Friday, March 17, 2017

When being cheap isn't worth it

Today, I got the south end of my farm fenced. 1000+ feet of cedar posts and page wire. All installed in one day by my neighbour, a professional fencer, with his crew and a back hoe mounted post driver. They finished the entire fence in one day.

I could have put in this fence myself...bought cedar posts, rented a post driver, stretched the page wire from post to post...but it would have taken more than a day, and there would have been lots of trial and error, swearing, the possibility of injury, destruction of equipment, etc. And the fence may have turned out a bit wonky. Not to mention that I'm 8 months pregnant and should probably not be lifting 8' long, 7" diameter cedar posts or handling strange heavy machinery for the first time ;P This definitely wasn't a DIY task that I wanted to take on. So I am very pleased to hire reliable professionals to do the work. I just regret that I hadn't done this sooner!

Why did I not put the fence in sooner? Because the cost seemed prohibitive. It would take more than 5 years of successful sheep product sales to even begin to cover the cost of the fencing. I convinced myself that with proper electric net fencing and grazing management, the sheep would stay secure within the moveable fencing. And for most of the summer, I was lucky and the sheep did stay in their electrified pens. But then last October they got spooked, jumped their electric fence and took off through that wide open south end of the farm and caused much stress before they were all (very luckily!) retrieved. I could have saved myself the low level of anxiety I felt all summer subconsciously worrying that they'd get out of their electric net fencing and the hours spent tramping around neighbours' fields calling for the last 2 missing sheep while 3 months pregnant.

I definitely admit it...I'm cheap. Spending anything in the range of thousands of dollars makes me hem and haw for ages. When I first moved to the farm in 2009, it took me 6+ weeks to decide on buying a rototiller which cost around $2500! And this is an essential tool for the farm which I couldn't have done without, especially in those first few years.

Lately, I've been rethinking cheap. Maybe it's the current political climate and what this makes me think about the future, or maybe it's having gone to my first farm conference in years and being inspired to invest in new infrastructure, but I've decided to spend on the things that I think are important now, instead of hoarding for a rainy day, or so called retirement.

Other than fencing the south end of the farm, the other big investment that I've been trying to avoid, has been fully fixing the eastern half of my barn. Before I bought the place, that half of the barn had fallen down, leaving an exposed bottom level/foundation that was deteriorating from water damage. When I first moved here, I spent $10,000 putting an additional beam and posts into the bottom level, and pouring a cement pad (about 40'x 40' in size, 3-8" thick, almost 3 cement truck loads of cement) on top, thinking it would stop the water damage, but for various reasons, it has not. At the time, I wanted to protect the bottom level, while maintaining an open space on top (it has great views of the farm). In hind sight, a building with a roof should have gone up instead, but back then, I didn't know what all the resources were in my area yet, and was told that a building would cost me $25-50K to put up. So I took the cheaper option which no one told me wouldn't work (surprise, surprise!).

Over the past 8 years, I now know many of the resources in my area (including my partner's family of timber frame barn restorers ;P) and have concluded that though a building would cost more than $10K, it could have been done for less than $50K, and I wouldn't have a foundation that now requires more repair and reinforcement. The cement pad did buy me these 8 years of time at least, but now I won't wait any longer. The choice is to tear down that section of the barn (at a cost of $5K or more), or finally fix everything and put up a building with a steel roof for around $20K in materials (lumber and steel roofing) and a whole lot of sweat equity.

So I'm going for it. In probably my lowest income year (will be paying for full-time staff for the first time), while learning to be a new mom, I think it's time to do it. After all, the new covered space won't start paying for itself in productivity until it exists, and I'm sure each year will have its new set of challenges that need to be addressed. And that foundation's not getting any sturdier in the meantime. But where I am now, instead of 8 years ago, newly moved to the farm, is surrounded by supportive extended family and friends, so maybe taking a larger financial step doesn't feel quite so risky anymore :)

