Archive for self-sufficiency

Changes on the Farm

100_4845Over the course of the past week, you’ve seen posts of me selling off goats.  I’ve not made a public announcement about my plans, but have told a few friends in person.  Since I figured there’s probably one or two people curious about what is going on over here, this is my official public announcement.  My goal is to have no more livestock by the end of the year.  Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.

This is a decision I’ve struggled with for about 3 years and very few people have known about that struggle.  Though I still feel strongly about people homesteading and raising their own food, for me it has become too much to maintain.  We started this journey 19-20 years ago with research.  Then at the end of 1998 we bought this property and in spring of 1999, we bought our first farm animals.  It has ebbed and flowed since then, but it’s been pretty intense for the past 5 years as we’ve increased the animals we’re raising, adding more gardens, and trying to grow the farm as a business all at the same time that Keith’s job has required more and more of his time and the older children have been growing up, moving out, going to college, and working full-time outside the home.  Though there are still four at home, mama is just tired of dealing with it all, and has been for quite a while.  I’ve kept it up for multiple reasons, but as this year ramped up in workload, I decided I need to call it quits with animals for a while.

I’m kind of in that “been there done that” stage. I love having the fresh goat milk and eggs.  American Guinea Hog meat is delicious, as are farm-raised chickens, and there’s a great satisfaction in knowing what’s on our plate was raised by us.  But the thought of going through another winter of beating ice out of bowls every day, trudging through snow, and not slipping on ice to get food and water to the animals, picking up frozen eggs, etc., is highly discouraging.  I’ve been doing it for most of the last 18 years, and I need a break.

Before the last of our children is grown we want to be able to do some longer vacations like we did with the older ones, but we don’t have anyone left near us to do chores for us while we’re gone.  A friend gave us a great used camper last year that we have been able to use only once.  Between having no one to watch the animals and the it being difficult for Keith to take vacation time, it’s next to impossible to leave.  Since the job is what’s paying our bills and the farm animals aren’t, it’s logical to me that they are what need to go.  Hopefully we can at least go away for a weekend here and there, and make one bigger trip a year.  We’ve not been able to go see Keith’s dad in FL in almost 4 years.  We also have other friends in other states we’d love to see, not to mention National Parks and other less well-known places.  One son is in MN and I’d love to go up and camp near where he lives and spend some time with him and see that area.  My grandpa’s family, when they moved to America in the 1800’s, settled initially in New Prague, which is not far from him.  I’d like to see that area, even though it’s vastly different now than it was 100 years ago.  I would have liked to have gone up to northern Michigan sometime this summer to camp near where another son of ours is working at a Christian summer camp and seen him for his day-and-a-half-off one weekend.  Basically, I’m wanting a little more freedom to come and go as we please.  We still have our dogs, but they can go to a kennel.  There are no kennels for pigs and goats.

Grandchildren are also a new consideration, in addition to the children I’m still raising and homeschooling.  I want more time with all of them, without the distractions and stresses of caring for farm animals.  Our chores only take me 1-2 hours a day, depending on the season, but that’s time I don’t have to just sit and relax and play with them a little more.

I am going to continue making and selling soap, lotion, lip balm, and sugar scrubs.  Though there is some time-consuming work involved with it, it’s much more sporadic.  I’ll continue to supply Franklin Corner in Dwight, Green Top Grocery in Bloomington, and my Etsy store.  I have 2 events coming up I’ll be selling at also, and I’ll get to the farmers market in Dwight when I can.  I’ve been canning and freezing extra milk for soap making and I think I’ll have enough for a year or so.  When that runs out there are other places I can get milk from until I decide to buy goats again.  I also would like to experiment with other types of soaps, but haven’t had the time to do so.  So for those of you who may be feeling a mild sense of panic over the possible loss of our soap or lotion, you can relax.

I still believe in feeding my family the best food I can, but I don’t necessarily have to try to do it all myself.  Over the past 18 years we have networked with and met several other families like ours, and know of other small farms raising animals for meat and eggs in the same way (or even better than) we have been.  I plan to keep a garden, though I may shrink it back down somewhat to make it more manageable.  There’s also a farm not far away that has a CSA I can subscribe to next year, if I wish.  If we really miss having our own eggs, we can get a few chickens again.  They are the easiest livestock to maintain and pretty easy to leave for a week or so, especially when they are allowed to free-range.

I’m also still needing to finish the permaculture design course I started this year.  I’m only about 2/3 of the way through it and haven’t done any lessons in almost 2 months.  Thankfully this course was extended over a longer period of time and I can still get caught up, create my final project, and earn a second PDC certificate by the end of the year.  I intend to use the information I’m learning to help ourselves with our future homesteading/farming, as well as helping friends better design their places.  Later I may make it part of our farm businesses by being a consultant for others.

