Posts Tagged ‘beginnings’

This coming Saturday, the first of December, I will have been retired from the Navy for a year.  A year, for heaven’s sake.

I’m amazed that an entire year has passed already.  Not that it flew by, not at all.  Most of it dragged on like a bad cold I couldn’t shake, testing my patience, challenging my well-laid plans, and taxing me both physically and mentally to my limits.

What a year it’s been.  Full of major changes, some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, more adventure than I ever could have imagined, and lots of unexpected twists and turns that have kept me busy figuring out how to do stuff I’ve never done before.

In addition to packing up 30 years of accumulated possessions, traveling cross-country with two dogs, setting up rudimentary housekeeping at the farm, and acquiring an entire cow herd, the heat and chiggers and physical exhaustion nearly kicked my butt.  And I’m still living amongst stacks of boxes, still looking for things I know I packed but haven’t found yet, and wishing I could wave a magic wand and have all the settling in stuff done now, please.  My heart aches for orderliness, balance, and efficiency.  My life doesn’t have much of any of those in it right now.

But I’m getting there, dammit.  At a bear’s pace, it seems:  lumbering, measured, deliberate.  Not speedy.  Not magic.  At times not seemingly making any progress at all, just meandering.  But the truth is, I continue to whittle down the daily lists of things that need done to care for livestock, pay the bills, keep the larder full and food on the table, prepare for winter.  I am getting my feet under me.  And I am rewarded with a small but growing level of orderliness, balance, and efficiency where just a few months ago, there was none.

Getting back to this blog, this narrative of my small farm journey,  is one of those deliberate, necessary steps toward where I need to be.  Yesterday I finally updated the Flickr pictures on the right of the page, replacing the shots of winter snow and ice from a visit two years ago, with photos taken the past few months.  Since late October I’ve been back to keeping a daily journal, and I’ve reserved time each day to write posts, taking my camera with me more often to capture the magic that happens every day here, magic and beauty I’ve lately been too overwhelmed to see or appreciate.

It’s the year mark.  Five months here at the farm.  Time to shake off the negativity, push through the brambles of doubt and lost confidence, and lumber into the sunny clearing ahead.  One bear paw in front of the other, I’m getting back on track.


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I started this blog post a long time ago, when Skeet and Bandit and I arrived at the farm back in the beginning of July, and I had high hopes of settling into a routine that included regular updates.  It has been a lot like heading downhill on a black diamond ski run as a beginner since then, to be quite honest.

How could I have thought it would be otherwise?

At this point in the story telling, with the long, hot drive from California to Kentucky just a faded memory, 4 months and two seasons under our belts, cows up on the pastures eating hay and winter knocking at the door, I don’t think it’s possible to catch up on the details.  I’m not sure I can even write a decent synopsis of the events that have packed my days since arriving here on the 3rd of July.  No, I just need to get started back to posting, which will be a huge achievement in itself.

I’ll try to explain as I go.  It’ll be skippy for awhile, I’m sure, but eventually this narrative should smooth out, the missing pieces will get filled in, and it’ll start sounding more like the story of a woman starting up a small farm, instead of just dreaming about doing it.

Bear with me, please.  The adventure has just begun…

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I don’t know if it is traditional to take a photo of one’s first sunrise of retirement, but my dear friend Liz reminded me to do just that about a week before my big day.  She probabably caught the idea from a recent TV ad for retirement planning but hey, it’s a good idea, don’t you think? 

Capturing the dawning moment of the rest of my life – what a splendid tradition to participate in.  Thank you Liz, for motivating me to pack my camera and tripod down into the chapparal canyon behind our house on that morning walk with Skeet.  It’s not the most perfectly-composed photo, but the best I could do with the delayed-shutter function and a befuddled dog tangling her leash around my legs.  I shall be able to remember that morning forever now.

To refresh the story (which I have let languish far too long):  I have finally reached my 24 year mark with the Navy, and chose to retire at my current paygrade of Lieutenant instead of accepting the promotion to Lieutenant Commander, which would have obligated me for another two years of service.  Why turn that promotion down and retire now?  Because I am no spring chicken, son; and it is high time for me to start the farming enterprise I have been planning for so many years, out in Kentucky on the little farm we bought five years ago. 

