July 2019 Digest

Originally written for and published by MSU Extension – Michigan Small Farm Newsletter. The monthly digest intends to give a quick snapshot of what’s going on around here on the homestead. Since many of our subscribers do not get that publication, I’ll post the article here too.

7/29/19
Jacobsville, MI
White Sky Woods Homestead

What happened to all those blooms I mentioned in last month’s post? Fruit! The strawberries, cherries, juneberries, and blueberries are in varying phases of ripening. There are a lot of fruit on all of the plants and the ones that have ripened – the taste is spectacular! Jam and jelly making will begin soon and I’m hoping the heat will break so it’s not so hot working in the kitchen. Later fruits like chokecherry and apples have a while still. I can be patient, there is plenty to do in the meantime.

We had our first zucchini harvest in late July. The harvest began late this year because we had some troubles hardening off our squash plants. We grew them inside, spent good time hardening them off, planted them in the garden and then found all the plants dead about a week later (not a frost kill off, we suspect sun scald). Because of this, all the winter and summer squash were direct sown to the garden as seeds but I’m hopeful we’ll still have an excellent crop at the end of it all. Many other veggies are coming in: shelling peas, beets, spinach, and trilogy beans. We’ve been picking cabbage and found that a great way to enjoy them is to slice in thick (2 inch) pieces, season with garlic, salt, and pepper, wrap in foil and put them on the grill on low setting for approximately 35 minutes. 

Now that the heat seems to be breaking (someone please tell the chickens, they’ve been “on strike” and haven’t been laying), working in the garden and around the homestead will be more bearable. Many projects went on hold during the last 3 weeks of hot and humid weather and I’m now feeling the pressure of preserving the harvest. We continue to sell “extras” to local neighbors and friends.

Our duck, Rose, and her brood of 14 ducklings.

New faces around the homestead include a brood of 14 ducklings that hatched off one of our ducks nest. Also, it’s confirmed that our two doe goats are expecting! The physical changes in them are apparent and sometime in late August kids should be born. This will be our first birthing experience with goats. We’re looking forward to seeing what it will be like here with goat kids around and also to enjoy the milk the girls provide. Next on the docket is learning basic cheese making skills!

Compost, Backaches, and Sprouts

Well, if the title of this blog didn’t give it away, it’s planting season! The last weeks have been busy, spending the majority of each day laboring in the garden to prepare the soil and then planting it. I’ve often heard people say gardening is a relaxing thing, but I suspect they didn’t garden at the level of hoping to provide almost all their own food, for a family of four, for a year. The last days have been enjoyable being out in the fresh air and sun, but not exactly relaxing as I raced to get everything planted before June 1st, my own personal timeline.

Northern gardening is a bit more challenging because we don’t get as high of temps for as long. Our current long range forecast shows daytime temps of mid-60’s through June 15th. Planting the garden too early is not an option because of the risk of frost (with the exception of cold hardy seeds and starts). Planting the garden too late is not an option because of the risk of cutting the season way too short. Also, since we’re relying on all of our own seed starts, some are smaller than what you would expect to buy from a garden store so they need ample time to grow.

This year one of our achievements is the budget we planted on. After buying some growing soil for our seed starts and a few seed packets we needed or wanted to try, our total cost put into the garden this year is about $30. Considering we planted over 3,000 square feet, that’s pretty reasonable, right?

Another achievement is that we expanded the fenced garden. Our original plot from our first full year (2018 growing season) was approximately 2,000 square feet. This year we took over the attached poultry/rabbit yard, adding another 800 fenced square feet. The chickens and ducks went on complete free-range and the rabbits moved to a better location that will be more suitable for winter care. Because the soil in that area needs to be managed for better growing, we are only planting a portion of it.

Gardening isn’t all about little green plants though. A major project I’ve also started (and not yet finished) is mucking out the goat shed from the winter. While starting this project I realized I didn’t have any compost bins to put it in. One bin was done and ready to go to the garden, so that whole bin has been screened and then spread in the garden with our new plantings, making way to refill it with poo and hay to then rot down into soil.

I still have over half of the goat shed to clean out, but with several weeks of working in the garden for long days, my back has seen better days. I was already nursing a sensitive spot that seems to continuously get aggravated from hiking (and snowshoeing in winter). That spot was weak and a new spot is now aggravated and worse than the original spot.

I finished planting the garden on Friday, 5/31 and had an appointment that afternoon with a magician (i.e. chiropractor). The next two days I’m on physical rest to help continue the healing process. The break will be both physical and mental. Knowing the garden is in for the season brings me such peace. In just several weeks of work, hopefully this will provide us with the majority of the food we need to sustain us for the year.

