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A description of our farm

July 5, 2011
Chris Saenz maintains the Woodgas Wiki and experiments with energy-efficient technology and small scale renewable energy production on his family’s land in the Kentucky hills. Here, he introduces himself and the land [ed].


This started out as an email to a friend. I thought with some work it could be blog-worthy.

We own about 30 acres in the hills of Kentucky. The land is not gently rolling hills, like most of the state. We have Appalachian style hollows and high ridges. Our own hollow has about 10 houses. Only a few locals are left, the rest have moved in from the “outside”; mostly folks from California and Florida who cashed in.To get to our house, you follow a narrow paved road up the creek, which gets narrower and less paved as you go. We are at the head of the valley, where it meets another hollow coming in from the east, in a sort of L shape. And so the road takes a right turn by our house, and goes on up the other hollow. The house is set up on a hill. It is a large white Amish built house, with two floors above a walkout basement, and a deep porch in the front.

The view from the porch overlooks the whole valley. We can see cars coming about a mile off.

Leaving the porch, let’s walk about halfway down the yard towards the road. Here we have the greenhouse. It is a high-tunnel hoop structure, Large metal ribs are bent into a half circle, connected with timbers, and covered in translucent plastic sheeting. It measures about 20 ft by 50 ft, far more space than we need, but a friend sold us the hoops for a good price. I built the whole thing myself. I had some help with the plastic sheeting. During the spring, there are a lot of plants started from seed right here. They live in plastic trays called flats, until they are old enough to set out in the garden. Today we find a single flat with peppers, basil and cilantro. It is sitting on a homemade wooden table with a cattle panel top, for airflow. Sometimes there is an old chicken tractor in here, which has been repurposed to keep the plants in and the chickens out. On the other side, we have a pile of wood blocks. These are for gasifier fuel. I will cube them up with a hatchet, and store them in feed sacks once they are dry. I think with the hot weather we’ve had it will be dry sooner than I can gasify it.Wood drying in the greenhouse.

Now we can step out of the greenhouse, and see the pond not twenty feet away. This was an ill conceived pond…I am happy to say I did not build it. It receives all the runoff from about six acres, but it is far too small. It overflows every time it rains, and it is too far away to be of use watering plants or animals. No fishing, but it holds enough frogs to keep you in frog legs…If you eat frog legs, which we don’t.

Let’s walk down through the yard to the road, across it, and now we come to the garden. It is a shadow of its former self; as gardeners we are a shadow of our former selves too. In years past we have had up to six 50 x 100 ft plots full (about 3/4 acre), separated with nice 12 ft roadways. The roadways are more of a joke, as I can hardly drive my old truck on them without getting stuck. We had a market sized garden, and we have sold tomatoes, winter squash, garlic, cherry tomatoes to an organic grocery store in Lexington, care of our master organic farmer friend, Jerome Lange. He has been growing organic produce and selling it for his living for 30 years. He helped us get into gardening. We still have some of his ideas here, most importantly these raised beds. They are not “fenced in” by wood planks, they are more like long mounds. The trenches in the middle serve as paths, and nobody walks on the loose soil in the middle. This avoids compaction. So our 3′ by 50′ beds this year contain a mish-mash. This one has mostly greens at this end – kale, mustard, swiss chard, lettuce, weeds (those are green, right?); down at the other end there are some tomatillos. The next bed is empty, but some volunteer cilantro is poking out, and actually has volunteered sooner than the stuff I planted. Next we have some tomatoes – full 50 ft.  After that, two beds of strawberries. These have a netting fence around them to keep the chickens out. The next bed is really weedy, and won’t be used this year. And the basil and cilantro will go in the next bed when I get some time. If you were counting, that doesn’t even add up to one plot. Pathetic gardeners are we.

A garden from years past:

Let’s walk over and inspect the barn.

Just past the barn, you can see a very large dirt spot. This is where we buried the old tobacco barn. Its funeral had to wait for two years before we could hire a bulldozer; in the meantime we built a shiny new barn, more appropriate to our needs. It is a pole barn, with square 4×4 poles spaced ten feet apart for a total of 20×30. The lumber is all rough sawmill cut, with the classic gapped siding to hide the shrinkage as the green lumber dries. to one side I built a stall for milking our two cows. We had milk cows for several years, and milked them both by hand twice a day.

Fortunately there are three able bodied milkers around here, and we traded off religiously. The milk was hands down the best food I have ever tasted; I could live on raw milk. But once we counted the cost, a gallon of our own milk was over ten dollars. We had to let it go. I do see more milk cows in our future, though. Raw milk has a powerful draw.

There is still some corn here and some hay left from the winter; we fed a steer calf through the winter and he has all summer to fatten up for the freezer. Let’s walk down and see him. As we go, notice that we are starting to drop below the level of the road, as we head for the bottoms near the creek.

The fencing is cattle panels; it was a major expense, but well worth it in the end. Our cows hardly ever get out, and when they do half the time the gate was left open…There is the calf. He is drinking from the bathtub waterer. Sticking into the water is a black polyvinyl pipe. This extends the garden hose from the back of the house down here to the bottom of the field, about 500 feet of hose total. There is the creek, but half the year it is dry (or under the creek bed). It is also cut down about ten feet or so below the pasture bottoms, so animals cannot access it safely. A line of T-posts extends across the middle of the pasture’s longest dimension. Look a little further out, and you see another line parallel to it. We use these to create daily paddock moves for the cows, with electric fencing. Every day, they get a new strip of grass to eat and trample. It works quite well, except that you have to have a path back to shade and water. If those were portable, the system would be perfect. Of course, the fencing is all in storage now, since one steer is not going to benefit from strip grazing. He might as well pick out the best grass from the whole field.

I keep the pasture mowed with the walk-behind tractor. This is a BCS model 852 with a one cylinder Lombardini diesel engine, about 12 HP. It has treated us well over the years, and it’s the only small engine I have to maintain. It runs the bushhog, the sickle bar mower, the tiller, the chipper-shredder, and it even has a ride on trailer! I buy about 15 gallons of diesel a year for everything I do. It pull starts every day on the first try – yes a pull-rope diesel! It’s not a full up tractor though, and I have to call a neighbor if I get the truck hung up too bad. Mowing an eight acre field is not trivial either.

As we walk back up to the house, notice the woodpile.

We burn sawmill chunks, delivered by the dump truck load. I spent the spring splitting the chunks in half so they will dry faster. Now as the days get hotter, I am glad I put in the hours while it was cool.

Hope you enjoyed the word-picture tour of the farm. If you are curious to see the house and more pictures, check out the Home tour and the Outside tour on Dry Creek Chronicles.

Originally posted on the Eat More Chili blog, 6/3/11

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