Strength and the Farm

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I am not naturally endowed with much upper body or core strength. I’ve never been able to do a pull-up or even hang from a bar for more than a second. My core strength was once mediocre, but two pregnancies have left me longing for the good old days of even mediocre core strength. And, let’s be honest, my back has seen better days.

Most days I can get by without strength being an issue. I can do all the daily chores around the farm and even hoist a 50 lb feed sack when needed. But occasionally something big or heavy needs to be moved, a 5 foot ground rod pulled up, a gnarly tree root pried from the ground, or an onry buck put in his place. All these things require brute strength that I just do not possess. Fortunately, Bones is all about mechanical assistance and has taught me how to work smarter.KIMG1488.jpg

Take this heavy pallet we needed to move. 8 feet long and built to be extremely sturdy, this sucker was heavy and awkward. We tried hefting it together, but I dropped my end almost instantly. Then Bones suggested we use a metal barrel to move it. So we laid the barrel on its side and,together, we hoisted one end up onto the barrel. It rolled like a charm!

And then there was the greenhouse we needed to relocate. Carrying it was out of the question so our choices were either dismantle it or drag it. Dragging seemed problematic due to the unevenness of the ground and the fact that we would have to take it uphill. But with the help of strategically placed skids, a couple of ratcheting straps and our Subaru, the move went smoothly with zero back pain for the movers!

For things like pulling ground rods or other posts from the ground, Bones has rigged up a selection of levers and fulcrums that practically pop the rods straight out. And when I was struggling to dig an awful Paulownia root out of the ground, she rigged up a wench that jerked that sucker out of the ground like a twig.

Subduing the buck often still comes down to brute force, fortunately I have a slight size advantage on him, though his horns are the great equalizer. But I keep a length of baling twine in my pocket with a slip knot in it so I can easily lasso him. Once leashed, he is much easier to control and return to his proper pen.

Sometimes I wish I were a little stronger, but there’s not much I can’t do around the farm, even alone, with a little mechanical aide.

Moving Pigs

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This week we have 6 new pigs arriving at the farm – a breeding pair of Gloucestershire Old Spots and their 4 piglets. We’re very excited about their arrival, but in preparation we need to relocate our current pigs. One of our winter goals is to install a permanent perimeter fence in our woods with multiple paddocks for moving pigs quickly and efficiently. But it’s not built yet…

We scrambled this weekend to get the training pen built. This is a smaller area with both woven wire fencing and an interior electric fence used for training animals to electric fencing. Particularly with pigs, their instinct is to run forward when they get startled. So when a pig, untrained to electric fence, touches their nose to the hot wire for the first time, they bolt through the fence, unless there is a solid fence behind it to stop them. It only takes a pig one or two times touching the fence before they get the idea and stay put.

Anyway, the plan was to move our 2 biggest hogs into that pen, since it will also serve as the loading pen and they are headed to the butcher in a couple of weeks. We then set up a smaller pen inside our garden to move our 5 smaller pigs, freeing up their pen, which has a covered shed for our new mama pig to share with her babies. The 2 big hogs moved easily. Which should have been a bad sign for the day. Pigs never move easily!

Then it came time to move the 5 smaller ones. We don’t have a good system for moving pigs. Usually we just skip their morning feed to ensure they are hungry and hope they follow us with a bucket of grain to their new location. Mostly it works, but we’ve never done it with five pigs at once. So, I opened the gate and five pigs ran off in five different directions. I managed to get 3 of them interested in my bucket before the dog decided to go after the other 2 and chased them toward the house. The three pigs and I made it into the garden, momentarily, but I couldn’t get to the gate in time to keep them corralled. The pigs, meanwhile,were running and jumping and squealing with delight at their new-found freedom.

Then I noticed the chicken coop and so did the pigs. Forget my measly, small bucket of grain, they had just found the motherload. All five ran to the coop. Which actually turned out to be a good thing. Locking them in the coop, at least they were all five together and contained. Though the chickens looked less than pleased about their new coop mates. Fortunately the chicken coop is close to one of the garden gates, so we channeled our inner Temple Grandin and created a makeshift chute to get the pigs from the coop and into the garden gate.

