Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Farm Tour: Plainfield Horse Farm


I got back on the house-hunting horse again today!  (pun intended...even though I know it's horrible!)

Scheduling house tours around the holidays has been a little bit of a nightmare.  I had two tours planned for after work this afternoon, and neither of them worked out.  At the last minute my real-estate agent was able to make an appointment at another property that was on my list: a small horse farm in Plainfield.

The farm can best be described as "okay"

I know that's not the most useful adjective, but I really can't think of another word for it.  Here is the quick breakdown:

Location:  45 minutes from my folks (which is further than I had hoped), but right off 395, which is pretty convenient

Land: 16 acres, half-cleared and half-wooded (an ideal size), but poorly designed and VERY wet.  Apart from a nice pond for swimming, there were 4 springs and several small brooks running downhill through the property.  Most of the land was pretty soggy, which made me a little concerned.  The horses also took quite a toll on the three pastures closest to the house.  The other big downside is that there is also no buffer between the 6 neighboring houses, all previously owned by the farm owner's family and all very close to the property.

House: A raised ranch with a built-in apartment.  Some good updates (like a new roof), but overall a really bizarre design and lots of out-of-date features.  I didn't really care for anything about it (other than the large farmhouse sink!), but could see that with some TLC it could be "okay."  There was a garage and a "barn" but neither were in very good condition.

I think that with a little more effort on my part, I could like this farm.  It is listed at 249K, and the owners are desperate to move somewhere warm.  For now, I have a couple of other properties that I'm looking forward to seeing before I make any decisions.

I'm starting to get excited about farm searching again.  My dream farm is out there somewhere!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

photo from Martha Stewart


When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with
their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.

- Howard Thurman

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Break

image from livecreatingyourself.com
Happy Winter Solstice!

Sorry for the absence of posts the past few days.  My real estate agent is away until after the holidays, so I haven't had much news to report on the farm-searching front (unless spending hours and hours each day searching properties online counts as "news").

I'm really eager to move forward in the farm search process.  I don't take disappointment easily, and a big part of me is still mourning the fact that my plans for the North Stonington farm fell through.  That's been the life I imagined for the past two months (despite trying to remain unattached!), and it's hard for me to just forget about that promise.  I haven't been able to find suitable properties to visit in the area that I was hoping to live, which is a real let down. Combine my disappointment with the very short days (the darkness just exhausts me), and I haven't had much to say.

Yesterday I decided that what I really needed was to be surrounded with love.  A reminder of why I am working so hard for this dream.  So after work I drove west to visit my chickens and K.  Everyone was SO excited to see me.  I spent time outside with my girls until sunset, and then curled up with K in front of the high-def yule log.  The perfect evening.

I'll make this crazy dream work somehow.  But in the meantime, I'm just looking forward to a relaxing holiday weekend.  One day at a time.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Missing my girl tonight


Neckie the Turken


with a face only a mother could love.  :-)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Progress Report: Three Months

image from etsy.com

Well the past month has certainly been a whirlwind of an adventure!  Even though I accomplished quite a bit this past month, in a lot of ways I feel further behind than I was in month two.

Things I Accomplished:
1. Attended a Soil Health Workshop and learned about intense cover cropping for rotational grazing, as well as a screening of American Meat and networked with area farmers.
2. Got a job and began working (almost) full-time again.
3. Farm visits: Stonyledge Farm, Sweet Acre Farm
4. Attended two New CT Farmer Alliance meetings
5. Conducted a thorough soil analysis and met with the DEEP about state-owned land associated with the North Stonington Farm
6. Attended the 2011 Young Farmers Conference at Stone Barns.
7. Attended the Holistic Farm Planning course on Financial Management.
8. Worked on the Beginning Farmers Loan Application and an official contract.  Put in my FIRST OFFER on a farm!
9. Waited a VERY long week, only to find that my contract for the North Stonington farm was denied, with no option to negotiate.
10. Started the process of searching for farmland to purchase again, beginning with the Canterbury "Farm in a Box."

Things I'm Still Working On:
1. Finding farmland to purchase or lease for the upcoming season.
2. Finding a good home for my chickens closer to me.
3. Continuing to develop my farm business plan.
4. Creating a decent back-up plan (just in case finding land doesn't go very well).
5. Putting myself out there and keeping my options open.



Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Farm Tour: Canterbury "Farm in a Box"


I'm out of the habit of doing farm tours and forgot to take photos today!  Hopefully my girls' beautiful eggs will make up for it!  :-)

After work today I drove about 50 minutes north to Canterbury.  I think K described Canterbury's location best:  "You just drive to the middle of nowhere, and it's an hour further on the left."  Not quite nestled in the quiet corner, it's certainly in a rural part of the state.

I drove up to check out a property that a fellow farmer sent my way.  Word of mouth communication is the most valuable resource in the farming community, and this property was the perfect example.  The 26 acre farm was owned by a young family, but earlier this spring the father unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack.  An incredible tragedy.  The property is too much for his widow and teenagers to maintain, so they are selling the entire property, as is.  A "farm in a box" if you will.

This concept is very appealing to me.  I've always felt that I'm better at "making do" than making decisions.  I can easily think of ways to modify a system, but picking out new equipment feels so overwhelming.  This farm has a well-established, diverse farm business complete with perennial fruits and vegetables (lots of berries and a small orchard), as well as livestock (cows, pigs, laying hens), equipment (two massey ferguson tractors and all the attachments), several outbuildings, and a feed business. 