Farming is hard work, yes it is.  And I’m not getting any younger; ergo, there’s no time to waste. 

This will be a solo (ad)venture for me for the first few years, as Bear is still gainfully employed in his civil-service position and wants to run with it to his second 20-year retirement.  (He finished up with the Navy in 2000.)  So he’ll stay here at Bear and Thistle West for a time, babysit the underwater mortgage until the housing market starts recovering, and keep the lights on at 637 Redlands.  It’s a non-traditional plan but we hatched it together many years ago and it still works for both of us, so I will soon be Kentucky bound to start my herds and flocks and raise a few chickens too.

Soon.  Not tomorrow, though I would have liked to have been there by now.  However, as my official title is She Who Builds, Landscapes, and Paints Walls, I can’t leave until all the building, landscaping, and wall painting projects are complete.  Mind you, I’ve been working on most of these projects for the past couple of years, and I would have liked to have had them all done by now.  But they’re not, and so I must stay to finish them, and set the Bachelor Bear up for many years of low-maintenance, stress-free home life.

My labors of Hercules, as it were.  There aren’t twelve of them, and they’re not treacherous, but I can’t have my reward (move to the Farm) until they’re done.  And how long, you ask, will these suburban labors take me to finish?  I’m hoping only a couple of months.   So please bear with me as I blog about retaining walls and condo renovation and re-setting flagstone walkways and other non-farm tasks; bit by bit I swear I’ll get this pile-o-work done and get myself and my dogs out to Kentucky where my beautiful farm and the work of a lifetime awaits.

Hoping to travel out in March, before the pastures really start growing, and in time to till up a garden spot.

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This week I’m attending a Transition Assistance Program class, a program sponsored and presented by the Department of Labor with the intention of ensuring a successful transition from military service to civilian employment for servicemembers leaving active duty.

We’re actually required to go through this training, and are encouraged to attend at least a year before separation, but you can go earlier.  Many people put it off until they’re within 6 – 8 months of retiring from the service, staring their transition right in the face.  I’ve got 19 months left.  Quite a difference, and a decided advantage, in many respects.  I’ve always heard people say they wished they’d gone to this transition seminar earlier, that the information would have done them more good had they had more time to do something with it before their exit date.  So I’m going now, and it’s a good thing.

The curriculum covers a lot of territory, including an in-depth discussion of VA benefits and retirement planning; but it’s mainly a crash course in How to Find a Job in The Civilian World.   Personal skills assessment, interview and networking techniques, and resume writing are the main focus. 

I’m an anomaly in this class, the only attendee that is not planning on going to work for someone else when they retire.  This surprised me a little bit, but I’m getting used to being the oddball.  Agrarians among warriors are few. 

As we went around the room introducing ourselves the first day, everyone was asked to give a brief description of what type of job they are doing now, as military professionals, and what career field they intend to transition to as civilians.  Nearly all of this group of soon-to-be retired senior officers and senior enlisted folks mentioned looking for jobs in the Defense Industry, as contractors or civil service employees, working at the senior executive level. 

When it came my turn, I got a lot of smiles when I told them I was going to be a farmer, starting my own pastured livestock farm business.  I didn’t elaborate, I didn’t tell them that along with all the other myriad enterprises that will eventually comprise Bear and Thistle Farm, this will be my life’s work.  Just kept it simple and businesslike.

As the class progressed, I realized that all the information on resume writing and how to dress for and do well at an job interview was not specifically useful to me, at least not without a little filtering.  So I took the suggestions and applied them to the kinds of interviews and networking I’ll be doing:  meeting with loan officers for business financing, contacting potential customers, and building relationships with suppliers, fellow farmers, and other professionals. 

Another useful concept I garnered from this training was something called an informational interview.  In job search lingo, this is a technique used to gain knowledge of and establish contact with a company, under the rubrik of conducting “research,” without appearing to be overtly looking for employment.   The idea is to get a 20-minute interview to learn about the industry and company without pressuring the person for employment, all the while building a relationship and getting a non-threatening foot in the door.  I see the potential to use this technique doing market research and establishing networks and liaisons with fellow farmers, as I continue to craft my business plan.

