Author: Peter

Half-homemade cheese press

“Hard” cheeses such as chedder require a press to expel the moisture – just the right amount of moisture. Too much pressure, and you end up with a concrete block (yes, we have.) Too little pressure, and retained moisture nourishes unwanted bacteria and molds (yes, it smelled like the devil’s armpit.)

The cheese press we’ve been using is based on a spring. You turn a handle to put pressure on the apparatus, and when the spring is fully compressed, that’s 50 pounds. For 10, 20, etc pound presses, you guesstimate how far the spring is between fully expanded and fully compressed. It wasn’t working for us.

We happened upon this small basket with a disk that fits inside it at our favorite homebrew supply in Eugene:

That is MUCH better than the solid, slightly off-round PVC pipe that the spring press works with! Displayed with it was $200-something worth of fine craftsmanship and clever engineering in the form of a rather complicated lever device. It looks great, but we’ll stick with the $6.95 basket and see what we’ve got.

In preparation for such a find, I had already thrift-stored a set of barbell weights in 5 and 10 pound increments…but they are too big to just set on top of the follower disk on top of the cheese.

The solution? An empty tobacco can, a stick that was lying around in the yard, and some concrete:

The tobacco can fits neatly on top of the pressing disk, and the weights fit over the post on top. It weighs 4 pounds and will probably get a pound added somehow as cheese instructions tend to be in 5 pound increments.

We’ll let you know how it works!

A Sunday morning

First – a happy mothers’ day to all you moms out there!

Posts in this category will be summaries of days, mornings, etc. around the farm. When we were just reading other peoples’ small farm adventures, we found these sort of posts really helpful.

7am the sun wakes me up. Moist, cool, and a little gray.

Caffeinate self, read wild plant field guide in the early sun. Until it rains and I finish under a canopy.

Milk/feed/hay/mineral/water/etc the goats, wincing at the loud “BLA BLA BLA!” and “MEEHEHHEHHEHHEH!” of a mother doe and her kids asking to be reunited (older kids who are eating a lot of solid food are separated overnight so we can get some milk too). We have very patient…or possibly deaf…neighbors.

Make breakfast – fried bantam eggs; grits cooked with molasses, bacon fat, salt,butter, and raisins.

Supplement caffeination, check email.

It’s sunny out! Mess with fencing around the new pasture for about 20 minutes before it gets dark and starts to pour.

It’s raining out! Stop by the buried metal drum full of damp sand that protects our root veggies through the winter. Grab a few handfuls of carrots, dash home.

Start a pot of beef stew with the carrots and a dozen other things in it, make a batch of feta cheese, start a 5-gallon batch of experimental light ale bittered with the tender green growing tips of Douglas Fir trees instead of hops. It’s only midafternoon, warm and sunny now, and after all that brewing the keg of porter I made previously is beckoning…nah, I’ll crap out by 6pm if I do that.

Compose blog post about my day thus far. Include a redundant sentence mentioning that I composed the blog post, followed by another sentence that adds even less to the narrative – and which carries the implied threat of a semantic endless loop, like what you’d see if you pointed a video camera at its own monitor.

Ponder the possibility that blogging about the day’s work might be a subconscious mechanism to convince myself that the day has already been so productive that I can take a beer and a book down to the river, sit in the sun, and relax.

Stop idly philosophizing and get out there to plant the rest of the taters!

Perfect mini dairy goat starter pair SOLD!

Update Nov 2: Barnabas and Clarisse have left for their wonderful new home (where, I’m confident to say, they will be spoiled rotten). Drama Queen’s two little boys have also been spoken for, but we’ll have more goat babies coming in the spring!

Update Oct 27: We are pretty sure that Barnabas and Clarisse have found their happy home, but we will leave the ad up until they’re gone just in case. We will also be selling a pair of Oberian wethers in a couple of months, beautiful boys with intact horns. We would prefer that they go together.

Clarisse and Barnabas are a six-month-old sister/brother pair of 3rd generation Oberian (Mini-Oberhasli) dairy goats looking for a loving home.

Gentle Clarisse will make a wonderful family milk goat ? her dam is an easy milker and currently giving us well over a half-gallon a day with only minimal grain supplementation.

