So Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer decided at the end of 2019 to make some changes at the Tiny Sustainable Homestead. One of the things that we are actively pursuing is a better handle on our schedules and our meal planning. To that end we decided to have weekly meetings on Sundays to discuss and clarify our schedules for the upcoming week and to plan our weekly meals. We decided that we would pick a cookbook per month from Miss Mercy’s collection (she loves cookbooks) and explore those recipes for our meal planning.
Simple enough, right? Also, kind of “Hey, let’s end our peaceful and/or fun weekend by sitting down to a business meeting” – oh, that’s not really as much fun as it sounds like (okay, maybe exactly as much fun as it sounds). So the Mad Farmer says “how about we add a cocktail option each week (Miss Mercy being the inspiration for that idea – by bringing up that we were about to be in the ’20’s and could re-create the “Roaring Twenties”)? Miss Mercy loves vintage styles, is excited about retro things and was on board immediately. After a brief discussion that saw the weekly choice turn into a monthly choice, served weekly (to give us a chance to “tweak” the recipe) we had our first January scheduling/menu meeting.
This is a podcast of our first attempt at making “The Sidecar” and our impressions of the cocktail. Feel free to follow along and try it out if you like. The recipe is from liquor.com.
What is homesteading really like? The Mad Farmer doesn’t know exactly. The best answer is “It depends”. Funny how that seems to be the answer to almost every question in Homesteading, Permaculture and Life. Almost every situation in life is unique to the moment. Sometimes the right decision is clear. Sometimes the wrong decision is also equally clear. Most of the time, it depends…
is that plant better in this location or over by the fence? It depends. Does the plant need full sun or is it okay with partial shade? It depends. What is the soil like in that spot versus the other spot? It depends. Is there adequate drainage? It depends. How early should it be planted? What if the weather is to hot? To cold? It depends. What, What What????? And that’s one plant, in one location in your yard that you probably aren’t that invested in anyway – I mean really, it’s just a plant, right?
Life is a constant series of “It depends” questions. Nothing is cut and dried, well not much anyway. There are some guidelines:
Don’t wear white after Labor Day
Don’t chew with your mouth open
Pick up trash if you see it on the ground
Don’t sass your parents
Don’t beat your children (unless they really deserve it)
Not a complete list. Not a comprehensive list. Will it you help you in life? It depends. Probably not as much as you’d like. Good news is there is a list that will get you through life. Bad news is that you have to open a Bible to read it and you’re going to fail to follow it (Ten Commandments sound familiar)? Interestingly enough, is even if you are not a Christian every culture on the planet has a version. They all boil down to two simple rules:
Treat others as you would like to be treated (yep, even people who suck)
Don’t steal (anything – if it ain’t yours, it wasn’t given to you and you didn’t earn it, don’t take it)
Other than that, it depends. Should you go to this school or that? Take this job or that? Let your children go to that event, the other event or no events? Plant things that are good for Zone 6 or can I push it to Zone 5b? Move here, move there? Rent or buy? Borrow or pay cash (this one actually has an answer – if you can’t pay for it, you can’t afford it – find another way – keeping in mind the “Don’t steal” rule).
Life is about choices and sometimes about compromising. What is the best way? It depends. Will you always make the best choices? Probably not. Should you keep trying? Yes, you should. That is not an “It depends” question. If you don’t try, you won’t ever succeed. Will you win? It depends…
Leave a comment or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have an opinion or thought.
The Mother Earth News Fair is coming up shortly in October. October 19th and 20th in Topeka for the Kansas event. Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer have been attending the Fair every year since they started having one in Topeka.
The Kansas Mother Earth News Fair used to be held in Lawrence, KS – home of the University of Kansas, the KU Jayhawks (amazing basketball team if you like that kind of sportsball), the Free State Brewery (Because without beer, things do not seem to go as well) . Some people are not aware of this but Ogden Publishing, that puts out Mother Earth News, Grit, Capper’s Farmer and many other publications, is based in Topeka, KS. When Ogden decided to start having a Mother News Fair in their hometown the Mad Farmer was happy to attend, to see what all the fuss was about. Miss Mercy was probably either mildly curious or just humoring the Farmer and decided to tag along.
Last year’s Mother Earth News Fair had a lot speakers that we were interested in seeing. To be fair (see what I did there) there usually are a lot of interesting things to hear about from a lot of interesting people. One of last year’s keynote speakers was Jessi Bloom. Jessi has written several books on Permaculture and homestead living, her first was Free Range Chicken Gardens, followed by Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, and her most recent book was released just before last year’s fair, Creating Sanctuary. I was able to attend three of her seminars last year and they always have some information that I wasn’t aware of.
Last year I also attended a talk by Tradd Cotter, author of Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation, which is considered one of the best books on mushroom farming currently available (of course I picked up a signed copy)! Super interesting – you should give it a read.
This year looks like it’s going to be more fantastic talks from excellent people! Rob Avis and his wife Michelle, own Verge Permaculture, a Permaculture consulting firm based in Canada. I first started following Rob on Diego Footer’s Permaculture Voices podcast. The Farmer can’t wait to attend his talks and hopefully his workshops. Rob and Michelle have recently published a book on rainwater harvesting, Essential Rainwater Harvesting. The Mad Farmer is pretty sure that he will end up having an autographed copy of that book by the end of the Fair.
