Blog Archive

Thursday, December 29, 2011

I hesitate to write this post.  I am, after all, in Paradise for the winter, the Big Island no less. There really should be nothing to complain about.  I mean, really.

How can I be blue in a place where the days are always 75 degrees and sunny until noon.  After which it clouds over just in time for us to be finished with chores and have free time.

And how can I be blue when the ocean is only 3 miles away.  A 1000' foot decent that takes over an hour to walk down, and even longer to walk back up.  Under a cloudy afternoon sky.

With all of the tropical fruits we can manage to stuff into our recipes.  Like avocado scrambled eggs, PB & avocado sandwiches, and avocado spaghetti. (I've even heard of some intrepid souls making avocado chocolate pudding pie and avocado lime cheesecake bars).

And why should it matter that all of the amenities are approximate 6 miles into town, and the last bus north leaves at 9:30am, long before your shift ends?

Yes, there is hitchhiking.  But we suck at that.  I was even told, "Wow, even the ugly interns have had no trouble hitchhiking into town."

Um, is that suppose to make me feel better?

Yes, trapped in Paradise, with no vehicle, no access to a decent grocery store, no buses except on Mondays (and even then sometimes they won't pick you up), and no good at hitchhiking.

Yes, this is Paradise people.  You should all be jealous and wish you were here.

Actually, I do wish you were all here.  With us.  Being perpetually stuck on the farm wouldn't be nearly as bad that way.

We could try out that avocado cheesecake and drink cheap gas station beer (only a mile hike for that) and watch the sun sink into the pale pink haze above the horizon. 

And somehow, with all of you here, it would feel more like Paradise again.

Aloha -

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

(image from here)

I know what you're thinking.  "That's no bird of paradise, that's a chicken!"

Well... yes and no.  That's a Red Jungle Fowl, brought to the Hawai'ian islands by the colonizing Polynesians over 700 years ago.

Well not that particular chicken.  They don't live that long.

To my surprise and delight, after leaving my own flock behind on the mainland before we moved to Hawaii last week, there are chickens here.  Lots and lots of chickens - both domestic and feral fowl.

{That alliteration makes me giggle.}

The farm where we are working and living near Honaunau on the Big Island of Hawai'i has nearly 60 laying hens ranging in age from 4 months to 3 years.  They range around the farm between the coffee trees in mobile chicken tractors, eating grass, weeds and bugs and depositing nitrogen-rich manure.

This is a win-win for both the farmers and the chickens. And for anyone picking coffee in their vicinity, as they will strike up quite a banter with you, giving you all the daily news and gossip.  Papa Bear had them all cackling with glee over his silly jokes today.

The feral Red Jungle Fowl are found pretty much everywhere.  I understand they can be so prolific as to be problematic especially on some of the smaller islands. But on the Big Island, out in the country where we now reside, they're not really a nuisance from what I can tell.

We see them on the sides of the roads all of the time, usually a rooster with several hens in tow, strutting around their individual territories. I love listening to them, and the roosters are exceptionally colorful and always in charge.

When I'm really desperate for poultry affection, I can go sit in the coop with the 4-month old pullets, who are still peeping but just starting to cluck a little, and talk "chicken-talk" to them, and they chatter right back to me.

After just a few moments, I can feel myself start to relax a bit, and I start smiling over the silly things pullets will do.  Like try to peck the buttons off my pants.  They'll also eat the "hitchhiker" seeds off my pants legs. Which is funny AND beats picking them off by hand. 

Sometimes I bring them treats, like cracked macadamia nuts, or fresh snails pulled out of the squash patch.  These chickens eat like queens.  Papaya, avocado, banana, macadamia.  In addition to their regular rations of course.

And then inevitably, this goofy song pops into my head that Papa Bear likes to sing at random times.  If you've never heard it, YouTube it.  And giggle.

"May the bird of paradise fly up your nose!
May an elephant caress you with his toes
May your wife be plagued by runners in her hose
May the bird of paradise fly up your nose!"
~ Little Jimmy Dickens

Cheers -
Gypsy Farmgirl enjoys chickens on the Big Island of Hawaii

Sunday, December 25, 2011

You know those terrible photos people take with their underwater cameras?  And then want to show you all of them?  And you're like, "Yeah, dude, that looks like a blue screen with squiggles on it." and they're all like, "That's a shark! Can't you see his fin right here?"

Yep, I'm gonna show you some of those awful photos. But without any sharks.  I promise.