With the pigs now within the garden, I was able to get them to follow me to the small pen. I set down the feed bucket and ran to turn on the electric fence. Unfortunately, one of the big hogs saw the little ones getting some grain and decided to break free from her pen. She tossed our beautiful new fence like nothing and then broke through the garden fence, ignoring the hot wire. The little pigs scattered, also running through the hot wire, but not before she pinned one to the ground attacking it ferociously. The pig got away, relatively unscathed, but there was no way it was going back in the pen.

Bones ran for another bucket of grain, and some slightly soured milk to entice the big hog to follow her back to her pen. With her returned to her proper pen, we both worked on repairing that fence and strengthening it to prevent further escape. Still unsure how to return the little pigs to the electric pen, we returned to the garden to find our kids shouting triumphantly and waving big sticks. While we were gone, they had successfully rounded up the little pigs and driven them into the pen. Yay kids!

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But, alas, somewhere in the scuffle, the electric fence had shorted out and there was no jolt when the little pigs went to test the line. So, they waltzed right on through and went about exploring the garden. We were now several hours into our pig moving project, so I decided to just give up for the day and let the little pigs have the run of the garden. There’s nothing growing right now anyway.

And that would have been progress at least, but they day was not yet done. A half hour or so later, I headed out to the garden to take Gryffindor to work. As I approached I heard scuffling in the chicken coop and then saw the last pig pushing out from under the garden gate and heading straight for the chicken coop. I quickly dropped Gryffindor off in the garden and ran to grab the chicken feeder. All five pigs happily followed the chicken feeder… back to their original pen. So, after an entire afternoon chasing pigs, we were back at square one.

Anyone want to come help me move pigs tomorrow?

Winter on the Farm

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2018 has been frigid so far with temps not reaching above freezing until yesterday. Sunday morning was -2 at the farm, which is awfully close to the record low for the Charlottesville area (-10 in 1985) and well below the average January low of 25.  Life pretty much comes to a standstill at the farm when it is this cold. The animals all hunker down in their nests or sheds. We give them lots of extra straw for bedding and refresh their water throughout the day.

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The few greens that were hanging on in the garden have been completely killed off now. And the top few inches of soil is frozen solid. We don’t typically get such a hard freeze here. Last winter was particularly mild; we had greens last all the way till spring and the soil was workable all winter long. Hopefully, without a layer of snow to insulate the ground, this hard freeze will kill some of the pests and plant disease that overwinter in the soil. That’s the silver lining I’m hoping for anyway.

After taking some time off for the holidays, We’re back into planning mode for the farm. Our first seed order went out last week and we’re anxiously checking the mailbox for delivery. As soon as they arrive, we’ll be starting onions, leeks and some early greens in the greenhouse. Since sunflower shoots were so popular at the market last year, we’ve been trialing some more microgreens to offer this year. So far, pea shoots and a spicy mix are looking promising and tasting delicious.

Hopefully you’ve seen our CSA info by now and are thinking about signing up. If not, you can find all the details here. 25 weeks of beautiful produce and a weekly visit to our farm, what’s not to love!

We finally placed the order for our hoophouse yesterday. We’re expecting delivery and installation the first week of March. This 30’x72′ structure will cover almost half of our current growing space. A hoophouse creates a protected environment that allows for greater control over the growing environment.  It also means we can get summer crops started a little bit earlier and get tomatoes to market sooner.

We also begin a fence building project in our woods this week. Our hogs are currently moved around with a series of moveable electric fence. It works, but is not terribly efficient. To improve efficiency and ensure that we move the hogs frequently, we are installing a permanent perimeter fence around 5 or so acres of our woods. The perimeter fence will then be divided into smaller paddocks. The hogs will be moved every few days giving them access to fresh places to root and allowing the forest floor to recover before they return.

 

 

Cast of Critters

I’d love to introduce you to the current cast of critters on Heart & Bones Hollow.

Let’s start with our faithful dogs. Scamper has been with us the longest. A 3-year-old Cattle dog/hound (?) mix, he has just come into his own and is proving to be a fiercely loyal and obedient dog. Through no good training of my own, he comes immediately when called and will “go home” even when he desperately wants to be by my side. He wants nothing more in life than to rest his head on my knee and accompany me on all my adventures around the farm.

