The new year started off with a new look to the website. Learning all about what people are looking for on the internet, how to catch their attention, and how to build a good looking and useful website took a lot of time, effort and a lot of 'supper table talks' among all three of us, but it happened and the new site went live without a hitch.
Check it out: www.gardendwellersfarm.com
Very early in the spring, we - especially Adam - started the journey of learning about sheep. Adam is working hard to learn livestock so he can begin his own multi-species intensive grazing livestock operation. Millie took to her herding duties right off the bat and loved the little babies with all her heart. As the year progressed, she learned some basic herding instinct and was great at letting us know when the sheep had escaped their fence.
He's been working with a rancher in our area for over two years now so he now has worked off 5 cows that have now been confirmed as pregnant. His next step was to learn about sheep. He began this learning exercise with two Kahtadin hair sheep bottle lambs. Cute little things that at first were very needy but turned out to be a great asset in keeping down tall grass and weeds in areas where we don't like to mow and eventually ended up in the freezer so they are now feeding us over the winter.
After the first two had gone off to the butcher, Adam decided it was time to start his flock for real and invested in three Kahtadin ewes. They now peacefully graze off the back of the barn and share the inside of the barn with Millie.
Speaking of Millie the barn dog - she too was on a learning journey this year. She began her agility training early this year and by early summer had competed in several Agility Runs and Trials. She does very well and is rock steady on all the obstacles however she isn't really built for speed (being built more like a Sherman tank than a missile) and didn't qualify in the trials. Nonetheless, she had a great time and having a working dog with a busy mind is a thing of beauty.
The next thing we learned was that the Cedar Wax Wing birds will eat honeyberries - which we knew - but what we didn't know was that they would eat them while they were still green and rock hard! So after watching the honeyberries bloom and hoping for a big harvest, it was surprising to find not a single berry when I did go out to cover them with netting - you can bet it went on the calendar to cover them up earlier next year! Below is a photo of last year's crop.
Next our learning journey took us into the world of hazelnuts. After years of waiting and hoping for a hazelnut crop, we were finally rewarded. Hazelnuts form catkins the prior fall and then pollinate the flowers in the spring. The flowers are almost microscopic little red filaments that come out pretty early in the year and are difficult to see unless you look very closely. AAWWW, there was hope after all!
There were not tons of nuts, but enough to get an ice cream pail full. The question was how to know when they were ripe? When to pick them? How to care for these crazy looking things in the greenish husk once you picked them? We did a lot of research and some trial and error and finally learned to leave the ones on the ground - they're empty shells, pick them when they are still in a green husk, dry them in an oast until the husks fall off and then leave them to 'ripen' longer before shelling, toasting, and eating.
Next was experience with a new vegetable. In anticipation of our first Farm to Table Dinner at our Esmond/Fillmore location, we wanted to try something new and unusual - and that's exactly what we got! Rat Tail Radishes are an above ground pod in the radish family that is crunchy and crisp and has a mild radish, peppery flavor to it. They are great on sandwiches and quick pickled. Although we learned that actually pickling them in the traditional way doesn't work as well as they lose their crunchy texture and get mushy. We also learned that they are extremely prolific! They bloom and produce pods in even the hottest temperatures and continue through most of the summer. By the time the Farm to Table Dinner rolled around, our three little 3 feet rows produced more than enough for a huge bowl to feed all of our guests.
Which leads us to the dinner itself. We have done farm dinners before but had not had one here at the Esmond/Fillmore location so with the installation of the restroom last fall, it was definitely time. We were blessed with almost 50 of the nicest guests and the best food you can source from the area. Chef Ken came all the way from St. Cloud, MN to help us cook and Amber Jaeger, our summer right hand gal, helped in serving. We had the BEST weather and the backdrop provided by the newly harvested wheat field was the perfect setting. Holding the dinner here helped us learn all the in's and out's of the logistic for our location and will make future event planning very smooth indeed.