The exciting thing (for us) is that our box finally arrived this week, the box we mailed to ourselves on 11/29 from Sheridan, WY.  It only took three weeks to get here.  Inside the magical box was our 3-month supply of supplements, bug dope, suncreen... and the waterproof camera case for my old little Canon Elph SD1000. 

{Thus all of the terrible underwater photos}

But instead of fish photos you can't really see the fish in anyway, we thought you might enjoy some random pictures of us being silly.  And one really big sea turtle.  (I'll let you decide which pic that is.)

To celebrate the holidays.  And because, who gets to snorkel on Christmas, for goodness' sake?!

You can see I'm even wearing red, in honor of Santa and poinsettias.  Which we happen to have here on the farm. 

{Poinsetties, not Santa. Although Santa was here today.}

I know, right? It's like totally awesome Dude!

{"Mr. Turtle is my father!"}

{Name that movie!}

BTW, snorkeling at Two-Step is a Hawaii MUST DO.  Not only are there gobs of coral and beautiful reef fish swimming around in the shallow water, the bay is a resting area for spinner dophins, who sometimes hang out with the snorkelers. 

Which is what happened a couple of weeks ago when Papa Bear and I went swimming. 

We swam with the dolphins!

The best Christmas gift, ever.

{You're welcome sweetie.  Don't look for any more gifts under the tree, 'cuz that was it. Well there's no tree to look under, either. Maybe next year.}


Saturday, December 24, 2011

First an apology for the lack of posts this week.  My laptop died in its sleep earlier in the week. Without a vehicle at our disposal, that means the earliest we can get it looked at is Monday, when we can hop on a bus and take it into Kona.

Sadder even than the out of commission laptop (I am currently borrowing Papa Bear's to write this post) is the fact that all of my pictures from the Big Farm this summer and all of my Hawaii pictures are on that laptop.

All of the posts I had been writing about coffee and picking macadamia nuts and visiting Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park - are all sitting naked in Blogger, awaiting the addition of photos so I can post them.  Photos I can't access and may possibly be lost forever.

(I know what you're thinking - where are your photo backups???  We can back our photos up to Carbonite, but it requires many gigabytes of data to do that, and we have a 5GB/month data plan. So the only time we normally do it is when we're visiting a coffee shop with Wifi. With no vehicle here, we don't often get to coffee shops).

But enough whining.  Papa Bear brought his little point & shoot camera on our latest outing to Volcanoes National Park, so I have a few photographs our fellow WWOOFers took and those will have to do until I get the final verdict on my laptop.

This is the first Christmas we will be celebrating without any of our family, and it feels quite strange. In fact I keep forgetting it is Christmas at all.  Especially with the lack of snow and plethora of tropical fruits everywhere. 

This evening, an evening I have for all the many decades of my life normally spent in a quiet church on the northern shores of Lake Superior, singing carols and lighting candles, I will be missing from the pew beside my family. 

But I will be there in spirit, reliving the miracle of a tiny baby born far away from home and placed lovingly into a hay-filled manger, his arrival heralded by none other than the common and lowly shepherds tending their flocks in the fields.

Blessings and a Merry Christmas to you all!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I know I've only been scratching the surface of our stay here in Honaunau, Hawai'i. After our first two days of blissful relaxation near Kona, arriving at the farm where we will be living and working for the next two months was a bit overwhelming.

Frankly, our first week was utterly exhausting. 

There have been time zone challenges (my on-line workday begins at 4:00am to accomodate an 8:00am Central Time job); culture shock; living condition challenges (125 square feet of living space, composting toilets, no hot running water, shower-in-a-bag, clothes line dryer, foods we've never heard of much less know how to eat).

There have been hours upon hours of exhausting work picking ripe coffee cherry, and the mental and physical challenges of realizing all amenities are at least a mile or more away (by foot) and a decent grocery store is more than five miles away (by bus - when the buses run, which is normally NOT when we have any free time).

The nearest beach is over three miles and 1000 feet downhill from the farm, with the return trip being an hour and a half by foot. The farm does not provide transportation to any of these places.

I had a slight emotional breakdown when, on our second day of work, we were asked to prepare and bring a dish for a collaborative dinner, made of things we didn't even know how to pronounce much less prepare, for strangers.

All of this stuff takes some getting used to.  Mentally, emotionally, physically.

Our bodies and spirits and feet ached all of last week.  I thought of quitting several times. 

And then, bit by bit, things started to improve.

We had our first visit to Honaunau Bay, where Papa Bear got to try snorkeling and came out of the ocean breathless not from water in his snorkel, but from his first experience seeing the beatiful reef fish exploring the amazing coral mere feet below where he floated.