By the end of next week, our goats will all be gone.  Turkeys and meat chickens will be moved into the freezer over the next month or so.  Pigs are going to the processor a few at a time, every couple of months, and I hope to sell some live piglets to other farms.  Once fall sets in we’ll take the last of the birds and pigs to be processed.  So, by the time we start getting freezing temps, we shouldn’t have to bust any ice out of any bowls.100_4822

Spring Cleanup

IMG_0184Time to clean up the barn from the winter!  The goats made a huge pile of hay and poop in their stall over the winter.  Usually we have to add bedding now and then, but this year they must not have been super impressed with the hay because they pulled out a lot on the floor.  It was 3′ deep in the stall they were all in!  The stall that was used only temporarily during kidding was about 1 1/2′ deep in the deep spots, less in the rest.  We couldn’t open the gates because they open INTO the pens.  Poor design on our part, due to our idea of what we thought we would do, which isn’t what we ended up doing – frequent clean-outs and letting the goats have full run of all stalls when they weather was at its worst.

The goat kids like to sleep in the hay feeder, and the hay in the pen was at the same level as the hay in the feeder (which still needs to get cleaned out, too).  I don’t have a “before” picture, but you can see how high it was, based on where the hay in the feeders is still at.IMG_0183

The theory is to do these clean-outs throughout the winter.  It doesn’t happen often, and this winter it didn’t happen at all.  Over the years we’ve relied more and more heavily on our teenage boys to do that job.  Keith used to do it more, but now it’s rare.  The last time he did it he reinjured his elbow.  Unfortunately, kids have this habit of growing up and getting real jobs and leaving their poor, middle-aged mom to figure it out for themselves.  Ryan works full-time and has his daughter to care for when he’s not working.  Brandon went to college in Minnesota and never come back, and Noah spent this winter in the Czech Republic.  He is back now, and he cleaned out part of a pen a few weeks ago, but he is working full-time and also has church youth group responsibilities and socializes now and then.  I still have 2 more boys, but they are 8 and 11 years old.  Their training in barn cleaning will begin soon.  This time around I had to resort to HIRING SOMEONE ELSE’S TEENAGE BOYS.  All this time other people hired MY boys.  Now I had to hire someone else’s.  *sigh*  Such is life.

So they came over yesterday and spent all day cleaning out the two stalls that needed it.  They did an awesome job!  The floor is back where it needs to be.  Unfortunately, our neglect has caused rust and holes in the steel barn walls that we’ll have to repair somehow or cover, but for now I’m just thrilled to be able to open the gates again so we can start milking the mamas for ourselves because the kids are old enough to be weaned.

IMG_0182The burning question was, “Where do you want all this to be piled up?”  Yeah.  Good question.  I’d been contemplating that for weeks.  The past couple of years it got piled in corners of the goat yards, but there are already three piles in various stages of composting in the north pen, and about 3/4 of the south pen has the piglets we moved in February to get them out of their pen that was a muddy disaster.  So, where to put it?? The north pen wasn’t half as deep as the south pen because it was empty most of the winter, so I told them to make a new pile in that yard.  They started on that, and that gave me a couple of hours to contemplate what to do with the other one…  Finally the moment came.  “Where?”  I decided on the adjacent garden, along two fence lines that have been a weedy mess for two years.  That will smother the weeds and also put the compost right where we want it later. The goats have access to it for now, to keep weeds from growing until we’re ready to plant there next month.  If you look closely at the picture, you can see them all grouped together in the corner to the right of the barn.  They got a little freaked out by the strangers in their barn yesterday, and are apparently afraid of the piles.  Normally every morning they are out in the garden looking for green things to eat.  They’ll adjust, I’m sure.

IMG_0177The pile is huge!  Lots of compost later :)  I just need to get chicken wire around the fence again to keep the chickens out.  I don’t want them spreading it out just yet.  They can do that in the fall.  In the meantime they were allowed in the dog pen where they are turning over all the dead leaves in corners and edges and eating bugs.  Yay for chickens helping with the yard work!IMG_0180IMG_0179

Spring Activities

IMG_0133Spring is finally feeling like it’s here to stay.  Some brief warm-ups in February tricked us, then some more cold and even snow brought us back to the reality that the calendar reminded us of.  It ain’t spring yet!