The farm was incredibly well designed, with the house and central buildings in the middle of the property surrounding a natural pond.  The chicken coop borders the peach orchard, where many of the birds roost at night.  A few acres of vegetable fields and berries line the front road.  The largest pasture borders the woods in the back of the property.  There is even an in-ground pool and a Swedish-style sauna (yes, you read that correctly), as well as an apartment for farm workers.  I can imagine that in the height of the season, it's really a beautiful spot.

Under the dreary skies of winter, however, all I was able to see was the disrepair.  There were six or seven small outbuildings that needed to come down.  The garage was packed floor to ceiling with broken furniture and garbage.  The large workshop was nearly as bad.  The house needed a ton of work: there was a good amount of water damage, lead paint on most of the walls, poorly insulated windows, old appliances, and more.  A diverse farm, with so many different buildings and pieces of equipment, is constantly in need of repair.

And I know that my limited budget (as well as the nature of older farms) means a fixer-upper.  I can get excited to turn a house into a beautiful home.  But walking around today, all I was able to see were dollar signs.  The property is priced at $490K.  The farm is appraised at $289K, as is, meaning all of the livestock (including the meat in the chest freezers), equipment, fencing, and the business are included.  Unfortunately, there are no records (another good reason for good record keeping!!!).  The widow has no idea of what is on the farm in terms of equipment, or of the value of the business.  I'm not sure how they derived the sale price, or how accurate it is, but I do know that I can't afford it.  And that it is overpriced.  Even if I were to get the farm for free, I think I would need my $300K loan to get the farm in real working order.

What it boils down to is that I left the farm without an ounce of excitement.  I was overwhelmed and craving more details (which don't exist).  I know that I need to compromise on my ideals, but this farm was just too far away from home, too expensive, and needed too much work.  Part of me (the dreamer) is intrigued at what I could turn the property into, but a larger part of me (the realist) knows I could invest everything I have into that property and never be able to keep up.

Visiting this farm made me realize a larger key aspect of my search.  K and I are really excited to start our own business.  While taking over an established business has many appeals, a big draw for us is establishing our own business, brand, and network.  We could make the existing business into whatever we'd like, of course, but there's something to be said for starting small and growing within our means.  I worry taking on too large of an endeavor at the start would kill some of that anxiety because of all of the stress.  And maybe that'll happen anyway, but I certainly hope not.

I uprooted my life so that I could come HOME.  Even though there is hardly anything on the market here, I haven't given up on that dream yet.  We are too social to move to the middle of nowhere.

And so, the search continues.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Holistic Farm Planning: Financial Management

image from thebyronlife.com
This past Saturday I continued with my Beginning Women Farmers class with in an introduction to financial planning.  I'll be honest, financial planning is something that I need a lot of help with.  I want to develop a really good system for record keeping and management before I begin my farm operation because I know that I am much better at systems when they have become habit (rather than struggling to compile notes and doing the bookkeeping only when I've fallen behind).

I read the chapters on financial planning that were assigned for homework and felt totally lost.  I was nervous to attend class, especially because I didn't have any farm figures to bring with me to work my way through the numbers.  I don't even have great personal financial records.  As I said before, I need a lot of help.

Thankfully, the class started at the beginning and I left with a much better understanding.

First off - why is financial planning important?
1. Financial planning helps you to make decisions towards your holistic goals.
2. It helps you to conduct a macro-assessment of your farm, analyze individual enterprises, and assesses potential new enterprises.
3. It helps you plan for the profit you need up front.
4. It helps you to define all farm income streams.
5. It helps you to calculate a cap for all financial expenditures.
6. It helps you prioritize your expenses to invest in.
7. And it also helps you to monitor your plan proactively.

Perfect!  Taking time to develop a farm financial plan will allow me to develop a profitable business, as well as maintain my broader life goals (having a retirement account, going on vacation, etc).

Most financial plans calculate I - E = P (Income - Expenses = Profit).  You plan an income, subtract the expenses, and what's leftover is your profit.  A holistic plan switches things around and calculates I - P = E (Income - Profit = Expenses).  By planning for profit, you put a cap on your expenses and spending and ensure that you have enough money to live out your holistic goals.

The process isn't instant.  Meaning, I can't just plan for profit and get a $1 million mansion in the caribbean (though wouldn't that be nice?).  But with this business mindset and some savings, I could work towards having a vacation home (if that were important to me).

The biggest challenge is limiting expenses.  There are three main types of expenses: inescapable (essential or morally obligated expenses, like taxes and a mortgage), maintenance (regular expenses like electricity, phone, seeds, feed, etc), and wealth generating (solutions to weak links in your business that will help you make money or improve efficiency).  If you can reduce maintenance expenses, you can have more money for wealth generating expenses or for profit.

Overwhelmed yet?  Here are the basic take-aways:
1. Take good notes!  Record keeping will better help you to assess your business and make informed decisions.
2. Plan for profit.  Get an idea of how much money you reasonably need to meet your family needs, build savings, and improve your quality of life.
3. Plan your income.  Then plan your expenses with the remaining funds.  You may have to adjust to make everything work (ie. add a new enterprise, reduce expenses, or reduce profit), but after a few years of planning for profit it'll get much easier.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Expanding my Search


I spent a good part of last night and most of today expanding my search of farm properties online.  The owners of the North Stonington Farm refused to budge below their asking price (which is about $125,000 over the recalculated appraisal value), so I need to move on.

I wish I could get more excited about the search.  It's just exhausting to have to start all over again, especially with the added pressure of the holidays, a new job, and anticipated snowfall.  And it seems like the property of my dreams is not currently on the market.  Compromising on details like location, a house, and even price haven't produced any properties that are super promising.

