Last year, we got set up with a great team of horses and a nice passenger wagon, which was rather in demand.  Then one of the horses was injured, and we had a hefty vet bill to deal with.  Next, we had to purchase another horse to take his place.  By the end of fall, we were looking at our books and started brainstorming ideas to try to recoup some of the massive expense we had put into the horse aspect of our farm.  Sure they were the power for our farm, but unlike a tractor, they do have the potential to generate revenue in other ways.  We decided that, as much as the wagon was in demand, a carriage would likely go over very well.  After shopping around for a while, I found a great deal on a used one in Michigan.  S drove up to inspect it, and brought it home, along with a nice assortment of odds and ends for the carriage and a carriage business, as the previous owners were getting out of the business.

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We took it for a spin and loved the way it handled.  We scheduled our first carriage rides a few weeks later, and it was a huge hit!  In fact, we scheduled a 2-day, special Christmas ride event, and the slots were booked so fast, we opened two more days, which also booked up.  We were out of available dates, so that was it for 2014.  We avoided scheduling in January, due simply to the cold, but then we scheduled an event for Valentine’s Day weekend, which booked up within 72 hours!

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We are only 3 months into owning our carriage now, but clearly it is an item which offers a lot of potential for our farm income.  We have had people ask about weddings and formal events, and are still waiting on some of those to confirm.  Our struggle now is making sure that the carriage and wagon part of the business doesn’t interfere with the main part of our business–meat sales and homesteading classes, but we are enjoying having a side business that can offer something unique to our community. We’ve got a confirmed booking for our wagon already for December–almost a year from now!

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It’s also fun being able to give to the community.  Back in December, we were able to help with an event for a special, local, little girl with Down’s Syndrome, whose dream was to be a princess.  The community rallied together and literally made her Queen Elsa for a day, as she adored the Frozen movie.  We were asked to provide the transportation via horse-drawn carriage.  It was such great fun, and likely provided a day of memories this little girl and her family will never forget!!

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Once again, I’ve broken my own record for time away.  Once again, I miss it, and figured I should check in.  So much has been happening around the farm, I don’t even know where to begin.  It seems to me some fun photos would be a good place to start.  We are still suffering through bitter cold and counting the days until spring.  It was a dry winter until February hit, and we finally got snow.  And the snow just keeps coming every couple of days.  An inch here, 6 inches there.  That might not mean much to you, but for me, it means I get to use the horse-drawn snow plow we bought last fall!  Enjoy!!

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Over the years, we have been blessed to have some absolutely wonderful, amazing mentors to help us in our journey called life.  From veterinarians who took me under wing to teach me all they could about animal medicine, to horse trainers who allowed me to clean stalls in exchange for lessons and experience, to experienced clinicians, career meat processors, and draft-horse teamsters, we have been saved a tremendous amount of heartache and been able to decrease the slope of the inevitable learning curve.  We’ve also been blessed to have some really lousy mentors along the way.  They’re the ones that taught us to believe “there is something to be learned from everyone—even if it’s what NOT to do!”  The experience, training, and backgrounds of our mentors taught us different ideas, different reasons for doing things different ways, and so much more.  There is a saying that goes something to the effect of “If you are a day ahead of someone else, you are the master.”

We decided long ago that since we enjoyed working with and encouraging others so much, that we would try to find ways in the future to do so.  We had planned more traditional ways such as internships and apprentices, but didn’t feel ready or qualified to do that for several years.  Then this summer of trials hit us, with the most difficult being S’s arm injury.  We were forced to find help, so we started considering and researching our options.  At first, we hired help, but that can add up and deplete savings in a hurry!

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A WWOOF’er weeding the orchard.

Then, thanks to Polyface Farm’s (Joel Salatin) Facebook page, I was introduced to a program called Eager Farmer (www.eagerfarmer.com).  Joel’s daughter-in-law set up the site as way of bringing together farmers willing to teach or having something to offer, with folks wanting to learn.  Through that website, we met a young man who, interestingly, used to be an intern for Daniel Salatin, and thus could offer us just as much as we could him.  At first, we wondered what exactly we COULD offer him that he hadn’t already learned from Polyface.  As it turns out, though, he was interested in seeing farming on a much smaller scale, as well as experiencing a draft-horse powered farm.  Thus, it was agreed this young man would come stay a week in our basement.  We agreed to provide room and board in exchange for farm labor and teaching, and he agreed to share his knowledge from Polyface with us.  Let’s just say, it worked out WONDERFULLY!  We had a wonderful week, our kiddos adored him, he was an amazing Christian, and when he left, we all felt like we had learned from the exchange.  Best of all, not only did we gain knowledge, but he helped me complete a couple of major, labor-intensive projects I just hadn’t been able to do alone, which caught us up on the farm a little.