Another speaker that will be at the Kansas fair is Gary Collins, the author of “The Simple Life” book series. Gary has been a member of Jack Spirko’s expert council, answering questions on health and living right. It’s kind of strange because after listening to so many podcasts and reading an author’s books you kind of feel like you know them. The Farmer can’t really begin to fathom what that it might be like to have thousands, even tens of thousands or more people, all feeling like they know you, taking your journey through life with you, as spectators or peripheral participants. Amazing that these extraordinary people take it in stride and are still able to be “normal” people..
And a fan favorite, Uncle Mud, will also be there. The Mad Farmer had the great pleasure of getting to know Uncle Mud in Montana at Wheaton Labs during the Rocket Mass Oven Kickstarter Pizza Party. Since the Farmer was driving by Missoula on the way to the Labs he was asked if he would mind picking up “Uncle Mud” from the airport. The Farmer went to the airport and actually got to text Uncle Mud “I’m here to pick you up and I’m standing by the bear” (the Missoula has a stuffed grizzly bear in the lobby area – it’s awesome)! Once Uncle Mud debarked from the plane we had a super conversation and then the Farmer got to spend several days at Wheaton Labs with Uncle Mud, Donkey Mobert and the Duke of Permaculture, Paul Wheaton, himself.
When the Mad Farmer returned from Montana, Miss Mercy greeted him, welcomed him home and and then, a few days later, Miss Mercy and the Farmer went to the Mother Earth’s News Fair that year, and attended several of Uncle Mud’s seminars and later got to go out to dinner with him and his family that was attending. Just a really good time with people the Farmer really admires. Can’t wait to see Uncle Mud again.
The one vendor we really hope comes back this year is a small company, Rogue Hoe, originally from western Kansas (the company has since moved to Missouri) that melts down old tools and re-casts the iron into new tools. We purchased a scuffle hoe the first year we saw them there and sadly they haven’t been back yet, we hope they make it this year.
One last thing. If you sign up for the Mother Earth News Fair newsletter, you can get your weekend pass wristbands for just $10.00 each. That is a deal that’s hard to beat. Hope to see you all there!
didn’t even know there was such a thing. Turns out it’s real. Being an Urban
Homesteader (along with my amazing Miss Mercy) we just call Homesteading
Burnout regular Life. Sometimes Life just gets you down, things don’t go your
way, at times it seems overwhelming. You can put whatever name you like on it,
but sometimes little things turn into big things and lots of little things that
are aggravating pile up into giant aggravations that seem insurmountable.
If you’ve been following along at all it’s been a wild year for a lot of reasons. Homestead-wise it’s been mostly weather. It’s been one of the wettest years on record, rain in buckets and barrels in short spans of time. Sudden heat waves, then rain again in more sudden quantities over short periods of times. Vine borers in biblical proportions devouring every zucchini plant root and stock as fast as they tried to grow. Oddly, cucumbers in amazing quantities. Shishito Peppers from one plant we bought at a Master Gardener sale producing pepper after pepper. The Tiny Homestead doesn’t even really eat peppers but we wanted to try them because apparently it’s like playing Russian Pepper Roulette, one in every ten or so are flaming hot, the rest are supposedly awesome cooked in oil. We’ll probably find out soon. Tomatoes in our garden haven’t produced because it was so hot at night the fruit couldn’t set, Tomatoes – the Divas of the Garden, right? The Garlic that was planted last fall turned out magnificently. Ups and Downs, can’t predict and not worth trying to.
Anyway, Life isn’t
just about the Garden. If it was, that would probably be really awesome, but
Life just keeps on pressing in on you sometimes. The Mad Farmer works in a Big
Blue Castle as his day job. The Farmer has been working at the Castle for far longer
than he ever thought he would be anywhere. Nowadays many people come and go
from jobs in months. It’s not unusual to see resumes in our current environment
where people are at their previous employers for less than a year, multiple
times. The Mad Farmer has been employed for more than twenty-five years at the
same place. The Blue Castle has been good to the Farmer in many ways. Provided
gainful employment, enabled a standard of living, allowed the Farmer to raise
beautiful daughters and eventually marry the Miss Mercy of his dreams. In some
ways it’s not the job everyone dreams of. The Farmer fixes problems, something
he’s been fairly successful at for a very long time. But the thing about
problems is that they never stop. The Farmer’s motto this year is “If it
was Easy, Everyone Would do it” (one for the Wisdom Nugget Toolbox – that
post is coming soon, I promise). So it’s not always Easy, not every problem has
a solution and sometimes, just sometimes, the solution is a choice between Not
Great Choice A and Not Great Choice B.
This year has been a lot of things, one after another, that just seem to be coming home to roost. Car repairs, AC issues, water in the basement because the drain spouts had come loose and the Farmer didn’t notice until torrential downfalls pointed it out it the worst way possible – swampy, flooded overflowing cat boxes. You want to have a fair-to-middling-not-so-great-day? Clean up soggy cat litter that’s been sitting underwater for a while. Last year three loads of wood chips, this year, every load requested has been diverted for various reasons and the rain has washed out a lot of the work done last year. The pond we’ve been digging on for more than a year is still muddy and unfinished. The constant rain has washed out new planting, grown an amazing amount of weeds and is still coming. Sinuses are stuffy, the highest pollen counts daily seem to be the new norm and as the Farmer is now pushing closer to sixty then fifty (really middle-aged in our family) things seem to be a lot harder in a lot of ways then they were just a few years ago. Life just seems to go on, and on and on. Then Miss Mercy, in her infinite and amazing wisdom, pointed out that we still are experiencing Blessings on a daily basis.