Now it’s mid-April.  Sheesh!  I’m not used to it being March yet, and now it’s April.  And the signs are everywhere:  Crocuses, tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, forsythia, and now our peach trees are (or have finished) blooming.  The lilacs are budding.  Perennial chives, lemon balm and oregano are growing.  Garlic is up.  We had a ton of rain a week or so ago, and it had been raining heavily for several weeks prior to that.  Here on our little place, last Saturday was a perfect day to do some tilling to get the onions and new strawberry plants in before they dried out in the house.  Here is a picture of what I’m going to call “The Spring Garden” this year, because it received all the earliest plantings – garlic went in in the fall, and it is up, onion plants were put in Saturday, as well as seeds for lettuce, spinach, cilantro, radishes, and I think something else…  Today I filled in the rest of the beds in that area with kale, parsley, swiss chard, and peas that don’t need to be near a trellis.  This is a picture of that area:  IMG_0134

I’m about 2/3 done with a second Permaculture Design Course.  Though I got a certificate 2 years ago, I wanted some more information – more depth.  This year’s course hasn’t disappointed me!  I’m still finishing up the section on Soils, and while going through it, I decided I wanted to really improve the garden even more this year by creating permanent raised bed that won’t need tilling.  We have a pile of wood chips that we used to fill in paths between the beds.  I bought straw from a nearby farmer and used whole flakes of that around the perimeter along the fence line to suppress the grass and weeds that continually plague us.  The problem with free-range chickens is that they like to go through the garden, so we fence them all in, but then keeping the edge weed-free is a nightmare.  I hope the thick straw will help tame that.

Down at the south end of the garden I put in a new strawberry patch.  The “old” one that is adjacent to The Spring Garden is multiple years old and full of grass and other weeds.  Production was very low last year.  I decided to let that one be for now and get whatever berries we can out of it this year, and then till it and use it for something else – maybe green beans this year, since they can go in as late as mid-June and still give us a good crop.  This one was actually our second strawberry patch.  The first one was about 20′ north of the current one.  We moved it because of A) weeds taking over, and B) ants eating them all.  The move was a good one for a while as the ants didn’t follow, but now the weeds are out of control, so it’s just time to change things up a bit.  I surrounded the new strawberry bed with flakes of straw again, and a few feet away from it I made one more raised bed with straw in the path.  I made only one, because that is as far as the tilling got done last week.  The strawberries didn’t take up all of the tilled space, so while it was still loose, I created one 3′-ish-wide bed for carrots.  When I ran out of carrot seeds, I finished the rest with beets.  It’s supposed to rain every day for the next 5-7 days, so I’m hoping they get a good start without daily watering from me.  Though it was supposed to rain all afternoon and night yesterday and that didn’t happen…  Here’s hoping!

Once all the plants are up to a few inches tall, I’ll loosely mulch with more straw to keep in moisture and keep down weeds.  Over time, as more mulch is added, it will break down and increase the humus in, and fertility of, the soil.  Some of our garden soil is already nice and loose and tills very easily.  And though I knew this before, the permaculture lessons I’ve been doing over the past 2 weeks, have driven home the reality that tilling really destroys the structure of the soil.  Doing it somewhat to get it started can be necessary, but shouldn’t need to be done year after year, decade after decade.  With good mulching and adding of compost, you should be able to just separate the soil a little to put in your plants and seeds.  I really wish I’d kept with it long ago, but I didn’t really have all the knowledge of HOW to do it right.  So – better late than never!  As the summer goes on, I’ll try to keep you posted on the progress and results.  Since I’m not always good with blog posts on here, be sure to find us on Facebook – Farmer in Odell LLC.  I post little notes and comments along with pictures far more frequently there!

Happy spring!


Permaculture – What is it?


I don’t remember when I first heard about permaculture.  I want to say it’s been about 4 years, but don’t hold me to that.  Nearly 20 years ago when my husband and I started dreaming about moving out the country we began some research into what we wanted to do with whatever land we’d have.  We subscribed to Mother Earth News and Countryside.  Then the internet grew and we were able to learn even more.  When I first read the word, permaculture, I thought this was a new concept.

From the little bit I saw it looked like it might be a way to eventually reduce the amount of physical labor we’d have to put into our homesteading and still have enough to feed ourselves.  Since I was in my mid-40’s and starting to get tired of all the work, I needed to know more.  Is there a way to do this easier?  So I found what I could on the internet.  I bought a couple of books at the Mid-America Homesteading Conference that my friend, Deborah, had started putting on a year or two earlier.  I discovered there is a small permaculture community not too far from my house and I was following their activities online.  But at that point I was only looking at techniques – mulch, companion planting, using chickens to till your garden, etc.

IMG_4348Finally the name, Geoff Lawton, arrived in my world.  I started watching some of his videos.  He worked around the world helping regenerate depleted farms and the results were impressive.  At the end of 2014 I got the announcement for the online Permaculture Design Course he was doing in 2015.  I was excited, because the other PDCs I saw required you to go a permaculture farm and live for a week or two while taking classes and doing projects.  And they’re not cheap.  That’s not to diminish their value, but it wasn’t an option for us at that time – leaving our children with someone for a week to go a couple of counties away, or for two weeks to go to Australia to study under Geoff.  So this was right up my alley.  I could study at home in the mornings before the children got up and I’d never have to leave.  And the course was a little less costly since they wouldn’t be providing room and board for that time.  Still it was an investment.  I got Keith’s approval and signed up.  And now I’m starting week four of my second PDC with Geoff to deepen my understanding.  There is a lot to learn.  The course is 20 weeks long this year and takes a minimum of 2-3 hours per week to just watch the videos once.  Then there is online discussion, a Facebook page just for students for more discussion, and of course, you can always dig in even deeper.  I am SO glad I’ve taken this class because I get the “why” behind the “how” and you find out the “how” is much more complex yet flexible than I thought.