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photo by Theresa White

Sirius Black came to us this past summer. She is a 9 month old black lab mix and is every bit a puppy. Loving and eager. Boundless energy. Rambunctious and playful. She is always tugging at Scamper to play. You can tell she wants to be a good dog, but her little body just can’t stop wiggling long enough follow commands. Unfortunately she has killed more than her fair share of chickens. So, we’ve been working with her closely to try to turn her into a good farm dog. Send her all your good, chicken friendly wishes!

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Gryffindor is our newest dog addition – a five-year old Anatolian Shepherd. He came to us from some friends who were downsizing their homestead. As their livestock guardian dog, he protected their pigs at night and hung out with them in the house during the day. We have kept this routine for him and sleep more soundly at night knowing Gryffindor is patrolling the woods and keeping us all safe. Gryffindor is different from any dog I have ever owned – smart and able to think for himself. He does not do tricks or come when called, but not because he doesn’t understand what is being asked. He is calm and steady, affectionate but only on his terms. He is always on guard, even when he appears to be sleeping. We all feel more safe with him around.

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Fido is our old man cat. He has been with me for 13 years and enjoyed an earlier career as a mouser. These days he spends his time lounging on the deck and begging for attention as we bustle through our day. I expect his days with us our numbered, but we’ll keep loving on him right up to the end.

Two new cats joined us this week – Professor McGonagall and Crookshanks (have you noticed the Harry Potter theme yet?). Young and playful, they are here to help with a little rodent problem. And so far they’ve also been really generous with the snuggles!

Bridging the gap between pet and livestock are our goats. We currently have five and are hoping that number increases with some new kids in February! Four of them are mini lamanchas and one is a full-sized lamancha. We got Chocolate and Caramel as week old, bottle babies. They are incredibly sweet and love to be snuggled. Caramel has even come to church with us for the annual Christmas pageant! Milkway was born on the farm in February. He has grown into a handsome and very eager buck. Hopefully he has done his job well and we’ll have lots of new kids to play with! Moonpie is a wether (a castrated male) who is Milkway’s companion. He’s a sweet boy, but a bit timid. Creme Brulee is our full sized lamancha. She came to us in milk and was a fabulous milker giving almost 3/4 gallons per milking. She is easy to handle and so quiet, an unusual trait for goats. Unfortunately she managed to rip her teat on something a few weeks ago. Despite immediate vet attention and ongoing care, it seems likely she is going to lose that teat and certainly her milking career is over.

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photo by Theresa White

At this time we have seven pigs. All Gloucestershire Old Spots a heritage breed know for their docility and great tasting meat. Originally bred in England, they were good homestead and orchard pigs. Legend has it that their black spots developed from the falling fruit hitting them as they rooted around the orchard. We love their easy-going nature and the way their big, floppy ears flap as they run.

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Our chicken flock has 13 hens of various breeds. They roam free around the farm helping to control pests and giving us eggs. They love to set up a daily easter egg hunt for us. As soon as we discover their hiding place, they find a new and even more secluded place to lay.  We haven’t had much luck with roosters and kids mixing, so we are currently roosterless. The girls don’t seem to mind.

 

And finally, Piccolo, a lion head rabbit. We’ve had Piccolo about 2 years now. I got him just before our first ever rabbit harvest because I needed one rabbit who would only ever be for snuggling. Turns out he’s kind of a loner. We tried to put his cage near the other rabbits, but he bit off another rabbit’s nose through the cage! He did, accidentally, father two litters of rabbit kits with our American Blue does. One of his offspring now lives with friends of ours; and Sunny Jim, unlike his father, is quite the friendly bunny. This summer we decided to stop raising rabbits, but Piccolo will get to live out his life here with his rabbit palace all to himself, just the way he likes it.

That brings our current critter count to 33. It’s a lot to manage, but they bring us so much joy and all provide such vital functions on the farm.

