Weekend in the Dirt

It’s been a long time since we’ve posted here.

The reasons have been our internet speed and how busy we’ve been.  But we have better internet now and our lives have calmed down some.  It’s time to get back to it and more regularly.

Last weekend, a group of friends offered to come give us some help on the property.  They were recently relocated due to the Sunrise fire burning near Missoula.  We’ve been socked in with smoke for weeks, and it’s not halfway through traditional fire season!

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We agreed to give their ducks a home for the winter, while they figure out where they’re going.  So anyway, I rented a mini excavator for the weekend since Evan offered to run it for us and we had some flammable wood to take care of.  I wanted to bury it into Huegelkulture beds (raised beds filled with wood).  Big ones!

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Our excavator had some extra time so we kept on digging.  Wallows for the livestock and a small root cellar.

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Thanks to Evan, Ben, and Kai for the help!

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In Goes the Garden

After many long projects this summer, our garden went in.  Several raised huegelkulture beds made with logs from the pine trees around us too big for firewood.

On the main swayle, on contour, we planted garlic and saffron. On the other three mounds, Jeruselam artichoke. We’re mulching with alpaca manure and pine needles for acidity.

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We’ll see it again next spring!


Way better than PokemonGO is hatching your own baby chick! 1 out of 16 is a pretty poor hatch rate, but it was my first time. This is a rare breed of Icelandic chicken, very cold hardy. I’m ready to try again with a better incubator! Ashley called it Nemo since it was born alone, but I was thinking Pigeot or Torchic in honor of the game.

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The Road to Abundance

 photo DSC03883_zpsnwiejcod.jpgVigorous sourdough on the counter. “My cup runneth over…” (Psalm 23:5)

This was a fun weekend, with plenty to do.  We relaxed a lot too.

First it was a lazy night at home.  Then Saturday, in lieu of the Rebecca Farms Horse Show, we stayed home to pound fence and rebuild the chicken coop door.  I was surprised that I was able to piece-meal it together with wood scraps lying around the property. Good ‘nough!

My new commercial crayfish trap caught four nice sized water-dwellers, which we cooked up for Sunday night finger snacks (I’ll try fish offal next time as bait for a better catch).  That was after harvesting a couple gallons of huckleberries.  Those will be in our Sunday pancakes every week this year.

 photo DSC03895_zpsvx31wjj6.jpgCrawfish on a silver platter. photo DSC03898_zpscmjkfbeg.jpgYum.  With garlic olive oil.

My Icelandic chicken eggs are in the incubator, but my failures are pretty high.  Of 16 eggs, only 6 look promising now.  It’s my first time, and the seller told me 50% loss with shipped eggs is common. If we lose a few closer to hatching, I may be lucky to get five chickens. That might give me a sound chance at a breeding pair, but…

As we picked huckleberries yesterday, we talked about ways to make money with the property.  First and foremost, we discussed ways to reduce costs with our investments.

One of the areas in our budget most amenable is our food budget, most especially our egg costs.  We buy local eggs from a farmer and currently pay $3.50 per carton.  That seems reasonable to us for quality eggs.

But we eat a lot of eggs.  Two a day, each, plus some in our salads comes out to three dozen a week, or fifteen dozen a month = $52.50!

Now, shipped eggs cost me $60 for 16, plus $20 to rent the incubator. Shipped chicks would have cost: ~$250.  So let’s say I didn’t mess it all up with the incubator and went straight for the chicks.  Buying the chicks would cost the same as paying for five month’s worth of eggs.

So let’s say we take $250 from our savings, and invest it into the egg project on our own property and ask ourselves for a 20% return on our own investment. Order the chicks and begin producing eggs within about four months.

Over the following six months (ten months total now), we begin to repay our savings with the money we would have spent on eggs.  That builds our savings another $50 in the end and cuts our egg cost permanently, all in less than a year!

Plus, what else are we going to do with all those kitchen scraps, fish parts from our ocean salmon trip this fall, and that 30 lbs. of sausage that turned out poorly last year?  I also received 5 lbs of winter cereal rye seed to cover crop over our french drain project when we finish, which I hope will provide winter forage for the chickens.  I want to minimize or eliminate chicken feed costs by recycling our wastes to the chickens.

The problem is the solution!

Another few weeks until hatch.  We may buy the chicks to come in at the same time.  We can’t wait for chickens!

The Cat Strikes One

This morning, I awoke to the sound of a bull elk bugling across the way. In previous mornings we have heard cows and calves as well.  South of our property, perhaps 20 yards, is an elk run which hundreds of elk use annually.  The property across from us has acted as a sort of elk preserve for decades, but the land is in new hands now.  We’ll see what happens next.