So – what IS permaculture?  The term was coined by Bill Mollison (recently deceased), a lecturer at Hobart University, and one of his students, David Holmgren, in the early 1970s.  Bill’s book Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual was published in 1988.  The PDCs that are currently being taught are built on what is contained in that book.  Geoff Lawton learned about permaculture directly from Bill Mollison and they worked together for a long time.

The concept and techniques that are permaculture were created to address the worldwide soil degradation that was occurring as a result of modern industrial-level agriculture.  It looks to natural sustainable ecosystems as an example of how to rebuild soil and grow crops.  It uses diverse landscapes involving plants, animals, and humans to accomplish this.  Let me share a little of what I’ve learned so far in this PDC.

Lesson 1 is an Introduction, and I’ve actually already shared some from that lesson.  THE most important thing about permaculture are the 3 Ethics.  These are the basis for design, as the design should always refer back to the ethics.  Earth Care is the first.  The designer must insure that all living and non-living things in the environment we are working with are carefully considered.  The goal is to enhance and preserve, not degrade or deplete.  People Care reminds us to look out for each other.  We need to promote self-reliance as well as take on some responsibility for our community by not exploiting or abandoning.  Return of Surplus is the result of good design – so much abundance that we are able to return it to the earth in such ways as composting, feeding animals, or shared with people.  Keeping the 3 Ethics in mind gives a solid foundation allowing us to help the environment AND the well-being of people. We look to the “old” ways – how traditional people lived off the land sustainably, and we merge that knowledge with newer methods and technology to achieve the desired end.  We use nature as a model, not a thing to control.

Permaculture can be used anywhere and on any scale.  35,000 square kilometers in the Loess Plateau of China have been completely regenerated.  If you go to Geoff Lawton’s website ( and click on “Videos”, look for “Greening the Desert”.  It can also be applied in farms of many acres, in rural, suburban, and urban backyards – or front yards, rooftops, abandoned lots, and so on.  The design is customized to the property’s size, location, climate, and inhabitants.

One of the main goals is to maximize the use of water on the property before it leaves the property by directing through multiple places so it is conserved and retained in the soil, thereby increasing production.

Guilds can be formed, which is kind of like companion planting on steroids.  Instead of just ‘carrots love tomatoes’, you can create a small community of plants that all help each other, with permanence as the goal.  For example:  A highbush cranberry, surrounded by 4 fruit trees and 4 hazelnut trees, planted alternately.  Then in between and around these you put spring bulbs to hold nutrient that spring rains would wash away.  Horseradish, comfrey, evening primrose, and milk vetch help bring up minerals from deep in the soil making them available to the fruit trees.  Garlic and chives are used in cooking and can be used to make sprays to ward off pests.  You can also add strawberries in the sunny places, and wild ginger in the shady places.  Asparagus goes around the edges with lemon balm and even lettuce interplanted to be used when the asparagus retires for the summer.  Other flowering herbs like dill, coriander, fennel, and yarrow can be placed around edges to attract beneficial insects – pollinators and predators.  This guild will take up from 20′ – 60′ in diameter, depending on whether you use standard or semi-dwarf fruit trees.  Look at the beauty of this system.  You have multiple crop plants that all help each other in a beautiful set up that won’t need a lot of care once established.  They are all perennials that will keep on giving year after year.  Eventually you will probably have to dig up some of the extra herbs and bulbs to keep the system from being chaotic.  You could give these to friends to plant in their yards, or sell the plants at a farmer’s market in the spring for people to do the same.  This is much more beautiful, and much less work than keeping your herbs in one place, your fruit trees in another (with grass that needs to be mowed), your other perennial food plants in another – generally taking up more space.

Lesson 2 is on Concepts and Themes.  It starts to put a little meat on the bones of the introductory ideas.  Permaculture is based on science – laboratory and life sciences.  We learn here that we need to use scientific tools such as soil testing, finding out the slope and contour of the land, discovering the micro-climate details of the property being designed (sun placement, wind speed and directions throughout the year, how much precipitation the property gets, temperatures throughout the year), and more.  But we also need to spend a lot of time walking the property and observing.  What animals are there?  How does the water flow through?  What is adjoining the property?  Talking to neighbors and other people in the area gives an idea of the long-term picture of the area.  This is especially important when someone is moving to a new place.  If you are redesigning a place you’ve lived for several years, you may already know a lot of this.  Or not.  Maybe you never paid attention before.  Now’s the time to start!