The Mad Farmer’s
oldest daughter got married this year to a wonderful young man. They are very
happy by any standard the Farmer cares to apply and are looking to close on
their first house. Miss Mercy is still a blessing every day, the Farmer
couldn’t be happier to have this amazing woman sharing his life. The Big Blue
Castle has been a challenge, but not one the Farmer isn’t up to, and, “If
it was Easy, Everyone Would do It”. Health challenges have been a bit of a
struggle but the Farmer’s family has been facing worse and those have been
working out okay. The Farmer has friends and family who have experienced tragic
loss but also wonderful, joyful moments – births, remissions, unexpected
blessing from many sides. There is a roof over the Farmer’s head, most of the
things that appear to be set-backs are more annoyances than tragedies and
overall, things are actually pretty darn good. Dave Ramsey’s signature phrase
is “Better Than I Deserve”. The Mad Farmer has been a Dave fan for years,
been out of debt except for the mortgage for more than a decade and truly
believes that all things do come from God and he (or she, not a time to quibble
about gender) does not give you more than you can handle, even if you might not
get that at the time.
Life is more about attitude than anything else. The Farmer has known people who have gone through tremendous challenges, way worse than anything he is likely to face, and they still have a positive attitude and a sunny disposition. The Farmer also knows people who have gone through what could be perceived as minor issues and have come away from that with an Eeyore victim mentality. The Mad Farmer knows that he is not wise enough to judge. For some people, with a smaller “toolbox” and that haven’t had positive role models in their life, or been taught coping mechanisms, even minor setbacks can seem overwhelming. The Farmer has also been taught that often you can’t control what happens, but you can control how you react to it. The Farmer chooses to follow the positive and be awed by the Blessings that occur daily in his life. The Mad Farmer hopes that you can also. Be Strong, be Thankful, be Kind and be Blessed.
You may be familiar with the phrase “Perfection is the Enemy of Good Enough”. The Mad Farmer’s father, the Mad Welder, was often heard to say “If you don’t have time to do it right, you will be finding time to do it over” (the first thing I ever added to the Wisdom Nugget Toolbox). In all fairness the Mad Farmer’s dad aka the Mad Welder was also often heard saying things like “not there, move that light to your other right”, “where is my hammer?” and “what the “H-E double hockey sticks (you know the real word) do you think you are doing” and the ever popular, “hold down the brake pedal” (while he was working on the carburetor). So, some of the real pearls did often fall between the cracks while innocents cowered and offenders were taught the life lessons that form the foundation of character.
Anyway, the Mad Farmer has discovered a phrase that will not be joining the Wisdom Nugget Toolbox is “I’ll Fix That Later”. “I’ll Fix That Later” is the enemy of Good Enough, Near Enough, Probably Good Enough and all of their cousins and extended kin, without even bothering to mention Perfection. Last fall at the Tiny Homestead we had a couple of really sad trees that were growing in our easement (what the Australian’s call “the Parking Strip”). In Kansas, at least in Topeka, the Department of Making You Sad gets upset if you remove trees from the easement. It’s technically land that the homeowner owns, is responsible for maintaining and pays taxes on but the city has the right to do anything they like there and the homeowner is not allowed to make major changes without city approval. Pretty sure it’s things like this that are driving the Mad Farmer straight into Voluntaryism (but clearly that’s a post for another day).
The trees were a Sweet Gum, also know as “The Terrible Monster Tree that Distributes Small Spiky Balls of Death that Can Kill, Wound or Seriously Annoy When Expelled at High Speed From the Whirling Blades of The Mower”, and a diseased Maple that had been struggling since we purchased the property and was never going to get better. It was suggested by someone that the Farmer call the City Department of Making You Sad about Trees and see if the trees could be removed. In possibly the most surreal sequence of events in the Farmers life, while he was on the phone with the City Department in charge of Tree Sadness requesting that someone come out and look at the trees that were impeding homestead progress Miss Mercy relayed that a city vehicle had just pulled up in front of the homestead and a city worker exited said vehicle with a clipboard and started looking at the aforementioned trees. After thanking the Tree Department of Sadness for the prompt response the Mad Farmer and Miss Mercy went out to talk to the city employee.
The city employee told us he happened to be in the neighborhood when the call came over the radio so he stopped by. Still super surreal. Even more surreal was that the employee agreed with the assessment of the diseased Maple and the imminent danger posed by the Death Ball Tree and told us the Department of Sad Trees would be out to make these Trees Super Sad by removing them. And, in less than a couple of weeks, a large City Truck and several support vehicles arrived on site, workers swarmed and the trees came down and disappeared. So what does this all have to do with Perfection, Good Enough or I’ll Fix That Later? Well, once the Parking Strip trees came down the only obstruction to garden sun and happiness at the homestead was a sickly elm that was also facing the street but was on homestead property, not the Parking Strip, so the Mad Farmer was allowed to remove it if he wished, and he did wish.