A Year on the Farm

December means it’s time to reflect on the last year. 2017 has been a great year for our little farm. We more than doubled our growing area from the previous season, attended 2 weekly markets, started selling pork at the market, had our first goat birth on the farm, and dipped our toes into mushroom production. We sold more produce and meat than ever before and learned a lot along the way. Here’s a little snapshot of our year.

Garden

In our second year growing for market, we attended 2 weekly farmers markets in Scottsville and Charlottesville. The highlight of the season was getting our farm Certified Naturally Grown. We grew about 1500 lbs of produce. Lettuce and salad mixes were the number one crop, followed by tomatoes and sunflower shoots. We finally found a variety of lettuce we liked for the summer and hope that means we can have lettuce all summer long next year. This was our first year growing German Johnson tomatoes and they blew us away – such healthy plants and the flavor of the tomatoes was the best we’ve ever tasted. We will definitely be growing those again next year.

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Related to the garden, we installed a walk-in cooler. The walk-in was a major step for us, providing much better and more reliable cold storage for our produce. Getting our produce, greens especially, colder faster means it will last longer in your fridge and retain more of its quality and freshness. We also made improvements to our wash station and wash procedures to ensure that the produce you get from us is clean and safe to eat.

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We also had our first flush of shiitake mushrooms this fall. The logs were inncoluated in January and started producing in October. Hopefully we’ll see another flush in the spring. We’ve got about 30 logs waiting to be innoculated this week which means even more mushrooms next fall! We also innoculated a bed of wood chips with Wine Cap mushroom spawn. We’re hoping to see some production out of the wine cap bed in early spring.

Livestock

This was our first year bringing a full range of pork to market and it was a big hit. We sold over 500 lbs of pork and I probably don’t want to admit to how many pounds we ate ourselves. Chops and bacon were easily the most popular items with sage breakfast suasage coming in third. Being our first year with selling pork, we didn’t quite get the butcher schedule right and ran out of meat a couple times over the summer. We hate disappointing folks when they come to buy some pork and we don’t have any. Next year, we hope to dial in our planning and schedule to make sure we have a consistent supply.

We took 6 hogs to butcher and have 2 still here through the winter. Five more are arriving next week, to hopefully be ready for butcher right before market opens in April. The majority of our pigs have been Gloucestershire Old Spots, but we also had 2 berkshires. Although the berkshires tasted great, they were not our favorite pigs. It’s so hard to beat the laid back, friendly nature of the Old Spots. And we think they taste just as good, if not better, than the berkshires. So it’s Old Spots from here on out.

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We had our first goat born on the farm in February. I was there to help pull Milkyway out when he arrived. He was a cute, sweet little buckling who has grown into a smelly, forceful buck. He’s been in with the does now for a couple months and we’re hoping to have lots of cute goat kids come February. Four of our goats are mini lamanchas, and we added one full sized lamancha this summer. Creme Brulee was a great milker who kept us in cheese and yogurt for several months until she accidentally ripped her teat open. The vet stitched her up and we’ve been tending her wounded teat, but it seems she may lose that half of her udder. Thankfully, she seems otherwise fine, but we will be sad to lose her as a milker. Hopefully she will give us a doe or two who can carry on her great milking genes.

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We started the year with a full rabbitry with the intention of bringing some rabbit to market by mid summer. But it turns our that rabbits were just one thing too many to manage, so we got out of the rabbit business. We still have one little guy left – Piccolo – who has always been just for cuddling.

It’s been a great year for Heart & Bones Hollow! Stay tuned for our plans and goals for 2018.

One Mower Plow

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Not long after we moved to Virginia, my cousin passed down a couple of tools from my great, great grandfather. One was his pitchfork – over a hundred years old with the original handle and his initials carved into it – still as strong and as useful as ever. The second was his plow. Farming in the days before tractor use was widespread, his one horse plow was his primary tillage tool on the farm. It had been sitting in my cousin’s barn for many, many years.

Ever the user and restorer of old tools, Bones was sure we could hitch it to our riding mower and use it to break some new ground in our field. I was skeptical, to say the least. Neither of us had ever plowed a field, much less used a walking, horse drawn plow. We actually had to ask google how to properly plow a field.

