Red Hill

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Patrick Henry, the American patriot and first governor of post-colonial Virginia, is buried about 40 miles from here on his plantation called Red Hill. It’s a quiet, peaceful and beautiful place.

The farm, over 500 acres, lies upon the Staunton River, near present-day Brookneal. In Gov. Henry’s time the tobacco and other crops raised there were loaded onto batteaux and transported down river.

Patrick Henry’s home, typical of Virginia plantation homes of that era, was a simple three-room, one and half story structure. The two rooms on the ground floor served as a bedroom and a parlor. The loft above was additional sleeping space. During the time Patrick Henry lived here, the house accommodated between nine and eleven family members. Bathrooms and kitchens were separate structures in those days.

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The plantation’s outbuildings included curing barns, a blacksmith’s shop, Patrick Henry’s law office, a kitchen, a carriage house, and cabins for the 69 slaves who lived there. One of the two-room slave cabins has been reproduced on the site, using original materials.

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When I was in elementary school we were required to memorize part of his famous 1775 speech at the Virginia Convention. I can still recite it by heart:

Gentlemen may cry, “Peace! Peace!” — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

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The Next Step

I finished my novel a few months ago. Since then I’ve had a few folks read it and the feedback I’ve gotten has encouraged me to go forward with trying to publish it.

As a first step, I sent a query to a New York literary agent, as one would buy a lottery ticket. He politely declined the representation.

So now what? I could pursue other agents, but getting a literary agent is a long shot and the process could take years. I don’t have the patience for that and I’m doubtful that my book would be attractive to an agent in any event. So that leaves two options: small/indie publishers and self-publishing.

As much as I’d like to have a copy editor and a professional cover design, I’m inclined not to pursue a traditional publishing house. My guess is that the book is going to have limited appeal, and I don’t want to spend the time trying to find a publisher that would be interested in it. And there’s always the risk that the house goes under and takes the book with it.

So by the process of elimination, I’m looking into self-publishing. The good news is that self-publishing has never been easier. There are lots of options out there, but the dominant player is (unsurprisingly) Amazon. CreateSpace is their self-publishing platform and the reviews from those who use it are pretty uniformly positive. Cherie used it to publish her cookbook a couple of years ago and was very pleased with the process and the end result. And it costs the author nothing to create and publish a book on CreateSpace.

As far as I can tell the principal negative with Amazon’s service is that most bookstores won’t carry their books. Considering the threat Amazon poses to bookstores, that’s understandable of course. While I don’t have any reasonable expectations of seeing my book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, there are some indie bookstores in the area and I’d be delighted to see my book in them. Is that enough of a disadvantage to make another more expensive self-publishing platform preferable? I don’t know, but at this point I’m inclined to say no.

What sayeth you dear readers? I’d love to hear from anyone with thoughts on this. Nothing I’ve written here is written in stone. I’m open to any reasonable suggestions for how best to proceed. I’ve grown attached to the characters in my story. I want to do the best for them that I can.

Social Media

This morning I thought I’d share how we use social media for our farm business, how that has changed, and how it continues to change.

We have an account for White Flint Farm on Facebook. When we were first starting out we posted something on Facebook once a day. We divided responsibility for that–4 days of the week were Cherie’s responsibility and 3 days were mine. We had no “rules” for what we would post, but usually I posted a picture and usually Cherie posted a news story (about nutrition, sustainability, food issues, etc.). Every Friday evening we posted a photo of the chalk board she had prepared for the next day’s market, showing what we would have available. And every Saturday morning we posted a photo of our table at the market. We were careful to never post more than once a day.

Our Facebook page was a hit. It generated lots of new customers for us, and gave us an excellent way to promote the market and our farm. We got lots of compliments on it. We now have over 1,200 followers. All for free.

That all changed when Facebook shifted to being advertising-driven. Now our posts aren’t shared with all of our followers. Instead they’re sent out to a few folks and we’re invited to pay a small fee to “promote” the post. (There are workarounds that enable followers to see all our posts, but they’re too much trouble for most people to bother with.) It makes perfect sense that Facebook be paid for the advertising services, and people who use it tell me it is inexpensive and effective. But we don’t have advertising in our budget, so relatively few people see the posts these days.