Barnabas is a wethered (“fixed”) male, and is her best friend. Wethers are the friendliest goats, and this little cutie is no exception. We want these two to go together, as goats are social animals (a goat alone is a miserable goat) with very strong sibling bonds.

Our goats are dam-raised until weaned, but very friendly due to frequent interaction with humans. Their main diet is a mix of organically maintained pasture and local grass hay. We use gentle herbal wormers and have never had to resort to chemical ones.

Clarisse has a scur (incompletely removed horn) that lays back along the top of her head, and Barnabas has two that are shaped like full horns but smaller. Their dam (on-site) and sire are both from Mystic Acres Farm’s Oberian lines.

They are available as a pair for $175.




Snapshots from a typical Fall day on the farm

Cheesemaking is kicking into high gear?we’re freezing a lot of chevre to enjoy later when the milking slows down, and here’s the beginning of a farmhouse cheddar:

I screwed up the last batch of beer and foolishly didn’t brew for a while.  Our homemade beer (when it works, which it usually does) is much tastier than what we buy at the store, and ends up costing about half as much. 

Here’s five gallons of soon-to-be-porter bubbling away:

Last year, we got a freeze in early September that took out all the tomato plants, and Teri made a lot of green tomato ketchup.  This year, none of the main (Brandywine) tomato crop had turned red by that point, and my dreams of pasta sauce seemed to by dying?but the past month has been mostly sunny and warm, and we’re bringing in five-gallon buckets every few days. 

Though we aren’t entirely dependent on our homegrown food, it’s probably saving us a couple of thousand dollars a year now, so I have a little more appreciation for how much people doing this in the past were subject to the whims of the weather?and for what a joy it is when one’s hard work is rewarded with abundance:

In a break from my usual “functionality IS the aesthetic” carpentry ethic, I’ve made a tea table to go alongside my desk (I hate having beverages and food on the same surface as my computer).  The top was from a rough-cut slab of some unknown hardwood that I got a bunch of for free because of “imperfections”, and the base is something that was left behind when the electric co-op trimmed around the power lines. 

It’s beautiful wood?but I didn’t know that when I got it, so most of it is incorporated into the chicken coop.  Now that I’ve seen it sanded and sealed, I think I’ll be pulling the rest of it off the coop to make things from (don’t worry chickens, I have plain old fir boards to replace it).  Anyway, here’s the table, which I’m quite pleased with:

Closeup of the wood:

Worky work work!  In addition to all this, there are of course the daily chores such as caring for livestock, cooking, keeping the fire going, earning a living, etc?but some other farm residents have more sensible priorities; I leave you with “Snail Love”:


Crazy goat house tricks

I lucked into a bunch of used building materials recently, thanks to a friend who is letting me salvage from a condemned house.  Perfect timing, because our goat herd needs to move to the other side of the property soon.  This requires the construction of a new goat house, since it will take days and days to sawzall and haul the old one.

There was a half-built shed in the yard of the doomed house that fit the bill:

It was about 8 x 10 feet, a little small for a goat house, so I dragged it home and reconfigured it to be 9 x 18 (still missing a piece here):

Then we reconsidered the location and decided the thing needs to move about 50′ to the East to line up with the new pasture areas.  How does one skinny middle-aged man move this unwieldy load?  Take it apart and carry the pieces over like a normal person?  Nah, that would be boring; time for a little good ol’ fashioned hillbilly ingenuity!  Ain’t nothin’ you can’t do with a rusty ol’ pickup!

I parked inside the structure, jacked up the legs, and placed cross pieces across the tailgate, bed, and roof of the truck, bolting them to the uprights.  Here are two clips of the actual journey.  (I run to and from the camera because it has very limited memory, but unfortunately it still ran out and missed recording the too-exciting bit where I “gently” lowered it to the ground.)


..and here it is at end of day, roof all framed and one panel fitted into place:

Growing big, healthy plants sustainably without breaking your back or the bank

6-foot-plus Tn-86 tobacco plant flowering
in raised hay-bale bed

Here in Western Oregon (temperate rainforest with brittle summers and 8-9 months of cool, rainy weather), the most respected gardening expert is probably Steve Soloman, founder of Territorial Seeds and author of the excellent books “Gardening When it Counts” and “Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades.”