Yesterday we prepared our “30-second commercial” which is another term for an “elevator speech,” that verbal snapshot anyone trying to connect in business will have at the ready should an opportunity for networking arise.  Of course the outline in the workbook was built on questions related to someone trying to get a job, introducing themselves and their experiences and strengths to a potential employer, whereas mine will introduce my farm enterprise to potential customers and other interested persons.

Speaking of interviews, I had the pleasure of doing a phone interview a week ago about my farm plans with Sylvia Burgos Toftness, an Acres USA grazing school classmate who is also starting a grass-fed grazing operation with her husband in Wisconsin.  Sylvia is combining her talents and long experience as a communications professional with a love of food and a passion for grass-based farming to foster a network of like-minded people through her website and blog, Bronx to Barn.  Listen to the podcast of our conversation here.

Like I said at the end of our interview, I’m thankful for the lead time I have, these 19 months before the big moving truck comes to take me and my tools and things out to Kentucky, to start this farming in earnest.  I have a lot of work and planning to do, and much to learn.  But the transition from warrior to farmer has definitely begun.

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This post breaks new ground for me.  

My week at the Acres USA Eco-Farming conference was both life-changing and reaffirming, and made me realize that everything I do, even here in suburban San Diego waiting for the retirement bell to ring so I can head to Kentucky and get started, is about my farming.  The story has begun, and this part of it, this preamble to the Great Beginning, needs telling too. 

For some reason, up to this point I thought my posts had to be about the farm, or strictly farm-related, in order to be relevant to this blog.  Having told my story to dozens of fellow farmers, I’m seeing it differently now.  My journey to the farm is the current chapter, which includes everything I’m doing here in suburbia to make the transition to farming in Kentucky.  I’ve even taken to calling my curbside homestead “Bear and Thistle West” because it is in all ways my West Coast farmhouse on 1/8 of an acre,  where we eat food grown and cooked by hand, preserve the harvest overflow, make soil, manage rainfall, and build skills and collect tools needed for farming.

The reality is, I am a farmer, whether I’m here on Redlands Place in Bonita, CA or on Knifley Rd in Elk Horn, KY.  At the rate things have been going, these last couple of years will fly by like birds trying to beat the winter weather; every day, then, I am trying to do something that brings me closer to starting my farm.  So I’ll write about that.

As for the conference, my brain couldn’t have taken another day of lectures and workshops; there was so much good material, so many good speakers.  I’ll discuss the high points as I find time, as I have several posts drafted and will work on them as I can.  The conference wrapped up Saturday evening and I escaped the frozen north in the nick of time, heading back to Bear and Thistle West just before the vicious winter storm plowed across the Midwest, closing freeways and causing havoc for travellers. 

Yesterday we finally got a taste of what passes for winter weather here in SoCal:  heavy rain and wind, terrific gusting wind.  My high-tech rain gauge – a widemouth pint mason jar – measured 2.5 inches, quite a lot for this area, and much needed.  It’ll knock down the fire danger for awhile, and the moisture is appreciated by yards and gardens, and farms, too.

Yes, farms, and close by, hallelujia.  Seems we have a new start-up, a local organic CSA farm south of San Diego, nearly on the Mexican border.  I stumbled across Suzy’s Farm website by accident and was delighted to read that they have a farmstand, since my winter backyard garden is just getting going (we garden all winter long here at 32 deg lattitude) and I’m always looking for good organic vegetables.  So I called, and Rodrigo said no, the farmstand wasn’t open, but come on by the warehouse, I could buy there.

So off into the pouring rain I went.  Looking for carrots to juice, mostly, but ready for just about anything.  And as it turned out, carrots weren’t picked, but they had lots and lots of every other thing.  I bagged two bunches of chard, two bunches of long beets, a handful of those lovely purple-necked scallions, a bag of round zuchinnis, a pumpkin (for pie), a buttercup squash, and six cabbages.  Yes, I said six.  Cabbages.   For sauerkraut, of course.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve made sauerkraut.  Like, 25 years, give or take a few.  I still have my old 5-gallon ceramic crock, which serves nicely for brining turkeys but hasn’t seen a leaf of cabbage for years.  This time around, I had the help of my trusty food processor, which made the shredding of 20 lbs of cabbage a very simple task.  Absolutely nothing to it.  And the giant ceramic bowl I bought in a Fallon, NV feed store, thinking a bowl that large would surely come in handy some day, was just perfect for salting and mixing the mounds of shredded cabbage. 