{And, he floats here!  Something he can't do in freshwater.}

We found a tiny natural foods market within easy walking distance and had our first real restaurant meal (fresh Ono fish and burgers).

We started figuring out the bus and rideshare process (locals learn who the farm WWOOF'ers are and will stop and give you rides when you are walking somewhere).

And Sunday, our first full day off since we began work here, we caught a ride to Honaunau Bay and we both snorkeled (my first time) and were joined by pods of spinner dolphins who come into the bay to rest and tend their young.

OK, so maybe moving to Hawaii to work and live on a farm this winter wasn't such a crazy idea after all.  Despite the rat that scurried down the outhouse wall right next to my thigh at 3:30am last week.  Despite the swarms of ants that cover our arms while picking coffee.  Despite the lack of hot running water and a decent shower.

Maybe, just maybe, we can get used to this simplified version of living.  Where there is no large house, no garage, no car, and not much "stuff." There is also no rent, no mortgage, and no heating bills.

There is fresh air, clean water, organic fruits and veggies, and lots of opportunities to use our muscles, every single day.

And if you're really, really lucky, maybe a dolphin or two.

Aloha -

Monday, December 12, 2011

As promised, here is the first of several posts about how we packed up a house, garage and barn into storage, farmed out all of our animals, and moved to Hawai'i for the winter.

{No, we're not independently wealthy. Or even dependently wealthy.}

Things I learned from moving our three male alpacas to Wisconsin:

If you don't have a livestock trailer, don't sweat it. There are still other options.  Like, for example, you could put them in your minivan.  Or in your Suburban.  Barring those options, you could also put them in the front end of your 1971 Airstream Travel Trailer.  Put down a tarp, throw some of those interlocking-rubber-mat-thingies on top, and use hay bales as a barricade to prevent wandering past the front area.

When you head to the pasture at O-Dark-30 to collect them, don't expect them to come running to the barn to greet you. They are checking their watches, scratching their heads and thinking, "Something funny's going on here.  Stay as far away from the hoomans as possible."

This hooman-avoidance-tactic will be instigated by your alpha male, but the younger boys, who would normally follow you anywhere, will follow his lead instead.

Although you religiously practice CameliDynamics techniques for respectfully handling your animals, trying to catch a wily alpha male in the middle of a dark pasture after 45 minutes of chasing herding may require some rodeo skills not normally used with alpacas.  Just forgive yourself and move on.

Once you get a handful of fleece wherever you can grab one (even on the back works), work your way up to the head without ever letting go.  You will never catch this male again if you let go or fall off.

Alpacas can do a surprisingly accurate rendition of a bucking bronco. Forgive yourself but DO NOT LET GO! Eventually he will get tired of hopping across the pasture with you attached to his neck.

Once all the halters are on, leading them and getting them into the Aistream is actually quite easy.  It's like Mark Twain said - "If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning.  If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first."

Not sure how that is related to wrangling alpacas, but it made sense to me at 6:00am.

Driving through rush-hour traffic in Minneapolis on I494 with three alpacas steaming up the front windows of an Airstream will make you giggle, and will make other observant drivers giggle, too. 

And they'll wonder what the hell is wrong with you, for putting animals in your camper.

Friday, December 9, 2011

If you've ever seen a coffee plantation (previous to our arrival here I didn't even know what a coffee plant looked like, but we drove past several plantations in the hills above Kona last weekend), you no doubt have a serene image in mind.  Neatly planted rows of smallish trees bejeweled with ruby-red "cherry" (ripe coffee berries containing 2 beans each) marching in straight lines, underplanted with a lush green matt of grass. The whole things looks like a city park full of baby trees.

In this park-like scene, there are quiet workers moving from tree to tree picking cherry into their woven grass baskets, brandishing a picking hook made out of a hardened piece of coffee limb. There is probably Musak playing in the background in your mind's scene.  There are no insects, no downpours, no sweltering sun, no cherry borer beetles, and definitely no swarms of ants.

That's plantation coffee, the cultivated, college-educated, white-collar suburban version the guide books offer you, no doubt wanting you to envision this peaceful scene every time you lift a cup of java to your parched lips.

And then there's Jungle Coffee.

When the owners of this farm bought this piece of farmland seven years ago, it had once been a coffee farm, but had been left wild for quite a few years.  They said it truly was a jungle when they bought it - entering their property was only possible if yielding a machete to hack your way in. Every square inch of space had been overgrown by something wild and weedy (and possibly, wooly). The vines were so huge the owners could swing from tree to tree like Tarzan.