I tend to follow his advice on most things, but he feels that raised-bed intensive gardening, lasagna/no till, and similar methods that leave mounds of material lying above the ground through the Winter are unsuitable for a climate that rarely gets cold enough to interrupt the life cycles of insects and fungi; piles of mulch can give them a place to pass the winter and get a big head start on the sort of fragile things we like to grow (ie, most domesticated plants.)

I have ignored this advice in parts of our garden for 4 years, and so far the non-tilled beds (I’ll describe my method below) have had the lushest growth and heaviest production, with no more insect damage and much less powdery mildew damage than the in-ground ones. I think the elevation of the beds and the fact that there’s no uncomposted garden refuse in or on them is responsible for the lack of powdery mildew ? which seems unstoppable here; top-water a squash 3 or 4 times and its days are numbered.


green zucchini and bush delicata squash
Zucchini and delicata squash plants in raised bed
(haybales hidden by the lushness)

Here’s how we got the big, lush plants pictured. Not exactly no-till, more like one-till and a little mixing. The items marked “optional” are things that I haven’t done in every bed, but which I think helped.

Creating the beds:

  • mark off a 2-4 foot wide rectangle (length is dictated by need, materials on hand, or time. width is determined by your height and flexibility ? you want to never, ever step inside the beds, because that would compact the nice fluffy soil you’re making)
  • put down a couple of inches of finished compost and a couple of inches of straw, alfalfa stems, etc.
  • put down some sand (optional ? done because we have heavy clay soil)
  • add any other amendments you want to use. layers of soil are good for texture and jump-starting the microbial life.
  • mix the above ingredients together a bit with a spading fork (optional; you can lasagna it, but I find just dumping and mixing it easier than doing lots of thin layers)
  • use spading fork to incorporate this mix into the top 12″ of soil (optional, worms and things will do it eventually)
  • surround the prepared area with old hay bales to make a rectangular bowl. Straw may last longer and be cheaper in some places, but contributes much less in the way of nutrients.
  • in the fall, when the rains are beginning, fill the box made by the hay bales with a good balanced mix of compostables (we use pooped/peed goat bedding)
  • mix the compostables with the spading fork on a schedule that lets the rain moisten the top layer (it’s amazing how much water you can pour on a pile of hay without wetting it more than an inch or two deep!) You could also just add thin layers, waiting for each to moisten before adding the next.
  • once it’s moistened enough to compost nicely (“like a well wrung out sponge”), cover with something to keep it from getting too soggy (tarps, sheets of wood or metal, etc)
  • check periodically throughout the winter to make sure moisture levels are good
  • turn compost every few weeks (optional, depending on climate, materials, depth, etc)
  • by spring, I have a nice fluffy, rich, well-drained bed with very few weed seeds


  • when finished harvesting from a bed or portion of a bed, remove all the stalks, leaves, etc. down to the soil level and send them to the compost. Make sure you have a really hot compost for these things!
  • spread a few inches of finished compost, and 6″-24″ of good compostables, and lightly mix (or not) with the fluffy soil
  • control moisture level through the rainy season with covers
  • a few weeks before planting, gently mix the new compost with the older stuff beneath it (if you haven’t been turning the whole thing periodically)
  • put in only plants whose family has not occupied that bed for at least a year or two. Longer rotations are even safer
  • eventually, the bales will break down into some nice compost. rake that into the bed and stir it in, and put a new bale down to hold the bed together

It’s not as complicated as I probably made it look there. Here’s the Cliff Notes version:

  • lay hay bales to surround a rectangular area 2-4 feet wide
  • dump in a bunch of crap (literal or otherwise)
  • get it moist
  • cover it
  • uncover and give a stir a few weeks before planting
  • repeat add-crap-and-stir at the end of each growing season
  • rotate crops by family or pathogen/insect vulnerability

Caveat: this rich, fluffy stuff drains and evaporates moisture faster than our clay soil during our 2-3 dry months. It helps to plant close enough that there’s a good solid canopy shielding the soil from the sunlight, but these beds still need more frequent watering.

Figuring out how closely to space your seeds/starts can be tough, because things can get HUGE in these beds. Right now, we have a brandywine tomato plant at the end of one that’s about 6 feet tall, 5 feet in diameter, and very lush:


If I had used the “normal” spacing for that tomato plant, it would be the sort of hopeless tangle that our cherry tomatoes have beome in similarly rich soil.