The most surprising thing is that there are no exact rules, unlike so many other gardening/homesteading things you’ve learned about.  Permaculture is very flexible.  The goal is to keep putting back the excess into the system to improve the soil and conditions of the plants and animals and people living there.  If you have too much of anything, eat it, store it, feed it to livestock, sell it, or if there’s nothing else, then compost it.  Often you can just compost in place.  Just cut the extra down and lay it on the ground for mulch.  As it breaks down it feeds the soil and everything in it.

I think that’s enough for now.  In a week or so I’ll post on Lesson 3, which is so rich in information that it’s taking two weeks to get through!


100_4432Cheryl Zacek is a homeschooling mother of 8 (and grandmother to one) who has been married to her high school sweetheart, Keith, for over 30 years.  They live on 1.65 acres in central Illinois where they seek to grow as much food as possible with the space they have, while raising dairy goats, heritage hogs, ducks, and chickens – not to mention making goat milk soap and other personal care products.  Cheryl is also available on a limited basis for permaculture consulting.  You can read more about them at, find Farmer in Odell on Facebook, or email at


August Challenge – The End?

IMG_2700I’m sorry I never posted last week.  We came out of the weekend of the 5th Annual Livingston County Farm Crawl, and were headed into preparation for a camping trip with our new-to-us camper.  With us leaving on Thursday, I had only 4 days to clean up from one busy weekend and prepare for another.

It probably doesn’t need to be said that we fell “off the wagon”, so to speak, on living ONLY off of the food in the house.  What’s in the house is mostly ingredients.  Translation: High-labor foods.  Farm Crawl weekend doesn’t allow for high-labor foods.  So I bought lunch meat, chips, and (gasp!) store-bought bread.  Plus frozen pizza.  I did use some of what we already had by throwing some meat in the crockpot one morning for that night’s dinner.  Yay me!

You can probably also guess that camping weekend isn’t exactly when I want to try to live out of the pantry either.  Besides having 4″ of counter space, plus a small table for a food-prep area, there are just some things you *have* to have on a camping trip, and I didn’t have those on-hand.

We did cook both dinners in the Dutch oven, using our own garden veggies.  I had to buy the meat, though, as we were out of anything even remotely convenient, or small enough for the smaller crowd coming on the trip.  I used mostly our own ingredients for any bread-type things – pancakes, biscuits.  I used our eggs for anything that required them.  I bought breakfast sausage and bacon, since our sausage and bacon are still on the hoof, not in the freezer.  Soon.  Very soon :)

Lunches were the same as Farm Crawl weekend – sandwiches and chips – so I didn’t have to cook and so they’d be easily portable in case we were going to take them with us on a hike.

So, August ends tomorrow.  I think we did pretty good, all things considered.  We spent far less on groceries than we normally would.  We will continue into September, since you can see that kitchen freezer is still full to the gills, and we still have a garden to continue harvesting from.  Stay tuned :)

(And if the picture is sideways, I’m sorry.  I don’t know what’s up with this thing lately, but it’s driving me crazy.)

August Challenge – End of Week 2

IMG_2479Well, as you can tell by looking in my refrigerator, we are in no danger of starving after 2 weeks of only minimal grocery shopping!  I’ve bought butter, lunch meat (mostly for my son so he can take sandwiches to work), and a few necessary basics, but nothing else.  We HAVE been given some bread and party leftovers twice now, which has helped satisfy the potato chip monsters and kept the thought of mutiny far from their minds.

We’re getting close to being out of chocolate chips so on Sunday I made pancakes (GASP!) without them.  Surprisingly, they didn’t complain.

The Farm Crawl is coming up this weekend and I need to decide how I’m going to handle it.  The days are long and busy and making a big meal isn’t a happy thought.  Lunch is the most difficult, since we have to try to eat while showing people around the farm.  In the past I’ve bought frozen pizza, bread and sandwich things.  I will probably do that again, since we won’t have time to cook anything else.  Though I could cook some things in advance to simply be reheated.  Dinner can be put in the crockpot in the morning so it’s ready at dinner time, though mornings are a little crazy with us making sure everything is taken care of.  I’ll let you know next week how it went.