I sent a list of 8 "diamonds in the rough" to my real estate agent to review.  Hopefully we'll go to visit a couple this week.  And I know that more options will present themselves.  I just need to keep my head held high and stay focused on my dream.

A farm of my own.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Empty

For the past five days I have been glued to my phone, waiting for it to ring.

The deadline on the contract to purchase the North Stonington Farm was 2 hours ago and I still can't get ahold of my real estate agent.  I think in this case, we assume no news is bad news.

I just feel empty.  Two and a half months of work and I'm left with nothing.  Not even confirmation that it's over.

So I guess that tomorrow I will pick up the pieces and start all over again.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Tomorrow

image from canellevanille.com
Still waiting to hear back on my offer for the North Stonington Farm.  This has been a very long week: going through the motions of my daily routine, but simultaneously feeling like my life is on hold.

I'm just counting down the hours until tomorrow at 5PM - when I hear a response.  Thankfully I have my Beginning Women Farmers course to keep my mind occupied all day.  I'm sure that my offer will not be accepted, I'm just hoping for a reasonable counter-offer. It's just so hard to know what to expect.

This is only the beginning, folks.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

DIsappointment

Yesterday's meeting between my real estate agent and the owner of the North Stonington Farm did not go well.  They still have until Saturday to respond to the offer, but my real estate agent told me not to get my hopes up.

Devastating.

This waiting game is such a bummer...but mostly I'm just bummed.  I had really wanted this to work.


image from etsy.com

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Watched Pot Never Boils...

...is now OFFICIALLY my least favorite cliche.

My real estate agent had a meeting to explain the offer to the homeowners at 4:30 this afternoon.  She told me she would call right afterwards with an update.

That was over 4 hours ago.

Do you know how many times I can pace around the kitchen in 4 hours?

Monday, December 5, 2011

An Offer

image from matchbook magazine dec, 2011
I put in an offer on the North Stonington Farm this afternoon!

I couldn't help but smile as I autographed the contract about 25 times.  I feel really good about the offer.  I know that the owners aren't going to accept it, but I'm hoping they come back with a reasonable negotiation.

My saint of a real-estate agent met with a team of advisors and spent the day crunching numbers on the house.  They estimated the current appraised value (it was last appraised in 2005), did a market analysis of comparable homes on the market as well as comparable homes that have sold in the past year, and compiled everything into an easy-to-understand chart.  Nothing makes this girl more confident than submitting an offer with a chart to support it.

One of the hardest things about determining whether or not I could actually afford to purchase a farm was that I couldn't find any finances to compare to.  I understand that finances are private, but I wanted to share where I am at in the process.  Please don't use these numbers to judge - this is only what I (and my growing team of advisors) think will work.

Asking Price: 399,000 for sale by owner (originally listed at 680,000 in 2009)
Appraised Value: 349,000 (2005, before market crash)
Maximum Loan Amount through USDA FSA Program: 300,000
Comparative Market Analysis - Average: 273,000
My Offer (12.5.11) - 265,000

My real estate agent has a meeting with the homeowners late tomorrow afternoon, and they have until this Saturday to respond.  Neither of us have any idea how it will go, but I will admit that I'm excited.  It's only an offer, but it's a really solid step in the right direction.

I know I've been doing a lot of finger crossing lately, but this time it's for real!  :-)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Letting Go

photo from crushculdesac.tumblr.com/
I just got home from a meeting with my real estate agent about putting in an offer on the North Stonington Farm.

The conversation involved a lot of numbers.  It doesn't even feel like money to me anymore.  I've worked my entire life for the money that I have in my bank account and it's not even 1/10th of the money that I need to purchase the farm.  I know a lot of people that love to spend money, but I just can't conceive of spending money that I don't have.

We spoke about the specifics of the North Stonington property, comparable properties in the area, and where the market is at.  Tomorrow after work I will meet with a broker to discuss the finances in more detail and decide on an asking price and negotiation strategy.  I want to offer a fair price for the property, but do not want to pay considerably more than it's worth.  And with recent tax assessments, the offering price will be considerably lower than the asking price.  That's just how it is.

The biggest accomplishment of the day was not the financial conversation, but the process of letting go.  I will put in an offer that I can afford (with a little wiggle room to negotiate and cover any unexpected costs), and then wait.  Either the family will come back with a reasonable counter-offer or they won't.  I'll be disappointed if we can't negotiate (for sure), but I'm prepared for that.  I will not do whatever it takes to get this property - only what I know I can do on my own to make it work.

I feel sort of sad having to let go, even though I won't know for sure until next week.  But I need a clear mind to make the best decision, and that does not involve dreams of gardens and pigs and all the special-needs chickens I can care for.  If I've learned anything thus far in life it's that things rarely work as I first plan, but they always work out in the end.

Clear eyes, full hearts.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Young Farmers are Awesome


It always feels so good to come home.

Especially when I get to spend the day lounging around, wrapping gifts, and decorating for the holidays.  It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

I'm back from the Young Farmers Conference at Stone Barns.  Two full days of good food, fellow farmers, and all sorts of interesting workshops.  Record keeping, silvopasturing, electric fences, heritage breeds, developing a profitable farm, innovative tools and caterpillar tunnels.  Even though I was a little disappointed with some of the workshops, I left with enough innovative ideas to make it all worthwhile.

I think what I wrestled with most at the conference was not having a farm to identify with.  Even though I've never had a farm of my own, I've been working at farm after farm for the past 5 years without gaps in the season.  It's hard to be a farmer without a farm - especially when you're surrounded by strangers who are looking to figure out who you are as simply as possible (vegetable grower?  dairy farmer?  cattle rancher?).  I hadn't realized how important my work is to my identity.