I was also pleased to find a dead mouse under our bed upon waking. I was so proud.

A neighbor with a bachelors in zoology told me that cats will chase mice to make their owners proud, and admonished us to lavish affection on the cat who completes the task.  So I did, and it’s funny.  Winter will go out of her way to hunt when I’m awake and asleep, but it does seem strangely as if she’s doing it for us.  What a good girl.

The dead mouse now sits in her breakfast dish, which I hope gets the point across that she’s more than welcome to eat it.  That would help our feed costs.

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I am continuing my permaculture education with Paul Wheaton’s podcasts, of which he has produced over 300 hours.  Although he offers them free online you can get the whole shebang here, with:

  • All 4 of the Wood Burning Stoves 2.0 4-DVD set
  • All 3 of the World Domination Gardening 3-DVD set
  • 340 podcasts which includes the rocket mass heater podcasts
  • +more.

For our fall project we plan to build a Rocket Mass Heater on the dollar, since a winter’s worth of firewood sits ready for us already, but with the effort of a little construction we can make that wood last five years instead of one.

Meet the Camelids!

Welcome home the crew!

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Ashley and I have dreamed of owning alpacas since we moved to Montana together and were married.  Montana, with its cold winters, well simulates the environment of the high mountains of Peru from which alpacas come. They are ruminants, of the Camelid family, including Monte, the big lama of the group.  The three alpaca are named Orion (the brown boy), and Snickerdoodle and Zaccharia (the white girls).

 photo 13498075_1196285357061839_2354556731069759189_o_zpstirg34uo.jpgOrion doesn’t know he’s been snipped.  He still thinks he’s got the stuff.

 photo 13502841_1196284610395247_5858807062323503863_o_zpsurp8merv.jpgThe girls we could breed.  They were all recently shorn.

Ashley began spinning several years ago, already an adept at the skills of crochet and yarn.  If you didn’t know, alpaca fiber produces some of the best wool in the world, being softer, lighter and much warmer than traditional sheep’s wool.  So once processed and spun, they make excellent winter garments and accessories useful for those frosty winter days up here.

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Monte is also our herd defender.  We have heard lamas described as “mid-level security” for areas with a medium-density predator pressure, such as ours.  The former property owners had lamas and claimed to never have issues with predators.  However, in certain seasons we could still encounter: coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, black bears or even a grizzly bear.

So we’ll be reinforcing our fences to discourage the predators, including the use of an electric line (already installed for us!) on the outside of the fence.  It’s still an unfair fight for Monte who will defend the others, because dog packs can still jump fence and will use strategies of decoying and flanking the would-be guardians to get to the defenseless, tasty little alpacas.

The next step up in security would either be high fencing or one or two livestock guardian dogs.  We’re not ready for that yet.

We estimate with pasture grazing in the warm months total expenses of no more than about $100 per year per alpaca including the cost of unsprayed hay, medication, shearing and pellets.  The lama eats a bit more and may have a slightly higher cost.  That’s reasonable!

Alapaca and lama manure is an invaluable resource in a garden.  It can be composted well, but does not need to be as it will not “burn” plants. Camelids act like cats in many ways and always poop in the same place. We’re installing a paddock shift system right now to manage the pasture grasses and keep the animals healthy.

We have a lot to learn.  Ashley’s tearing through The Camelid Companion and other books, and we’re asking lots of questions.  All in all though, their quite easy to manage and maintain!  And they’re so darned cute.

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Hand-forged Cast Iron Rack

It feels like a trophy on our wall.  If anything ever made us feel like we had really moved in, it might by my hand-forged cast iron rack.  It looked very nice in our old apartment:

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It looks a little homely here:

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It just goes to show how much work there is to be done here!

When I asked Bob Thies how much money we would need to remodel our home per month, he recommended a budget of $300.  So although this house is currently in good working order, we made sure we could afford $300 a month in a category exclusively for “Maintenance and Repair” before we made an offer on it.  Bob was talking about the home itself, but Ashley and I decided to use that amount some months for outside work (e.g. fencing, animal projects, etc.) and to slow down our remodeling speed.

Bob said that it works in a triangle: Cost – Time – Quality.  He told me that it is possible to maximize two of those if one is reduced.  So we chose low cost and high quality.  If it takes 10 years to remodel this home, that’s fine.  If it takes 20, that’s ok too.  Weekends we will work to make slow, permanent improvements to the place we live in and love.