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Our “eager farmer” student working with Nick, the Belgian draft horse. He came after Nick injured his leg, so when the student had free time, he helped desensitize and work with Nick to help him relax and let us doctor his wound.

While chatting with our guest one day, he introduced me to another program called WWOOF, USA (www.wwoofusa.org).  This is website designed intentionally for work exchanges.  The idea is that no money exchanges hands.  The workers, known as “WWOOF’ers” are not employees or even volunteers, technically.  I want to clarify, they are not to be seen as “free labor” per say. They are there for a “work exchange” of some type, and come with all sorts of backgrounds and reasons.  Some WWOOF’ers are vacationing or traveling cross-country and want to save money by avoiding hotel stays and restaurants.  So, they offer their labor on your farm in exchange for room and board.  Others may have a genuine interest in learning some aspect of farming, and offer their labor in exchange for teaching them about what they are interested in.  Some are homeschool families that want to expose their children to specific aspects or farming lifestyles.  Some folks may even just want references for their future, and figure offering some labor is a great way to get that reference.  There are a myriad of reasons, a variety of WWOOF’ers, and all sorts of hosts with differing specialties.  WWOOF host farms can be anything from permaculture to western cattle ranches to hydroponics to holistic herb clinics to medicinal marijauna farms.  Yup, I said marijauna.  In those states that have legalized pot, I guess somebody has to grow it!

Let me clarify that we are NOT that type of farm!

Intrigued, we joined the WWOOF host farm network.  We very quickly met a group of 3 from Australia that were hoping to tour the U.S., learn more about the backroads, grass-roots type of Americans rather than the more city-fied, tourist-y destinations, and experience American life by living with different families.  We were the first stop on their trip.  They were only able to stay 4 days before having to be at the next farm, but it was 4 amazing days!  They worked much harder than we ever imagined they would, and again, by the time they left, we had several other projects completed.  They, in turn, had great stories to tell about playing with puppies, logging with draft horses, grooming, harnessing, and driving said horses, using a lumber mill (since one was a woodworking teacher at a high-school by profession, he particularly enjoyed that part of his trip!), and more.  Again, our kids adored them, they acted like part of the family, and we were so sad to see them go.

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2 of our “Aussie’s” (which, they taught us, is pronounced “Ozzy”) building a couple of portable chicken tractors for next season.

We have had multiple contacts from potential WWOOF’ers since then.  We are very cautious about who we accept, though.  Many are turned off when I warn them of our faith and standards on the farm.  That’s fine by us, as our children are exposed to them on a daily basis.  Because they are seen by customers, and represent us both on and off the farm, we also have grooming and appearance standards they must agree to.  If all seems agreeable, then we contact past employers or other host farm references.  If they pass that, then they must agree to our farm rules, and we go from there.  We have a girl scheduled to come from a big city for a week in December, another considering coming for the winter, and our first long-term intern/WWOOF’er planning to stay the entire growing season.  He’s actually another international, coming all the way from Italy.  He hardly speaks a word of English, so it will be challenging, but his references are excellent.  Assuming he passes his trial period, it will be wonderful to have him to help next year.  We are doubling most of our farm business, and it is going to be extremely busy.  In exchange, he will receive full room, board, and meals, in addition to learning valuable hands-on experience and farm skills as we work alongside him.

Once again, even in the midst of the rough year we had, God provided.  I am also enjoying learning how to think outside the box when it comes to solving problems.  I mean, here we needed help, and had no idea such programs existed!  What a wonderful resource for both farmers and “students.”  If you are a farmer who could use some help, and enjoy teaching, OR if you are interested in learning or experiencing farm life, then I would encourage you to check out these programs.  There is a cost to sign up and gain access, which helps keep the “riffraff” and free-loaders away, but if you meet just one person that offers what you are looking for, it is worth every cent!

