Sunday, March 27, 2011


Spring is here, so it's time for a little update on what's going on at the farm. We've been a little busy lately. Kristen gave birth to our son, Theodorus Evander, on December 23rd. He's already helped Kristen out in the hazelnut field.

Above is our first egg. Yes, it's blue. So far, only one of our hens (out of about 20) is laying. Most likely she's just early. But it's also true that our chicken setup needs a lot of work. For inspiration, we decided to visit Appalachian State's research farm in Valle Crucis. We want to transition into a pastured-poultry system this spring, and definitely needed some ideas for coop construction. Many thanks to Dr. Fanatico of ASU for a tour of their poultry operation and lots of great advice.

This rooster was enormous. The chicken yard was much better kept than ours as far as bedding goes -- keeping a good layer of straw on the ground helps prevent the spread of disease.

Here's one of the mobile coops they have. A roosting and nesting area is to the right, with easy-access to nest boxes. The design looks very sturdy and waterproof.

What we want to do is incorporate chickens into the rotational grazing system we have with the sheep. We think this will add to the fertility of the soil, keep the pest load down for the sheep (and possibly the hazelnut trees), and keep the grass under control.

To do this, we have to build mobile chicken coops similar to the manufactured one above. Kristen's been working on the design, and we hope to start construction in the next week or so.

Speaking of sheep...

Notice the difference here grazed pasture (bottom) and ungrazed (top). You'd think it would be the other way around, but in addition to the sheep manure, grazing actually stimulates root growth in the ground cover. (The white tubes, by the way, are young hazelnut trees).

Here's another view of a different part of the field. This was the corner of one of the temporary pastures. I almost wish we'd taken more pictures of the pasture when we first moved here; the recovery it's made has been incredible.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Finally, a new post...

Well, we've been a little busy in 2010. As most of you know, Kristen and I were married in May and we're expecting a baby in January. This doesn't mean that farm and garden stuff has stopped, however, but the blog posts sort of have. Anyway, here is a rapid update!

The first new thing we did this year was raise chickens. We decided to pick them out ourselves from a big batch of day-old chicks a friend of ours received in the mail. It's very difficult to tell the difference between roosters and hens at that age, so we thought we were smart by picking out the most active, healthiest-looking chicks in the bunch.

Which turned out to be all roosters. All 13 of them.

Anyway, we raised them over the spring and slaughtered them in the summer. Slaughtering and cleaning birds is a lot of work, but now we have a freezer full of chicken.

Our second batch of chickens came in late summer. We bought these from a hatchery, and 25 out of 26 of them appear to be hens. Half of them are Ameraucanas, and the other half are Rhode Island Reds. We should be getting plenty of eggs this spring.

The second big project for this year was getting sheep. We wanted some kind of grazing animal in order to keep the grass down in our pastures, which we'll be converting into a hazelnut orchard. But we also wanted something that would be easy to care for and move around.

We settled on Katahdin sheep. This is a breed of "hair sheep," which means they shed their winter coats and don't need to be sheared. They're also mostly raised for meat, so lambs are affordable. Katahdins also have a reputation for disease resistance and being able to do well on rough pasture. So we figured this would be a good breed to start out with for people who haven't raised livestock before.

As you can see, there's a lot of variation in color. This is probably due to different strains in the Katahdin mix. The brown-and-white sheep in the back is named Jersey, who might have some Desert Paint in her. The one in the middle, Jackie, shows most of the markings of a Barbados Blackbelly. Annie, in the foreground, might have more St. Croix in her than the others.

We started with 2 ewes and 1 lamb, but returned 1 ewe because she learned to jump the fence. Then we got 3 new lambs, one of which died from barber pole worm (or its side-effects). So now we have 1 ewe and 3 lambs, and we'll probably pick up a few more sheep next spring.

Pictured above is the electronet enclosure we use to rotate pastures. This is basically a portable electric fence made of nylon, steel thread, and plastic support stakes. The energizer is solar-powered, portable, and about the size of a small suitcase.

