsing our animals through this area. Of course they will be adding a fair amount of manure to the soil, and this is great. Another reason we will be using the animals is to remove the grass in this pasture. The geese and sheep primarily will go after the grass, but the chickens, ducks, and pigs will also eat their share. After this is done, the geese and sheep will be moved off. The pigs will rotate with the chickens and ducks to remove as much of any grass and other plants in this pasture. We will of course be supplementing the feed for these animals at this time. But the goal is to let the animals do the plowing and rototilling for us. I know that there are some folks who do not want to use animals to do this kind of work. I understand. I love to give my animals fresh, green pasture as often as possible. But this is not a permanent set-up. They will get in, do their thing, and we’ll get them out. The pigs will especially enjoy it.

The area of the future forest garden as defined by DaftLogic.com

The area of the future forest garden as defined by DaftLogic.com

I highly recommend DaftLogic.com when you are working on design plans. This is a free site that allows you to measure area and distances. I use it frequently, and it is very user friendly. As you can see, our future forest garden is right at 2 acres (0.81 hectares). This is not small! It will take a lot of work and many years to “complete”, but we are so excited to get started!

This is a google map's image of the area of interest.

This is a google map’s image of the area of interest.

You can see we’ve already been improving the soil with our sheep and pigs (far left) and our chicken tractors (center). The patchwork appearance is due to the daily, or sometimes twice daily, moves of the tractors. As mentioned above, this rotation will become more intense as we near the time of planting.

The area drawn to scale.

The area drawn to scale.

It’s important to have a basic scale drawing of the land we are designing. This drawing will be used over and over again as the master template that all mock-ups and samples and ideas are based on. This particular drawing is very simple. It took me about 5 minutes to make. It was made by shooting the google map image onto a wall with a projector. I simply traced the important features onto a piece of paper. The only slightly difficult part was zooming in and out until the scale matched a usable distance on my architect scale.

Some major features of this area.

Some major features of this area.

These are the main features on this drawing:

  1. House
  2. Garage
  3. Fence – The entire property has a nice, tight woven fence of about 5-6 feet (152-182 cm). This fence was put up by the original owners to keep coyotes IN. They ran a coyote hunting farm. The bottom of the fence rolls toward the interior of the property (see the photo below). This worked for a hunting property, but causes some trouble when we want to grow something (or clear weeds!) next to the fence line. We are still trying to decide what we want to do about it, but it does work to keep rabbits and other unwanted creatures out of the forest garden area.
  4. Gate
  5. Main road
  6. Bottom of the valley – This is where water collects and flows during the rain. The closer you get to the lower portion of the property border (bottom left), the more water there is and the longer it stays after a rain.
The fence

The fence rolled under at the bottom – like a letter “L”. Lots of plants have grown through, including some trees. This really needs to be dealt with so that we can avoid “weed” problems in the future.

 

Basic topography on this site.

Basic topography on this site.

This is a basic topographic map (not drawn to scale by any means). I made this just to show the general lay of the land. #1 by the house and the #1 on the far upper left represent hills. The land slopes down and then back up at #3 toward the back of the house. If you keep going along that interior road, the land would continue to rise. But that is out of our area of interest for this project. #2 represents the start of the valley floor. A line connecting from #2 to #4 represents the run of this valley. When it rains, there is water in this location running from #2 to #4. After the rains stop, there will be standing water at #4 for 1-2 weeks, sometimes longer.

Soil in this area.

Soil in this area.

  1. The soil around the house is decent. Much of this soil was either placed back after excavation for the house or it was trucked in. All of the area from #1 down the long, steep driveway to #7 is currently planted to lawn. The soil here ranges is depth from a few feet deep before hitting rock around the house, to fairly shallow toward the lower and northeastern (right side) of the drive.
  2. The slope is steep in this area. The soil in this area is poor. It is only about 1/2 – 1 inch deep before hitting a lot of rocks. There is space and soil between the rocks, but not much. This is a difficult area to regenerate, but not impossible.
  3. As the slope is a bit gentler here, and we are a bit further downhill, the soil is deeper. I can dig 6-12 inches before hitting rock. And the rock is spaced farther apart.
  4. Toward the lowest end of the field, the soil is the deepest. I can dig to 24 inches before hitting rock. This area has no standing water after a rain, so the drainage is still good.
  5. This is toward the highest part of the valley floor. This has running water during rains.
  6. This is the lowest part of the valley floor. This has standing water after the rains.
  7. These are areas that were planted to grass (just like #1 above). These areas have fairly deep soils.