So, we’re doing pretty well.  Saving money, still eating just fine.  Maybe we’ll extend this a few more weeks after August 😉


August Challenge – After Week One

IMG_2458 This week wasn’t too bad.  I mean we had a graduation party so lived off the extras from that for 2 days.  And we still had almost everything else we needed.  I did have to buy butter and ground beef and a couple of ingredients for our Trim Healthy Mama foods.  Not too bad :)

But I can see that things are going to start going downhill slowly.  It was already getting a little rough with “fruit” being the answer to the question, “What’s for dessert?”  My 10-year-old’s standard question after lunch or dinner is: “Can I have chocolate chips in a quarter of a cup?”  That’s the amount I started letting them have for some desserts a few months ago after they would just fill their palms or a small bowl with the things.  *sigh*.  He’s going to be very disappointed when pancakes and muffins become plain because he’s eaten all the chocolate chips in the house.  That should be in about a week…

For now, they have potato chips again, left oIMG_2459ver from our son-in-law’s informal birthday party yesterday.

August Challenge

Kitchen cabinetFor a long time, now, I’ve realized the need to shop for less food and consume what’s already in my house.  The problem has been the fact that though there is a lot of food in the house, it’s mostly ingredients.  That means that it’s not a quick thing to eat it.  You have to combine those things to create something.  Which means more dirty dishes.  Our household has become much busier this year and we already cook all our meals from scratch.  There are 9 people living here.  That’s a LOT of dishes to wash.  The sink is never empty for more than about 30 minutes now and then.  So we’ve – ok I’VE – become a little more “lazy” and picking up a few more convenience foods and snacks that I’m embarrassed to say we are eating simply to survive this current season of life.

The problem with this (besides the consequences of not eating the best food we can) is that when I shop, there isn’t really anyplace to put it.  The shelves are getting more and more disorganized and we’re constantly asking each other where specific items are.


Part of the problem – I really don’t even know what’s in here!

The solution to this, as I see it, is we simply need to dedicate some time to eat only the food that’s already in the house.  I’ve thought of doing it before, but I’ve decided this month is it.  One reason for choosing August, is that our garden is just about in full-production mode.  No risk of running out of veggies.  Our hens are laying, our goats are giving us milk.  We have some meat in the freezer, as well as beans, rice, noodles, seasonings.  We have fruits and veggies preserved from previous years and it’s almost time to start canning more, so we need to get the old ones off the shelf to make room for the new ones.  This won’t exactly be a sacrifice.  I think.  It’s easy to think this now, when we have lots of leftovers from Noah’s graduation party yesterday.  I know that in a couple of weeks we’re going to have to start being more creative.  There may be grumbling from a few family members.  The goal is to buy only absolute necessities.  Like butter.  I do have a cream separator now, so theoretically I can make butter from our goat cream.  I might actually give it a try.  I’ve made butter before with cow cream, but with goat cream it’s a little trickier.  I tried it once and it didn’t work.  Though I didn’t have the cream separator at the time, so there may have been milk mixed in there….  I’ll keep you posted.


Building a Cob Oven

On Saturday, April 2, I went to my friend’s place to help with building a cob oven.  My friends are Mike and Deborah Boehle, of Antiquity Oaks.  She put out a general message to those who might be interested in learning how to do this, and I, along with about a dozen other people, answered!

Cob building has fascinated me for a while.  The fact that you can mix together clay, sand, and water together, and then build stuff – as small as an outdoor oven, to as big as a house – is intriguing.  And I wanted to be in on this project.

Mike and Deborah had already planned this project with Jane, who has built and helped others build such things – so she was the project manager.

IMG_0116Earlier in the week, Mike had poured a concrete base, and when I arrived, he was putting the final layer of the brick base on.  He’d purchased these nifty-shaped bricks, and they were held together with construction adhesive to help prevent heaving and shifting over the years of freezing and thawing.  He also used a ratchet strap to help keep it together while waiting for the whole thing to dry.

Once that was done, the next step was to fill the brick base with empty bottles.  The Boehles, as well as others, had been saving wine bottles, Snapple bottles, beer bottles, applesauce jars – any kind of glass bottle they could.  I thought it looked like way too many, but I underestimated how many bottles it would take to fill that base!  IMG_0118We all worked together to fit the bottles in as tight as possible – biggest bottles on the outside, then the smaller ones.  It’s like a puzzle without a picture to guide you.  The bottles are there for insulation value, and to reduce how much sand is needed.  Once the base was filled, then sand was added to fill in the space between the jars and brought up to about 4″ below the edge of the bricks.IMG_0119

Then began our first cob making.  A tarp was brought over.  Bags of clay and sand were opened.  A hose was made ready.  Sand and clay were dumped on the tarp – about a 5-gal bucket of each – little bits at a time, while water was squirted over them.  Then the mixing began, first by using the tarp – lifting the sides alternately, dumping the mixture back and forth.  Then feet were used.  With boots on.  IMG_0120I’ve not mentioned yet, that it was crazy windy – about 30 mph winds, with stronger gusts – and only around 40 degrees.  Bare feet in wet cob was not going to happen.  After the first batch we got smart and started folding the tarp over the mixture and then stomping on it that way, in order to keep the mess off our shoes or boots.  When the cob was “right” as determined by Project Manager Jane, then it was placed on top of the sand, up to the level of the bricks and leveled.  Then another slightly raised area was made in the center.  This was to be the oven floor.  IMG_0121The dimensions had all been pre-figured by Jane and were based on the size of the base.  Once the oven floor was leveled and smoothed, it was covered by wet newspaper.  The reason for this was to protect it for the next step, as well as to help later.  I’ll get to that in a moment.IMG_0140