In seven years, they have done a tremendous job of reclaiming the farm, eliminating much of the jungle, removing most of the old tangle of coffee trees and even planting some well-behaved new ones in those attractive, straight rows.  They've even underplanted much of the farm with grass, available only in 2" plugs, planted by hand.

But there is an area of the farm where the original Jungle Coffee still grows.  And this is where we began our coffee picking lesson today.

The tools for picking are very simple. A plastic picking bucket with harness, a burlap bag and 5-gallon bucket to pour the picked cherry into, and a hooked stick with a rope on the end to pull down the taller branches (once a branch is hooked, you step on the rope to keep the branch at the right height).

We started with a benign looking back corner of the property, a few lone coffee shrubs setting apart from the rest, which we easily stripped of their ripe berries.  Pick only the ones that are at least 3/4 red.  Leave the green ones. The old shriveled up ones, called raisins, are sorted into a separate cup. Easy peasy.

And then our kind host showed us to our opposing corners along the fenceline, where we would be picking our way towards each other, to meet in the middle.  My corner began in the remaining jungle, where the limbs were so overgrown and tangled, just getting a limb down into my picking zone was a challenge.

And then the last remaining vestige of that pleasant coffee-park-plantation scene in my mind was shattered by the harsh realities of real-life coffee picking: the coffee borer beetle, whose larvae eat and poo inside the coffee bean, ruining it; the scale insect and its accompanying band of ants (who herd and manage the scale insect, which produce a honeydew substance the ants harvest) and white halo virus (which attacks and kills scale), all of which you pick anyway - ants, scale, virus and all. 

But it was really the ants that were the bane of my existence. 

{I'm not sure why we don't use prisoners to harvest jungle coffee... it would be fitting punishment for many crimes}.

It's not that the ants were terribly large (they were tiny) and they were not a biting variety. It's not that it was too hot (we were picking in the jungle, plenty shady).

Their sheer numbers were what caused the majority of my problems. Grabbing a cluster of cherry berries would cause a few dozen (or hundreds) of ants to swarm angrily out of the center of the cluster where they had, moments before this human earthquake, just been happily tending their herd of scale and gorging on honeydew.

Hundreds of ants swarming over your gloves and up your arms (and occassionally on your neck and shoulders) is just not a pleasant experience in my book.  I had to stop constantly to flick them off (I really can't stand the feeling of things crawling on me, biting or not) and it just sort of grossed me out and gave me the heebie-jeebies.

It made me wish I had a bathtub, or even black plastic bucket like Zena, to soak all the sweat and ant bodies off afterwards. But alas, a black bag of water heated by the sun and operated with drip nozzle were all my rewards for a hard days' work.

I harvested 19 pounds of coffee cherry in 3.5 hours. Only 81 pounds short of a good coffee picker's daily haul. 

Then again, a good coffee cherry picker {probably} does not have to harvest jungle coffee. Of that I am {almost} certain.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

In keeping with our "do-as-close-to-nothing-as-possible-while-still-enjoying-the-wonders-of-Hawai'i" theme, we thought perhaps an educational outing that would help us learn the flora of this new environment would be in order.

We decided to head to the Paleaku Peace Gardens, a seven-acre garden with the theme of peace and harmony, which, it turns out, is right in the vicinity of the farm where we will be working. 

This garden boasts the only Galaxy Garden in the world, a garden representation of our Milky Way galaxy. Little did I know prior to my arrival here, at the center of our galaxy there is a black hole, and near that black hole resides Karma, a 4-month old male kitten, and his sister, Dharma.

These kittens seem to exist purely for the sake of offering visitors unbridled feline love and affection, something we were sorely lacking since leaving our clowder in WY last week. I soaked up as much of it as possible, as indicated by the severe amount of cat hair I found on my t-shirt later {well worth it}.

Any garden with affectionate feline residents is a good garden as far as I'm concerned, and definitely enhanced the pleasure of my visit there.

Unfortunately, none of the plants were labeled in the gardens, so we didn't really succeed in learning all that much about the flora of Hawai'i. We were told signs and labels disrupt the peacefulness of the visitor's experience.  My experiece was disrupted by not knowing what plants I was looking at.


It was still a lovely place, full of good energy and aesthetically pleasing.  {And friendly cats!} A picnic lunch under a ginormous ficus tree concluded our visit, and we went back to the cottage looking forward to our next visit, knowing we would soon be living just steps away.

Aloha -

Sunday, December 4, 2011

We were very late in planning our first few days on the Big Island, extra days we slipped into our schedule to enjoy some R&E (Rest & Exploration) before our responsibilities at an organic coffee farm near Honaunau would begin.