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This past 2 weeks, S decided he felt ready to switch roles again.  He wanted to take over farm work and let me go back to being mom, wife, cook, and so forth.  If you’ve followed for a while, you are likely aware that S ripped a tendon in both elbows.  We don’t know how he did it.  He literally woke up one morning with his arms hurting.  Nothing unusual had happened the day before, so he thought perhaps he had a touch of tendonitis.  I won’t repeat everything I posted previously, but suffice it to say, after 3 doctors and specialists and 2 physical and occupational therapists, his condition continued to worsen.  The medical professionals he spoke with all agreed that pain should be his guide.  One doctor told him not to lift over 20 lbs, and all said essentially, “If it hurts, don’t do it or you might tear the tendon completely from the bones.”  As time went on, the pain progressed to the point that he couldn’t do hardly anything.  JR had to tie his shoes for him, I had to button his shirts.  As his condition worsened, my work load increased.  Not only was I running the farm and lifting anything over 20 lbs (i.e. feed bags, hay bales, digging, shoveling, harnessing, firewood, you name it!), but as he worsened, I also had to take over more inside.  I had to strip beds for the younger kiddos, and remake all beds. S could still cook, but I had to move the pots around the kitchen for him. He was left basically cooking, doing light cleaning, and folding laundry.  His biggest task was homeschooling the kids, because it was about the only thing he could do that didn’t cause pain.  Talk about a rough few months!   Just think about everything you use your arms for!  At one point, I desperately needed help moving some hay.  S got resourceful to get the job done without using his arms:

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He had to go and buy a pair of slip-on muck boots and avoid button-shirts, just so he could dress without assistance.  Brushing his teeth hurt.  We had to use our hard-earned savings to hire help to get tasks completed that I just couldn’t do alone.  You get the idea.

At wit’s end, S saw a new specialist.  We don’t know the guy’s full history, but he was an orthopedist who may have had some training in Chinese medicine.  In any case, he scoffed at the advice from all the other doctors and therapists.  He said basically, “Of course it’s gonna hurt!  You ripped two tendons, and everything is going to make it hurt!  For the next 6 months or so, you are going to be in pain, whether you use them or not.  So use them.  Don’t overuse them, and don’t do anything ridiculously strenuous.  Sharp pain is bad, but dull pain and general ashiness is fine and expected.  Work through it, and come back in 5 weeks.”  Crazy as it sounded, nothing else was working, so S decided to try it.  He started working, slowly at first, and gradually increasing.  At first there was pain, but amazingly, the pain began decreasing each day until it just wasn’t there.  A month in, he said he was ready to take over.  He is now using his chainsaw (on a limited basis), hauling things (still tries to keep weight under about 30 lbs.), and has taken over all outdoor chores.  He is even milking the goats to give me a break, which was impossible from the intense pain 2 months ago.

No, his tendon’s haven’t reattached.  We have a few theories, but ultimately, we have to give God credit for the healing that has happened.  S is careful not to overdo things, per the doctor’s advice, but he fully expected to deal with pain for the next 6 months or more.  Yet, it disappeared.  That cannot be explained.  The only time he has an issue now is if he works a bit too hard one day, then he might just have some slight discomfort/achiness at the end of the day.

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S chainsawing logs, while JR and M use the log-splitter to turn the smaller logs into firewood. R and the little boys helped by stacking the firewood. A great afternoon of family team-work!

 

We have discussed the challenges we have faced over the last 6-8 months.  S feels strongly that God has been trying to teach us a few lessons and prune us into what He has in store.  Despite the challenges, it did force us to make some changes for the better.  We realized that all our children were plenty old enough to help out a little more.  We taught the youngest how to strip their beds on laundry day, and the oldest how to re-make their beds.  We bought a bedwetting system for A to help reduce the laundry, and although we are still going through the process, it seems to be working.  We changed chores around a bit to spread the load a little.  We expected a little more from the younger children, rather than having them play any time they weren’t in school.  We joined some great work exchange programs, which I will discuss later.  S even used some of his “free” time to become a bit of an activist on legislative issues around our state.  S values my house-work a bit more, and I have a new appreciation for the tremendous amount of work he does around the farm.  Certainly I had my moments of frustration, as did he.  However, if faced with the right attitude, we believe any challenge can teach us and grow us into better people.  It can improve communication and team work among a family.  And it can make us all stronger in the end.  We aren’t totally out of the storm yet, and still face some challenges, but things are looking up, and we hope this season is coming to an end.

We raised 2 Red Wattle hogs in the forest again this year.  This year, however, we raised barrows (castrated boys) instead of gilts (girls) like last year.  Man, oh, man did those boy grow fast!!  The first hog was sold to customers, and we wound up taking it to the processor several months earlier than planned (the schedule being based on the gilts’ growth last year).  At 6 months old, his hanging weight came to 198 lbs, which is roughly 300 lbs. live weight.  The second hog was destined for our own freezer.  Typically, we butcher our personal animals right here on the farm.  In order to do the larger animals such as hogs and beef, we have to wait for colder weather so we can hang the sides in our garage for a cooling and aging period.  So, after the first hog left, we kept the remaining hog as happy as we could.  We supplied him with happy-hog-staples such as mud, fresh forest forage, roots, nuts, kitchen leftovers, milk and whey, hog feed, whatever we could think of.  Maybe we over did it a little.  Just a little.