The soil on this property is generally poor. It has a very high, reddish-brown clay content. Little organic matter. All areas that are currently pasture have been compacted to some degree by tractors and continuous, open-grazing of cattle. It would be wonderful if the soil was great, but that’s not how it is. We deal with what we have, and fortunately, with good management, there is a lot that can be improved. Our animal rotation is one way we are going to improve the soil. The second is with cover crops. We will take about a year to grow cover crops  with a variety of functions. Here are a few plants we will be using, for example: buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) for biomass; clover (Trifolium species) for biomass and nitrogen fixation; borage (Borago officinalis), chicory (Cichorium intybus), and radish (Raphanus sativus) as deep-rooted/tap-rooted plants to break up the deep layers of the soil. Also, these plants are ones I don’t mind growing in the established forest garden if any of their seeds survive and reseed. We are still toying with the idea of spreading rolls of old/less-than-prime hay over the area to further suffocate/mulch the existing pasture. Of course, these rolls of hay will come with their own seeds, but we will use the chickens to de-seed as much as possible as well. These are just a few of our strategies for improving the soil of our forest garden before ever place a permanent plant.

Next week, we will be taking the next step. We will be collecting soil samples to be sent off to a few labs for analysis. Fun stuff!

A Bauernhof Kitsteiner Update

Four months. That is how long we have been living at our new farm. At times, it seems as if we only just arrived, but we have accomplished a lot in such a short time. Here are a few of our accomplishments: We unpacked our boxes; we cleared thousands of Eastern Red Cedar saplings from our pastures (major thanks to a visiting youth group from Michigan); we got geese, ducks, chickens, guineas, pigs, and sheep; we’ve had our local NRCS Agent (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and the state grazing specialist out for a consultation; and we have our first conference (Greg Judy’s Risk Free Ranching Course) starting in just a few days!

Looking at what we have already accomplished in such a short time makes me see why my wife tells me to be careful. She has been a solid voice for moderation while still entirely embracing our new agrarian life.

I have been really busy getting these things done, and have had a lot less time to write. I thought I would take a moment to explain some of the thought process behind what we are doing. This first article will focus on the animal systems we have. We put a lot of focus on animals right away, and there were a number of reasons for this:

First, experienced Permaculture teachers and practitioners have always recommended giving yourself a full year at a site before you start to implement a design. I think this is wonderful advice. We have only lived at our farm for four months, but we bought the farm 10 months ago. We visited as often as we could before we moved here full time. After almost a year, I feel like I am finally ready to commit to some more permanent design elements, like trees. Everything we have done so far with the animals has been temporary… temporary fencing, mobile structures, and walking animals. We can change any aspect of the animals’ location within a few hours at most.

Second, I wanted to get some production started, and animals don’t really care what time of year it is. There are better times of the year to plant trees and shrubs and put in a vegetable garden, and the middle of the Summer (when we moved) is not that time. Granted, I want to get trees in the ground as soon as possible. It is often said that the best time to plant a tree is five years ago. The second best time is today. This is because it takes many years for trees to get established and start producing. However, as I explained above, it is important to take time to get to know your site for a bit first. It can be difficult at best to move trees once they are planted, so getting them in the right spot, according to a good design, really does matter. Conversely, our animals can be put onto the land, moved just about anywhere, and start producing right away.

Third, our land needs some animals. The land had been poorly managed for many years before we bought it. We have about 40 acres/16 hectares of pasture that have had cattle open-grazing it most months of the year for at least a decade. The pastures were also overstocked. This has resulted in overgrazed, over compacted soils that favored early succession plants and shrubs instead of lush pasture. Fortunately, due to this land being used predominately for hunting, not many chemicals were applied to the fields. We still have a fairly diverse mix of species in the pastures even if not all the species are ideal. And I like diversity in my pastures! In my temperate climate, rest is needed when the land is overgrazed. But, if we take all the animals off the pasture, the pastures will shift to an early woodland with a return of the Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana), Sumacs (Rhus species), Brambles (Rubus species), Rose (Rosa species), Elderberry (Sambucus species), etc. (Note that many of these species are great in their own right, but not necessarily what we want all over our pastures.) The land will stay in pasture by properly managing the sheep with rotational grazing, and the land will benefit from the sheep and chickens’s manure deposits, but the these animals will be gentler on the land than too many cattle.

Before I get into the specifics, I have to state that our animal systems are currently at the homestead level. We are experimenting with multiple animals to see what we like, what works for us, and what we feel like we can scale up to a farmstead/commercial level.

Our gaggle of geese!

Part of our gaggle of geese!

Geese_01

Our Large Dewlap Toulouse Geese are BIG birds… currently molting.

Geese_02

Our Pilgrim Geese are a bit more feisty than the Toulouse, but are still fairly laid back.

