Getting Started With Our Farm
by the Householder Family of Cokato, MN
Dear Mr. Miller and Small Farmer’s Journal,
This letter is long over-due, as we have been meaning for years to write and thank you for publishing Small Farmer’s Journal. There is so much useful and interesting information, inspiring stories and great pictures! Thank you for continuing to publish it despite all the difficulties, and for keeping it as a real, paper and ink magazine instead of going “on-line only.” We don’t use computers much, so online stuff is hard for us. We knew about Small Farmer’s Journal back to around the time you started it, but actually subscribed in 2005, when we moved to our 10-acre “hobby farm.” We also have your books “10 Acres Enough” and “Buying and Setting Up Your Small Farm or Ranch.”
We had been looking for a few years before we found our land. We had been hoping to find an old homestead, with an old house and barn, but all the ones we looked at were either in a bad location, or would’ve needed so much repairs that it was too much for us. So finally, our realtor-friend said to us, “Did you ever think of just buying land and building new?” We had thought we couldn’t afford to do that, but realized that building a very simple, new house would cost about the same as restoring an old one. So he showed 10 acres for sale that he knew of. (Actually, it’s in two adjoining five acre parcels, but we wound up buying both of them.) The land was for sale because it was too steep and hilly to farm “conventionally,” the big equipment was at risk of rolling on the slopes.
At that time, there was just a two acre patch of woods on a steep ridge, with plenty of dead trees, plus a few cottonwoods and willows in a low spot that floods each year. The rest was either bare dirt with the plow marks still showing, or a thick jungle of 10 foot ragweeds and thistles. We fell in love with the land, and bought it. Over the next year we built our house, which is very straight forward and simple, a long “bootbox,” dug into one of the hills with a walk out basement. (Basements are a necessity here in tornado country.) We did almost everything as cheaply as possible, except for the other necessity, (we think) for a climate with winters like ours: A Finnish, soapstone, Tulikivi fireplace. We can heat the house with wood from our forest and keep it warm even if the power goes out. We cut and split all our wood by hand, too, no power tools.
We sold our old house and moved in late summer of 2005. Even before we moved we began working on restoring our land. We cleared ragweeds, using our Jeep to mow them down. (The next year we invested in a large scythe.) We seeded bare ground with pasture grass seed mix. The soil quality was terrible in most places, pale brown and compacted; all the good black dirt had washed down to the low, swampy places through years of erosion.
Or some of it may have blown away, it often gets very windy here. We put up posts at the property corners, and fenced in a yard for our dogs and cats. Our first “livestock” was a rescue cockatoo that our vet gave us, soon after we moved here. Sort of a house warming gift. “Does it lay eggs?” someone asked us. “Well, no.” “Then I’m not sure you can count it as poultry.” Snowy still gives us lots of entertainment with her talking and antics.
In Spring of 2006 we got some real poultry, two ducks and two geese from the local feed store, and 27 chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery, of various heirloom breeds. We built them a very nice 8’ x 16’ coop and covered pen (the “Aviary”) to protect them from hawks. We have since gotten two smaller batches of chicks from the feed store, to replenish our flock, and currently have nine hens, one duck and one goose. We really enjoy our birds and have had some chickens that were very tame and would sit on our laps. They lay very nice eggs, too.
In Spring of 2013, on April 1 (no kidding!), we got three grade doeling goat kids: Honey, Nutmeg, and Trilla. They came from a local farmer who had a goat dairy, but had decided to get out of it and sell off his herd. They were only a week old and we brought them home in the back of our Jeep. We set up a pen in the garage and bottle raised them while building an 8’ x 12’ shed in the backyard for them. We never bred or milked them but they are excellent weed mowers, brush clearers, and entertainers, even if they do drive us nuts at times. In October of 2015, we got four young Icelandic ewes from a breeder in southwestern Minnesota. We brought Ginger, Tansy, Bellflower and Tacca home in the back of the Jeep too. We are working on getting better at spinning so we can use their beautiful wool. Like the goats, they are excellent weed control and entertainment, and occasionally trouble makers.
Some parts of getting our farm established took a lot longer than we had expected. We had hoped to build a barn and get pastures fenced soon after we moved here, but weren’t able to. In Fall of 2016, we finally got approval from the township board for our barn, and found a person from our church who was willing to work on it over weekends with some friends.
A note on how much the soil has improved: When we moved here, the small hill where we put the barn had extremely poor soil, pale brown, compacted and depleted, but the pasture grass we seeded there did pretty well. 12 years later, when the excavating was done for the barn, there was thick sod, and anywhere from six inches to five feet of good, black dirt.