Armed with our google degree on plowing, we hitched up the plow. Bones has a bit more upper body strength than I, so we decided she would walk the plow and I would drive the mower. I put the mower in first gear and began to inch forward. The plow skimmed the surface and barely overturned a single blade of grass. Bones tried every which way to get the plow to dig into the earth to no avail. Finally we used a shovel to dig a starter hole. After that we were off. And boy were we ever off, no straight furrows in sight!

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I decided to take a turn walking behind the plow. It is no easy task. The amount of strength needed to maintain a straight line and exert enough downward pressure to ensure the plowshare digs in was much greater than I could manage. I turned the plow back over to Bones and we finshed the designated area. I’m not sure we did any good. The furrow depth was terribly inconsistent with some areas only barely skimmed. And we missed large swaths of sod that didn’t get turned at all. After posting a picture of our plowing adventure on Facebook, a neighbor volunteered to bring his real tractor over to turn the field for us.

I imagine my great, great grandfather was rolling on the floors of heaven laughing at our exploits with his plow. It was certainly a memorable moment in our farming journey!

Backbone of the Farm

I’ve been laid up with a back injury this past week, which has reminded me of the importance of a farmer’s back. Or anyone’s back for that matter! Since we try to limit our use of fossil fuels on the farm, much of the work is done by hand. We use our small garden tractor for mowing, initial tillage of new ground and the occasional transport of heavy items. The weed whacker gets regular use keeping pathways and garden edges under control. But other than those tasks, the rest of our work is done using hand tools -shovels, hoes, rakes, pitchforks and the broadfork. All of these require a strong back!

Fortunately it is fall and markets are done till spring, so it’s a *good* time to be injured. Hopefully recovery is speedy, but it has caused me to reflect on the figurative backbone of our farm – the values that underpin our work. These values are sustainability, quality, community, and family.

Sustainability

Even before moving to the farm, Bones and I have been focused on living as simply as possible and minimizing our footprint on this earth. Living in a big city at the time, we favored public transportation, dropped down to one vehicle, lived in a community that valued eco-consciousness, supported our local farmers and tried to reduce our energy consumption.

Since, moving to the farm we have had to add back a second vehicle and public transportation is practically non-existent out here. However, country life offers many different possibilities for eco-consciousness. Early on, we had a solar array installed to provide 80% of our electricity usage. It doesn’t power our heating and air, but we are slowly replacing the outdated systems with more energy efficient systems that may eventually run on our solar array. Although all our water is provided by a private well, we have rainwater collection systems installed on our house and an outbuilding. This collected rainwater provides irrigation for the market garden for much of the year. As already mentioned, we try to limit the use of fossil fuels in our farm operation.

Our produce is Certified Naturally Grown as a demonstration of our commitment to the best in natural farming practices. We do not use synthetic chemicals our the farm, limit the use of tillage, use mulching and rainwater catchment to reduce irrigation, and provide habitat for beneficial insects and birds. Every year we move closer to producing more on our farm to reduce outside inputs – like composting, seed saving, growing feed for our livestock. Our livestock live in environments that are as close to their natural habitat as possible – pigs in the woods, chickens free ranging. Fencing going in this winter will allow us to move our goats into a rotational system through the woods ahead of the pigs.

No farm can be completely self-sustaining. I’m not sure it is even a realistic/worthy goal. We all need each other and we love to support the other local businesses and farmers in the community. Still, we strive every year to do the best we can in increasing the viability and sustainability of our farm.

Quality

When you think of our farm, this is one of the things we want you to think of first. How amazing and juicy the pork chops are you bought from us. The incredible taste of the tomatoes you picked up from us at market. How you can’t wait until we have those crazy little mouse melons again. What good would it be to put all this work and love into this farm if our food didn’t taste good! So, we’re always eager to hear what you think. If your produce or pork was awesome, let us know, we’ll grow more. If something was off, tell us that too and we’ll do whatever we can to make it better. We love our food and we want you to love it too.