Our geese are about 15 weeks old. We have a mix of Large Dewlap Toulouse Geese and Pilgrim Geese. We had to put one down due to a leg injury that was not healing. I made a ragoût d’oie that night. This is a simple French peasant dish I made with goose, pork back fat, sausage, root vegetables, wine, and of course, goose. It was delicious! We plan on processing one more male Pilgrim goose, and the rest of our geese will be breeders for us.

Our Rouen Ducks are coming really just starting to show their sexual dimorphism (the males' heads are turning green).

Our Rouen Ducks are coming really just starting to show their sexual dimorphism (the males’ heads are turning green).

Our ducks are about 14 weeks old now. We ordered a straight run of about 30 Rouen Ducks, and we ended up with about one third females and the rest males. One duck was killed in an unfortunate accident involving a piece of falling wood. I made a green Thai curry with duck that night. This was also delicious! We plan on processing about 80% of the males for meat and keeping the remaining ducks for breeding and egg production.

Our 20+ Guinea Fowl are also about 14 weeks old now, and they are pretty much free-ranging the property. They have identified the area behind our garage as their primary home, and this was by design. In a future article, I plan to explain our process of training Guineas to stay at home while still allowing them to free range.

Our seven little pigs.

Our seven little pigs.

We have seven pigs right now. Five are feeder hogs, meaning they will be processed for pastured meat and fat when they reach the right age and weight. Only two will be breeders for us. These are a mix of American Guinea Hog (from the American southeast) and Kune Kune (from New Zealand) from my friend Cliff Davis of Spiral Ridge Permaculture . I plan on introducing a wide variety of genetics to develop a pig that grows well on our pasture but can also take windfall fruit and seasonal mast (nut) drop in our 50+ acres/20 hectares of forest filled with walnut, oak, and hickory trees.

A few of our ewes!

A few of our ewes!

It seems that they really like each other.

It seems that they really like each other.

Our 10 Katahdin Hair Sheep ewe lambs will be bred in November this year so they can lamb in early April (Spring time for us). Hair sheep are meat breeds that do not make wool that requires shearing; they have hair instead. We plan to grow our flock and then select for foraging ability and disease/pest resistance. We are currently running our sheep and pigs together on our pastures, and will likely separate them in the next few months. Though for now, they are getting along quite well.

A few of our laying chicks.

A few of our laying chicks.

Chicken_Tractor_01

Our first two Salatin-style chicken tractors.

Our broiler chicks are currently getting some new feathers... but goodness they grow fast!

Our broiler chicks are currently getting some new feathers… but goodness they grow fast!

Our second batch of broilers are currently doing very well.

Our second batch of broilers are currently doing very well.

Finally, we have our new chickens. We have one flock of layers comprised of a variety of heritage breeds (Ameraucana, Buff Orpington, Dominique, New Hampshire, Rhode Island Red, and Silver Laced Wyandottes, and also a few Golden Laced Polish chicks since my kids love their crazy “hair”!) for egg production. Our other flock is the broilers (meat birds). We are trialing a pasture-raised tractor system modeled after Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. We have one run of birds that are about 3 weeks old and are in the tractor on pasture. Our second run is about 1 week old and is currently still in the brooder.

There is a lot of infrastructure required to get these animal systems up and running. There is fencing and feed and feeders and waterers and watering systems and rotations and routines to establish. And this is required for each animal system. This is not done alone! Of course I work on just about every project, but our intern Dan also works a tremendous amount on all of this as well (my wife and I frequently say he is going to ruin our expectations of any future intern!). My wife, in addition to running the household and homeschooling our kids,  jumps right in with animal care on a regular basis. My father also lends a hand with the animals and really enjoys it, but as a quasi-retired carpenter, he is steadily busy with multiple remodeling and repair jobs around the farm. In addition, my father is consulted on any building project on the farm. My mother doesn’t do a lot of work with the animals, but helps watch our kids so we can do work around the farm. She also helps my wife maintain the household. The kids are pretty young at this point, and their “help” slows us down, but they are usually pretty eager to help with the animals.

Obviously many others have accomplished much more in a shorter time, but we are proud of what we have done. And while we have accomplished a lot in a short time, these are shared ventures on a multi-generational farm and homestead. One person can do a lot, but not as much and usually with a lot less fun, as multiple people working together toward a common goal.

So this is what we have been up to for the last four months. This is why I have been a bit absent in my regular writing of articles. But we are having a lot of fun!

December 2014 Farm Update (and photos from an iPhone!)