I'm hoping this new covered space (1600 square feet!) can be used for all sorts of enterprises in the future, including a wash station and cold storage for vegetables (with a cement pad already in place...which seems to be a prerequisite for any decent vegetable processing area according to the conference I was at), and...a fibre studio! This winter has been exciting for me on a fibre level because it's the first year I've gotten yarn spun from my sheep's wool, and sheepskins tanned from their hides. While I certainly enjoy growing vegetables, there's also a reason this farm is named Black Sheep Farm, and it has everything to do with sheep and their wool. Add to this my sister-in-law Brittany's circular sock knitting machine enterprise ( and love of wool; my sister Benita's design experience with clothing and accessories (House of Hsueh); and even a new neighbour, Emily, with a wool dyeing enterprise ( there be more fibre synergy possibilities???

I've been told that new motherhood involves a lot of sitting around while breastfeeding, watching a screen, so I've decided to take that time to watch YouTube videos on how to set up my floor loom and hopefully absorb how it all works. Plus, Emily already knows how to use it and has said she would help me figure out how to set it up :) With this year's sheep shearing scheduled for this coming Wednesday, there will be many many pounds of wool available to be processed into different weights of yarns and rovings for spinning, dyeing, knitting and weaving. This time, we're going to undertake some preliminary washing first to try and cut down on processing costs, and Brittany and I got some expert guidance on what to do right after shearing to make sure the fleeces don't get any dirtier than they need to be. many possibilities! And a new baby to throw into the mix too. Life couldn't be more wonderful and exciting :D

Thursday, February 16, 2017

New farm manager hired for 2017!

After some phone interviews in January with some delightful applicants, I'm happy to announce that Michelle Lawrence will be joining me at Black Sheep Farm this year to make sure lots of veggies are planted and harvested for this year's vegetable CSA members! Michelle comes highly recommended by another vegetable farm in my area, so luckily she's already familiar with our climate, soils, and social possibilities ;P

I'm very relieved to have checked this crucial item off my to-do list before the baby's born. Otherwise, the vegetable seeds have all been ordered and received...except for my favourite edamame, Beer Friend, which is still not available for ordering yet. Fingers crossed that there will be seeds available to buy! This variety was a crop failure for the grower(s) last year, so I really hope that the same didn't happen for this year. I'm going to plan my edamame plantings this year with some seed saving in mind so that I won't be in a seed variety shortage again! Now seedling/direct seeding start dates need to be planned and the field laid out on paper so all will be in order for Michelle to implement when she gets here in May. And at some point before the sheep go out on pasture, the page wire fence for the south end of the farm needs to be put in!

The fence was originally planned to be put up before the end of 2016, but the snow came so fast and furiously in December, that this hasn't been possible. My hope now is that the field will dry out enough in April for the job to get done then. There's really no way to tell how dry or wet a spring we'll be having this year...including for getting into this year's vegetable field for rototilling! Fingers crossed that all will work out ;)

In the meantime, my days are full with business plan writing for a contract I'm working on, and March will see me back in the tax office for 4 days a week. So back to number crunching for me!

Monday, January 2, 2017

2017's going to be one exciting year...

Happy New Year everyone! As usual, it has been much too long since I last posted here, but I doubt that frequency will improve for 2017 ;P I'm currently 23 weeks pregnant and expecting my first child at the end of April. Skyler and I are definitely super excited and doing what we can to prepare for becoming parents...including having to hire someone to live and work full-time at the farm this year! The job posting details can be seen on the 'Job Posting' page.

2016 was definitely a tough year for weather here at the farm, though I'm very lucky to have fared much better than most. The cover cropping of the vegetable field from 2013-2015 must have improved the soil's capacity to hold water and also improve microbial life, because there was actually pretty great vegetable production, despite the hot and dry conditions. Cooler weather crops, like leafy greens, didn't hold well in the heat, and flea beetle pressure was the most I've ever seen, essentially decimating all brassica plants, even with row cover in place. Almost everything else just soaked in the added heat units and produced like crazy, especially the tomatoes, eggplant and peppers! I've never harvested so many eggplants in one season, which was amazing. And tomatoes came on heavy and steady right until frost when I was more than ready to take a break from harvesting them ;P In fact, I developed an aversion to tomatoes pretty much within the first couple weeks that they came into aversion I now know to blame on early pregnancy ;P