In part because of that, and in part because we grew tired of the routine, we’ve scaled our Facebook posting way back. Now we always post a table shot from the market, but the other posts are irregular. And now we only post pictures, never news stories.

Instagram is a popular platform for people who enjoy seeing photos, but who want to be spared the nonstop barrage of political squabbling on Facebook. Our Instagram account is linked to our Facebook page, so that whenever I post on Instagram it automatically goes to Facebook too. Instagram makes it easy to edit and improve photos before they’re posted, so I always post the pictures on Instagram, knowing they’ll also appear on Facebook. My experience has been that Instagram is a great way to share pictures, but not of much benefit as a marketing tool.

We had a Twitter account for a while but neither of us cared for it. I think it still exists, but we haven’t posted on it for ages. These days Twitter seems to be in headlines every morning, and I’m guessing it is the dominant platform. But, so far at least, we haven’t joined the party.

Finally there are blogs. Cherie and I both had links to our blogs on the farm’s website, but now we’ve taken them down. She rarely posts these days and more often than not my posts are unrelated to our farm or to homesteading. So we quit trying to direct our farm customers to the blogs. I don’t consider this blog to be business-related.

For a while now I’ve been considering keeping this blog focused on homesteading/farming. But to be honest, I enjoy writing about other things. I’m sure I’d have more regular readers if I stayed on-topic, but I’ve chosen not to do that. I am seriously considering opening up a second blog, devoted to local history, which is one of my principal passions and which I’ve generally kept off this blog. But I digress…

For start-up farmers/market-gardeners I’d highly recommend some thoughtful use of social media. Unfortunately, the method that worked for us won’t work as well these days. I’d be interested in hearing from others who have used social media effectively or are doing so now.

Raising Animals

In a comment to yesterday’s post Gordon noted that keeping animals on a farm can prevent the farmers from traveling. That is a true and important observation. His comment has caused me to think of some of the other downsides to raising animals on a farm/homestead and I thought I’d mention a few of them this morning, for those weighing the pros and cons. My purpose is neither to encourage nor dissuade folks from keeping animals, but rather just to throw out some of the factors that should be considered.

Of course the benefits of domesticated animals on a homestead are fairly obvious–the most important two being that they provide food and fertilizer.

I’m not going to dwell on the cost and time commitment associated with animal husbandry. There are significant cost and time commitments to raising vegetables too. I will say though that it’s important to do your homework carefully before getting animals. For example, we built our fences expecting them to only contain horses. When we added goats those fences were unsuitable and had to be modified at considerable expense. We added a corral and head chute gate when we had cows, only to find it unnecessary and a waste of money when we decided not to keep the cows. Just think those kinds of things through. Look down the road as best you can, and go slowly.

The single hardest thing about raising farm animals is killing them. I’m not going to dwell on that, but any homesteader needs to consider carefully what this will mean and what it will require of them.

The death of animals one has raised, usually from birth, is distressing. And it isn’t just on processing days that farm animals die. They get sick, and can suffer long and painfully. This will often require that they be euthanized (not an easy job to say the least). They die in childbirth. They die as newborns. They die from doing stupid things. They die from predators.

We lost eight kids and a doe to coyotes this year. Last night a coon killed ten of our neighbor’s chickens. A friend of ours lost 5 ewes and over a dozen lambs to coyotes. Another friend lost 10 lambs to coyotes. Our chickens are killed by foxes, hawks, coons, possums, dogs, snakes and coyotes. Our flock of guineas was wiped out completely by owls. If you keep animals you will have to deal with losing them to predators and you will have to deal with the reality that you have an obligation to protect them–which can mean killing the predator animals.

Market day can be distressing as well. Separating young bucklings from their mothers, loading them into a trailer, and driving them to the market to sell, is not a pleasant experience. But you can’t keep lots of buck goats or roosters. They’ll fight each other and make the lives of the females miserable. Getting rid of the extra males, whether you do it yourself or delegate the job, isn’t easy.