We have a few months before we move to our new farm, but we were able to take a trip there this past weekend. We are still trying to settle on names for all the structures and landforms on the property, so there will be some changes in what we call things as time moves on. The big house/main house is really ready to move in although we do want to paint some walls and do a little bit of repair work before we actually settle in there.

Just off from the big house is a large, three door garage that has never housed a vehicle. The main floor is very clean, and this will be a great storage location and possibly a spot for a classroom (we will see). There is a full bathroom on the ground floor of this building, and there is a very large, unfinished room upstairs with a kitchen. This upstairs room is not in great shape – very rough and pretty dirty. We will be fixing up this place for my parents to temporarily live. Well, as much as I would love to be working on it, the reality is that my dad will be the one doing most of the work. He is an (almost) retired carpenter, and very highly skilled. Our plan is to fix up this apartment and then put our focus on really renovating the 2 bedroom farm house/small house/cottage that was built many years ago – I want to say 1920, but I am not sure that is correct. No matter, it is in very poor condition. It will require quite a bit of work. It will be fun to see how this project develops, but I have some initial ideas involving straw bales!

I have written about it before, so it should come as no surprise that I am a huge proponent of multi-generational households. I am so excited to have my parents move with us permanently to the farm. In truth, they have been with us off and on (mostly on) for the past year. It has been a wonderful experience not just for me, but for my wife and children as well. This is due in large part to the personality of my parents and my amazing wife. But I know I am not the only one. My friend Cliff Davis, over at Spiral Ridge Permaculture, just posted a comment on Facebook about grandma coming to live at their homestead, “Intergenerational households are a major part of the agrarian lifestyle.” I couldn’t agree more!

I finally had the opportunity to go take a walk on the property. I didn’t have a landowner or real estate agent walking with me. It was just me. Me and the rain that is. Of course, our first unencumbered trip to the farm also coincided with a cold snap and three days of steady rain. But I didn’t care. I put on my rain boots and jacket and went for a stroll. I headed out to the highest ridge that meets our tree line.

Facing east

View from the tree line on the highest minor ridge. Roughly facing east. The blue roofed structure is the garage/apartment. Just right is the white, triangular gable of the big house.

Facing southeast

Same spot, turned 90 degrees, facing south. The building on the left is the hunting lodge/shack/cabin. It was used by the hunters who used to hunt coyotes on the property. Just to the right, and partially hidden by trees is the the little 2 bedroom farm house/cottage.  In the center is the large pond.

Facing southwest

Same spot, turned another 40 degrees or so, facing southwest.

If you are an astute Permaculturist/Keyliner, then you would have noticed the run off. Honestly, it was hard to miss when you were walking around out there. It sounded like there were tiny streams everywhere. In reality, that’s just about the truth. The main pastures have been pretty poorly managed, and the former owner let cattle graze wherever they chose over 45+ acres. This resulted in a lot of cattle trails that filled with water and caused erosion. Also, every valley soon filled with all the run off and became small, temporary streams.

Waterlogged02

Walking on the low spot in the small valley between ridges was like walking on a super saturated sponge – it was squishing with each step! Fortunately, the water was crystal clear.

Watterlogging

Another view of the temporary streams in the valleys. The water was moving fast – sounded like a bubbling brook. I can’t imagine how much water was lost from the farm in these few days… well, actually, I could probably calculate it, but I don’t feel like it right now!

Ponds

This shot is taken just uphill from the upper/small pond. The large pond is in the distance, in the center, just above (downhill from) the small pond. There are two major problems with this pond. On the left corner, you can see all the yellow silt streaming into the pond. On the right corner, the pond wall has been eroded from cattle. The pond is overflowing into the valley, and is bypassing (the water level is lower than) the overflow pipe. This will need to be addressed quickly!

Lower Pond

The large/lower pond. Cattails line most edges. I saw fish swimming. It is in pretty good condition.

Upper_Pond_02

The upper pond has two main feeds. One is full of silt. The other is full of clear water and black walnuts!

Upper_Pond_01

Overflow out of the pond. The overflow (drain) pipe is just off to the left, mid photo. The cattle have created this erosive spillway that was flowing pretty fast.

Middle Pond

The third pond/middle pond/east pond is in fair condition. The cattle have almost eroded one corner of the wall, but not quite. The overflow/drain pipe is working well. There is some silt being deposited, but not a lot. With a little maintenance, this pond should do very well.

After perusing the fields and ponds, I took a few walks in the woods. Walking through the woods alone in the cold drizzle was quite relaxing. I am always amazed at the life you can see when you take the time to be still and quiet in the forest. I was very encouraged at the proliferation of fungal life in these woods. There were many species besides the numerous “little brown mushrooms” that I couldn’t identify. But I did see some familiar faces (er… fungi). And while I didn’t see any edibles (yet!), there were dozens of logs covered in Turkey Tail, a highly valued medicinal.