Something about shoving a house/garage/barn full of crap stuff into two three storage units and delivering farm animals to locations in three different states set us about, oh, 3 days behind schedule in leaving MN to deliver a Suburban full of cats to Papa Bear's folks in WY, where we were to rest and catch our breath for a few days, settle the cats into their new home, and plan our first weekend on the Big Island.

A hurried search on VRBO Wed. morning, the day before we were to fly to Kona, miraculously produced a private, affordable, perfectly adorable cottage 2200 feet up the mountain outside of Kona near the artists' community of Holualoa.

From the comforts of this private sanctuary perched on the side of the mountain with distant views of the ocean and complete with three uber-friendly rescue canines, we tentatively planned out our weekend.

My first reaction was to plan a circle-tour of the island, hitting all the hot spots like volcanoes {no pun intended there} and mountain peaks.

Then my spleen spoke up and reminded me that I'd been abusing it with stress and insomnia for the last 6-weeks of our move and it needed some place to crash for awhile, not zip around the island like a crazy tourist.

Heeding my spleen's advice, we decided to lay low around Kona for the weekend.  There would be plenty of other weekends to explore around the island.  We didn't have to fit it all in now.

We also decided a slow stroll on a nice sandy beach would be just the thing to kick off our weekend of relaxation.

A tip from a local directed us to Kekaha Kai State Park just north of the Kona Int'l Airport. We were warned about the rough road down to the beach but were reassured even our rented Malibu would have no trouble making the journey.

We were not warned about the 20 minute "jiggle-your-guts-apart" ride down what used to be a road but then seems to have been run over by a lava flow, then resuscitated into what might almost be considered a passable road again.

We were also not prepared for the lava rock landscape around us as we drove. It felt as though we had landed on the moon (which might also account for the lack of a passable road I would imagine).

But the suggestion was spot on - if you can stomach the drive, the beach is truly lovely, a real sand beach dotted with lava rock outcroppings.

One of the more interesting things we noticed on our drive north to the park was the lava graffiti, words and pictures spelled out in white coral pieces against the black lava rock on either side of the road.  The beach also contained quite a few examples of this, messages spelled out in white and black rocks against the sand.

The sun was hot and we were careful not to stay out in it too long {since we both look like something that just crawled out of a rotting log}, but we did go for a quick swim in the surf very close to shore, and even at that safe distance were quite impressed with the power of the waves.

A picnic lunch with an ocean breeze completed our time at Kahakai, and somehow, the bumpy road back out to the highway didn't seem to take nearly as long as the journey in.

A perfect first day in paradise.

Aloha ~

Saturday, December 3, 2011

It's so strange.

It's December 3rd, and I'm in shorts and a t-shirt. 


Remnants of our picnic lunch eaten under a ginormous ficus tree, it's roots meandering like thick veins over the garden grounds, cling to my sweaty hands.

Cat hairs plaster my t-shirt, even though my cats are all 3460 miles away.

Tropical birds I can't yet identify chirp from the foliage of trees I also can't yet identify.

Where am I?  Is this a dream?

Will I wake up at any moment, huddled under my down comforter, dressed from head to toe in fleece, afraid to get out of bed and step onto the 58 degree floor in a sprint to the bathroom where a space heater and closed bathroom door will offer a few minutes of warm comfort, long enough to dress and brush my teeth?


Because this dream of living in a tropical paradise, avoiding the bitter Midwest winter back home, isn't a dream.

It's real.

We have been on the Big Island of Hawaii for a mere 48 hours, but it feels as though we have stepped into another world, another dimension, entirely.

Nothing about this place, save for vehicles and humans, is familiar to us.

Not the jungleish flora (coffee and macadamia nut trees?) or fauna (lizard or gecko?), nor the architecture (California mission?), nor the names of streets and places (Queen Kaahumanu Highway).

Not the steep, impossibly winding, shoulderless roads, often devoid of street signs, that test the tenacity of even the strongest of stomachs.

And yet... I am at peace here.

Not in the way someone is at peace when they come home to the place where they have laid down roots as strong and thick as the ficus tree.  For we are transients - not born here, and not here to stay.

But rather, the peace that comes after a long, hard toil to achieve something that seemed just out of reach for a long, long time.

The peace that comes from following one's own dreams in spite of all of the obstacles that rise up against them.

The peace that comes from walking in the surf of the largest ocean in the world, being reminded that we are but one small speck on this brilliant blue marble we call Earth.