Pretty much the whole end half of the 2016 season was a bit of a slog for me. It was so hot outside, with no shelter from the sun, and I was extremely fatigued every afternoon from being in my first trimester. But, I made it through, and thankfully, some more regular rains came down come September and the fall brassicas (collards, turnips, daikon, etc.) started growing well and were delicious at harvest in October. We had a very long and extended fall...quite warm right until the end of November, which gave me some time to more leisurely clean up the field.

While the vegetable field didn't give me the trouble you'd expect in a drought year, sheep troubles certainly made up for that ;P The drought meant pastures were not regrowing after grazing and we had to move the sheep further out into fields we hadn't originally expected to graze. The flock definitely ate a lot of goldenrod and weeds in July, which luckily seemed to give them lots of protein as they certainly maintained excellent body condition. In fact, the two ram lambs born this year were so fat from their mothers' milk and grazing on goldenrod that they were pretty much fully grown by the time we had to wean them from their mothers in mid July. The hay field also grew really slowly after first cut hay was harvested in late June, and after consultation with Tony, my haying expert, we decided not to expect any second cut hay this year but rotationally grazed the sheep there instead.

The hay field was much easier to manage for grazing because I didn't have to struggle with the lawn mower in the heat of the day to mow the lines for the portable electric fences to be set up. But the sheep did have to be moved every second day to keep them on fresh pasture and not overly deplete anything. You could easily see the positive effects of intensively managed sheep grazing on the hay field over the next 10 weeks, where the very first pens had regrown very lushly compared with the ungrazed parts of the field. Unfortunately, the sheep made one last break out for the season 3 days before they were scheduled to be put into the barn with hay feeding for the winter. We think they were spooked by the passage of a herd of deer, who were themselves perhaps spooked by coyotes? Anyway, they all jumped the fence, except Spot, who was caught in the electric netting and left behind by the others, who went through the unfenced south end of the farm, across Side Road 8, and into the neighbour's field. When the neighbour's father stopped by my place to ask if I had any sheep missing, I rounded up the troops (Skyler's family) and we went looking. The main flock was found pretty quickly and persuaded to run back to the farm and into their pen, but in the process of running amok, three had gotten separated from the others, Bowtie's twin (yet unnamed), Beatrice and Snowball. We managed to find Bowtie's twin and chase her back home, but Beatrice and Snowball remained at large for the next two days.

I had canvassed the various neighbours with my phone number to let me know if they saw any stray white sheep. I got a call around lunch on harvest day so had Brittany with me to go and round up Bea in a laneway across the river. Snowball was collected later that evening after a call from another neighbour. One thing's for sure, spooked sheep don't come to you for grain...we had to corner each one to capture her and haul her up into the truck to drive back to the farm. After this episode, all the sheep went into the barn and have been contentedly eating hay since then. I've also decided after this that I definitely have to fence the south side of the farm, an additional cost that just has to be paid...especially with the additional responsibility of a baby on the way! I can deal with sheep running around my own farm, but don't want the added risk of them running around on roads or neighbours' properties.

At the end of November, I spoke as part of a panel of market gardeners at the the EFAO's ecological farming conference in Kingston. It was great to be able to share some of my experiences over the past 8 seasons and also hear about how other operations run. I also attended the conference the next day...the first farm conference I've been to in a while...and was really energized and encouraged by the speakers I heard and farmers I chatted with. I was reminded that it's good to get out every once in a while ;P That said, getting out in the latter half of December hasn't been so good for me as I ended up coming down with a cold on Christmas Eve, and then some sort of gastro bug on New Year's Eve. I'm still recuperating from the stomach bug and feeling like a January cocooned at home planning for this coming year is probably a good thing for me.

Any of you with farming experience or knowing anyone with farming experience, please pass the word about the farm manager position here! I really have my fingers crossed to find the right person to fit in here for 2017.