Then there is the point Gordon made–your obligation to the animals will tie you down. We can leave the goats unattended for a few days, but the chickens have to be tended to daily. If you keep a guard dog, he will have to be fed daily too. Of course if you keep a milk cow or a milk goat, she will have to be milked at least once a day. If you want the flexibility to travel, even for just a few days, you have to have a plan for it that involves having someone tend your animals.

Farm animals sometimes escape. When they’re outside the fence they can eat your gardens, or your neighbors gardens. Large animals can wreck cars with very serious consequences. Sometimes cows or pigs escape and are never recaptured. Make sure you have good and appropriate fencing, but also keep in mind that gates are sometimes left open, trees can fall on fences, the power can go out, etc.

I reckon that’s enough for now. Just some things to keep in mind when planning for animals on the homestead.

Free Range Meat

It’s been well over 10 years since we bought any meat. During that time, any meat I’ve eaten has come from this farm.

When we first began homesteading we got 3 heifers, and I intended to put a steer in the freezer every year. I soon realized that would be way more than I could expect to eat (my wife is a vegetarian), so we eventually got rid of the cows.

When we first got pigs, I got two of them because I know they don’t like to live alone. When we processed them later that year I had 570 pounds of pork. Even though I gave away the hams and lots of the sausage, it took me over two years to finish eating it all.

Eventually we began to sell pork. That required us to use a USDA-approved processor, which was a real pain and required compromises to our principles. But by raising four hogs and selling two I could make my pork “free.” The last time we raised pigs we raised seven. With two chest freezers we could barely hold all the meat. We weren’t comfortable continuing to sell the pork after it had been in the freezer a year, so now it’s up to me to finish off all that is left. Because we still have so much on hand, we aren’t raising any pigs this year.

We’ve never raised meat chickens, but every now and then we have an extra rooster or a hen that needs to be culled. When that happens, I have chicken.

Most of the meat I eat is venison. Every year I take a few deer from the multitudinous herd that roams our farm, and they keep me well-provisioned.

I also eat fish, which I catch in our pond.

At this point I’m very seriously considering not raising any more pigs. As much as I enjoy my breakfast sausage and barbecue, I could live without it. I could very easily have all the meat I want by relying only on deer and fish. And if I ever wanted to, I could easily add wild turkey, squirrel and rabbit.

It seems to me there are lots of advantages to relying on game rather than domesticated animals. The animals live entirely natural lives, unrestrained and with a natural diet. I’ve also come to believe that we humans are upsetting the ecosystem as we abandon our natural role as predators. As for domesticated livestock, getting rid of them would reduce workload and expense, and would also eliminate those uncomfortable days when we betray their trust and kill them.

I’m not sure what to do about the goats. They’re in a whole separate category. I enjoy raising them, but have no need for their meat. They do produce some revenue for the farm, but it’s not essential. For now I plan to keep raising them, but down the road I might think of phasing them out too.

Relying entirely on game animals for meat seems sensible on a homestead like ours. So I’m thinking of going in that direction, even as I am preparing sausage and gravy for breakfast.

Paseo

Every night, after supper, we go for a walk, which we call our “paseo.”

Most of the year we walk along interior farm roads, past our pond and through the woods. But in the summer the ticks prevent that. This time of year we walk mostly along the paved road, a round trip of over two miles along the border of our farm.

It’s a peaceful and quiet road, which bears the name this community once had. It is rich with history and memories. We usually have it to ourselves. We never fail to see wildlife, but it’s unusual to see a motor vehicle.

These pictures don’t do it justice, but I thought I’d share some shots I took on our paseo.

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I really love this place.

Transition

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Our spring garden is starting to peter out. As things have bitten the dust, I’ve been plowing them under. We still have collards, napa cabbage, 4 varieties of kale, rainbow chard and a few beets.

Meanwhile the summer veggies are starting to arrive. We’re harvesting onions, green beans, squash, zucchini and peppers. Yesterday I dug the garlic–over 1100 bulbs. Our basement now smells like garlic.

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We’ve had over 4 1/2 inches of rain this week, including over 3 inches last night from a series of violent thunderstorms that drenched the newly tilled soil and blew up my one-day old fence box energizer. I have 650 sweet potato slips I’d planned to plant this weekend. Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

Hopefully in the next week or so we’ll start picking tomatoes, continuing our transition to the next wave of goodies.

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