12/11/2016
The first snow

The snow is flying in Buchanan, Michigan today and it brings us back into the house after a nice long warm fall of working. This is our first winter here at the farm, so there are many first times for each project and deliberation on how to do it right from the beginning. I’m sure we’ll eventually laugh at our burgeoning farm skills and naive ideas, but it is nice to just build something for a first time, like a hoop house, and appreciate that we are taking steps in the right direction.

Although we have been reading a bunch for each step, I don’t think we’ve written enough down to catalogue it. I really enjoy personal accounts of how some other farmer has navigated a project according to his/her local environment, so I think we should do our best to share ours.

Molly and I moved to Michigan this past summer to take a different step in our careers, lives, and for our families well-being. Molly was a private chef in Chicago and I was a high school English teacher who had lived in a few different neighborhoods and experienced quite an array of lifestyles and perspectives that were formative for our own lives. Molly and her employer have a special bond that builds joy and solace in the many loving people around them, and wanted to create a space to share their love of food, spirituality, and positivism. After some years of marination and many shared meals, we quickly found Verdant Hollow Farm in Buchanan, Michigan during the farm brainstorming process. Since we first saw this property our lives have been transformed into ones of hope, growth, and reinvigoration that I hadn’t experienced in a long time.

As this dream quickly became a day-to-day reality, our focus shifted to topics I hadn’t really given much consideration. Since college I knew I wanted to be a teacher and had fixated on this. I taught in Korea for a year and then spent twelve years in Chicago Public Schools. I could write for days about education and my experiences, and I probably should for therapeutic reasons, but ultimately it was a humbling time in my life where I learned about how much I didn’t know and understand about the people and children who shared my city. I loved the job so much that it would make me be unbalanced in other parts of my life. I struggled with being able to dedicate my time to my students as much as I know I needed to do and with being a good husband, father, and healthy person.

Molly is an amazing craftswoman whether in the kitchen, the garden, or building a teardrop camper. Picture Rosie the Riveter crossed with Willa Cather’s Antonia Shimerda and Glinda the Good Witch. She uses her hands to create food, wares, and love for those around her. As a private chef, her time with family was coming to a natural end given that half the kids were in college and the other half were soon following. And as Grandma Martha might say “ she ends up with her butt in butter,” so we were given this wonderful opportunity to manage Verdant Hollow Farm. We just had to sell our beloved Beverly home and learn how to do all of this.

Tractor, Trailer, and a Truck

Start reading any book about farming and the projects we plan to do and there’s many first steps that require getting material and moving it around, especially on the scale of a 233 acre farm. There are some necessities that are just implied when running a farm. We found a trailer off craigslist, bought a nice used ¾ ton pickup, and bought a new 58 hp Kubota tractor from our local dealer. The ability to write that sentence and not begin this undertaking in debt must not be overlooked. Having financial support for each step and each project makes this unique and distinguishes this from a thrifty homestead and a business farm. Without a bottom line to constantly worry about, it provides us an extremely open area for our creative visions to come to fruition. We respect this daily, and Molly and I are used to working with tight budget for home projects, so it has been a greater challenge for me to dream even bigger. I tend to hoard materials, tools, and often tried to build with whatever was laying around or what was on sale. Projects are different when you buy the right materials and a tool that can change the quality of your build.

The tractor is a 2016 Kubota MX 5800 and it has served well in its first 100 hours this season. We have a front end loader and forks which are essential. We also have a spreader, a chipper, post auger, box scraper, brush hog, and a disc harrow. We bought new because I wanted to have a tool, not a project to work on. The old tractors definitely appeal to me, though knowing that engine work is not in my skill set, we thought a local dealer would be the best way to start the farm, make some connections, and have a strong tool to start our projects.

The used 2007 Chevy Silverado Classic 2500 HD was purchased to get a diesel truck that could eventually be converted into a biodiesel project, an interest of mine. Besides reading about it, I haven’t made any moves toward that end, but I know that some day I’ll devote some time to converting it. The LBZ engine is highly rated for the conversion and this is the last model that does not have a diesel particulate filter (DPF) which adds a few more steps to the conversion process (and they might be illegal steps at that). The truck has performed wonderfully hauling materials, trailers, a no till drill, and plenty of other equipment so far.