Turkey Tail

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)

Turkey Tail

A beautiful colony of Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)

Unknown fungus

Unknown fungus. These were covering many downed branches.

Unknown shelf mushroom

A few shots of a shelf mushroom. I saw a large number of this species. I’m pretty sure it is the Artist’s Conk (Ganoderma applanatum).

Unknown Jelly Fungus

A pretty jelly fungus, likely Amber Jelly Roll/Willow Brain (Exidia recisa)

In addition to the fungal life, there was plenty of evidence that the nut-producing trees were doing well. There were many Oak Trees (both in the Red Oak Group and White Oak Group), Black Walnut, and Shagbark Hickory trees. There were some Maple. There were a number of other trees that I just couldn’t identify without leaves.

Oak

Oak – not sure of the species. Possibly Northern Red Oak?

Shagbark Hickory

Shagbark Hickory (possibly a Shellbark Hickory… I need to investigate a bit more first)

Through most of the walks was our Dalmation.

Accompanying most of the walks was our Dalmation… he was like a puppy running rough the woods and fields!

 

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Photo References: All photos are mine (taken from an iPhone!). If you would like to use any of them, please let me know!

 

We Bought the Farm!

In my mind, I heard trumpets blaring and audiences roaring. In reality, all I heard was the scribbling of the pen as my wife and I signed the paperwork. It was done. We just bought a farm. THE farm. OUR farm!

Excitement. Fear. Overwhelmed. Underwhelmed. Surreal. These are all words I would use to describe the experience of finally purchasing our farm.

It was over a decade previous that I was in the local library and stumbled across Joel Salatin’s book, You Can Farm. That was my first glimpse of the alternative agriculture revolution, and I was hooked. Then came books by Gene Logsdon, Wendell Berry, Louis Bromfield, Ferenc Máté, J. Russell Smith, Masanobu Fukuoka, P.A. Yeoman, Robert Hart, Allan Savory, Paul Stamets, David Holmgren, Bill Mollison, and many others. I was a kid who grew up in the suburbs of South Florida, and yet I suddenly found myself yearning to live a rural life, a self-sufficient life, a sustainable life. And now, after years of winding paths and literally tens of thousands of pages read, I find myself finally able to put these dreams and visions into practice.

While my wife and I were signing papers, my 5 and 6 year old sons were lying just behind me on the carpet in the corner of the small conference room, working hard on their coloring books. My parents were sitting outside in the parking lot while my 1 and 3 year old daughters were asleep in the car on that cool Autumn afternoon. It was just another day coloring and just another nap for my children, but they were there. My heart is full with the knowledge that I will be able to tell them that they were there that day we bought this farm. For while I am doing this for myself and my passions, my strongest motivation to succeed is my children. I have the opportunity to lay a foundation which they will be able to build upon in the future.

And my work has just begun.streaming Seventh Son

The morning of the signing, we walked up into one of the small valleys (maybe "dell" or "hollow" are better words?)

The morning of the signing, we walked up into one of the small valleys (maybe “dell” or “hollow” are better words?) on the property. It was a morning we will never forget.

Our farm is almost 100 acres (40 hectares) in the rolling hills of Eastern Tennessee. Geologically, it is part of the Appalachian Ridge-and-Valley Province of the Appalachian Mountains. We have a beautiful view of the Blue Ridge Mountains (Cherokee National Forest and The Great Smoky Mountains National Park). The property is approximately half pasture and half forest with a mix of young and fairly mature trees including oak, walnut, and cedar. I need to spend a lot more time in these woods to get a better grasp of who all is living there. We have three ponds on the property, the largest of which is about 0.75 acres (0.30 hectares) and the smallest is about 0.06 acres (0.02 hectares) and most likely needs to be rebuilt. The pasture is pretty degraded and has a very low organic matter percentage, but I can work with that! As I said, my work has just begun.

The rolling hills and valleys of our pastures.

The rolling hills and valleys of our pastures.

A distant view of our large pond. Those are coyotes in the foreground. Our farm used to be used to hunt coyotes.

A distant view of our large pond. Those are coyotes in the foreground. Our farm used to be used to hunt coyotes.

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Another shot of our pastures and large pond.