Community

Prior to moving to Virginia we lived in a townhouse in a very close-knit community. Moving to the country was a bit of a culture shock. We’ve grown to love that we can’t see our neighbors houses (though they are awesome folks!) from our house. But we’ve also realized how vital community is. We want our farm to be a place that feeds the community and helps foster a sense of community. You’ll see us supporting and helping to promote fellow local farmers. To us, it is not a competition; we’re all in this together. So if another farmer down the road has a great product, we’ll tell you about it and help you connect with them. We also try to donate a portion of each week’s harvest to organizations or individuals in the area who are in need of fresh food.

Family

Our kids and our family are everything to us. It’s why we moved here – to be closer to grandparents and to give our kids a chance to grow up in this amazing environment. When I look through the pictures of our kids over the past three years here on the farm, my heart sings. The connection they have to this land, the freedom they have to roam and play, the skills and responsibility they are learning are all priceless. And, of course, there’s the food I get to feed them. The littlest one refuses vegetables at the moment,which breaks my heart, but at least I know the copious amounts of bacon he eats are as clean as possible.

Autumn – Letting Go

One of the things I love most about farming is the changing of seasons. Each season has its own delights and challenges. Now that we’ve had two hard freezes, it feels like we have finally moved solidly into autumn and are beginning to stare down the start of winter.

This autumn has been particularly beautiful in terms of foliage. It must have been the right combination of weather factors to create an amazing leaf display that has lasted now well into November. The trees letting go of their leaves also marks the time we let go of the garden. Last weekend’s below freezing nights means much of the garden has died off for the year. It always feels bittersweet. No more tomatoes and peppers. Even many of the hardy greens have succumbed to the freezing temps. But the bugs have also all but disappeared and we can pack up the mower and  weed whacker till spring.

The change of pace is a welcome gift of autumn. Spring and summer are frenetic and my to do list is a seemingly endless litany of seed, plant, weed, water, harvest, repeat. Now my attention can move to all the projects I put off through the summer. Fixing broken tools, putting up new fences for the hogs, installing a high tunnel, painting the shop, upgrading our wash station, expanding the greenhouse. With less demanding my attention outside, I find myself “farming” on the computer – reviewing records from this year and starting to plan for next year. I expect the seed catalogs will begin to arrive any day!

And, of course, the seasonal shifts in food are what I love the most. As much as I gorge on tomato sandwiches during the summer, I’m actually tired of them now and ready for the switch. Roasts and soups have been gracing the table lately. And more time inside means more time to focus on bread baking. We’ve been enjoying sweet potatoes with many of our meals and sweet potato pie is making an appearance, even for breakfast! Fresh greens are a nice balance to the heavier dishes of fall with kale and mizuna both in regular rotation. And mushrooms! Mushrooms with as many meals as possible.

I can’t find who to attribute this to, but I’ve been thinking about this quote all season, “Autumn shows us how beautiful it can be to let things go.” Something about this season in particular reminds me how important it is to live and work with the change of seasons. I am sometimes tempted to push the limits of the season and try to extend our growing either earlier or later. And in some ways we do this regularly, by starting seeds inside in the winter and using row covers to protect against the late and early frosts. But the truth is the garden and my body both need the rest. So, as the trees let go of their leaves, I am letting go of the garden with all the challenges and triumphs it brought this year. Now to rest and dream for next year.

Settling in Virginia

IMG_20130508_171332_212 In the last post I said I didn’t come from a farming family. Well, that’s not entirely true, but you have to go back a few generations. My great, great grandfather, Papa Collins, had a 100+ acre farm kind of across the street from our farm. I may have met him when I was a young kid, but if so, I don’t have any memories of him. Luckily though, my cousin who remembers him is still around to tell us stories about her grandfather. He grew wheat on the land and always kept a few pigs. He worked the land with horses and refused to have electricity run to his house when it finally came to the county. Every year for Christmas his kids and anyone in the family would get a sack of wheat and a share of the pork. He used to say that no Collins would ever starve as long as he had the farm.

Unfortunately, none of his kids took to farming and the farm was sold to a timber company. My grandfather was one of his grandsons. He always loved his grandfather and coming to the farm. I think he wished he could have gotten the farm back. Instead, he worked hard to buy a piece of property across the street from his grandfather’s old place. The property was mostly wooded, but he cleared a space to begin building a cabin and another space for a large garden. He and my grandmother lived in Charlottesville, but came down as much as they could to tend the garden and work on building the cabin. They hoped to retire there some day.