Over the Winter of 2016-2017 we got the main structure of the barn – walls, siding, roof, windows and doors – up, and a line run from our well to a yard hydrant in the barn in the Fall of 2017. Throughout 2017 and 2018, we worked on the inside, building a “barn office” room to store feed and supplies, and a couple of stalls. In late Fall of 2018, we were finally able to move the sheep and goats in. We still have to build a poultry area and move the chickens, ducks and geese. (We hope to add guineas and peacocks too!)
We are very happy with our barn. It is 32’ x 48’, post and beam, with wood siding and shingle roof. (No noisy sheet metal to go blowing around in a wind storm!) It has a nice big hay loft too. One good thing about not having built the barn right away is that we worked on the design for years, drawing and re-drawing it, and thinking about things. Also, since we already had poultry, sheep and goats, we had real experience of what they needed and could take that into consideration. (The sheep and goats like to chew stuff, the poultry section should be easy to clean, we need actual stairs up to the loft, but they must be inaccessible to the animals, etc.) The barn has a dirt floor, too. We also hope to someday get some small, draft-pony type horses to help with farm work, but haven’t gotten there yet. We especially like Icelandic horses because they are small but very strong and hardy. We love the big draft horses too, but they are a little too big, both for the size of things on our farm, and also, since we’re all fairly small, harnessing and handling them would be hard. We have “The Work Horse Handbook” and “Art of Working Horses.” We also get the Pioneer Equipment catalog, and like to look at it and dream. . . (“Don’t get the cart before the horse!”) Now that the barn is built we are a little closer to being ready for horses, although we still have to get more pasture cleared and fenced, too. The grass that we seeded has done very well, but we weren’t able to keep up with mowing so a lot of brush and young trees have grown up too, and will have to be cleared. We’ll leave some of the trees for shade for the animals. We’ve had some disasters and disappointments here, too. One of the biggest was when a 1.5 million bird egg factory went in near us. We tried to be really careful in choosing land, to avoid things like that, and didn’t think it was likely to happen here, but it did. Thankfully it’s about two and a half miles away, not right next door, but when the wind is from that direction, we do smell it.
Speaking of wind… some of this letter was written while 40 mile an hour winds blew around the latest several inches of snow. We now have a 10 foot high drift in the north half of the vegetable garden, near the barn. It’s calm now, and sunny, but quite cold, a little above 0 degrees F. We were saying recently that we’ve had two types of Winters these last several years: “The Winter that wasn’t” and “The Winter that would never end.” This winter started out like it wasn’t but now looks like it might be a “Winter that won’t end.” We don’t mind all the snow, it protects our plants, just wish it had come earlier, in December instead of January and February. Hopefully when it melts it will replenish the water too.
Our land has changed quite a bit over the 15 years that we’ve owned it. There are 30 foot young trees where there used to be bare field. They were all wild trees that sprouted and we let grow. We now have a 50’ x 100’ vegetable garden, plus flower beds out front, the barn, trails, looms (we’re learning to weave, too), boats (we’re about two miles from a lake), and more scythes. We got our new scythes from “One Scythe Revolution,” a really good scythe company in Wisconsin. We have done a bit of hay making, although we still buy most of our hay. We also have two angora rabbits. One of the really great things is how much more wildlife we have now. There was a lot even when we first moved here: fox, coyote, deer, raccoon, gophers, hawks, robins, swallows, flycatchers, woodpeckers, goldfinches, frogs, toads, snakes, bugs; but we’ve definitely seen an increase in some, especially some birds. We’ve had 115 different species of birds here, and about 20 that we know have nested. We did see a big drop in honeybee numbers a few years ago, but still have a fair number of bumblebees, butterflies, moths, and more wasps than we would like. Bees are another thing we would like to add someday, we built a top-bar hive, but haven’t stocked it yet. (We were sort of hoping a wild swarm might move in.)
We still have plenty more to work on, too. This year we’re hoping to clean up our orchard, clear where the herb garden will go, maybe start clearing for a berry patch, plus the usual garden care and continuing work on the barn, fencing, and pastures.
All of these projects will probably use lots of ideas and inspiration from Small Farmer’s Journal, so, again, thank you so much for continuing to publish it, and we hope things go well on your farm too!
We included a map of our land, “Piece of Earth.”
The Householder Family
Steve, Fiammetta, and Elena