So a sunny afternoon, a chainsaw, some well-placed cuts and one not as well placed and the elm tree was no longer an obstruction and instead was in many log-shaped pieces and lots of branches and limbs. Because the Department of Making You Sad does apparently care about things like piles of log-like items in the front of the homestead (and because random strangers kept coming up and asking the Farmer “Do you want those?”), the Farmer tossed everything over the homestead fence. Intending to “Fix That Later”. This is where the Farmer learned that “Fix That Later” is the Enemy of Everything. The Farmer didn’t fix it later. The rains came, the Winter came, the snows fell and everything stayed in piles, against the backside of the fence. Then Spring came, the wettest that Farmer remembers (not that his memory is that great), but also the wettest many other people could remember. The unfinished pond filled up, the rains continued, then, for the first time in years – an actual Spring.
Growing things covered over the piles of limbs, brush and logs that had been thrown over the fence. Birds bringing in strange seeds that grew into vines, stickleburrs, thorny random weeds and cover crops gone berserk. And then the sunshine came out intermittently, the plant life flourished and got higher, denser and more out-of-control. Briefly it looked planned and “meadowy”. Then it looked like something your neighbors would complain about to the Department of Making You Sad, but because it was hidden from prying eyes, no complaints. The only other person who could see the forest primeval attempting to take over the honestead was Miss Mercy. The good news is Miss Mercy is super cool and only mentioned things were getting out-of-control occasionally. The bad news is, it was a mess. So Miss Mercy took a road trip to catch up with her life-long best friend (maybe she will guest blog about that trip someday) and the Mad Farmer did his level best to get the out-of-control meadow under control. The Farmer made some progress, but not nearly enough. Thus was hammered home the lesson that “Fix It Later” doesn’t happen, and, when it doesn’t it makes a mess.
The moral of this story is that people are human and human systems aren’t consistent (Paul Wheaton has a spot-on theory about this). People say that Perfection is the Enemy of Good-Enough because if you overthink or wait for the perfect moment or sequence of events then things never even get started. If you start something and it’s “Good Enough” it means it’s working at least a bit, that means you have the opportunity to tweak it, tune it and correct it – all things that can’t happen if you never started. Those are all good things. If you do things in a hurry, because you think you are going to get “right back to it and tidy it up correctly” it will probably really move you backwards. Not doing things correctly in the first place is going to cost you more time than if you had done it right the first time. Sometimes you might not have a choice, but if you do, take the time to do it right if you can – you’ll be happy you did.
The Mad Farmer took a day off from his “real job” and was hoping to get some intensive yard work in on his “day off”. It’s said that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. It apparently started raining sometime during the night. The Mad Farmer’s Strawberry Blonde Pain-in-the-Too-kas, aka the Bane of the Farmer’s Existence, aka the Dog that almost speaks English, sometimes known as … “Sasha”, usually gets the Farmer up sometime before 6 am to “go out”.
In case you are not a dog owner “go out” means “I’ve been inside, cooped up for a while and I gotta go, and I gotta go now (okay I could hold it, but now would be super swell and I’ll whine less – maybe – okay probably not, but maybe, if you would get up and let me outside NOW that would be SWELL). So the Mad Farmer stumbles out of bed, staggers down the stairs, whining mutt following, and opens the back door. Amazing what you don’t hear when you’re not really awake. Somehow the Farmer missed the pitter-patter of a torrential downpour. When the door opened, the driving rain was apparent and the sudden crack of lightning and resulting flash sent the aforementioned Strawberry Blonde hobbling backwards and up the stairs as fast as she could. It appears that safety trumps a full bladder, at least in the short term.
The point of all this exposition is that no yard work was getting done, at least not in the morning, at the Tiny Sustainable Homestead. There were still things to do even though it was raining.
The Family Truckster was scheduled for an oil change (turns out a trip to Polyface Farms from Kansas is far enough to warrant an oil change when you get back).
Miss Mercy had an early morning board meeting (she’s on a lot of boards, apparently to keep from getting bored).
There was coffee to be drunk (the Homestead is super fond of Seattle’s Best #5)
Bird Feeders go empty and need to be refilled, even in the rain, especially with the flying pigs that inhabit the area around the tiny homestead.
Early morning rain induced nap (this was optional, but seemed a shame to pass up).
Miss Mercy returned from her meeting and helped to drink the coffee, she was no help at all for napping – she doesn’t really nap (although she does try on occasion). The Strawberry Blonde was also not helpful for the napping. Turns out, if you’re not spending every waking moment paying attention to the Blonde then Little Miss Whiny whines. Super annoying if you’re trying to nap while hanging out on your porch in the rain. At that point the Farmer had a choice: He could get up, go upstairs and go to bed or, his timeline could fork, and he could get some stuff done (Future Post Warning: The Mad Farmer will at some point share his brother’s theory about naps and going back to bed) .
As much as the Farmer would love to waste a day doing nothing, it didn’t feel like today was that day, so the mental decision was made to get some stuff done. The bird feeders got filled, turned out the birds don’t care if it’s raining. The kitchen got spruced up, the fridge got cleaned out, zucchini chips got dehydrated and peppers and cucumbers got harvested from the garden. It’s been a weird year for gardening in Kansas, last year it jumped from Winter to Summer, giving Spring a miss. This year has been one of the wettest years in memory and so we actually had a Spring but Summer has been a pendulum swing between very hot and very wet – it’s really confused the garden produce. We know people who are having a bumper crop of tomatoes, the homestead has very few. The basil is going gangbusters and we have volunteer squash that have massive vines but aren’t fruiting. So all-in-all, garden confusion.