My Yellow-rumper Warbler friend.

While I was working with the compost, I noticed the activity of some little birds. A small flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers had taken notice to the recently stirred compost and were visiting often. One was so comfortable with my presence I probably could have just picked him up. What a beautiful treat to share my work time with these little birds who were fun to watch and listen to.

Hope you get a chance to get your hands in the dirt to either plant food for yourself or to beautify your space.

Cheers! Peace, Love and Nature,

-L

Help for Hard Labor has Arrived!

Eventually I’ll succumb to the idea of needing a tractor here on the homestead. On a rare occassion we’ve had a project that a tractor is necessary for, thankfully we have neighbors who have come to help with their own tractor.

Things I dislike about a tractor:

  • Space needed for storage.
  • Cost to buy.
  • Cost to maintain, insure.
  • Gas to run.
  • Loud sounds it makes. Ugh, I despise loud sounds.

Things I like about a tractor:

  • Does heavy labor I cannot.
  • With the right implements, it’s verstile for doing many projects.

I actually enjoy hard labor, but there are some things I know I could do more efficently if I had some help. For instance, I can move big pieces of firewood, but, I could move MANY big pieces of firewood at once and at longer distances with some support. Well, that support will be here on the homestead soon, it’s not a human and it’s not a tractor.

Meet Wiit (left) and Nels(right)! Cute, aren’t they?

What do they have to do with labor? Well, they don’t know it yet, but they are the helpers! We’ll be training these young bull calves to be oxen! If you are unfamiliar, an ox is defined as a bovine trained as a draft animal. I am so excited, yet nervous. I have no bovine experience and of course, have never trained an ox…or any draft animal for that matter. Lots of research led us to this decision and lots of reading and watching has done the best job it can in preparing us for this new adventure. When asked, one person assured us “It’s easier than I thought it would be – just spend consistent time with them and it’s not hard.” I hope I will be able to say the same!

Our goal is to have them help us move large timber, haul firewood, work in the field and any other odds and ends they can help us with. Plus, I look forward to having them as work companions and having their manure for our fields and gardens. As a seasoned oxen teamster (this is the term for a person working oxen) pointed out, if some how it doesn’t work out, you still have “well-trained beef”, meaning they can serve a purpose as meat animals if not oxen. This logic appealed to my practicalities, but I do hope that’s not how it turns out.

Our homestead has a working farm history, and from what we’ve been told, there were cattle raised here for a significant period of time. From the looks of the old machinery left behind, there were draft animals being used as well. I’m excited to bring back some of the history and continue to work our homestead in a way it may have been worked historically, with draft animals. Each calf’s name is derived from the name of an owner who lived and worked this exact land.

Wiit and Nels will be arriving in about a week, so let the draft training begin!

Exciting Homestead Announcement!

A year and a half has come and gone since our move to the homestead in June, 2017. Did I have any idea the major amount of work and progress we would have achieved in the first year and a half? Nope! Although sometimes it’s hard to see it through my own perspective because I usually see things as what needs to be done, rather than spending time thinking about what has been done. It’s the comments by visitors that helps me see the amount of hard work we’ve put into our homestead in such little time. We’ve often heard things like “how long have you been here, a decade or so?” or “I can’t believe how much you’ve achieved in such little time.”

In winter, it brings me an even clearer perspective of the past. While we’ve lived here for a year and a half, almost all the major outdoor work is done May through October since those are the months when weather generally cooperates for projects to take place and the ground is not frozen. No wonder we are so busy all summer!

The start of 2019 brings even more growth. Our exciting homestead announcement is that we officially launched our business – White Sky Woods Homestead, LLC! In 2019, we’ll be expanding our ethically and pasture-raised meat to hogs and rabbits. Being an LLC will allow us to invest in better systems on our homestead that will benefit people and animals. It will allow us to further educate ourselves and therefore offer more services around the products we offer.

Our intention for our homestead continues to be a focus on self-reliance and sustainability. However, we’ve found it to be very pleasing to bring ethically raised, high-quality meat product to other people who are interested in finding this locally. We are so thankful for our 2018 buyers, and are stoked for what will come of 2019!

Our son Woodland with the chickens and ducks on a winter day.

Maybe you’ve purchased a pasture-raised hog, maybe you’re a new friend or you know us from our pre-homesteading life. Perhaps being like-minded, you’ve stumbled across us on social media or the web. All of the support by words of encouragement, a simple like on our social posts, or the purchase of a pasture-raised hog is meaningful to where we are headed with our new business. THANK YOU ALL!

These Cookies are Wild!