I have lots of childhood memories of coming “down to the country” with my grandparents. We would help Poppop load firewood he’d cut onto his truck. Forage for blackberries with Lulu. Help with the digging of potatoes. Watch Poppop run the tractor in the garden. Go down to the spring and dip a ladle into the cool, delicious water. And eat Vienna sausages – they kept a stash in the cabin basement.

Poppop and Lulu didn’t live long enough to see their dreams of retiring to the country come to life. Illness slowed them down and kept them away from the property. And they both died some years ago. Eventually nature began to reclaim the land. Pine trees grew up where the garden once was and critters of many kinds moved into the unfinished cabin. But the land never stopped calling to me.

When Poppop finally passed on, I asked my mom if I could have the land and we began planning our move. The cabin was not suitable for living, so we considered our options of living in Charlottesville till we could build a house or buying another property nearby. As it happened, an adjacent property went up for sale with a house, in our price range. And so here we are. It is not ideal farmland. The property we bought is mostly loblolly pine with about 1 cleared acre that is so striped of topsoil that most of it is just bare clay with little life and no earthworms. Poppop’s property is full of beautiful hardwoods, but the cabin and the former garden area need a lot of work to bring them back to life.

Still, we are slowly but surely rehabilitating this land that we have. Every year it looks more alive and vibrant. When I walk through the woods, I often think of Poppop and Papa Collins and wonder what they would think. I hope they would be happy that one of their own is trying to give life to this land that they loved and to live out their dreams of farming that skipped a few generations. My cousin passed down Papa Collins’ pitchfork to me. His initials are carved into the handle which must be over a hundred years old. It is the best tool on this farm and I use it nearly every day. She also passed down his horse drawn plow, which we once hitched up to our riding lawn mower to try to break some new ground, but that’s a story for another day…pitchfork

Farming as Calling

I did not grow up in a farming family. I didn’t even grow up in a family with deep food traditions – unless you count the Vienna sausages my grandmother would feed us when we would visit or the stashes of snickerdoodles and pound cakes in her freezer, though I still really love snickerdoodles. And I would be negligent not to mention my mom’s chocolate chip cookies. She makes the best. So, maybe a few sweet traditions. But my journey to farming has been one that evolved slowly, and primarily through my journey of faith.

After college, I moved to Atlanta to enter seminary at Candler School of Theology. I studied to become a pastor and ended up falling in love with hospital chaplaincy, where I worked for some years after graduating. My faith has always found its deepest resonance around the Table. The communion table, certainly, but also any time folks are gathered around the table to share in a meal together. Around the table, we encounter God in one another. Like the disciples encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Jesus is made known to us in the breaking of the bread.

Eventually, this connection to the table led me to caring about the quality of food I served to my friends and family. I became a better cook and I began to source better ingredients. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle  by Barbara Kingsolver opened my eyes to the world of local food and the joy of growing one’s own food. A small garden in my backyard, led to dreams of chickens – the gateway drug of homesteading. A turkey butchering class and the preparation of that bird for our Thanksgiving table changed this long time vegetarian into an advocate for local, humanely raised meats.

Though I loved chaplaincy, it wasn’t long before the windowless corridors of the hospital began to feel constricting. My mind wandered to visions of watching my longed-for herd of livestock move across the pasture. My hands ached to be digging in the soil. My internet search history revealed pages and pages of rural real estate listings. Eventually Bones joined me in this dreaming and a vision of a different life began to take shape. More about how we landed in Virginia in the next post.

I like to joke now that I am still in ministry, but all my parishioners have four legs or wings. In truth, my sense of calling to this work of sustainable agriculture is every bit as strong as my calling to ministry and the two are very much entwined. Caring for God’s creation was among the very first commands God gave to God’s people. My hope is for this farm to be a expression of my faith and my commitment to caring for this land and my community through sustainable farming practices, humane livestock husbandry, and the provision of quality, local food for my community.

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” -Chinese proverb