Aloha my friends - Peace be with you all.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

I'm tired of moving. 

Every muscle in my body hurts, including my finger and toe muscles.

Even my boxes are tired of moving (our 4th move in 6 years).

We missed Thanksgiving (but celebrated earlier in the week thank Goodness).

We missed Papa Bear's birthday, which was yesterday, a day in which we spent the last few ounces of strength we had left putting the last load into storage and packing up the cats and our Hawaii gear and hitting the road about 60 hours behind our scheduled leave date.

We filled THREE storage units.


I bet there is nobody else in this country {and maybe even the world} who currently has, in storage, an ATV, disc tiller, drag harrow, 200' of electric poultry netting AND a chicken coop hoop house.

{Note to self: next time, sell the chicken coop before moving.}

How, exactly, does one pack up and leave the mainland with a house and garages and barn full of stuff, a herd of six alpacas, a dozen laying hens, and three house cats?

I'll tell you one thing, it's not easy or for the faint of heart.  By the end of moving, we both feel like we've been in a prizefight and lost. I've smashed fingers, twisted ankles, strained back muscles and suffered through three weeks of insomnia and a ball of stress in my chest that made eating even my favorite foods slightly nauseating. 

Kind of reminds me of being pregnant come to think of it.

{No, I'm not.}

As Tim Ferriss writes in his book the Four Hour Work Week, Dreamlining includes dreaming big enough dreams that the dream can pull you through all of the annoying and challenging obstacles.

We had plenty of those.

In addition to those three storage units full of our crap belongings, we now have animals spread all over the country, from La Crosse and Ontario, WI to Lester Prairie, MN to Sheridan, WY, not to mention our 1971 Airstream Trailer parked at a friend's farm near Houston, MN.

I will be writing more about the specifics of the move (alpacas, chickens, cats, vehicles, stuff) in more detail over the next couple of weeks.

But first, I must catch up on some much-needed sleep.  And get a massage.  And eat.  And sleep.

Good-bye, Little Farm.

Hello Hawaii.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

There is nothing sadder than an empty chicken coop, one that has been filled with life and chatter and joy all summer long.

Except perhaps for an empty pasture which used to be graced by peacefully grazing alpacas.  When they weren't wrestling, spitting or fighting that is.

I'm sorry for the lack of updates lately, we've been flying Mach 7 with our hair on fire for the past week, and it's not done yet.

Suffice it to say, I will catch you up on what's been going on here once we catch our own breath a bit.

In the meantime, have a very merry Thanksgiving and enjoy time with your families!

Blessings -
Gypsy Farmgirl prepares to go live in Hawaii for the winter

Monday, November 14, 2011

It's moving week here, just a little over one week until we move from the Little Farm to an organic farm in Hawaii for three months.

I've been waking up in a panic most mornings long before it's time to get out of bed, my mind spinning.  So many details, so many boxes to pack, so much poo to move...

{wait, did she just say "poo to move?"}

Somehow this has a nagging feeling of "deja vu'."  And not in a good way.

When we moved here last August, we discovered with dismay that a large amount of horse manure would need to be cleared out of the paddock near the barn and mucked out of the barn before we could move our boys in.

This required hiring a neighbor farmer with a Bobcat (at our own expense) to clear the paddock area, and also mucking the barn by hand with a manure fork (the barn doors were too narrow to fit the Bobcat inside). 

Because the manure in the barn had been compacted by horses for what I can only assume was months or years, it was packed in like cement from wall to wall and the resulting removal was back-breaking work. When ground level had finally been reached, the dirty line on the barn walls where the manure had recently resided was nearly 3' high.

All of the horse manure was moved to a back corner of the pasture, a weedy, brushy area the horses had been fenced out of, and the resulting manure pile was about 8' high and at least that wide in diameter.

Ever since we cleaned out the paddock and the barn, I've been doing a darn-good job of keeping it all clean.  I pick up the boys' piles every week (alpacas poop in a group, making the task pretty simple), diligently hauling it out to the manure pile, which I couldn't add to the top of (too tall) so we sort of started a smaller pile beside the Big Mother Pile. A baby poo pile, so to speak. My shovel is planted into the top of it in the picture above.

Towards the end of last week, our landlord sent an e-mail saying something to the effect of "Oh and by the way you need to remove the big manure pile from the back pasture before you move out..." a statement which has led us to the following conclusions:

  • Apparently she has has forgotten whose manure that is and where it came from.
  • Apparently she has forgotten we had to spend a considerable amount of time and money to move it out of the paddock and barn in the first place.
  • Apparently she has no appreciation for the fact that during our residency, her barn and paddock actually stayed poo-free {we will move the alpaca beans, although they should be put to use in the square foot gardens}, a feat she was unable to accomplish during her own. 
  • Apparently she is slightly insane.  
I wonder if she has even considered exactly what her barn & paddock would look like if we moved it back in for her?