I’m a believer that there is no better season for cookies then winter. Especially the winter we are having right now – all negative temps, all week long, add lots of snow. Since our homestead is immersed in a natural environment, it only makes sense that much of our homeschool learning that happens around here is seasonal and nature based. Last week I was facilitating a homeschool class that we hold weekly with friends and the topic was conifers. One part of the lesson I knew I wanted to do was to have the kids try Pine Needle Tea. This is an easy one…

PINE NEEDLE TEA:
Find pine needles, wash them, cut in half and steep in hot water. I like to let the brew sit over night with the needles, it seems like more flavor is released. The more needles you have the stronger it will be. Start light and adjust in future brews.

We’ve been making a big batch and then keeping it in jars in the fridge, reheating when ready to enjoy. According to various sources, Pine Needle Tea is loaded with Vitamin C and Vitamin A and antioxidents.

Since that is so healthy and easy I figured I’d do some research into what else could be prepared with pine needles. We have a bountiful amount right here on the homestead after all! I stumbled across this unique recipe: Spruce Tree Shortbread Cookies.

We also have plenty of spruce needles to harvest from here, but since I already collected pine and it was -1 degree F outside, Pine Needle Shortbread Cookies it was going to be!

Woodland mixing the butter, sugar and pine needle powder.

Honestely, I had my doubts this could taste good. I especially had my doubts when I took it out of the 24-hour refrigeration period and it was rock hard! But, after it had a chance to sit out at room temperature for a brief time, it could be rolled and cut. 5 kids worked to roll out the dough, cut the cookies, bake them and finally frost them. The outcome was delightful!

Handiwork from kids!

All the kids loved the cookies and enjoyed them with a side of Pine Needle Tea. Some thought the frosting was a bit too sweet (I agree). Adults approved of the cookies as well! If you have access to spruce or pine needles fresh off of unsprayed trees, try this recipe! I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

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Wishing you winter warmth.

Peace, Love and Nature,

-L

In Response to a Hog Harvest

Yesterday marked a first for me, we had a complete hog harvest right here on the homestead. We’ve harvested hogs before, but they went to the local butcher. The local butcher became unexpectedly unavailable at our harvest time, so it was time to try for ourselves. I participated in the whole event, start to finish. I helped prepare the pigs for dispatch, move them, skin the carcass and gut the carcass. I did all the meat cuts on a half hog. It was exhausting but necessary process. I learned a lot!

With that experience complete, I’m feeling a deep sense of pride in myself for being capable of this (and being willing!). It makes me incredibly pleased to be so involved in a process that provides our family with hyper-local food that was raised with love. Yes, we greatly enjoy the meat, and yes, we know the name of the pig it comes from. More about this in my thoughts here:

In Response to a Hog Harvest

I raised this pig.
I watched her be born.
I watched her grow.
I watched her lazily wallow in the mud on hot days.
I watched her take cozy shelter in the hay on cold.
I fed this pig by giving her a pasture to graze.
I shared with her my garden goodies.
I was loyal, I cared for her.

She gave me laughs, and perhaps a few moments of frustration.
Don’t most relationships?

I gave her back scratches.
In return, she warmed my heart.

I knew from the start what she would be.
Because of this I cared for her even more.
I provided for her.
Now, she provides for me.

That is ethical.
That is responsible.
That is hyper-local food.
That defines her and that defines me.
That is something I take pride in.
That is my homestead life.

Wishing you peace, love and nature,

-L

Be Scrappy, Get Hay, Save the Pumpkins!

I’m learning that living a frugal life on the homestead has a lot to do with being scrappy.  Maybe that’s not a term you’re familiar with, but when I describe someone as scrappy that means they are resourceful and determined….you know, the kind of person who defines “where there is a will, there is a way”.  We’ve had our fair share of being scrappy around here.  I’m willing to do the hard work (vs. spending money) to receive a positive outcome.  One example of this is our horse manure source. She needs the horse barn cleaned out and the manure to go away, we’re willing to shovel it and haul it away.  It then gets spread across our garden to help the soil fertility.  Win-Win!

Another recent example of this is when we randomly inquired about hay bales that were being used for an event. A friend connected us with the event coordinator who was using the haybales whom we learned was more than happy to have us haul 75 hay bales away. Otherwise, she would have had to find something to do with them. With the help of friends who have a large trailer, we met, loaded, hauled and unloaded 75 bales of hay.  They took what they needed and we kept the rest. No cost, some labor, working together as a team – now that’s scrappy! The real benefit goes to our animals. Between feed, bedding and creating winter shelter, these bales are a real aid to our homesteading.  The event coordinator got rid of 75 unwanted hay bales effortlessly.  Another Win-Win!

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Free Hay?  Yes!