IMG_0143After the paper was in place, damp sand was then piled on top of the papered oven floor in a large dome.  (Again, the size of the dome had already been determined by Jane using a cob oven calculator for maximum stability and such.)  The point of the sand dome is to provide support for the cob dome.  When we were almost done with that, some of the group started to make more cob.  Jane had decided that we had enough time left before the coming lunch break to get the first thin layer of cob over the paper-covered sand dome.  With the wind being so bad, things dried out quickly.  By getting this layer on now, the paper would be covered and couldn’t dry out while we were eating lunch and warming up.  So, that was accomplished, we covered it all with a tarp that was secured with logs and cinder blocks – and we went in to eat lunch and thaw out!IMG_0144IMG_0147

(BTW – we had a wonderful lunch!  Deborah made quiche and Tim brought a vegetarian chili.  Oh, and there was an afternoon snack of creme brulee pie and banana bread!)

After lunch, hot tea and coffee and some fun conversations, it was back to work.  The cob making continued.  We took turns making cob and continuing to cover the dome.  The extra bottles that didn’t fit in the base were put around the sides for additional insulation.  IMG_0149After that layer of regular cob was on, it was time for the final layer.  This time sawdust was added to the mixture.  The purpose of that is that the sawdust will slowly burn away, leaving small insulating holes throughout that final layer.  So again, we split into two groups – three or four people would make cob while the rest put it on the dome.  Finally – it was done!IMG_0151

There was going to be a final, thin, decorative layer of regular cob put over it all.  But it was late in the afternoon, and everyone was tired.  The decorative layer was going to have to wait until the next day, and most of the helpers wouldn’t be there.  Jane decided that it would be ok to just make the decorations with the little bit of leftover cob.  After discussing it with the Boehle’s intern, Stephanie, it was decided to just make a recessed design instead of raised.  IMG_0154So Jane got to work making the outline of the sun design, then I worked on finishing it while she worked on the door opening to fit the door Mike had built.IMG_0156

By early evening, it was done as much as it could be for the time being.  It needs to dry out for a week or two.  Then the sand will all be dug out.  The newspaper under the sand dome and over it is the signal of when to stop digging.  Then small fires will be built in it daily for a few days or so to finish drying it out.  Then it will be ready to start baking in.  The Boehles plan to use it for all their summer baking.  I look forward to seeing how that all works out.

By the way – because the oven is made of earth, it needs to be protected from driving rain, which would eventually wear it down and wash it away.  Some people use a tarp, others a permanent shelter, others a box they put around it.  I don’t know what they’re going to do yet at Antiquity Oaks, but if I remember, I’ll let you know when they have it figured out.


Spring has FINALLY arrived in central IL!  We went from 20 to 40 in two days then up to 50s and even 60 in a week.  From ice and snow-covered everything, to mud puddles and flowing sap.  From the blessed rest of most farm chores to birthing and planting and boiling and planning and YIKES!  I wasn’t ready for the sudden change!  But hey, the Carhartt overalls are hanging on the hook waiting to be washed, and sometimes I can go outside without a coat – briefly.

So here are some pictures I’ve taken over the past month since my last post.  Kind of an update of what’s been going on around here.  They may be in random order.

IMG_5071You can’t have spring without new life – animal and plant.  About 6 weeks ago I started a small indoor salad garden.  It took long than I thought it would, but I’m harvesting a few things here and there.  This is my first salad.  I’ve also added the greens to smoothies now and then.  The basil is SO good, that it has me lusting after bruchetta.  Now that we have goat milk, I could actually make a batch of feta cheese, then I’d just have to buy tomatoes, because my tiny tomato plants aren’t going to produce soon enough.  If I wait about 2 more weeks, I’ll probably have enough fresh parsley available, too.


You can’t have spring without chicks!  These are our meat birds.  The day they arrived, the weather was fine.  Then winter gave it’s last big hurrah for two days, bringing temps back to 0 or below.  We lost 14 chicks over the next 36 hours, so I brought them in the house for a day until the temp came back up.  I moved the “garden” to the top of the wood stove and dining room table to take advantage of the rack to hang heat lamps rather than grow lights.  We’re thankful that it was only for 24 hours.  Chicks sure stink the place up rather quickly.