The one amazing pile of produce we have is cucumbers. Not the Mad Farmer’s favorite fruit but Miss Mercy loves ’em in all their forms. We had way more cucumbers than Miss Mercy could reasonably eat so the Farmer decided it was finally time to learn how to water bath can. A recent podcast from Nicole Sauce, at Living Free in Tennessee, about the 8 Steps to Mastering Canning, inspired the Farmer to give it a try with some cautious encouragement from Miss Mercy.
So we gathered the cucumbers and the canning supplies (the Homestead has been preparing for this for a while) and the Mad Farmer started slicing and dicing and sterilizing and sanitizing and boiling and preparing and all the other things you need to do so start canning.
Turns out it’s not that scary. The Farmer has brewed beer and mead off and on for years. The one thing in common with those processes is you want to make sure everything is clean and sanitary. If conditions are not sanitary you risk contaminating your product and screwing up all your hard work. Cucumbers are naturally high in acid so, like brewing, there isn’t anything that will grow in canned pickles that will kill you. It may skunk it up, make it so it’s not worth eating or look gross, but it won’t kill you so that’s a plus.
Some foods, like meats and soups and green beans are lower in acid content and if you don’t prepare them properly you can introduce botulism. Botulism is found in all kinds of places, the dirt in the ground, on your fingers, etc. The problem with botulism is if you introduce it into an oxygen free environment it geometrically reproduces and produces a toxin that can kill you – clearly not an outcome anyone wants while preserving food for consumption later ( Important Safety TipEgon, don’t cross the streams and don’t allow botulism toxin to thrive in your canning process).
So all the directions were followed, ingredients were added in quantities according to recipes and accepted practices and pickle packing, lid seating and jar boiling commenced. After the proper amount of time in a big pot under a rolling boil (15 minutes for the recipe we were using) the first ever Tiny Homestead canned pickles were finished and moved from the water bath to the cooling area.
Refrigerator pickles were made at the same time (a similar process, but instead of water bath canning them you just put them in the fridge). The fridge pickles turned out great, even the Mad Farmer who previously didn’t like pickles very much, found them tasty. Common practice, as we understand it, is to let the pickles rest for a few weeks to allow the flavor of the spices and dill included to infuse them with the flavors. Going to be hard to wait that long. As the quote says ” I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”.
Polyface Farms might be the coolest place on the planet. Okay, it’s probably not even on the coolest list unless you are a fanboy for regenerative agriculture and Joel Salatin is one of your favorite authors and presenters in the agriculture/Permaculture space. In that case, Polyface is pretty darn cool. First off, the lunatic farm tour they offer every other Saturday from March thru October is a bargain at $20.00 per ticket. The tour was the primary destination for the Mad Farmer and Miss Mercy’s trip to Virginia recently. We went other places and learned other things but Polyface was the place we wanted to go.
Because we had traveled to Polyface the afternoon before we knew how long it was going to take us to get there. The Mad Farmer showered, had the coffee going and most of the stuff packed into the family truckster pretty early the morning of the actual tour. Miss Mercy said it was plain to see that I might be a little bit excited. That part is definitely true. I’m not sure exactly when I heard my first Joel Salatin podcast, might have been on Jack Spirko’s The Survival Podcast, might have been on Diego Footer’s Permaculture Voices Podcast, either way since that first podcast I have listened to a lot of interviews with Joel Salatin. The first time the Mad Farmer got to meet him in person was several years ago when he was a keynote speaker for the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, KS. I’ve read several of Joel’s books but my favorite is “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal“. Miss Mercy’s favorite book up to this point is probably “The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs“.
Anyway, the Mad Farmer is a self-proclaimed fanboy. The tour is either led by Joel himself, or his son, Daniel. It would be great if Joel was the guide, but it was a 50/50 shot who would be guiding the tour (okay probably more 90/10) but, either way, we were really looking forward to the tour. I kind of felt like I knew Daniel – reading about him growing up, his early start in business raising rabbits and all the other family experiences that were described in detail in the books. So either way, we would be happy to take the tour no matter who was the tour guide.
When we first pulled up we were about a half hour early, but we weren’t the first ones there by a long shot – we also weren’t the last, so that was good. The farm has been doing tours for a while and they approach it like everything else on the farm, they study the best ways to do things, then they put that process in place and tweak it until it works. Your first impression of the farm is the actual layout as you drive up the road, the second, is people directing parking, answering questions and just generally being super helpful.
The first other visitor we met when we got out of the car was a gentlemen who was a long-haul trucker from Missouri. The trucker thought it was “great to meet people from Kansas who had come farther than he had”. A pleasant fellow, we chatted briefly and then we went into the Farm Store.
The store is rustic looking, has a bank of fridges and freezers for the grass-fed, grass-finished pork, beef and chicken they sell and also has racks of shelves and other items that are display. Lots of T-shirts, books, local produce, jams, jelly’s and such. It’s an inviting place, easy to move about and the people staffing the store are helpful, cheery and give you the impression you’re not a bother – they are glad to help you. There’s an autographed picture of Joel with the band Train – pretty random, but very cool, especially since we’ve seen them in concert in Kansas City. Miss Mercy and I decided to buy our T-Shirts early and leave them in the car before the tour. The Mad Farmer was as happy as a Marvelous Pig that he was able to get an “Everything I want to do is Illegal” shirt.