Another way we’ll be scrappy in this Halloween season is by putting a message out to people in the local area letting them know we’ll collect their pumpkins, hay bales, and/or corn they had out as decorations for autumn and Halloween.  Did you know that in the U.S. alone, over 1 BILLION pounds of pumpkins go to the landfill? Imagine how many people (or in our case – happy pigs) that could be feed, or how much nutrient rich compost that could make? So, local friends who have pumpkins (carved, getting wrinkly, or uncarved are all welcome), message me and we’ll come pick them up and put them to use!  Or, you can stop by and personally feed them to our pigs, it’s fun to watch!

Ideas for your uncarved pumpkins after Halloween can be found here.  If you can feed your pumpkins to the wildlife without creating nuisance animals for your neighborhood, that’s an idea too.  Have a friend with a compost pile? Share your pumpkin with them! If you have a friend with pigs, well of course give them the pumpkins.  🙂

Homesteading and non-homesteading followers alike – have any tips on how you are scrappy?  This could be tips for the homestead, meals, household, etc. Let us know! Drop us a comment here at the blog, or find our Facebook post with this blog and post your ideas there.  We love hearing from you!

Peace, Love & Nature,

-L

Homestead Heaps to Hugelkultur

When we purchased our “raw” land, there were no buildings, no home, nothing but trees and grasses. After the purchase we received a letter from the former owner who used the land for camping with family.  She explained that when they owned the land there had been an old Finnish homestead (very typical in this area), including one remaining building, the home. It was in such poor condition that they tore it down for safety reasons. We now know exactly where that home was, the stone foundation remains (and we intend to leave it), along with some of the wood from the floor. We love to think about the history of this homestead and it became obvious to us that it is here because there is an established orchard, rock wall and posts with barbed wire, a patch of rhubarb, two old wells (now filled in for safety) and various other clues that I could go on and on about.

The snow is melted and the grasses have just started growing, as this is our first spring here, we are begining to notice stuff that is around that has been here long before us.  One specific area near our yurt has several heaps of old rotting wood.  In the summer, the wood piles are hiding from sight in tall grasses and heirloom roses (also a sign of an old homestead). But now that I can see the old piles of rotting wood, I feel the need for clean up. But, what to do with it? Well, we have the perfect solution: build a hugelkultur!  A what?!

Midwest Permaculture defines that “Hugelkultur is an old German concept/word meaning “hill-culture”. Wood is buried under topsoil (either in a hole or right on the ground) and as it breaks down, it holds lots of moisture and provides sustained nutrients for plant growth.” If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of hugelkultur, read on what Permaculture Magazine has to say about it.

A quick snapshot of what we did:

1.) Uncover all the rotting wood, various spots within and next to the orchard.

2.) Move the wood to our two spots we determined would be good for hugelkultur. The wood ranged from 10 foot hand sawn 8×8 inch logs to decayed crumbled pieces. Moving it all by hand was a tiring but felt so productive.

3.) Once completed, we moved dirt (with a tractor thankfully) from a pile we had excavated from the yurt site prior to the yurt build and dumped it on top of the hugelkultur.

4.) We completed 2 hugelkulturs.  1 is approximately 5 feet high and 20 feet long.  The other is smaller, at approximately 3 feet high and 10 feet long.

A dream of mine is to create a food forest amongst the current original homestead orchard.  The hugelkultur are integrated into that space and will be home to plants that provide food.

5.) The last step was to plant some trees and bushes to get our food forest started. We planted 5 Hazelnut bushes, 3 Highbush Cranberry, bushes and 2 Patriot Blueberry bushes.

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Build in process. Large wood at the bottom, piling branches and twig sized wood on top, and a final layer of small chips, grasses, mulch. Last layer is dirt, not shown here.

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Tim atop the hugelkultur! Working to even it out to get it ready to plant.

Another benefit to the hugelkultur is that as our nut and berry bushes grow, it will create a visual barrier from the road toward the yurt.  We very rarely have any traffic, however, I still love to guarantee my privacy.

We strive to practice permaculture methods here at White Sky Woods Homestead, so building the hugelkultur, which a method promoted by permaculture guru Sepp Holzer, seemed a natural fit.   If we didn’t have the materials, perhaps this wouldn’t have made a lot of sense, but the hugelkultur allowed us to clean up the homestead and unload a huge pile of dirt we’ve had sitting around.  Plus, it got us moving on the food forest dream I have.  Hopefully more on this in a future blog.

While we uncovered wood, we also uncovered other things…..glass bottles, tin cans, beer bottles, Michigan Licsence plate from 1954, intact door with porclein handle….and more!  Check out this Facebook post and weigh in on our findings!

The next week is fully focused in the garden, my happy place!

Peace, Love and Nature,

-L

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