IMG_5109Baby goats!  We had a baby boom here – 12 goat kids born in 15 days.  Well, actually 12 goats born in 3 days over a 15-day span.  Here’s the abridged version of the events:  It started on February 24 when I went out and found Petunia in labor.  I had to assist with the first two, then the third came right out.  Three bucks for her.  About 6 hours later when I went to check on them, I found 3 more bucklings – those were Nightshade’s.  I was very glad she did just fine without my help, after the drama of the morning.  Nightshade has turned out to be a great mom.  She’s nursing 3 kids (2 of her own, 1 of Petunia’s) and I’m bottle feeding the other 3 that no one will take care of.  We got a good routine going and then on the evening of March 8, Marigold had one doe.  All was fine, apparently, and they’ve done great without my help.  Then two days later, on the 10th, I went out mid-afternoon to feed the bottle babies and found 5 more kids on the ground.  Dandelion and Rosie both had their kids between 9:30, when I’d last been in the barn, and 2:30 when I came back.  Rosie had 2 does (that’s her with one of them in the picture) and Dandelion had 1 doe and 2 bucks.  Dandelion is also not nursing her kids, so I’m bottle feeding those three also.  At least they were all born close together so I won’t have to deal with bottles for months on end.

IMG_5041This is the “before” picture, taken the morning of what was to be our first day in the 40s.  The next few are 2 days later.  Mud and water.  It’s like living in a swamp. But it’s warm! IMG_5114IMG_5115


What’s next…  Some random things.  Keith’s birthday.  No, he’s not 427!  That’s a funny thing we’ve been doing the past couple of years.  We’re missing a few of the number candles, so we put them together like a math problem.  The 4 for 4, then the 2+7=9 – so it actually means 49 :) IMG_5085

Andrew did most of the spring decorating for me last weekend.  It’s a much quicker process than decorating for Christmas.  Only one box of stuff, instead of 10 or so.IMG_5042

IMG_5052There’s our beautiful granddaughter!  Not the best picture, but I only took a few that day.  We just love her to death and the kids argue all day over who gets to hold her now.  Our son and daughter-in-law came over with her for the first time since she was born in November.  Heather got lots of pictures of Kilana observing the little goats and chicks and other animals for the first time.  We look forward to her growing up and playing out here with the animals.  If she’s anything like her parents, she’ll love them all.

IMG_5040Little Lucky dog – always finding a warm spot.  This was on one rare morning that we didn’t have someplace to go, so we relaxed a little on the couch looking at what Tasha has posted from her internship in Japan.

IMG_5129I started taking a permaculture design course in February, to get certified in permaculture design.  It was easy at first to fit in, now with all the spring things going on, it’s gotten more challenging, but it’s terribly interesting and exciting!  I’m learning so much about how we can improve this place and put our retirement property to good use.  Plus I will be able to teach others to do the same, or  hire myself out as a consultant/designer as an additional source of income.  I also foresee doing some charity work with those skills to help other people become more self-sufficient growing their own food.

IMG_5112IMG_5127IMG_5128With the sudden change in temperature came maple sirup time!  We don’t have sugar maples, but you can tap any kind of maple tree – you just need more sap to get sirup, and it will taste different.  We have one old maple that we can put three spiles into.  The wind wasn’t coming from a good direction to use our regular fire pit, so I found the least windy place in the yard and built this little temporary stove.  Keith was quite impressed with it, which made my day!  We both agreed we’d like it taller and not so close to the house, and to have a brick bottom, but time was limited and I just did what needed to be done for this one situation.  And everything was SO wet, the house was in NO danger!  Maybe this will be the year we finally build that brick stove/oven in the backyard we’ve been dreaming of since we tore out the old chimney in 2003.


While I was boiling sirup, the kids were doing their thing.  Some trampoline play, or just reading in the sun on the trampoline, swinging, going for walks, helping with goats and chicks, or – for the girl that prefers to be inside when it’s muddy – sewing.  Bethany has been very creative lately making her own skirts, and this time an apron – with no pattern!

IMG_5110IMG_5111IMG_5117Overall, it’s been a good week.  We all got some sun and fresh air, the stress of waiting for goats to kid is over, the chicks are doing well.  We just have piglets to wait for and need to fix their pen.  And we still have three piglets to take to the processor.  There are pens to clean out, hooves to trim, male goats need to be moved back to their regular home, garden clean up, then soon planting of spring crops will start, and on and on.  It never really ends.  The calendar is filling up fast and I don’t know how many blog posts I’ll get in.  I’m thinking of having the girls start to maintain the blog for me most of the time.  I take lots of pictures with blog post ideas that never get done.  Some get put on facebook, at least.  So, don’t worry if I’m silent for a while.  It just means I’m busy!

Enjoy your spring!  Get out and enjoy nature!  Check on us on facebook now and then and we’ll give you snippets here and there of the happenings on our little farm :)