If only I had a Bobcat....................

Friday, November 11, 2011

Last weekend Papa Bear and I enjoyed a wonderful getaway at New Sundborn Ranch, a Swedish homestead near Westby, WI owned and operated by Loran Nordgren.

This Scandinavian compound and its 410 surrounding acres are nestled in a deep valley called Runge Hollow, where Loran's nearest neighbors are a full half mile away.  Solitude and wildlife abound here.

It was, for me, a dream come true, a dream inspired back in October of 1997 when I pulled from the pages of Country Living Magazine a story about Loran's homestead with a full-color spread featuring his guest house, the Carl Larsson Cottage. These pages went into my "Dream Home Inspirations" binder, which I still have, and still peruse on a regular basis.  I have always hoped of adding some Scandinavian details to our own little homestead some day.

Flash forward 14 years to my summer at the Big Farm.  Justin has agreed to let me tag along on a farm visit to assess a herd of alpacas, a skill I have not yet acquired. Unbeknownst to me, we are about to enter the New Sundborn ranch. After making our way down the long driveway and coming around a curve almost at the end of it, there it is - the Swedish homestead in all of its glory, on a beautiful, sunny, summer day.

I about died and fell out of the vehicle.

After meeting the alpacas, Loran, after hearing me ramble about saving the magazine article from 14 years earlier, graciously gave us a tour of the main house and guest cottage, explaining how the guest cottage, which sleeps 9-11 people, was now available for rent.  My mind started spinning with plans to have the entire family over once we settled in the area.

It was in this 3-story guest cottage that PB and I found ourselves last weekend, a surprise thank-you gift/get-away weekend from Justin, soaking up the colorfully painted woodwork and feeling like we had been transported into a fairy tale.

The cottage had all the amenities visitors would need, including a well-appointed kitchen and 2 1/2 baths, one of which included a digitally controlled shower! (Turns out we like our shower water about 103 degrees).

I wandered around the 3 levels of the cottage, grinning from ear-to-ear and pinching myself, wondering if I really were in a dream.

We had 7 beds to choose from and I was sorely tempted to take one of the colorfully painted alcove beds designed for visiting grandchildren.  But in the end we chose the soothing blue bedroom with a view of the pond.

On Saturday morning we were greeted by the sight of wild turkeys grazing the sod runway across the pond from the cottage, near the airplane hangar.  After breakfast Loran gave us the keys to his ATV, a John Deer Gator, that we used to explore a few of the many trails running around his property.

The afternoon was spent traveling to visit farms and friends in the area, and we were beat when we returned that evening, just in time to crawl into our nice bed.

Sunday offered us time to greet the alpacas and explore an old logging road by foot, and I always love a good hike. I realized despite a summer of climbing hills on an almost daily basis, I am no longer in condition for hills, and we had to stop several times on our ascent to the ridgetop (the only place it so happens that either of our phones would work - AT&T or Verizon).

All too soon, it was time to pack up and head out.  My only regret was that it all went too quickly.  I would have loved to do more relaxing and exploring.

But that just means there will be more to enjoy when we return again, which I am certain we will.


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Recently an Instagram follower of mine @gellawella asked me how I get my chickens to be "so secure and familiar and wanting to hang around you?"

I was so tickled to get this question, because I had no idea my chickens appeared secure.

But it seemed like a good topic to write about, because I actually think about this a lot and act intentionally to increase trust with all of my critters.  To earn a chicken's trust is really very easy and can be summed up in just two words:

Be Kind

I could end the post right there, but as you know I am way too verbose for that.  And besides, that's not very informative if you're not sure how to be kind to a chicken.

{Bubble baths?  Pedicures?}

Think Kind Thoughts

The first step in being kind is to have kind thoughts towards them before you even head outside.  If you're going out to do something difficult, some unpleasant herd-management task, and you're all tense and nervous and worried about having a bad hair day, they will react badly, too. 

If you're angry or frustrated about something entirely unrelated to your chickens or critters, and carry that energy into the barnyard, they will read you a mile away, and that's how far away they'll stay from you.

If you expect bad behavior from your animals, they will give you those results.

If you don't even like chickens {is that possible?} but are raising them anyway, they will sense that {as will all creatures and people you don't like} and stay away from you {and so will I}.