For those of you who are regular readers of this site, you may have noticed a significant drop in the number of articles I have been writing. That is not for lack of desire! I have been very busy with many things in preparation for buying our farm. Chiefly, I have been working close to twice fulltime to finish saving the money we needed for the down payment on our farm. The few days a month I have had free, I have chosen to spend with my beautiful, strong, talented, understanding, and supportive wife and my children who don’t quite understand why I have been gone so much. My peace is restored knowing that this is just a season, less than a year, of my working too much away from the family, so that I do not have to in the future. Therefore, and appropriately, writing articles for my website falls lower on my priority scale. Rest assured that writing about Permaculture is still a passion of mine. I will continue to share the knowledge that I gain and the experiences that I have. Please be patient as my family and I work on making a huge and wonderful transition to our farm.

 

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    The Difficulty with Changing Direction… my plan for Continuing Permaculture Education.

The Difficulty with Changing Direction… my plan for Continuing Permaculture Education.

The painting above is Fishermen at Sea by JMW Turner, 1794. Making the decision to change direction often makes us feel vulnerable, like we are being tossed about in a dark sea.

Scientists, psychologists, pollsters, and statisticians are always trying to categorize people into groups. Are they conservative or liberal? Are they introverts or extroverts? Are they right-handed or left-handed? Do they prefer that the toilet paper rolls over the top or from the back?

I guess I am no different, because I found myself putting people into two groups, although I had no agenda. My categorization of people had to do with personal decision making. I was making some significant decisions for myself, and I found myself wondering why certain decisions were difficult. Let me explain…

I was going to go to Australia as an intern under Geoff Lawton at Zaytuna Farm. This was my plan for many years. I just needed to complete my service commitment to the U.S. Air Force. I had already spoken with his staff about it. I spoke briefly to Geoff about it at the Permaculture Voices conference last year, and I sent in a deposit to hold a spot. I was getting ready to move back to the United States, and I even had a job that was going to allow me to take a leave of absence. However, after much consideration and deliberation I decided that I would not take the path I had planned on for so long, and I realized that this was a very difficult decision to make. I will go into the reasons for my decision in a moment, but first I want to share why I feel this decision was so hard for me. I believe others may benefit from this analysis as well.

First, and here comes my people-catagorizing, I initially thought people could be lumped into two broad groups: Those who change direction easily and those that do not. I think there is some truth to this, generally speaking. The people who change direction easily are often considered “flighty”. They hop from project to project, idea to idea, job to job. They never quite finish anything. They are often impulsive. They can be a lot of fun, but they are not always dependable. Conversely, the people who don’t change direction easily are often considered “determined”. They see things to the end, sometimes to the bitter end. They will often forsake much in the pursuit of their goal. They often accomplish a lot, but they can leave a lot of damage in their wake. Of course, these are the two extremes. Most people lie somewhere in the middle of the two, just like a right-handed person still uses their left hand for many tasks through the day.

This initial categorization held up, but not for long. I looked at my own past, and I saw that I was flighty with some things and very determined with others. Why was this? What I realized is that it is easy to change direction on things that are not that important to us, on things that we have little invested, on things that we have not planned on for very long. Whereas things that are important to us, things we have invested in, and things we have planned on for a long time are much more difficult to give up.

I also came to understand that there is a potential danger in becoming determined about a task or goal, for once we have become determined to accomplish a certain task or achieve a goal, we tend to lose introspection. We tend not to reevaluate. We tend not to ask ourselves if that goal is still the goal we should accomplish. So I asked myself again, why was this? I think it all comes down to having more at stake when we change our mind about things we have become determined. Here are some reasons why it is hard to change direction:

  • We may have money invested.
  • We may have time, sometimes a lot of time, invested.
  • We may have people relying on us to accomplish that task/goal. They are probably relying on us, because we have talked about it so much.
  • Our pride may be wounded when we change our mind. People may say, “I thought you were going to do…”, “But you told me you were going to… “, “Ha! I didn’t think you’d be able to…”, “That was a bit lofty, don’t you think?”
  • When our pride is wounded, we may feel disappointed in ourselves.
  • When we decide not to accomplish something we have wanted to do for so long, there may be a sense of loss.

On a side note, I think I should add that changing direction is very different than failing. Failing can occur for many reasons, many of which are outside our scope of influence, but not always. Changing direction may occur due to failure, but it is not failure in and of itself.

To me, this thought process about changing direction reinforced Permaculture Principles One (Observe and Interact) and Four (Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback). And while I am not an expert on the subject, a decision-making framework is exactly what Holistic Management is all about. I would highly recommend looking into HM as you move forward with any project.

Ultimately, we need to be constantly reevaluating what it is we are doing and understand why we are doing it. We need to be comparing the “what” and the “why” of the specific project on which we are working to our larger, big-picture goals (HM would say our Holistic Goals or Context). We need to adjust or completely change directions when needed, and we can’t be too afraid or too blinded by our determination to do so.