Right on time the tour started. The Lunatic Farm Tour is kind of like a hay-rack ride. Two Tractors with two hay wagons attached provide seating for the tour participants. The tour is limited to about 100 people, but because of how it is set up it doesn’t seem crowded and everyone has a chance to see, hear and ask questions. Plenty of water is provided, which is a good thing, because, on a two hour tour in the Virginia sun in June, (cue the Gilligan’s Island Theme song) there is more than enough time to get dehydrated if you are not careful.
It was Daniel who showed up to lead the tour, and shock, shock, he’s a grown man with a family. You read about Daniel in the books as a young boy, and even though later Joel talks about him getting married and having a family, in the Mad Farmer’s head he was always a “young boy”. Clearly not the case. Daniel comes across as a highly competent, clearly intelligent, individual who is in charge of running a large farm operation.
So the tour starts out with everyone getting on the hay wagons and we chug off across a stream and up a hill towards various areas of the farm. The first leg of the tour was about a mile by tractor and stopped at the current location of the chicken tractors. Many of Joel’s books discuss the chicken tractors – portable shelters that protect the very small chickens and still let them feed on grass and bugs and keep them relatively safe from predators.
Each chicken tractor is made from light weight materials and can be moved by a single person. It only takes a couple of minutes per tractor and 1500 birds can be moved in under an hour. Very efficient and a proven method that has been tested over decades. Everything about Polyface farms is about flexibility, light weight and mobility. If you aren’t sure it is supposed to be a permanent fixture then it probably shouldn’t be. The tour then moved on to the chicken roosts
The roosts are surrounded by electric fencing which helps keep predators out and chickens in. The portable structure provides a place for laying eggs and nighttime roosting. It’s proven it’s working, plus the water storage and chicken feed storage is attached to the front, so everything is easy to hook up to a tractor and move. Polyface is all about making things work – a life lesson for everyone to be sure.
The next stop was the fabled “egg mobile” or is it “Eggmobile”? Either way there aren’t fences around the area. These chickens are as close to “free range” as is possible in a world where they don’t crap on everything you own, especially your porch. Polyface also raises Turkeys in a similar fashion.
The last stop on the tour was the cattle. We had hoped to see the pigs reveling in the Marvelous Pigness of being Pigs but Daniel told us they were several miles away in fields that were not conducive to easy access by tractor and the time to get there and back would have taken longer that could be accommodated. So we tractored on a bit and came to a shady wooded area near a stream that was full of cattle. Just up the hill was a very nice pond.
We were told the pond was man-made and collected run-off from all the fields above, helping to keep the stream below flowing and allowing the water to be used for many other things downhill. Land and water management is a huge part of Permaculture and it’s a huge part of Polyface Farm’s land use. The last part of the formal tour was being able to watch the Polyface interns “paddock shift” the cattle to the next grazing location, opening electric fencing and “calling” to the cows. The cows are used to the process, appear to look forward to new grass, and seem eager to move. In just a couple of minutes all the critters had moved to the new area and started grazing.
When the Mad Farmer was much younger he used to walk out to the fields with his Grandpa Farmer (a man who farmed successfully all his life, with hard work from sunup to sunset) and used to bring the dairy cattle back to the barn. I can tell you that experience was night and day different from what we saw at Polyface. I loved my Grandpa, but he was definitely a product of his time. Grandpa was born before airplanes flew and passed after man had walked on the moon, but I’m pretty sure what is happening on a daily basis at Polyface would have left him shaking his head at the “newfangled notions” and confused him mightily.
After the tour went back to the main area we were invited to stay as long as we liked, ask questions and take a look around anywhere we liked. Miss Mercy’s first beeline was to the chicken coops, where there were hundreds, if not thousands, of very cute baby chicks being grown big enough to go out and “get on the grass”. It wasn’t smelly, they weren’t standing around in their own poop and we knew the birds we were looking at would shortly be having the best experience poultry being raised for egg laying or for later “freezer camp” can have.
After a short walking tour around the grounds and work areas Miss Mercy and the Farmer ended up chatting with Daniel for a bit. Yours truly forgot to ask him what it was like constantly having people drop by the farm while trying to work (guess we’ll have to go back again, oh darn). Miss Mercy asked him about the pigs. We were told where they were and that we were welcome to hike up and take a look. Daniel also mentioned there were a lot of younger pigs that were currently in the barn and we could go check them out if we liked. So moments later we are in the barn, taking the in Marvelous Cuteness of piglets (come on, you know they are). After a bit we started toward the field where the larger pigs were grazing.
Pop-up lightning and the start of a fairly intense rain storm cut the sojourn to the pigs short and your intrepid wanderers left the wonderful place that is Polyface Farms and started our journey back to the homestead. The trip home was stormy, long and ultimately uneventful. Your weary homesteaders arrived tired, happy, and having been some wonderful places and learned some amazing things.
So after we toured Monticello we had decided to build in another leisurely driving day, this was a vacation after all. We decided to drive-by Polyface Farm on our way back to make sure we knew where we were going, and just because we wanted to – the farm was the whole reason for the trip in the first place. So we put the farm address into Waze, left Charlottesville and headed toward the farm (or so we thought).