Tonight I'm curling up with a new book (Jenna Woginrich's Barnheart - an inspiring young farmer that tells the heartfelt story of starting her farm), a cup of peppermint tea, and warm thoughts that I'm not alone in my quest for a farm of my own.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I'm Off!

image from heatherbullard.typepad.com
I'm headed to the Young Farmers Conference at Stone Barns Center in NY!

I'm SO excited to spend time with other young famers and learn lots of cool farming things!  I'll be back Saturday with a full report!  :-)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Beauty

image from middlechildcomplex.tumblr.com/
Sorry for the rant yesterday.  It was uncalled for.  I let all of my frustrations from the day pile up onto my disappointment over the unexpected challenges of the state-owned land.  But I'll find a way around the state policy.  That's what farmers are good at.

And I ate TWO cupcakes for dessert, which certainly made up for the rest of the day.  :-)

I'm still waiting on the disclosures from the North Stonington property before I can put in an offer.  Hopefully next week - I'm desperate for some peace of mind.

I spent the day surrounded by hundreds of beautiful people.  Granted, most of them were under the age of three.  But children are the best reminder that there is happiness all around - I just have to stop worrying and let it in.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Frustration: State-owned Land Use

I try not to write letters out of frustration.  As a person who LOVES getting mail, I find that almost always feels better to write a thank-you note or a congratulatory letter than a rant about something that's gone wrong.  Postal service workers should feel good about their job delivering mail from me.

Except for tomorrow.

This afternoon I FINALLY heard back from the State's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) about leasing the 25 acres of state-owned pasture adjacent to the North Stonington property I am hoping to purchase.  The two properties are one large field (formerly all the same farm), with three posts pounded down the center to mark the line.  For the past few years it has been used for haying by a very elderly dairy farmer down the street, simply keeping it as open space.

In my proposal to the state I described my interests in sustainable agriculture and desire to use rotational grazing to manage the land.  Experts everywhere agree that rotational grazing is one of the best land uses.  The animals eat the forage and simultaneously fertilize the land.  There is no manure build-up, no arsenal of fertilizers, no chemicals needed.  Grazing is how farmers and ranchers fed their animals, up until the advent of industrial agriculture.

Well, apparently the (insert adjective of your choice) folks in the DEEP do not allow grazing on state-owned land.  There are other management practices that may be allowed, if I call back tomorrow between said limited hours, which they would be happy to discuss with me.  I look forward to learning more about what is allowed and what is not allowed (having been warned by fellow farmer friends and the folks at NRCS), but I can nearly guarantee that their suggestions will not involve what I would consider sustainable land management (which involves both plants AND animals working together).

Bah.

Which brings me to my greater frustration - the one that inspired writing a letter.  I will NOT take time now to discuss all of the challenges of being a young, female farmer attempting to purchase land and start a farm business.  I will simply summarize by saying that it is an incredibly challenging project that lacks government support.  Or support in general.  There just aren't that many folks in CT silly enough to take on such an enormous project, so the infrastructure to help isn't there.

What frustrates me is that I have worked for the past several years advocating for farmland preservation.  I thought it was an important way to prevent overdevelopment, preserve a local food culture, and keep land in the hands of farmers.  And for many farm families, selling off the development rights for their land has been the saving grace that has allowed them to remain a farm.  Goodness knows that in the tough times it can be appealing to have such a simple out as selling off the farm to pay for all of the debt that has piled up.

I still very much support farmland preservation.  My definition of farmland is land that can be used for agriculture. Much of the farmland in CT has very good soils, but on sloped terrain (which can be difficult to work with a tractor and increase the risk of erosion)- perfect for grazing.  I support farming practices that have a triple bottom line - social, economic, and environmental - and farmland that provides a viable business for farmers.

And the economics don't compare.  You can get paid $100 an acre for someone to hay your fields.  Maybe.  But you can make a few thousand dollars in meat per acre by grazing a variety of animals (cows, pigs, chickens).

I do not support the preservation of farmland just for the sake of it.  I've never been one for collecting things without a purpose.  Collecting farmland without providing the means for it to be farmed is pointless.  You can't support farmland preservation without supporting farmers.  Otherwise it's just open space (which has certain benefits, as well, they just aren't agricultural).

And I'm not trying to discredit the work that's being done to encourage the state and municipalities to lease land to farmers.  UConn Extension and CT Farmland Trust recently put together the Farmland CONNections Guide to help walk both parties through the complicated leasing process and to encourage landholders to lease their land to farmers for agricultural use.  It's a great start.

But allowing rotational grazing on state owned land will require a policy change.  I feel exhausted just thinking about that lengthy process, and about all of the other policies that need to change in order to support farmers.  I hope my letter to the organizations that support farmland preservation will inspire leaders to think more specifically about how to preserve farmers.

Phewf.

Thank goodness it's MY BIRTHDAY!  And after a long first day of work, and then getting all fired up over land use (must remember to breathe!), I came home to these:


Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm.  I don't care what anyone says: cupcakes make everything better!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Back-up Plan

image from aresohappy.tumblr.com
I emailed my real estate agent yesterday to make an appointment to draft a contract for the North Stonington Farm. The thoughts of whether or not my offer will be accepted are consuming too much of my energy.  I'm ready to know if the farm will actually be mine come spring (pending all of the other details fall into place, of course).  I'll be putting in an offer that I feel comfortable I can afford (regardless of the asking price), ignoring any phone calls from the homeowner trying to "teach" me about real estate, and keeping my fingers crossed.  I even saved the wishbone for Thanksgiving, just in case I need an extra jolt of good luck.

Waiting will be the hardest part.