The electronet enables us to rotate the sheep around our land. More importantly, it will let us pasture the sheep between the rows of young hazelnut trees in a way that will prevent them from eating the leaves or stripping the bark.

If I had to do it over again, I probably would have just used electric tape rather than electronet. The netting gets caught on things very easily, and it's not very well-suited to hilly areas (changes in elevation cause it to lose tension). On the other hand, the net is probably better for keeping out predators, so I'm glad we have it.

It's hard to see, but the little dots at the center of this picture are me and Kevin putting up a perimeter fence along the front of the land. After moving the sheep around a few times, I realized that it would be a good idea to have a "backup" fence in the event they got out. Our property had a barbed-wire fence around it, but sheep slip through those very easily.

For the interior fence-line that separates the pasture/hazelnut field from everything else, I decided to add electric strands to the existing barbed wire, since these would be much cheaper than fencing the entire thing. The nylon-electric strands are very easy to work with. I'm pretty happy with it so far, although it hasn't been fully sheep-tested.

These are peaches from our trees. We canned some of them. We also tried to make peach wine, which might end up being canning vinegar.

We also had a lot of apples this year. It's a little hard to see in this picture, but that is a tree loaded with apples. The variety of different types of apples on our land is hard to keep track of. I can honestly say that some of them have been among the tastiest apples I've ever had, and the pies/crisps/apple sauce/cider we've made from them so far have been much more flavorful then anything I've had store-bought.

Some people say that apples are difficult to deal with because they get a lot of diseases. This is true. But it's also important to understand that there is the picture-perfect, blemish-free apple you get in the grocery store, and then there's what you have on your overgrown apple trees. The first category of apple is indeed hard to get. But the second category isn't. Our trees have been unpruned and unfertilized for years, and they produced many more apples than we had the time or resources to make use of.

Picking apples is only half the battle. Apple-sorting can be difficult work. Above, the Bell family debates the aesthetic, structural, and nutritional merits of each fruit before deciding its fate: pie? Storage? Apple sauce?

Above is a little bit of fall color from the back of our land.

We did a lot of new stuff this year. The garden took a back seat to a lot of the establishment projects we had on the land. We still managed to produce a good number of tomatoes, potatoes, beans, and other vegetables, but we probably wouldn't have had anything without help. My father and sister helped us plant tomatoes, basil, and other vegetables, and Hollis and Jay Wild were once again very generous in keeping our little vegetable starts alive in their greenhouse for many weeks after we should have planted them out.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Well, we've been a little busy here, but we've been meaning to get a post up about our beautiful new greenhouse.

Last year we applied for a grant for a greenhouse. Unfortunately, we did not get it -- or so we thought. When my Aunt Kathy heard that we didn't get it, she generously offered to fund our greenhouse project, and asked only that we name the greenhouse "Anna-Mae" -- my grandmother's nickname.

Sadly, my grandmother passed away earlier this spring, the same week the greenhouse went up. My grandma wrote in beautiful calligraphy, which was the inspiration for the style of the sign painted by Kristen. My grandmother was a very patient, caring woman, and I like to be reminded of those qualities when working on our delicate little plants and young trees.

But we had a bit of work to do before we could get it up. Here's me digging the foundation for the greenhouse. Our land isn't exactly level, and we're too stubborn to hire anyone or rent machinery, so there I am. My arms hurt just looking at that pile of dirt. There were some big rocks in there, too.

Here's Chief Engineer Kristen working on one of our piers. The greenhouse is anchored into the ground with six concrete piers going about 2' into the ground, with steel stakes running through the middle of them and going down an additional 1' or so. On the sides are rot-resistant recycled plastic lumber for the sill plates. The "Anna-Mae" isn't going anywhere!

We dug trenches in the bottom for drainage, put in gravel, bolted the sills down onto the piers, and Kristen put together a very pretty brick walkway through the center. You can see from this angle why we needed to dig down a bit to make it level.

Here's Kristen and friend & mentor Jay Wild working on the base. Jay was a big help getting the greenhouse up. Since our seedlings were taking up space in his greenhouse at the time, I can't blame him!