OK, a LOT.

When it looked as though S’s elbows were not healing, the decision was made to send our hog to the processor as well.  He was getting to expensive to feed, and he wouldn’t stop growing.  One evening, we bribed him with a little milk, got him up into the trailer (you can youtube “elephant seal trying to climb onto a car” if you want a visual), gave him a pile of soft hay to nest into, and let him settle in for the night.  We just hoped our trailer survived until morning.  Early the next morning, S drove him to the processor.  The workers in the livestock area took one look at him laying all comfy-cozy in his hay bed, and said, “uh, how do we get him out?”  They then proceeded to look at each other with each stating his position that he would NOT enter that trailer with that beast.  So, not wanting to hold up the line, S said, “don’t worry, I’ll get him out.”  He jumped up in the trailer, called him, gave him a scratch behind the ears, and bribed him out of the trailer in seconds.  The livestock guys stood there with their chins on the loading ramp.  Guess they hadn’t seen it done that way before.  It’s so much easier in our opinion, but really, what do we know?  It is only our 4th hog after all.

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By that afternoon, we had a hanging weight of 289 lbs, which equates to over 400 lbs live weight.  I realize that isn’t a huge hog by any stretch of the imagination.  I’ve seen some approaching 800-1000 lbs.  THAT is impressive!  Nonetheless, he was twice the size of a typical hog at processing time.  As it turned out, not only did he have some impressively large pork chops cut out of his sides, but he also had 3 inches of back fat.  Seeing as how S asked the processor for the fat, which is now being stored in my freezer, I’m seeing a lot of lard-making in the not-too-distant future.

Then, by the time I get that task completed, it will be time to start all over.  We’ve already ordered up 6 hogs for next year.  Believe it or not, we are excited about it.  Hogs can be a lot of fun, but there’s no way I can convince you of that.  You’ll just have to try raising one yourself.

JR’s alert-dog-in-training, Hunter, is doing well.  He is almost 8 months old now, and a total sweetheart of a pup.  He has made himself quite comfortable around the house and farm, and is, as hoped, very attached to JR.  He is very intelligent and picks up commands very quickly.  He absolutely loves having a job to do, and doesn’t discriminate.  If he sees us digging something, he joins in and digs right beside us.  If he sees us herding the steers, he runs over and attempts to bring them back to us.  He thrives on the free time he gets running around the farm.  Considering JR has never trained a dog before, I think he has done quite well teaching Hunter the basics.  I’ve actually decided to take it a step further and make him multi-purpose.  I want to give him a bit of guidance in the herding skill, so he can actually be helpful around the farm as well.  He tries anyway, so why not?

Hunter playing with one of the LGD pups.  He isn't much bigger than they are, so it's a great way to let them both run off some energy!

Hunter playing with one of the LGD pups. He isn’t much bigger than they are, so it’s a great way to let them both run off some energy!

He has posed a few challenges I had not expected, though.  First, I’ve never a raised a puppy with young children in the house.  It is so difficult for the young ones to follow the stricter rules required of a service animal, so we have to really stay on top of that.  Also, his instincts command him to herd anything that moves.  For the most part, he has learned to control his desire and not to chase the animals, or even attempt to herd without permission.  Bicycles and toys, on the other hand, are a whole ‘other issue!  He just can’t resist trying to snap those tires as they roll by, so we are now working on teaching him to stop when told.  A third issue we are dealing with is his obsession with food.  Any kind of food.  Or crayon.  Crayons taste like candy according to him.  And with 5 homeschooled kiddos in the house, there are crayons left on the floor almost daily.  He is like a spring ready to explode at the site of a food bowl or a morsel on the ground.  While this wouldn’t be an issue for a typical farm dog, it is a big issue for a dog that is expected to be on his best behavior in a restaurant.  Thus, we are working diligently on teaching him to ignore food and temptations of all sorts, unless we feed them in his bowl or he is running free in the pasture (no sense in fighting that battle!).  He is doing well, and he has a lot of try in him, which I like.  He is also learning to discern when his “uniform” is on, meaning he has to be on his best behavior.  He makes little mistakes occasionally, but most of the time, does very well.