I'm really trying to work on my patience and my worrying.  Much easier said than done.

Part of that work involves developing a back-up plan.  I have several already (of course) but none of them really compare to having a farm of my own, they are just temporary living/working/learning situations for the next year or two.  So I started looking at property again.  The good thing about real estate is that it's always fluctuating and I actually found another potential property in Salem, about 30 minutes from my parents.  The location isn't ideal and the house is TINY (but cute), but the 43 acre property has a lot of potential.  And the owner is desperate to sell, so it could be very affordable.  I hope to tour it next weekend.

To help take my mind off of things today, I began working on all of my Christmas craft projects.  Even though I now have a job, I've been without pay for a couple of months.  Actually, my finances are always pretty tight, because I save every penny I can towards going to a farm of my own.  Plus I feel like homemade gifts carry an extra care of thoughtfulness.  And I love being able to create beautiful things.  It's been a very relaxing way to spend a Sunday.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Leftovers

photo from ancagray.tumblr.com/
Today I am thankful for Thanksgiving leftovers.  I just LOVE good food, warm sunshine, and time with my family.  My favorite holiday weekend!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

image from dinneralovestory.com

Happy Thanksgiving
from my family to yours

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Cold Feet

image from sahalie.com

I hate to admit it, but I'm getting cold feet about putting in an offer on the North Stonington Farm.

I'm certainly still going to go through with it.  But now that we're just a few short weeks away from when I had planned to put in an offer, my fear of rejection is setting in.

The only thing that's really causing me worry is the owner's sister-in-law (who's sort of the "real-estate agent" for the house).  She's expressed several times that they are not willing to budge on the price of the house (something unheard of in this market, in our area), but it's currently priced at $51,000 over the appraised value of the home.  Not only would it be crazy to pay way more than the house is worth, but I can't get a loan for that amount.

I was doing a really good job of not letting this detail get to me, until yesterday when I looked at the calendar and realized that my loan application is nearly complete.  I still need to do some work on my business financial plan (ironing out details), but the rest of the pieces are completed to the extent that I need to turn it in.  The only thing that's missing is the housing contract, which I was hoping to settle before Christmas.

I'm trying not to worry too much.  Thankfully I have the holidays and a new job to help me to keep my priorities in check.  There's no sense worrying about things that are out of my control.  I will work my hardest, put in an offer I am comfortable with, and then hope for the best!  Needless to say, I will be doing a lot of finger crossing the next few weeks!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Job

My girl Pokey. 

I accepted a job offer today.  A (nearly) full-time position as a kitchen director at the local preschool.  I don't have too many of the details yet, but the pay is decent and the hours (9-3ish M-F) would work well with part-time farm work (plenty of time for chores during the daylight before and after work).  The school has a commitment to serving healthy, organic, vegetable based meals to its students.  My primary responsibilities will be to prepare breakfast and lunch for about 200 students, as well as frozen dinners for their parents to bring home.

We'll see how it goes tomorrow morning, when I meet with the staff and learn more specifics.  I enjoy working with kids and working in the kitchen.  There is also a school vegetable garden, and they are looking to add cooking and gardening classes to the curriculum once I get adjusted, which would be a lot of fun.

I'd love to say that I'm really excited, but I'm just not.  It's a job.  And even though it has the potential to be really fun and to provide a stable contribution to the mortgage (more than 1/2 of the annual payment), it feels like a step away from the farm.  I think it will be really good and hopefully only for the short term, but it delays my dream of farming full-time on my own land.  And it puts a bit of a damper on my retirement.  I've been really enjoying all of my free-time the past two months!

Saphera (the grey chicken) is recovering fine!  She spent the morning grazing around the yard with the rest of the flock.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Farm Visit: Sweet Acre Farm

image from sweetacrefarm.com
This afternoon I visited Sweet Acre Farm in Storrs, CT as part of the winter farm tour/potluck series hosted by the New CT Farmer Alliance.  The tours give new farmers in the state the opportunity to meet and learn from each other.

Charlotte and Jonathan have been running Sweet Acre Farm (named for the one acre plot surrounded by sugar maples) since earlier this year.  They found the property on Farmlink, a program run through the Department of Agriculture that (supposedly) matches farmers with farmland owners.  It was great to see an example of the success of the program, especially after using the program myself and feeling like there were very few viable farmland opportunities.

Sweet Acre Farm is a great example of what can be done with limited resources and limited land.  It was really impressive to see how many vegetables they were able to produce from their land.  It just felt...manageable.  And the farmers were happy, despite the challenges of planting late in the season and then having to deal with the wrath of hurricane Irene and the October Nor'easter.  They are proud to be running their own business, excited to improve, and set on not growing too quickly beyond their means.

The best part of the evening?  The potluck with friends.  I'm not often surrounded by "my people" - other young farmers doing their best to make a living off of the land.  It's one of the best parts of slowing down during the winter (despite the fact that I'm already growing weary of so much travel).  They are all wonderful farmers, incredible chefs, and just plain inspirational people.  Can't BEET that!  ;-)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Holiday Cleanup


My parents had a great holiday party this week.  We spent the past two months planning the menu, preparing the house, and decorating with LOTS of pumpkins and squash.  It was gorgeous weather today - on last fall hurrah - so we loaded up the car with leftover pumpkins to bring to the pigs at Footsteps Farm.


The piglets were so excited for a treat.  We smashed the pumpkins open and they stuck their entire head inside, chowing down on the seeds and then the flesh.


The pigs at Footsteps Farm are raised in 1/2 acre wooded pastures, in groups of 10-20 pigs that move around the farm.  This time of year their diet is comprised largely of acorns and whey (from a neighboring cheese farm).  Thats the stuff really high-quality meat is made from.  Footsteps Farm is a special place.