Then it was time to learn about our hops. We've always grown a few hops but used them mostly for decoration. We have installed three different varieties and are growing them up using a teepee method. Our first real harvest was this year and although it was a small one, it was enough for us to truly learn how to test for moisture content before and after harvest, how to properly dry and store them after harvest, and what to look for as far as quality is concerned. Barry and I built an oast - which is a fancy hops name for a huge dehydrator - which was another learning opportunity. It came out quite well and we're pretty proud of it - especially since it works well for not only the hops, but also the hazelnuts and large batches of herbs. We'll be using our hops this winter to play with a new product line for the farm - so watch for it and if you're one of the lucky chosen few, we may even invite you over to be a 'test subject' for the new product!
Late in the fall it was time to butcher the old laying hens (who had been residing with the sheep since the replacement laying hens arrived in September). I had never butchered a chicken before so this was a new one. Since they were old and we knew they would not have much meat on them, we decided to just skip the whole plucking routine and skin them out to be used for chicken stock. Thankfully the ordeal went well with no torture or prolonged suffering to our dear old birds. Millie, who was put in the barn during this process, was a bit confused as to where her chickens were but after a day or so she stopped looking for them. She had become very attached to her chickens and she actually herds chickens better than sheep. Luckily the new chickens were there to fill the void.
Late fall found us learning about my new 'tool', the apple press. We had enough apples from our orchard, which is still quite young, to press a batch of juice. Adam helped to crush and press the juice from the apples which I then pasteurized and bottled without any sugar. It is delicious! I had never pressed apples before and I had never used the fresh juice to bottle either so it was a grand experiment that turned out great. I can't wait to have a whole stockpile of it in the pantry in years to come as the apple trees begin to produce more and more. All in, we have about 20 apples trees that will give us juice and hard cider in the future and this press, which was a present from tall, dark, and handsome last winter will make the job fun.
Lastly in the year came the learning that was a bit harder. All summer we had struggled with the heat and drought and having enough water to get all the crops soaked up as they should be. Late this fall we had the opportunity to dig a new well so we took it. The new well was dug not 10 feet from the old well but deeper. At first, we were really excited as it looked like we would have all the water we ever wanted, needed, and more; and it's true, we do have lots of water. However, the happy was soon replaced with unhappy as we realized that the new water is not good. The old well was crystal clear and the water analysis was beautiful for crops and household use. We never needed a softener, filter, or other device and the water never left stains in any appliance or sink. The new well = lets just say it is a challenge. The water is very hard, full of minerals, has a lot of sediment in it, and tastes horrible, which for me - who drinks four bottles every day - is a tough one to take. We're still working on figuring out how to make this work for us, and I have no doubt we'll figure it out, but still right now it kind of feels like a $7,000 mistake.
We also learned that when you do what we do - it's tough to get others to see things the same way. With low interest rates, we thought it might be good to refinance the house to get a shorter term on our mortgage and be able to pay off the house quicker. We began the process with our bank - who we have been loyal to for 16 years. They are great to work with, however, the hold up was the appraisal. In this part of North Dakota, appraisers are difficult to come by and you need to wait months to get one. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, the appraiser came and unfortunately - deemed our land 'commercial' because of the way we grow and package our products. She was unwilling to split off the residence from the areas we use for growing and packaging our products and she was unwilling to designate it 'split use' or 'farm'. This meant that after months of waiting and hoping - we were unable to refinance as you can't get a home mortgage on a commercial property. We were pretty disappointed but we did learn things through the process. Now with interest rates going up, I doubt we'll try again anytime soon but when we do - we know what to say, do, and how to approach it, to make sure the appraisal goes well.
At the end of the year, when all was tallied and counted, gardendwellers FARM had their best year yet. We harvested more herbs, delivered more product, served more grocery stores and restaurants, had more events, greeted more visitors, did more demonstrations than ever before.
We want to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and a safe and joyous Holiday Season! Thanks for a great year.
Barry, Holly, Adam, Ida, Millie, the sheep and chickens.