 

How things feel when a wise decision is made. Fishing Boats in a Calm Sea, by Charles Brooking (1745-1759)

This is how things feel when a wise decision is made. Fishing Boats in a Calm Sea, by Charles Brooking (1745-1759)

Now that I have given a little insight into the difficulty of changing direction, I will share the specifics on why I decided not to go to Australia:

  • It was going to cost a lot of money. Yes, the internship itself was not cheap, but I honestly felt it was worth it. However, I also had to factor in the cost of airfare and the cost of lost wages, since I would not be earning an income while I was gone for 10 weeks. I also had to factor in the cost of maintaining my household (wife and four children) who still needed to eat while I was gone. This was turning into a very expensive trip. In reality, I had first planned on taking this trip before my first child was born. Goodness, but time changes a lot!
  • In the same vein, I would be spending the money I was saving for a land downpayment. Spending this money for education, while a good investment, was going to set me back a few years. This would further delay our big-picture goal of purchasing land, and this goal had already been delayed more than I would have liked… I have been waiting for YEARS to complete my Air Force commitment.
  • I spent four years living overseas at very small military bases. The assignments officer (that is the person who decides who goes where in the military) always had difficulty filling spots for physicians in Turkey and in the Azores. Nobody wanted to go to these bases, so someone would be “volun-told” to go there. These were rather remote assignments, and they were considered “less desirable” bases for a number of reasons. But there was one benefit to these bases. Because there were only 1-2 regular staff physicians at these locations, they almost never got deployed. I understood that I was in the military, and if I deployed, that was my job. I wasn’t going to complain about it. However, I was very proactive about trying to avoid deployments. I had seen too many really good people (physicians included) who were forever changed, for the worse, by their war experience. I had no desire to have that kind of emotional and psychological baggage, especially when I had my own personal questions about the mission as a whole. I also had no desire to leave my wife and very young children if I could help it. So I volunteered to go to these remote bases, because I knew the chances of my being deployed would be so low. The assignments officers were always a little surprised about my requests. But, truth be told, I loved living in Turkey and the Azores, and I really wonder why they have such a bad reputation. I wouldn’t ever trade that experience, and my wife agrees. With all that said, I spent four years proactively avoiding being separated from my family. And here I was about to volunteer to be gone from my family for almost three months for a trip to Australia. Granted, it would be nothing like a deployment, but it just seemed a little backwards.
  • When I first started learning about Permaculture, I was like a kid in a candy shop. Everything looked amazing, and I wanted to try it all. Actually, I think I still feel the same way, but I have realized I can’t do it all. As I have continued to grow and mature and learn about Permaculture, and sustainable/regenerative agriculture in general, I have begun to develop a vision for what it is I want to do. I want to exercise Permaculture on the broad scale. I want to be a food producer. As a physician, I always try to look for the root cause of the problem; I don’t want to just put a band-aid on it. I feel that our country’s health is very poor, and while there are a lot of contributing factors to this, I feel like the ultimate root cause is how our food is raised. It is the soil, or rather the dead soil (dirt), where our food is being grown that is the problem. The internship at Zaytuna Farm has a lot of great education, but the goal of that farm is different than what I want to do. Their focus is on education and getting a broad Permaculture experience. I didn’t want to take the time, and money, to do things that were not directly and entirely in line with my primary goal, even though I know I would have a great time and learn a lot at Zaytuna.
  • I realized that if I did not take this trip to Australia, I would instead be able to attend a number of other courses closer to home. These courses would focus my educational time on things that would help me reach my primary goal. In addition, because I was not gone for months at a time, I could still keep saving for our land.
  • I hope that this doesn’t sound arrogant, because that is not how I see it. Over seven years ago, when I first decided I wanted to attend a Permaculture internship, I had so much I needed to learn. But I have learned a whole lot in the intervening years. I don’t think it would benefit me nearly as much as it would have seven years ago. In addition, internships offer the opportunity for people to do the same thing many times so that they can master it, or hopefully at least get proficient at it. But I realized that my learning style is really one of seeing, not doing over and over. If I see how something is done, I get it. I don’t need to do it over and over again before I understand it and can replicate it. This may be related to the classic style of medical education I endured, “See one, do one, teach one.” I am sure that if I did an internship, I learn something new every day. However, I decided that I would rather spend my time “seeing” as much as possible over this next year before we acquire our land. I will then be able to “do” on my land. I have no issues with internships. I’ve done a physician internship myself. There is great education in internships, and I plan to offer internships on my land as well. I have just decided that an internship is not my best use of time right now.
  • Finally, and this development occurred after my decision was made, but Geoff Lawton is no longer even offering his 10-week internship! Zaytuna Farm revamped their courses, and now they offer 4-week Specialized Work Experiences. I actually think this is a great change, and it actually addresses some of my reasons for deciding not to attend the internship. After reading about it, I may consider attending one of these in the future. But that is a whole other decision!
My photo from the Keyline Course.