The best part of today's visit was that my mom tagged along.  She is UNBELIEVABLY supportive of me starting a farm (I think she may have even finally given up hope that I will become a lawyer :-)), but still trying to learn a lot of the details.  Like the difference between organic and conventionally grown, free-range and pasture-raised.  Our food system has grown so complex that it's difficult to navigate.  She just knows that she wants to support local farmers, and healthy food production.

Visiting neighboring farms is the best way to learn.  The pigs today were running around, rooting in the forest, and showing just how much personality pigs have.  The pigs are not organic, but they are fed GMO-free (genetically modified organism) feed and forage much of their diet.  The pigs we visited yesterday, on the other hand, WERE certified organic (fed organic grain), but were living in a crowded muddy pen.  Both farmers are local and both are raising a quality product, they're just going about it very differently.

All I know is that I had a great time outside with the pigs today.  They are so curious and friendly.  Even after just an hour it was easy to learn several of their names and their quirky behaviors.  Like Eddy, who broke his jaw as a piglet but made a complete recovery and loves to get an ear rub.  Or Josie, who just weaned off a full litter of piglets and prefers cinnamon bread to plain bagels (leftovers from a local bakery).  It's that connection with the animals that really makes me feel connected to the land.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

American Meat

image from brilliantp.com
Just got in from a screening of the new film, American Meat. The film exposes the meat industry from the farmers' point of view - beginning with larger, confined animal operations and featuring Joel Salatin, the lunatic grass farmer.

The evening began with Chipotle burritos made with humanely raised meat and ended with a panel discussion of local farmers.  It was nice to see and talk with area growers, to hear their successes and challenges raising local, sustainable meat.  The film was nothing revolutionary for me, but I enjoyed the story nonetheless.  I particularly enjoyed hearing the story of American meat through the voices of the farmers, without the gruesome PETA footage meant to scare people away from eating meat.

Earlier today I toured the Pendleton Hill property for a third time - this time with my dad and brother in tow.  More eyes exposed more challenges than I had seen on previous visits, especially with the electrical wiring.  Nothing major, but certainly an additional cost.  Add that to the feeling that the owners may not be ready to negotiate a lower price that I could afford, and I left the farm feeling a little insecure.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.

So the work continues.  I also had a chance this afternoon to tour Stonyledge Farm, an organic meat and vegetable farm also in North Stonington.  The owners of the farm are very sweet.  Their parents run a vegetable farm with a commercial kitchen and their sons are beginning a dairy also in North Stonington, so it's a true family business.  Building a community and gathering inspiration from neighbors - that is how you start a farm.

Friday, November 18, 2011

From Internship to Ownership


 
The New Connecticut Farmers Alliance announces the beginning of its winter series of monthly farm tours with a visit to Sweet Acre Farm in Mansfield on Monday November 21.  For more information visit www.newctfarmers.com.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Dirt on our Soil


That (above) is the soil map of Full Heart Farm.  The USDA's Natural Resource and Conservation Services (NRCS) has a Web Soil Survey (WSS) tool that allows you to learn more about the soils on a given property from the comfort of your home computer.

I know I'm a farm nerd, but I think that's pretty awesome.

I had played around with the web soil survey after looking at a few of the properties, but like any tool, it's only valuable if you really know how to use it.  Today I met with a soil expert at NRCS who was able to explain to me what the soils of Full Heart Farm are mapped out to be.

First off, I have to admit that I was a little nervous.  FInding out about the soil on the farm felt, well, personal.  There was no grass to cover up anything that might be bad.  And I was worried that learning there were poor soils (something helpful to learn early on in the process) would mean that the property is essentially worthless.  Even soils that are just okay may mean more work than I would be able to put in, or a lack of government assistance in working to conserve the land.

But the report was good! (Lesson learned this week: worry less!)

The soils by the homestead of the property (upper-right on the map) are classified as Canton and Charlton soils.  These glacial soils are generally well-drained (with a water table 3-4 feet deep) and good for growing vegetables.  Which is great, because the one-acre fenced in pasture by the house is the one I sent to be nutrient tested for growing produce.  I would like to have a nice large garden by the house.

The soils up behind the barn (which extend into the state-owned portion of the property) are a Sutton Fine Sandy Loam.  These soils can also be good for growing veggies, but not early in the season.  The soil is pretty well-drained, but the water table is much higher (1 1/2 feet deep), so it's much wetter.  This soil is also usually much stonier (hence North STONington).

The majority of the lower pasture land is Ninigret and Tisbury soils.  This also has a seasonal high water table.  There is a portion of the pasture that slopes down, and on a wet year this is going to be very wet, but on a dry year the pasture will stay greener.

Having a diverse selection of soils is really good because it creates different growing environments.  Some plants may do better on one part of the farm than another because of the soil quality and moisture.  Learning those details will take time (and lots of trial and error).

The next part of analyzing the soils is to work with a scientist to take samples in the field.  Unlike the small samples that I took to test for different nutrients and organic matter, the NRCS scientists use an auger to dig much deeper holes and examine the soil structure (all of the different layers of the soil).  This double checks that the soils described on the map match the soils that are actually on the farm.

I'm visiting the property for a third time this Saturday and I'm hoping to arrange a time with the landowners when this can be done.  NRCS will also take a look at the brook (and I'm hoping to learn more details on the well) so that we can discuss irrigation and fencing as part of their incredible cost-share programs, when the time comes.

On a separate note: Saphera is doing well.  K even sent over a photo of her standing, so I think her leg will heal just fine!  Thank goodness!  I sure as well don't need any more special needs chickens!