You might remember from an earlier post that the Farmer said we were trying out Waze as a directional app and that they all have some quirks. At one point, on our way back, Waze directed us to turn onto the “Old Virginia Turnpike” . There actually seemed to be a sign that indicated the road we turned onto was the “Old Virginia Turnpike” and originally it started out paved. After a ways it turned to gravel, then it turned narrower and twisty and eventually it turned into a one-lane dirt goat path that went on for miles. GPS and satellite signals were non-existent, sporadic or few-and-far between and not necessarily in that order. Many miles into the path, where we had a top speed of approximately 15 mph, we finally got an updated signal and according to Waze the path we were on went around in a circle, with no apparent way off for probably another 15 miles.
Pulling over into a small clearing we decided we really didn’t want to drive on this particular road for the next 10-15 miles at 12-15 mph. Options were discussed and it was decided that we would turn around and head back to concrete highways and more visible indications of civilization. The return drive (back to the highway Ben Stone…) was uneventful and went much faster since we had already been down “that road” once. There were “drive-ways” deep down that forest road, we even saw a “property for sale” sign once, it reminded the Farmer of a lot of properties deep in the Ozarks, where we used to vacation at my Uncle’s cabin when everyone was younger. Probably a nice, remote place to live, but it might be tough to commute from there to a day job, so definitely off-grid homesteading possibilities if you are leaning that direction. Check out Staunton, VA real estate here.
So at that point we ended up back in Staunton and being a mite peckish decided to stop at the Shenandoah Pizza & Tap House. We weren’t expecting much and man were we blown away by this place. It was early afternoon on a weekday, so the place wasn’t that busy but their pizza options were varied and delicious. They had some excellent local brews on tap and if you are passing anywhere near Staunton, VA, we would highly recommending stopping in for a slice. It really hit the spot and clearly we can’t say enough good things about the place. Try if for yourself. After the bite to eat we decided to go ahead and drive out to Polyface and see what the trip was like, get the “lay of the land”, so to speak.
It’s about a 20-30 minute drive out to Polyface from Staunton. The roads were mostly paved (except for the last mile or so) and it was a lovely drive, right until the heavens opened up and unleashed a driving rain you literally couldn’t see through for more than a few hundred feet. The rain combined with the winding roads and unfamiliar territory did slow us down considerably. The last mile or so turned into gravel, with exceptionally large potholes (reminded us of Topeka roads) that you couldn’t really see because they were full of water. We apologized to our suspension multiple times on that drive. Finally we did arrive at Polyface. We decided based on the rain not to go on in (they are open any day you care to go, farm operation transparency is their thing). We decided to turn around, head back towards Staunton and get to our Airbnb location for the night.
We were booked into a stay at Fordell Farm near Staunton, VA. We were really looking forward to staying at the Fordell Airbnb site. The Airbnb listing looked fantastic and we weren’t disappointed, and the owners have really set the place up to make the stay very pleasant. There are currently several options and we stayed in the apartment suite attached to the main house. There was a walk-out patio, with a nice sitting area and the suite itself was very cozy. The owners have put a lot of effort into making the experience traveler friendly and inviting. The space was super clean, the furnishings comfortable, informative visitor information was provided about things to do in the area, places to eat and coffee table books on the history of the area. When we arrived we had a nice chat with Randy the owner. Even though there was a light rain, it was great to just sit for a while under the umbrella on the patio without having to be anywhere. Randy was easy to talk to, not intrusive and very knowledgeable about the history of the area. Overall, if all Airbnb experiences were all like this we would never stay anywhere else.
So the main purpose of the trip was to visit Polyface Farms. Turns out that Monticello is not very far away. In an amazing coincidence Miss Mercy was at a Master Gardener presentation on Presidential gardens and Monticello was part of the presentation. A text to the Mad Farmer went “want to add the Monticello gardens to our trip” and the answer back was “Yeah” (or something similar to that exchange, it has been a while but you get the gist). So Monticello was added to the itinerary.
Monticello is an amazing place. Multiple times it was relayed to visitors on the tour groups at Thomas Jefferson was a type of Renaissance Man but also a product of his times. Thomas Jefferson did many amazing things, including drafting the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson also owned over 600 slaves during the course of his life. While Jefferson professed he did not believe in slavery he was never able to reconcile the economics of slavery with freeing his slaves. It appears the only slaves he ever actually freed were the children he had with his slave mistress, Sallie Hemmings. The Mad Farmer is not the person to be able to reconcile all the good Jefferson did, all the amazing things he did and the horrible institution of treating people like property. So, we’ll leave that to history, profess it’s beyond the Farmer’s comprehension and move on to Monticello itself.
Jefferson designed Monticello himself and there are many European influences in the architecture. On the House tour we were told that there were two phases to the building. Originally there was a first floor with eight rooms and eventually, after many years of construction, the 2nd floor and 3rd floor dome were completed. Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer took the evening house tour – we highly recommend it. The evening tour starts at about 5:30 pm and lasts until about 8 pm. You can arrive at Monticello as soon as it opens and spend the day taking tours and wandering the grounds until the evening tour. The daytime house tours usually only cover the ground floor. The evening tour is a smaller group, covers all the floors from the dome to the basement and is very informative.