The trailer is a simple 5 x10 single axle with a large rear gate and plywood walls. We were able to move our family of five over the course of the summer by packing the truck and the trailer after about seven trips from Chicago to Michigan. Now we use it around the farm and to pick up materials when the truck is not enough space. A dump or tilt trailer would be a great addition to the fleet and bit more helpful with farm projects. We already had to rent one for a week while sheet mulching for moving manure and wood chips. It would be a nice permanent addition to the fleet, but since we also got a hay wagon (which may or may not become a chicken trailer) this autumn, I figured we had enough tow-behinds for the season.

The equipment and tools you have on hand can definitely shape your projects. The tractor, trailer, and truck trifecta is a necessary starting point for any farm.

A season of preparation and learning

Because we permanently moved to the property just before the school year started in September, we’ve had time to prioritize projects that will enhance next year’s growing season. To this end, we planted a couple rounds of cover crops to heal the soil of the 60 tillable acres of the property that has been conventionally farmed in the past. This land was leased out and the soil needs time to rebuild nutrients. We had to brush hog the land and our summer cover crop was red clover and rape seed. In the fall, we cut it back again and then planted winter rye, hairy vetch, and daikon radish. In the spring, we plan to crimp the growth back and then figure out next steps. We figured that rehabilitating these 60 acres would provide some time to develop our growth in zone 1.

Near the house is south facing acre of lawn that was just waiting to be converted to a garden and hoop house. We wanted something close to begin growing, experimenting, and developing our methods and identifying the crops best suited for this land. Many of the autumnal projects centered around developing this area so we can be ready in February for seedlings and hit the ground running this Spring. First, we had remove the understory and many trees that had overgrown around the original perimeter of this area. The woods on the east had spread out and around the edge of the pond that limited sunlight and function to this plot of land. Molly, her father, and I spent some time clearing the area and making a new path toward the adjacent field to the strip of woods on the east. I still have a long way to go with my skills with the chainsaw, and essential trait for managing a forest, but it was a good time learning the basics.

The soil has a 6.5% organic matter content where will be creating our garden, so it’s a pretty good starting point. We still needed to kill grass and start strong, so we sheet mulched with cattle manure, cardboard, wood chips, and straw. We hope this will help create some fertile soil for our first grow season. I would like to explore the use of biochar next time around, but I’m wondering how these steps can be expanded over large swathes of land, given that this one acre took a lot of material and time to create heavenly dirt. Finding and preparing enough cardboard boxes to cover an acre is quite a task in itself.

We hired an excavator to create a pad with enough space for a 30 x 60 greenhouse and more immediately, a 30 x 64 hoop house. The greenhouse is my pet project that I will develop over the course of next year, but the hoop house Molly found used on craigslist in northern Indiana. We took it down and rebuilt it just north of where the garden will be. We will use it for seedlings and eventually cold weather crops for direct sow. This project and many others have shown the great utility in skilled labor, and we could not have done this without Ry. I’m sure he’ll be around for many more projects and his young blood keeps us moving wonderfully.

For this zone 1 area, we also built a compost bin to help with creating a resource for good soil, and while it’s a seriously-sized, beautiful cedar 3 stage bin, I can tell at some point we will be working with larger piles.

This winter and beyond

It’s been a good snow storm and I’ve plowed three times today and had numerous snowball fights and sledding tumbles, but I was still able to finish writing this post. I’d like to say I’ll work on writing more frequently to catalogue our lives and projects on the farm, but I know one thing I really enjoy about my new life is not being at the computer. We work outside most days, and since we both enjoy the cold and my winter project is my workshop in the barn, I don’t know when I’ll make the time again. Either way, it’s been nice reflecting on this year, how our lives have changed and what we have accomplished these first few months of being “farmers.” We’ll remove those quotes after a few seasons are under our britches.