Meet the Newest Vegetable!

photo from mypizzabrothers.com
That's right!  Pizza!

On Tuesday congress ruled that the tomato paste spread on top of pizza served in school lunches (about 2 tablespoons), counts as a vegetable.

This ruling comes in response to a USDA's proposal earlier in the year to limit the amount of potatoes served in school lunches, reduce sodium, and increase servings of whole grains.  The USDA had also wanted to increase the serving size of tomato sauce to 1/2 cup (to match other vegetable servings), all in good effort to improve the nutrition of school lunches and the health of American youth.

Apparently that's just too much to ask.  And while I marvel at the lobbying power of the frozen pizza industry, this decision is just plain embarrassing.

You can read more on the provision HERE. 

If only congress published a seed catalog, so that all farmers could grow government-approved vegetables, like pizza and sloppy joes.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chicken Hospital


It's never good when the day begins with an emergency phone call.  Saphera, my blue andalusian hen, was in the chicken hospital.  

Back in July, Saphera had disappeared from the flock.  I spent days searching all over the farm for her, refusing to believe that she had just been taken by a predator.  Two weeks later I found her sitting on a clutch of 18 eggs underneath the manure spreader in the equipment garage.  A week later Eragon hatched, and for weeks the two were inseparable.  Then in early October, Eragon disappeared and Saphera returned to join the flock.  She spends all day hanging out with Speckles and the girls, but at night she sleeps still high in the pine tree in the run instead of safely in the coop.  She just can't break the habit of living in the wild completely.

I'm not sure exactly what happened this morning, but instead of safely hopping out of the tree, Saphera somehow managed to tangle her foot in the blueberry netting that covers the run.  K woke up to find her hanging upside down, caught in the netting by her leg.

And of course it was the morning that K had a very important early meeting.  He put her in the hospital (a metal dog crate bedded with straw) and called me from the road.  I spent the early morning immensely worried about her.  All I knew was that she couldn't bend her leg, was breathing hard, and wouldn't eat or drink.

And the thing is - I'm very good at worrying.  A professional.  It's hard enough being away from my girls on a daily basis, but it feels torture-some to be so far when something goes wrong.  And I felt terrible to leave K by himself to deal with things.

Later in the morning, Saphera was doing better.  She had eaten some scratch, so K let her out of the hospital and into the coop.  I'm still not sure if her leg was dislocated or if it's just strained, but we decided it's best for her to be with the other chickens as long as they aren't picking on her.  Luckily she has Pokey (my other special needs chicken, who broke her hip as a chick) to keep her company.  And if anyone can make it through a challenge, it's Saphera.

Man, does that chicken give me grief.  I felt debilitated thinking about her all day.



And then I checked the mail and the newest hatchery catalog had arrived, a clear reminder to stay focused on the future.  No amount of worrying can help Saphera heal.  And while I wish immensely that I could be there to check in on her, I know K has everything under control.  I can't get too down about not being with K and my girls, because I know that leaving them in search of a farm of our own was ultimately the best decision.

I just can't wait until "checking on the chickens" doesn't mean driving an hour and a half across the state.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Homegrown Fair


Last week I posted a guest blog about my chickens onto HOMEGROWN - a website for homesteaders and farmers to share their experiences growing (and eating) their own food.  And today I found out that I won the Homegrown Fair!  So exciting!  A t-shirt and a prize pack are in the mail on the way to my house!  All thanks to my beautiful flock and their adventures in last winter's snow storm.  :-)

Soil Health Workshop: Cover Cropping Basics


Yesterday I spent the day at a workshop on improving soil health through cover cropping.  I was especially excited that the focus of the class was on livestock and row crops, as I am eager to develop my ideas on an intense rotational grazing system for pastured pork that incorporates diverse forage crops.  Plus it's just fun to be in a room full of people that get jazzed talking about dirt.

To start with the basics of pasture grazing (for those that need a quick primer)- animals are fenced in on pasture and harvest their own grass to eat.  In the winter, or other times of the year when there is little or no grass, the animals are fed hay (which is grass that is harvested and dried).  Lots of studies have shown that animals raised on pasture are healthier, produce healthier products (meat, milk, eggs), and are better for the environment.

In an intense rotational grazing system, the animals are kept in small paddocks or fenced in areas and are moved around the pasture.  By concentrating the feeding areas, and then allowing the pasture to rest (or recover) while the animals graze in another portion, you can greatly improve the quality of the soil, and therefore the quality of the pasture.

But there are ways to improve this system even MORE, by attempting to imitate nature.  In a natural prairie setting, there are hundreds of different species of plants growing on a plot of land and the ground is always protected by a thick layer of roots and forage.  Traditionally, large animals move through the prairie in densely concentrated herds, not returning to a certain area until the grasses have fully regrown.

This can be emulated on a farm by planting a diverse array of plants and mob grazing - moving herds of animals in tight groups through a rotational grazing system.  Scientists have found that the more diversity of crops that you plant, the better off you'll be.  Crops like alfalfa, buckwheat, chickpeas, soybeans, sunflowers, amaranth, corn, cowpea, triticale, hairy vetch, millet, sudan grass, clovers, turnips, radishes, and beets all get planted in one area.  In this system, the plants are able to feed each other, as well as the soil.  When the animals come through and graze the top half of the plants, this triggers the plants to release root exudates and feed the organisms in the soil.

You can also use this system of planting diverse cover crops to extend the growing season.  Brassicas (like collards, kale, and even mustards) will grow well after the first frost and provide lots of nutritious food for the animals.