Speak Softly and Nicely

The next step is to talk nicely to them.  For me that is a soft, sing-song voice.  "Hey girls, how are my girls?  How are my sweetie-little-chickie-babies?"  When they hear me talking calmly, they tend to stay calm themselves.

{Sounds a bit saccharine, I know.  But nobody is listening, so just indulge your inner girlie-girl.  It will help keep your mind on thinking kind thoughts, too. And it will give you practice on complimenting someone else, if that is difficult for you.}

Move Slowly and Deliberately

When I am out in the coop or in the barnyard and they are milling around me, I try to move slowly (still talking softly to them of course) and let them know what I am doing as I'm moving around them.  If I have to approach a chicken, I try to veer slightly off to the side of them vs. directly at them.  Most critters will feel threatened if you walk straight at them.  By veering slightly, I can see my chicken relax and realize they don't have to move out of my way or deal with me as a threat.

If they are moving through a gate with me, I move very slowly and let them go at their own pace.  They in turn teach me to appreciate the moment and not rush through my tasks.  If I move too quickly or suddenly, they scatter and scare, reminding me to slow down. 

Bring Treats

Before I started spending half of every week at the Big Farm this summer, I was bringing my girls shredded carrots once/day in the afternoons.  They (and I) loved this ritual and they always ran up to me, even from across the yard, when I stepped out of the house.

When I was gone this summer, Papa Bear was at work in the afternoons and the girls didn't receive treats so regularly.  I noticed after awhile that when I came home on the weekends, they no longer ran up to me anymore.  When the summer ended and the regular treats resumed, they again learned to anticipate my arrival every afternoon.  In fact, if I am late in doing this, I will find them on my front or back porches at the door, waiting for me.

Start Early

Set these patterns from an early age and be consistent.  I was able to start with my chickens as babies, just a day old. That way I could hug them and squeeze them and pet them and love them and call them George. 

{Without the squeezing}

I visited them several times a day in their brooder, always talking softly to them, and I tried to pick up several of them every day, to show them when I touch them I am not going to hurt them.

Naturally, some of them are friendlier than others, despite my interacting with all of them similarly.  But the longer I have them, the friendlier they have gotten, and in my flock, I can touch almost all of them even when they are not in the coop. 

These tips work on alpacas, too.  My neighbor remarked when I first got my boys, how disappointed her kids were that they could not approach them close enough to feed or touch them.  Now when they visit, they know they will be able to walk up to them and give them apples and pellets and the boys won't run away.

Just like people, animals need to know you are safe and not scary.  The more things you can do to show them that, consistently, the faster they will learn to trust, and approach, you.

What are your best tips for helping your critters trust you?  I'd love to hear!

Cluck cluck -
Gypsy Farmgirl, chicken whisperer

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

There may not be a lot of posting going on here at the Little Farm over the next few weeks.

We're packing up the house and garage{s} and barn and critters and moving everything into storage by Thanksgiving.

{Well the critters aren't going into storage, they're going to family & friends}

One would think that all of the activities at the Little Farm these days would include a lot of moving boxes and box tape.  However, Papa Bear was still working on the GMC last weekend, the Airstream travel trailer has electrical hookup now but needs new taillights, and the chicken coop hoop house needs winterizing insulation (in the form of large rolls of Foil-Bubble-Bubble-Foil, i.e., TekFoil).

Which means Mama Bear has been up to her eyeballs in boxes and packing tape without the assistance of Papa Bear. 


Well he's been assisting, just not with the boxes. 

Yes, I have been waking up at 3:15 in the morning panicking about all of the unfinished details. How did you know?

The pieces are coming together though, no matter how painfully slow it seems at times.  Last week I visited a farm near La Crosse where our boys will be staying this winter. And this morning the storage unit manager in the town nearest us called to say he had a couple of open units, which I snatched up immediately.

But, there is still a flock of 14 sweet hens to find temporary homes for.

And transporting those alpacas (we're thinking we might try the Airstream for that).

And a million boxes to fill.

So, wide awake at 3:15am, I remind myself to breathe, that it will all be OK, that everything will work itself out.

Then I snuggle back under my down comforter with a warm, purring kitty on my chest.

This, too, shall pass.

Monday, October 31, 2011

From our 3 little self-started-home-grown-pumpkins...

And from Raven, Teeter, Mojo (screen door) and the gang...

And from Boo. 

Because, well, you know, how can you have Halloween without Boo?

Gypsy Farmgirl wishes everybody a Happy Halloween!

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