My hands ended up being the packing tool of choice, and now the crock is filled with kraut, covered with brine and weighted down, and we’re waiting for fermentation to start.  Some books say it will be finished in 3 to 6 weeks, others note that the flavor gets more complex the longer it goes, and 6 months is not too long.  I can’t remember how long my first batch developed, so it’s like I’m doing this for the first time. 

I believe I’ll sample a little over the New Year’s holiday, and pair it with whatever clean meat I’m able to find.  Now if I could only find a local farm that raises pastured pork!

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Finding the Farm



In the stilled place that once was a road going down

from the town to the river, and where the lives of marriages grew

a house, cistern and barn, flowers, the tilted stone of borders,

and the deeds of their lives ran to neglect, and honeysuckle

and then the fire overgrew it all, I walk heavy

with seed, spreading on the cleared hill the beginnings of green, clover and grass to be pasture.  Between

history’s death upon the place and the trees that would have come

I claim, and act, and am mingled in the fate of the world.


“Sowing” by Wendell Berry


Going through some old posts the other day I stumbled upon my original farm-related entry, a first attempt at capturing the thrill of possession just weeks after we had closed the deal, as I was steaming across the Pacific Ocean on the first leg of a 6-month deployment.  Still in shock that we’d actually made it all happen.  Savoring the feeling of groundedness and promise amidst the clamor and bustle of life on a warship.  From March, 2006:


This is the last few feet of the road up to the pastures – the heart of the farm. You can see the grassy hill swelling up past the trees, past the gate, and the distant treetops peeking over, marking the far edge of this central pasture.


Even now as I look at this photo, I can remember standing there, bundled up in the 30-degree cold, feeling the forest surround me, the quiet winter-hushed Kentucky hills stretching away on all sides, neighbor’s farms well hidden in the adjoining hollows, and thinking how very wonderful it would be to own this. To become related to this place, to follow my dreams, to work as hard as I want, to live my days out here.


That morning it was just a shimmering, tantalizing possibility. I had traveled back to this beautiful area with two good possibilities picked out from my exhaustive Internet search, to find my farm. I knew this with my whole heart.


And though my husband does not exactly share my passion for the life of a farmer, neither does he discourage it in me. In fact I’d say he respects it very much. He knew why I went there. He knew I would find my farm. And he had already decided once I’d made my choice, we would take action.


I didn’t know that yet, that morning. I was just acting on this impulse that has powered me since childhood, and trusting that it wasn’t going to fling me over a cliff and break my heart. Trusting this identity that I am both once again, and finally, stepping into like a pair of well-worn jeans. I am and have always been a farmer. Just never had a farm.


And so I walked up this road, and walked the pasture edges of this farm with my camera in hand, the cold January wind numbing my hands and my face out in the open of the pastures. I stepped into the woods, warmed suddenly by the lack of wind, and felt the hush of the bare trees, the forest floor thickly carpeted with fallen leaves, the thin grey winter sun streaming through the branches. I walked for three hours, from one end of it to another. I turned and squinted and tried to estimate how large the pastures were, and I stopped in several spots to imagine a house here, or there – was the sun the right direction? Would it be protected from the wind?


Then I went back down the hill, and sat and talked with Bobby and Alene for another two hours. They took a liking to me, I could tell that right away. They liked that I was in the Navy, and I felt they were proud of that. I told them why I wanted a farm, why it was important to me, and we talked about cattle and sheep and chickens and the tobacco Bobby’s family had raised there when he was a kid. He was born and raised on this farm.


I told them I would have to wait 6 years before I could retire and come live there. They spoke about their children and grandchildren in Oklahoma, and their other family in Florida, and made it clear they hadn’t really decided which direction they would move, if at all. They liked living in Kentucky just fine, they said. I told them it would work well if they wanted to stay for a time, to take care of the place. We talked pleasantly, not making any promises, since I was just there looking, like other people had been, and didn’t know if I would be able to make an offer.


We talked slowly, and quietly. We talked about the war, a little, and about the economy, and about farming. They showed me the rooms of the house, and I went out with Bobby to look at the shop, and the tractor. I complemented him many times on how well he had taken care of the pastures, and how solid and well-built the fences and gates were. He was pleased to hear that, I could tell. This old man, stout as a barrel, hard of hearing, labored of breath – this man cared for this property as though it were his childhood home, because it was. And I recognized that, and thanked him for his efforts, and I could tell, the deal would be made.


