Farming provides us with much of the food that we need and with surplus to give away. We have a large vegetable garden and a small orchard as well as berries, mushrooms, dairy goats, laying hens, meat rabbits and pigs. The different parts of our farming work together: Goat manure makes rich compost for the garden, leguminous weeds and cover crops from the garden feed the goats, extra goat milk and dropped apples feed the pigs. The rabbits eat some of the garden weeds and their manure can be used fresh around our vegetables.
We invite people to help us with our work, learn about food growing, and take produce home. People of different ages and abilities can help with different tasks. During the growing season, we look for gleaners to harvest what we can’t use and don’t have time to pick or process. Since 2009 volunteers have come through WWOOF (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms).
In our 50’x 200’ vegetable garden we grow asparagus, beans, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, chard, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, lettuce, kale, onions, parsnips, peas, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and turnips. From May through October we have assorted fresh vegetables to eat and to share.
We store potatoes, carrots and parsnips in a root cellar where they keep well into the spring. We can green beans and can and dry enough tomatoes to last until the next harvest begins. We freeze peas, peppers, and pesto. Onions and garlic are stored in a cool dry space from harvest until spring; those that remain are frozen and used until we again pick them fresh from the garden.
We don’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides but rely on compost, mulch, crop rotation and cover crops to build fertile soil. In 2008 we transitioned to low-till gardening, adding organic material to the tops of the beds and letting plant roots and earthworms loosen the soil instead of plowing or digging. This provides a more stable soil structure and habitat for beneficial soil organisms as well as saving our backs. We also began to use drip irrigation, which puts water directly on plant roots, discouraging plant diseases and saving time and money in dry years. As the seasons have become less dependable we’ve built a couple of cold frames inside the garden fence to get an earlier start on setting out plants and to protect against temperature swings. In 2005 we put up an 8-foot woven wire fence which has succeeded in keeping deer out of the garden and has also been a popular perch for the birds who help control pest insects.
We still do some gardening in the cold season. Since 2004 we have been growing hardy greens, brassicas and herbs through the winter in an attached greenhouse as well as starting seedlings there. In 2006 we began composting food scraps in an indoor worm bin. The nutrient-rich worm castings are good for houseplants and seedlings. We also sprout wheat into fodder for our rabbits in the greenhouse during the winter. In 2017 Zachary built new greenhouse shelves that swing out above the soil boxes when we need them and fold to the ceiling when we don’t.
In addition to vegetables we grow rhubarb and strawberries in the garden. Raspberries, blackberries and elderberries grow wild around the edges of the hayfield. An old orchard and wild trees provide apples. We freeze bramble berries and dry elderberries. We dry apple slices for snacks, can applesauce and freeze apples for pies etc. We bought a used press and began making apple cider in 2013.
We keep two dairy goats to provide milk and cheese. In 2002, when we first got goats, we began to make a soft quick cheese. In 2006 we began to make pressed cheeses during late fall and early winter after our pigs were gone. For several years we made 60-70 pounds of cheddar, colby, gouda and jack cheeses annually. In the winter of 2017-18 we cut back somewhat on aged cheeses, which don’t always turn out as we expected them to or age well, and began to make mozzarella; we make ricotta from the whey left over after making mozzarella or pressed cheeses. The goats also provide an attraction for visitors and a reminder of home for guests from other countries. The goats eat pasture, hay and browse as well as purchased whole grains.
Since 2002 we’ve had a small flock of laying hens who spend the summer in a moving coop and the winter in solar housing. At first we bought young laying hens. In 2012 we bought day-old Black Australorp and Buff Orpington chicks to raise ourselves. In 2015 we bought Golden Comet, Brown Leghorn & Easter Egger chicks. The conventional wisdom held that chicks had to be raised under heat lamps and fed commercial chick starter. In 2015 we tried a more natural approach, offering chicks an insulated hot-water bottle to warm themselves against and feeding them on potatoes, eggs, whey, sprouted whole grains and greens. Our chicks throve. They were ready to move outside early, and we gave them access to a compost pile as well as a moving run on fresh grass; we supplemented their forage with whole grains, whey, worms & Japanese beetles. They started to lay early and kept laying well. In 2018 we started new chicks–Golden Comets, White Leghorns and Black Sex Links– using the same natural approach. They’re thriving.
We have raised feeder pigs every summer since 2003. They drink whey and extra goat milk, eat excess produce and low-grade apples, and provide meat for us. They also consume more commercial feed than our other animals. The pigpen is moved regularly for the health of the pigs and the land. Since 2015 we have only raised one pig each year, since rabbits provide more of our meat.