The walls are made of 8 and 10mm twinwall polycarbonate -- very heavy-duty stuff that will hopefully last a long time in addition to providing premium insulation. Early on we decided that temperature control and durability were the main features we wanted.

Here I am puttering around with some of our hazelnut trees. My grandma really liked red geraniums, so we put some pots of those to either side of the door.

The greenhouse will allow us to germinate, graft, and chip-bud hazels under controlled conditions, and it also has shelving that will allow us to start vegetable seedlings without using much space. And because it's small, we probably won't use a lot of energy heating it. It's really the perfect greenhouse for what we want to do.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Wood Stove!

It's been an unusually cold winter in the high country, with two major snows and two ice storms. The largest ice storm came on Christmas Eve and left large parts of Ashe and Watauga Counties without electricity, in many cases for days. Below are our willow trees, which were hit particularly hard by the ice.

Anyway, it's the sort of weather that makes you appreciate a good heat source. So we worked very hard in December and early January to get a second woodstove in the house. Below: stripped molding, cement board, and some plastic storage containers used as a mock-up of the stove. Makes you feel warm just looking at it, right? We sited the stove near an interior wall, close to the center of our living room-dining room-kitchen, and pretty close to the stairs... we're hoping it can heat the living spaces and the bedrooms upstairs.

We have wood floors, so we had to build a hearth. The cement board is mostly used to stabilize the hearth tiles and provide a good adhesive surface for the mortar and cement. It also probably prevents the wood floor underneath from getting hot. We used HardieBacker(tm) -- the best cement board money can buy.

In the end we decided to go with slate tile, which has a more natural look than most of the manufactured tiling we could find. The disadvantage to slate is a lack of uniformity. Tile thickness and size varied considerably. Fortunately, such differences disappear quickly under the expert guidance of tiling veteran Ed Perzell (below, with Kristen) who helped us a lot through this project.

Below: grouting. As you can see, grouting leaves a beautiful white coating over the tile, which gets into every crack and crevice and can only be removed by tootbrush. My knees hurt just thinking about it.

The almost-final step was the border. We found a stone tile border that matches the slate. The diagonal pattern of the border also complements the diagonal arrangement of the tile. The border comes in strips backed by a kind of plastic webbing -- this makes it much easier to install.

Below is the finished product. All it's missing is a stove and some kind of molding around the hearth border.

Installation day was a lot of fun. It was one of the warmest days of the winter. We bought and had our stove installed by Mountain Home and Hearth in Boone, who were great from start to finish. The sales manager provided us with a lot of advice, calculations, and re-calculations while we were figuring things out, and when we were finally ready, the installers were great.

Below is the first fire in the new stove. It is not like the old stove, which is in our basement. It heats a larger area with less wood, is easier to light and keep lit, burns cleaner, burns for longer periods of time (up to 18 hrs according to the manual), and is much nicer to look at.

It's a Harman Oakwood. Modern woodstoves are very different from the behemoth we have in the basement (or any old woodstove). For one thing, they either have catalytic converters or some other design mechanism that allows for complete combustion of the wood. If you burn wood below a certain temperature, a lot of the volatile gases simply leave through your chimney as pollution. New EPA-rated woodstoves have what amounts to an "afterburner" which allows these gases to ignite at low temperatures, which translates to less pollution and more heat.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Brief Update & Looking Back

Sorry we haven't updated in a while. Kristen and I are very busy with some less blogworthy (but not less interesting!) home projects at our new place. This includes cleaning and repairing the chicken shed, installing a new chimney and woodstove, and of course putting up the greenhouse. So far those are all still works-in-progress, but we did manage to fix the barn roof. Big thanks to mom and Michael for helping us out with that (and a half-dozen other home projects).

I'm already looking forward to next year's garden. We definitely learned a lot last season. Some things I've been thinking about:

Bed Width. We did double-wide beds in our garden last season, mostly because we had our beds shaped by a tractor. This seemed to work well for strawberries and beans, but for potatoes, cabbages, broccoli, and a lot of other things, I think it simply left too much room for weeds to grow up in the middle.