We arrived about 11 am and ended up taking the Garden Tour, the Slavery Tour and exploring the grounds for the rest of the day. Jefferson apparently never met a growing thing he didn’t love. Trees, flowers, plants and vegetables were all things he enjoyed, planted and observed. According to his daughters journals he was never happier then when he was puttering about his garden beds. There are three main areas of growing things on the site. There are the terraced vegetable beds, the flower path that surrounds the commons on the front of the house and the flower beds that surround the house. One of the coolest things is the Monticello website has an option to find out what flowers are growing when and where they are on the grounds. You can explore what is growing at Monticello, when and where at In Bloom at Monticello.
The flower path in front of Monticello is a wandering oval, that is lined on both sides with a variety of flowers every few feet. We were told that Jefferson’s favorite plant was a “Sensitive Plant”. The Sensitive plant curls inward when you place you hand near it, apparently it’s related to carnivorous plants, like the Venus flytrap. The variety of plants is amazing. The grounds were overgrown for decades and when they were eventually restored they were reconstructed based on Jefferson’s notes. Jefferson kept meticulous notes and sketches and recorded the daily temperatures in his notebooks for decades. According to the journals there were originally about twenty flower beds around Monticello itself. Turns out Jefferson found that was not nearly enough for everything he wanted to plant so he added the oval flower path and kept on experimenting.
One of the best things about Monticello are the terraced vegetable gardens. Originally there was only mountainside, the terraces were man made. In modern times the terraces would be dug by heavy equipment or the Permaculture equivalent of an Amish barn raising. In the 18th century, there was no heavy equipment, or Permaculture, so we’ll leave it to the imagination to how the terraces were actually developed. The Garden tour guide told us that the vegetable gardens were not adequate to grow enough produce to feed the entire plantation, mostly they produced for the Jefferson family and guests. Many of the slave households had their own gardens, to produce for themselves and sold the excess to Jefferson – even under the most dire circumstances capitalism was apparently a thing.
As awe inspiring as the garden and flower beds are, the actually housing complex that is Monticello is almost overwhelming. During the house tour were where told that Jefferson designed the house and decorated all of it, at least the first floor, to be a teaching moment for everyone who came to visit. The lobby has artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition, fossils, Greek busts and lots of other things, including a perpetual clock designed to tell the day and time using cannonball weights. Turns out when Jefferson designed the clock the lobby space wasn’t high enough to show Saturday so he had holes cut in the floor and if you go in the basement you can see the label for Saturday. Jefferson had a seven day clock in a six day space.
In conclusion, Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer really enjoyed Monticello. There is every chance that your homesteading duo will be returning to the area and exploring further. We did not have time to visit the gardens at Mount Vernon (we hear George Washington is an interesting fellow) and Jamestown and Yorktown are within an hour of Monticello. There is a lot of history in the area and a lot of gardening going on, so it’s worth a look if you have the chance.
So after the enlightening adventures of Colonial Williamsburg Miss Mercy and the Mad Farmer built in a travel day before heading to Monticello. Because we live in Kansas, which geographically is as far from an Ocean as you can get, it seemed like a no-brainer to go to the beach. It was decided that we would go to Cape Charles, VA. Cape Charles is not too far away from Williamsburg, VA and not too far from Charlottesville, where Monticello is located, so it was going to be a relatively short drive to the beach and a reasonable drive to Charlottesville. Driving to the Cape would also allow us to drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
In case you are not familiar with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel it spans the Chesapeake Bay connecting Virginia Beach and the Fisherman Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, replacing a Ferry service that made the crossing until 1964. The Mad Farmer had once driven over the Astoria-Megler Bridge between Astoria, OR and Washington state. The Astoria-Megler bridge spans about four miles over the mouth of the Columbia River and it is definitely an experience traveling over it. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is 17 miles across, including two under-the-ocean tunnels that span a mile each so ships can traverse the bay. The Farmer can safely say that traveling across the bridge is a unique experience, traveling at 55 mph along a two lane highway under the ocean is very different. Miss Mercy seemed to enjoy it, so that part of the trip was a success.
One side note, the CBBT website at the time we looked it up was a few years out-of-date. It said that if you were making a day trip that the one-way toll across the bridge was $14.00 and the return trip would only be $6.00. Turns out several years ago they changed that so that you only get a discount if you sign up for the Virginia EZ-Pass toll payment system. You have to do that in the state, they won’t let you sign up online if you are out-of-state so just be aware of the tolls.
So the cool part about crossing the bridge is that you eventually end up at Cape Charles, VA, which is located on the Chesapeake Bay.
Cape Charles is an excellent place to spend some time. The bay shelters Cape Charles from direct exposure to the Atlantic and in June the weather was perfect. There is something about the ocean, especially a warm, breezy, ocean day that warms a Parrothead’s heart and the rest of him as well. In case you missed it somehow, between shark fins on the Farmers’s fence posts and the backyard bar named “Key Midwest”, the Mad Farmer is a Parrothead of long-standing. How is it that a ocean-loving Parrothead wanna-be beach bum lives in Kansas you ask? That is a mystery for the ages yet to be explored. Take it on faith, a good day at the beach is always welcome.
So after a wonderful afternoon at the beach we brushed the sand off our feet (it was super hot sand, if you care to know – Note to Mad Farmer Self: buy new flip-flops before going to the beach again). Miss Mercy piloted us back across the Bay Bridge and we headed to Charlottesville and our Airbnb reservation for the night prior to our tour of Monticello the next day.