In 2014 we started raising rabbits for meat, trying to feed them naturally and sustainably. Zach built a small shed to house the rabbits. We bought 2 New Zealand White does and a Silver Fox buck in the spring and had 36 kits born before we stopped breeding for the year.
We switched the breeding stock from pellets to natural feed before the first kits were born. In 2015 we started breeding our own young crossbred does who had been raised on natural feed. We’re now up to our fifth generation of breeders, and all the rabbits we’ve kept are growing well on our diet.
Our rabbits now have bright and spacious quarters in the new barn. They get some whole grains, dry in summer and sprouted in winter, but much of their food is grown or gathered on the farm. They get hay year-round. In winter they eat dried willow branches from the stream edges and root crops from the garden. During the growing season we cut them a variety of grasses, legumes, forbs and brush from the fields and hedgerows as well as giving them weeds and vegetable tops from the garden.
Our 30 acres of hayfields provide feed for the rabbits and feed and bedding for our goats. Fields not being hayed are bush-hogged to keep them from reverting to brush. The price of feed grain rose sharply in 2012. In 2013 we began experiments with growing feed grain and gathering more high-nutrition forages for our animals. In 2014 we started planting hedgerows of willow, hazel, rose and brambles along the edges of some of our goat pasture to provide the browse goats need in addition to grazing. It is satisfying to put to good use what we had once perceived as just weeds.
Mushrooms, Herbs, & Flowers
In spring 2007 we started growing shiitake mushrooms on oak logs from our woods. We’ve grown wide-range strains which we force-fruit during the summer and cold-weather strains which fruit naturally after rains in the spring and fall. Starting in 2011 we’ve dried some mushrooms for winter use as well as enjoying them fresh. Shiitakes are high in protein and vitamins as well as flavor. When we have extra inoculated shiitake logs we offer them for sale to people who’d like to raise their own.
The herb gardens provide extra flavor for our meals and are a very welcome addition to the produce we send to the soup kitchen. Visitors enjoy smelling the different herbs and realizing that they recognize the scents even when the plants are unfamiliar. From our basil and garlic we make pesto to freeze. We also freeze chives and sage and dry mint and thyme for winter use. Lavender is made into sachets which our refugee contact keeps on her desk and gives to mothers of young children. Perennial plants need to be divided to keep them healthy, so we have plants to give away each spring and fall. Beginning in 2013 we’ve grown, gathered and preserved more medicinal herbs for teas and tinctures–willow bark, elder flowers and berries, violet, burdock root, calendula, chamomile, lemon balm, marsh mallow, red clover, and echinacea.
We found flower gardens when we arrived at the farm, but food production seemed more important. Then we began to notice how much visitors enjoyed the flowers. Boys with reputations for trouble-making asked if they could pick flowers to take home to their mothers. At the end of a week a migrant worker staying with us asked if he could cut new flowers to replace the ones we had picked when we got his room ready. He said he had never had flowers in his room before. So now we make the flower gardens a priority. As with the herbs, we have seeds from annuals and divisions of perennials to share.
Why We Grow Our Own
People sometimes tell us that farming is a lot of work and ask why we don’t just buy that stuff at the grocery. There are several reasons.
When we first came to St. Francis Farm in 2001 we struggled to feed ourselves and our guests, as money was tight and little food had been produced in the chaos of transition. Beginning in 2002 we focused on growing and preserving food so that we could feed ourselves and have something to share with neighbors. Since 2006 we’ve sent vegetables, herbs and soft goat cheese to a local soup kitchen, and in 2018 we started donating vegetables to the Pulaski Community Cupboard. Late summer bounty is distributed to area churches and assorted neighbors. As the economic system grows less stable, more people are interested in learning to provide necessities for themselves and their neighbors. As Wendell Berry writes in What Matters, “A home landscape enables not only personal subsistence but also generosity. It enables community to exist and function.”
We have hosted migrant workers injured on commercial farms and learned about the untenable working conditions of the people who grow the food we buy. When the work of food production is done by a tiny fraction of the population those people are apt to be overworked and exhausted. When more people grow their own food the amount of work is more manageable and can be grounding and health-giving rather than debilitating.
We are also aware of the environmental damage caused by large-scale farming, including the use of toxic pesticides and herbicides, the compaction and erosion of topsoil, and the use of large quantities of climate-altering fossil fuels to power machines and produce petrochemical fertilizers. Growing our own food allows us to live more sustainably.