These fluffy beds are especially good for potatoes and other things that struggle to grow in hard soil. There’s a new one waiting for November’s garlic planting, and we may try putting in some root veggies to overwinter, though it’s late for that.

Here’s a bed of canteloupe, delicata, and corn planted more conventionally, at ground level but with a LOT of compost mixed in:


It’s about as lush as the raised bed, but took several times as much effort, and is suffering a bit from the powdery mildew.

This Hopi red dye amaranth was grown in similar conditions. It doesn’t actually tell you a darn thing about the techniques I’m using, but it’s too beautiful to leave out:

DSC00153hopi Red Dye Amaranth


Pretty food and CUTE GOATS!

You just can’t beat eating truly fresh food. Two recent meals:

IMG 3699deckburger
Naturally raised, grass-fed free-range beef from Deck Family Farm, on a bed of our own kale, topped with homegrown tomato, homegrown onion, ketchup Teri made from last year’s tomatoes, and a slice of our own goat cheese.


Breakfast today: fairy tale eggplant, kale, onion, bell pepper, yellow & red cherry tomatoes, squash flower, and sweet corn omelet (all veggies picked minutes before cooking, and of course using eggs and milk from our critters)

Did you make it this far? Good reader! You get CUTE GOATS!

Drama Queen is looking like a football ? she’s due to kid this next week!


Extremely low-res goat cuteness from my old point-n-shoot camera


Rambling late Summer garden notes (with cute goats)

Hi. You’re probably here for pictures of cute goats.

Well, cute goats we’ve got:

Nikabrik 20100816

?but the news these days is mostly happening in the garden.

(There will be more cute goats later, promise)

Spring dragged on cool and rainy until well into June this year. Some plants loved it, and some plants not so much (“Tomatoes looks great for early July! Too bad it’s mid-August.”)

Cabbage has been one of the happy ones:

Cabbage August 2010

Peas did great too ? grew up over the top of the trellises, produced nicely, and helped keep us too busy to take photos of ’em. With the difficulty of picking each pod at the perfect moment and then processing them all, one by one each plant matures a hidden pod or two and starts dying down.

In the past few years, we didn’t shell and save so many peas, instead eating most of them fresh when they were half grown. Sweet and delicious, pod and all. The plants kept producing until we got tired of picking peas, and I suspect that we had a much better labor-to-nutrients ratio that way.

We’ve dabbled in small corn plots a couple of times, in heavy clay soil with fish juice fertilizer, with unimpressive results. This year we’re trying two plots that have copious amounts of composted goat stuff worked in a foot and a half deep. This one is popcorn (name escapes me, probably heirloom):

Popcorn August 2010

This one is a hybrid production variety of sweet corn. Not what I’d usually grow, but someone offered me a tray of 100 five-inch-long starts and I’m sure looking forward to seeing how fast it can get from the stalk to the grill to the butter.

Hybrid Sweet Corn 20100816

Both of those corn plots, assuming Summer doesn’t completely fizzle out early, should provide a few nice baskets of food, but we’re still getting a feel for growing grains so we’ve been doing small plots.

One of the grains that sounds less labor-intensive to harvest and process is amaranth, which bears its ‘fruit’ in big clusters, so we’ve planted a little experimental stand of Hopi Red Dye amaranth with tobacco bookends. It looks pretty happy:

Red Dye Amaranth August 2010

Our buckwheat patch is somewhat smaller ? one plant at the moment. I like it as a cover crop, so I’ve grown quite a bit of it, but I’ve never allowed it to grow over a foot or so before scything and composting it. This one volunteered at the end of a row?it’s a bit over five feet tall now:

Buckwheat Wholeplant August 2010

AND it’s making little buckwheats!

Buckwheat August 2010

These Calypso dry beans should produce medium-sized “yin yang” patterned beans:

Calypso Dry Bean August 2010

Their flowers and tiny beans-to-be:

Calypso Dry Bean Flowers August 2010

Another new one for us is sweet potatoes. This is two plants that have grown slowly but steadily for several months now without covering much area?I’ll be so happy if these work at all!

Sweet Potatoes August 2010

Some plants we’re feeling pretty competent with now, so we plant something approaching the amount we expect we can use. In the case of zucchini this means two bushes, but we’ve got four of them out there.