My photo from the Keyline Course.

So, with all that said, I am planning on attending what I call Continuing Permaculture Education (CPE). As a physician, each year I am required to maintain a certain level of Continuing Medical Education (CME) to maintain my license. Why should I not do the same with Permaculture? Here is what I plan on doing this year… if all goes according to plan. Maybe I’ll see you there!

 

 

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Photo References:

  • http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_-_Fishermen_at_Sea_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
  • http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/16/Charles_Brooking_-_Fishing_Boats_in_a_Calm_Sea_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg/1280px-Charles_Brooking_-_Fishing_Boats_in_a_Calm_Sea_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

 

TCP Update (1 August 2014): Transitions

I don’t often give personal updates, but the frequency of my articles have dropped quite a bit as of late. I thought I would give just a brief update on what is going on with TCP.

To say that this is a busy time in our lives would be an understatement.

My family and I have been back in the United States for just over 8 weeks. We spent 4 years living abroad, 2 years in the Middle East (Turkey) and 2 years on an island in the North Atlantic (Terceira Island, Azores). I was working as a U.S. Air Force Family Medicine physician. After 11 years with the military in a Reserves and Active Duty role, my commitment was complete. I have no regrets, but I am glad to be done with the military for a number of reasons, the largest of which is that I am now free to pursue my personal, family, and Permaculture goals with no extraneous limitations.

This year is a year of transition for us. Just moving back to our home country is quite a big transition. My two oldest children don’t remember anything about life in the U.S., and my youngest two have never even lived in the U.S. before. All of them are having to deal with adjusting to a new culture, yet again. It is fascinating to see all the things my wife and I just “know” about our culture that we learned as children, but that our children don’t understand because they haven’t grown up in America. This is stressful for both them and us. My wife and I are also dealing with our own reverse culture shock, which I have written about a bit in a previous article. We are so glad to be back in the USA, but we are also still adjusting to our home culture again. I have had to forgo some of my typical writing time each day to be present with my family during this time of transition, and this has been healthy for all of us.

I have also stepped out of Family Medicine and into Emergency Medicine. There are a number of reasons for this transition. While I have loved practicing military Family Medicine, civilian Family Medicine is quite a bit different. I really cherished the relationships with my patients and their families, and I think this is the biggest aspect of Family Medicine I will miss. I like the faster pace and mostly higher acuity of care in Emergency Medicine. I really like working a shift where I do not have to take my work home with me and I don’t have to take call. And while I am very excited about transitioning to a new job and a new schedule, this process has taken up a lot of my time.

We decided to rent a house for this year of transition as well. While I am tired of living a transient life, this was a good decision for many reasons. Our household goods just arrived from the Azores… this only took four months! We have been digging out of boxes for the last few days. This is what I call a “good stressful” time. We are glad to be able to start to make this rental house a home, but the amount of work and exhaustion it takes to unpack a truck full of boxes is rather stressful. Again, this has also been taking up a lot of my time.

I am almost giddy with the fact that we are planning on purchasing land within this year. We are actually waiting to get final word from the bank on our pre-approval. There are a number of small, but surmountable, glitches with trying to get a mortgage after not living in the U.S. for 4 years.This process has actually been taking up quite a bit of my time as well, but it is slowly moving forward. We’ve gone out to look at land a few times, but we are waiting to look in earnest until the loan pre-approval is complete.

Education is another thing I am focusing on during this year of transition. My schedule affords me the opportunity to do quite a bit of traveling if I desire. I am planning on using this year to get some real practical, hands-on education before we purchase our land. I have spent the last decade reading about Permaculture and sustainable/regenerative agriculture. I have been able to implement these ideas on small, transient scales. However, we are on the brink of finally settling down with a sizable plot of land. I want to spend some time with others who have vastly more practical experience than I have. I’ll actually write another article here soon outlining the course I will be attending. Maybe I’ll see some of you there!

So there it is. There are multiple more transitions occurring right now, but these are the main ones that are taking me away from writing as much as I typically do, and this is why I wanted to share them with you. But I am hopeful that these transitions are taking us a step closer to our goals of living a fulfilled life. That makes this path worth walking.

 

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Photo References:

  • Pastoral Landscape by Alvan Fisher, 1854    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastoral#mediaviewer/File:Pastoral_Landscape_by_Alvan_Fisher,_1854.jpg