Blight. Like a lot of growers, our experience with early blight last year was probably worse than usual, but I still think we're definitely going to experiment with some organic fungicides next year.

Materials. Every year I garden I look back and think about how much easier it would have been if I had collected the right materials beforehand. When I was living in New Jersey I had a community garden plot with access to an almost unlimited supply of compost and wood chips. You don't realize how valuable this stuff is until you buy it and truck it in yourself, or until you spend your weekend afternoons shoveling a free pile into the back of a pickup truck. I'm still not sure how we're going to source all the materials we'll need next year, since late winter and early spring will mostly be devoted to digging tree holes.

More Squash Earlier. I'm always disappointed by transplant shock in squash, and always impressed by the damage done by squash vine borer. Next year I'd like to direct-seed more squash (if we have the space) and be better about controlling the borer (which wasn't too bad this year).

As we look forward to getting chickens, I'm always thinking of ways they might be used in the garden. Chickens aren't stupid and will eat anything that tastes good. They'll peck at melons, tomatoes, and they'll wreak havoc in mulched beds in search of insects. But I've always wanted to release chickens into a garden after the harvest to control overwintering insects like vine borer pupae or Colorado potato beetles. I think it might be worth a try.

More on our other projects later.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Late-Summer Update

We haven't been able to update lately, mostly because we've been busy moving into our new house. At the end of August, we moved to West Jefferson with the help of many of our Ashe County friends. We have a lot of plans for the new place -- a greenhouse, a new garden, chickens, and of course more hazelnuts.

Meanwhile, we've been harvesting from our garden in Glendale Springs and going to the farmers' market when we have time. Below is one of Kristen's beautiful displays of fingerling potatoes at the market, which is the main thing we've sold this year.

Many of our potatoes were hit very hard by the blight. But some varieties that were hit the hardest still yielded well. Among the best producers this year was the "Red Thumb" -- those are the bright pink ones in that basket -- which were very colorful, high-yielding, and had great flavor and consistency. The "Banana" and "La Ratte" varieties also did well.

Above is a basket of "Rose Crescent" fingerlings, tomatoes, basil, flowers, and broccoli from the garden. Our house is a kind of bottomless pit for tomato sauce and it is impossible for us to can enough, with or without late blight, which finally took our tomato plants last week after creeping up on us all season.

Occasional garden-helpers (and badminton pros) Mitch and Josh demonstrate the great variety in potato sizes. The Guinness Book of World Records does not have an entry for world's smallest potato... yet.

This picture gives you a better idea of some of the color varieties of our fingerlings. The red ones are "Red Thumbs", the yellow ones are most likely "Bananas", and the black ones are "Peruvian Purples". Although they add a lot of color, the purples were among the least productive we had this year.

Experiments at the Bell household show that fresh fingerling potatoes go very well with wine-poached scallops. We'll have to reproduce our findings several times to be sure!

We've also had a good yield of Delicata squash, which are so sweet and buttery when baked that they hardly need any sugar or butter. It's difficult to get enough of them.

Green beans have been a huge success - pest-free and producing all season long. The winner for taste, tenderness, and productivity is definitely "Rattlesnake," green with purple streaking. We've been getting watermelons and muskmelons, but it's hard for us to tell when these are ripe.

Anyway, that's the news from Glendale Springs.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Garden Update

By now, of course, the garden is a huge, weedy jungle! But here are some catch-up photos... The garden on June 6th: strawberries, newly-transplanted tomatoes, brassicas, potatoes, beans.

The potatoes are all taking the pest problems differently. Some varieties have been hit very hard, while others seem almost untouched.

That's our broccoli up there in the blue, with onions behind it.

We were lucky enough to get an afternoon's help from twin garden elves! Thanks, Josh and Mitch! Come back soon!

With their help we planted winter and summer squash, melons, and cukes.

Below is a row of squash mounds. For these we pile up a lot of brush, water it down, and make pockets of compost in it. The baby squash are transplanted into the pockets and and climb down the hills as they grow.