There’s a whole world under the zuke/delicata canopy:

Zucchini Delicate Forest August 2010

Tomatoes do fine here, though it’s sad in the Fall because they’re quite willing to keep producing right up until the first frost strikes them down. Here’s a beautiful Brandywine, the meaty heirloom variety we like for its hardiness, flavor, and texture:

Brandywine Tomato August 2010

We usually try to stick to heirloom varieties that we can propagate ourselves in subsequent years, but the hybrid cherry tomatoes are kind of irresistible, and produce an amazing amount of sweet little globes in a few square feet:

Sweet Million Cherry Tomato August 2010

Black oil sunflower seeds are a big staple food for our chickens and goats, and they produce multiple flower heads?I think I counted 9 or 10 on this stalk:

11 Headed Sunflower

Black Oil Sunflower August 2010

Fairy tale (miniature) eggplant, more of a late-summer treat than practical food source, but WHAT a treat they are on the grill with olive oil on top and applewood smoking them from below!

Fairytale Eggplant August 2010

This Summer’s “Perennial plant that the chickens have failed to destroy despite their tireless efforts to dig it up” award goes to the horseradish:

Horseradish 20100816


Calendula growing among the cherry tomatoes:

Calendula August 2010

and finally, as promised, here’s Drama Queen, who is full of little baby goats (due in about three weeks)

Drama Queen Pregnant August 2010

“So now you WANT me to harass goats?!”

Daks and Drama Queen ponder the changes in their relationship*

Daks and I just had a wonderful weekend attending a stock dog training clinic run by Brian Abingdon, a breeder and trainer of prize-winning Border Collies. Daks’ exact ancestry is a matter of speculation, but eveyone agrees that he is mostly Red Heeler, also known as Australian Cattle Dog.

This breed is famous for their intelligence, endurance, and ankle-biting ? and Daks is no exception. The phrase you’ll hear about them most often is “they NEED a job to do.” Without a few hours of active outside time every day they turn into fanged tornadoes.

Daks was the only mutt in the class, and I know almost nothing about all this stuff, but everyone was extremely friendly and encouraging, sharing helpful tips and stories, and I’m already looking forward to attending the next clinic in August.

We all pulled up folding chairs with a view of a 70′ square arena, and Brian brought each dog/person pair in separately for 10-15 minute sessions of 1-on-1 training with three extremely patient goats. The advanced dogs were quite inspiring to watch, and every moment was absolutely packed with things to learn about how herding dogs work.

Nikabrik getting into
the spirit of it

Despite the relaxed, friendly atmosphere, I was nervous bringing Daks into the arena for his first session. Would he completely ignore me? Nope! Maul a goat? Nope! Stop to poop in the middle of it with everyone watching? Oh yes indeed.

The first task with a complete beginner is to get the dog “hooked in” ? ie, get him interested in playing with the stock and activate his herding (really hunting) instinct.

Unfortunately, Daks has had a year and a half of us chiding him for chasing goats, so he was a bit inhibited, but with encouragement you could see the instinct kick in as he began to race around, nudging goats with his shoulder and moving a reluctant buckling around by the extremely effective method of dropping his head and pushing on his nutsack(!)

Aussie Cattle dog from the film Mad Max
Australian Cattle Dog
from the film “Mad Max”

The training method is very different from what I’m used to.  When teaching a dog to sit, or come, or give paw, you can show him what you want him to do and reward him with a treat when he gets it. With the stock dog training, it’s their natural inclinations that get them moving, and early training seems to be largely a matter of giving the command for whatever he’s already doing (assuming it’s something desirable!), eventually building up an association in his mind between the sound and the action.

That may sound like a very slow process, but after a total of less than an hour in the arena, Daks began to understand “go get the goats” and even “bring me the goats.” The whole way of working with the dog was wonderfully intuitive and made it seem as if he was starting to read my mind. I would recommend this training (and this trainer) to anyone with a herding dog ? even if you don’t have livestock and just want to learn how to work with their particular traits.

Obligatory cute photo of Koko!

One caveat: I was repeatedly warned that once these dogs have the instinct activated, small animals like chickens are at greater risk of becoming dog snacks. Daks is so far fine, still gentle and protective with the chickens, but we’ll be keeping a closer eye on him for a while?

* This is actually an old photo I recycled for this post, but it seemed very fitting; Drama Queen is a tough girl and Daks is still very reluctant to try anything on her.