And it seemed to make no difference whatsoever to him that I was a girl.


I may tell the rest of the whole story at a later date. But now I owe answers to your questions, or I will never be able to catch up.


Some of you want to know, “What type of farm is this? Dairy, agricultural … or horses?”


Well right now, it’s a low-maintenance pastured livestock farm; Bobby only runs about 25 head of Angus feeder steers on it each summer and has a neighbor cut hay once or twice. There are dairy farms in the area, but dairying is a labor intensive and complex operation, even on a small scale.


In a nutshell, my farming will be small-scale, diversified, and follow sustainable organic principles. Bearing in mind I won’t have to pay a mortgage or feed six hungry children with the profits (nor will I have their help with chores!), I will probably start with a small herd of grass-fed beef, a small flock of sheep, perhaps a small milk cow or goat, a few chickens, a few laying ducks, raise a hog for the freezer, and of course grow fruits and vegetables. The main intent will be to feed ourselves and make enough profit on the excess to pay for supplies, vet visits, and such.  Those of you who know me won’t think that sounds like too much work at all. 


One of the first things I’ll do once I get there will be to buy my team of Suffolk Punch horses, some basic horse-drawn implements, and learn to work them. This could take several years. (That should spawn a whole rash of questions which I am perfectly willing to answer – please ask!) I should be able to eventually raise an acre or two of corn, and oats, and other livestock feeds, and I will practice rotational grazing by subdividing the pastures into several-acre paddocks, and move the cattle and sheep and horses and chickens between them to maximize the forage health. I will improve my pastures by spreading manure and minerals, overseeding, and managing the grazing levels. The ponds will be stocked with fish, providing yet another source of meat.


The double-wide trailer home will be an excellent transition residence while the timberframe-and-log house is being built up on top. I will want a barn and perhaps some outbuildings built up there as well, so I’ll need to be there on scene to oversee the work and perhaps do a portion of it myself. We anticipate that D will remain in San Diego at his job as long as possible, and I will move to The Farm a few years earlier, once I retire to get things started. The sale of the house in San Diego will cover the construction of the buildings and any startup costs I’ll have such as livestock and farm implements.


Once The Farm is up and running, my retirement check should cover operating expenses, and in a few years the critters should about pay for themselves…


And so the dream began, three years ago.  I am still awestruck at my good fortune in finding this property, having the leverage from our San Diego home to pay for it by refinancing the mortgage (surely couldn’t do that now!), having the support and complicity of my life partner as I leapt off the cliff in pursuit of my life-long dream, and most importantly, in having been blessed with this lovely old country couple who were content to remain in place after selling it to us, and take care of it until I can get there.


God has surely smiled down on little Thistledog.  And now the Suffolks are a reality, thanks to good people who were willing to help with a plan to give me a head start with them.  Lordy, I surely could not be more blessed.

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We’re almost three years into farm ownership, and still a long way from actually having “boots on ground” and starting operations, but the story of building our little farm has begun, so I’d like to share it as we go along.  Some of the chapters are already on the farm website; brief descriptions of why and where we’re doing this, and an overview of the projects we’ve accomplished thus far, but I will fill in details and more of the personal background here as I get time.

So expect a little jumping around, and I hope it doesn’t make you too dizzy.  I’ll tag and categorize as best I can, and add links to the webpage where the two threads coincide.  Ultimately this blog will be my regular farm-journal-with-musings, and the website will be the more permanent show-and-tell forum for the farm.

What’s going on now:  I’m currently deployed to Djibouti, Africa, with three years remaining to retirement from the Navy.  The folks at the farm are doing well, and are looking forward to our upcoming visit in January, during my furlough in the States.  We’ll stay a few days and knock out some of the upkeep chores like cleaning out gutters, adjusting the shop door, clearing leaves from culverts, that sort of thing.  Biggest event this year is my purchase of two Suffolk mares, which are going to be trained and kept in Virginia by a young couple starting out as Biological Woodsmen horseloggers, until I am moved to the Kentucky farm.  We hope to pop in on them on this trip, so there will be lots to blog about, and pictures, too.

Check back in with me later…

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