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Finally, the biggest difficulty was that he REALLY bonded to JR.  Now, mind you, Australian Shepherds are known for the loyalty and tendency to attach to one person more than the others.  That’s one reason I chose the breed.  He took that to the extreme though!  JR could not leave Hunter’s sight, and if Hunter had his way, JR couldn’t go more than 3 feet from him.  This began to pose a problem on outings that resulted in the kids playing around.  For example, if we went to a playground or JR started playing some game with a group of church kids, he would give me Hunter’s leash to hold while he played.  Hunter would go nuts, and I just could not get his focus.  He wouldn’t take his eyes off JR, he would whine and squirm, and so forth.  So, I took over his training.  I’ve been working on weakening the bond a little bit, just so he can learn to focus on me and relax in JR’s absence when needed.

Hunter, all cozy in the background, looking on as JR does his school work.

Hunter, all cozy in the background, looking on as JR does his school work.

The good news is that the alert training is going well.  Hunter has learned the “low blood sugar” cue we taught him, so now we are working on teaching him to discern the scent and link that cue to the correct scent.  That often takes a while, but we believe he may have alerted twice now.  He didn’t use the correct cue, but that is a common mistake for newly alerting dogs.  They can get so wrapped up in their concern for the diabetic and their desire for the treat (they only get a treat for an alert–no other reason), that they forget their cue.  This is very exciting for us.  One of the biggest risks in training a dog like this is the fact that we could spend a year training him to be a “perfect” service dog, but if he doesn’t have the desire to alert, then it is all time wasted.  Almost any dog is capable of alerting, but only some will ever have a strong enough desire to actually follow through on the training.  This is one reason I do so much personality testing in the beginning, in the hopes I can weed out the candidates most likely to NOT alert in the future.  Still, though, it’s never a guarantee.  Every step the dog-in-training passes simply increases our chances of developing a successful alert.

For now, we will keep plugging along.  Hunter went through a pretty intense and lengthy puppy phase, chewing on things, having accidents in the house, testing boundaries, and so forth.  He seems to be coming out of it now, though, is becoming more trust-worthy every day, and I’m looking forward to evaluating him in a few more months.  I have high hopes for him.

By snowballs, I don’t mean the ice-cold, make you want to go in and sit by the fire kind.  I’m talking about the white, fluffy, warm, and adorably cuddly kind.  I mean, really, who in their right mind could resist these?

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Remember several months and a few short posts ago, I told you about our livestock guardian dog, Iris’s, litter of 8 puppies?  Well, just 9 weeks later, this post is about those same pups.  They grew faster than IL weeds on fertile compost!  I think any profits were completely eaten by way of the puppy chow we could not keep in stock!  HOLY SMOKES those pups could eat!!

They have been a fun litter, though.  From the time they were born, they have grown consistently with no runts or roly-polies.  Their temperaments were very consistent, and exactly what we had hoped to get out of this breeding.  Only a few stood out for different reasons–like the slightly lazier little male, or the bolder female who always seemed to be the one to find a breech in the fence or find a way into places she didn’t belong (like the horse water trough!).  Iris turned out to be a wonderful mother, and did everything she was supposed to, even gradually returning to her own guardian duties by the time the pups were 6 weeks old.  During the pups’ time here, they have been socialized, handled, played with by our children, introduced to basic manners, walking on a leash, respecting fence boundaries, and more.

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Their last three weeks were spent being introduced to the fine art of guarding livestock.  They were put in our turkey pasture, where they not only got direct exposure to poultry, but learned to ignore them, guard them, share with them, and so forth.  Athena and Iris provided the teaching instruction and would quickly put the pups back in their place when necessary.

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Six of the eight pups were reserved prior to weaning.  We held back two for several reasons–a male and a female.  Most of the others have gone on to their new homes now.  They are spread from close to Iowa, to Illinois and Missouri, and all the way south to Alabama!  One pup is staying on for a bit of extra training before it goes home.  Now that the others are almost all gone, we have just put the little male up for sale.  We are retaining the little female “Charity” for a while and may offer her for sale as a well-started LGD later on down the road.

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Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that I tried to avoid getting into guardian dogs for so long.  These animals have proven their value time and again.  Here in IL, NO ONE in their right mind free-ranges poultry, and coyotes steal newborn calves on a regular basis.  Predators are rampant.  Donkeys are more popular to guard the cattle herds, but slowly, people are hearing more about the priceless partnership that can be formed with a good LGD.  They are amazing animals, and I look forward to many future years with them!

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