One of my favorite presenters travelled from North Dakota to share his experiences using cover crops and diverse forages on his 6,000 acre farm.  I can't even imagine managing a farm that large, but it was really inspirational to see photos of his farm and the results of his research into improving soil health.  It's exciting to imagine how his ideas could translate to a smaller-scale operation to produce an extremely high-quality product and improve the environment.  Cover crops are a win-win!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Progress Report: Two Months

photo by yes and amen photography
I can't believe it's already mid-November!  We're halfway through my favorite month of the year, and the holidays are just around the corner.  Overall, I've had a very enjoyable and productive past month working towards having a farm of my own.


Things I've Accomplished


1.  Continued to visit local farms: Old Friends Farm, Hunt's Brook Farm, Footsteps Farm, Ocean Breeze Farm, Firefly Farm, Scantic Valley Farm, Hurricane Farm, White Gate Farm, Yale Farm
2. Continued to tour potential properties to BUY: Stonington Bungalow, Picturesque North Stonington Farm (x2)
3. Continued to tour potential properties to LEASE: FRESH Farm
4. Began the Beginning Women Farmers Program (first two classes)
5. Worked with the New CT Farmers Association on winter plans
6. Continued to apply for Jobs: UPS, Precious Memories, Stoneridge, Mystic Seaport
7. Met with Loan Providers
8. Attended a farm financing workshop
9. Named our future farm
10. Began the loan application and business plan for Full Heart Farm!


Things I'm Still Working On
1. Finding a home for my chickens
2. Finding a job
3. Meeting more area farmers/taking farm tours

4. Completing the Full Heart Farm business plan and loan application
5. Trying to keep my options open (despite committing myself to pursuing Full Heart Farm)





Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sunday Morning Breakfast on the Farm

photo from dailycandy.com


"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"
"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"
"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
"It's the same thing," he said.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Holistic Farm Planning: Time Management

image from smallequals.tumblr.com
Today was my second class through the Holistic Farm Planning for Beginning Women Farmers.  I was excited to attend, homework in hand, and continue to improve my holistic goals and work towards a solid farm plan.

The morning session focused on Testing Questions.  When faced with an important decision (or even a less-than-important decision) testing questions can help give you the information you need to make a decision based on your Holistic Goals.

The testing questions are:
  1. Cause and effect: Does this action address the root cause of the problem, or merely a symptom?
  2. Sustainability: If you take this action, will it lead toward or away from the future resource base described in your holistic goal?
  3. Weak link:
    • Social: If you take this action, will you encounter or create a blockage to progress?
    • Biological: Does this action address the weakest point in the life cycle of the organism you're trying to control or promote?
    • Financial: Does this action strengthen the weakest link in the chain of production?
  1. Energy/money source & use
    • Is the energy or money to be used in this action derived from the most appropriate source in terms of your holistic goal?
    • Will the way in which energy or money is to be used lead toward your holistic goal?
  1. Society & culture:
    • How do you feel about this action now?
    • Will it lead to the quality of life you desire?
    • Will it adversely affect the lives of others?
  1. Marginal reaction: Is there another action that could provide greater return, in terms of your holistic goal, for the time and money spent?
  2. Gross profit analysis: Which enterprise contributes more to covering the overheads of the business? (Use this test when comparing two or more enterprises.)
We used this process to make a variety of imagined decisions, from where to eat Thanksgiving dinner to how to manage 18 acres of pasture.  Not all of the questions always apply, and at the end you don't have a clear answer.  The process is meant to focus your thoughts on considering how different outcomes would play into your holistic goals.  A lot of the time you're just providing yourself with the confidence that you're making the correct decision.

In the afternoon we discussed time management.  In general, I'm pretty good at managing my time.  Or at least when I'm not, I feel like I have the tools to be better managing my time.  But now that I'm "retired," I sort of view time differently.  I have plenty of hours to do the things I want to during the day and I'm enjoying my more relaxed pace of life, with plenty of time to visit with friends and family, travel to classes and workshops, and cook delicious food.  It was still nice to discuss time management challenges with the other women in my class and to think honestly about what my life will be like managing my own farm, business, and having a family.

Up next, financial management!  A topic I certainly need help with!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Holistic Goals

photo from starsandsunshine.com

Everyone has different advice as to where to I should begin with writing my farm business plan. Some suggest a mission statement, others suggest researching markets and finances, and others have just advised me to write down all of my thoughts and to reorganize them into some sort of business plan format.

It's all wonderful advice, but I've still felt stuck all week. I KNOW that I just need to get started, but unfortunately that just seems easier said than done.

So I have taken the advice of my advisors of the Beginning Women Farmers Program and decided to begin with my Holistic Goals. These statements reflect the quality of life that I want to lead (beyond just the business aspect) and therefore become the reference point when I'm making important decisions. They seem simple, but it took several small pockets of time working with K to develop this list, and I'm sure that it's still incomplete.

Here is the initial list:

1. We value time with our family and time with friends.
-       balanced life
-       clear set of priorities

2. We value good food.

3. We value laughter and fun.

4. We value free time.
-       creative thinking + individual projects
-       learning
-       vacation
-       time off the farm and in the community

5. We value healthy minds + bodies + souls.
-       time for sleep
-       time for laughter
-       time to enjoy the farm

6. We value building a healthy future.
-       planning for marriage, children, and retirement
-       sustainable land management (for ourselves and the environment)
-    care for our plants and animals

7. We value financial security and a viable, profitable farm.
-       create profit
-       practice good financial planning and management

8. We value clear communication.
-       cooperative decision making
-       listening + understanding

9. We value community outreach.
-       education
-       community support + interaction