Category Archives: Chastain Farm

Snowbird Farmers: Winter Four

We’re back home in the li’l trailer on the tundra – single digits outside.

Looking out at the frozen winterscape, it’s hard to believe that just over a week ago, we were petting a manatee with our bare feet.

The wind moans and shrills at the trailer windows, but somehow cannot compete with the quiet cozy cracklings and shifting thumps of burning logs in the woodstove  – sounds made somehow even warmer knowing these are logs that we’d downed, hauled, split, and stacked to dry.

We just got home from our fourth winter as snowbirding farmers, thanks to the WWOOF-USA program, which connects organic farms with folks interested in helping out for room, board, experience … and, in our case, warmer climates.

This year, we decided to make our southernmost-point the Florida Keys, as we had on our “working honeymoon” trip when we first left Minneapolis in 2013. Both of our parents had plans to be there in late February, so we mapped out a course that would gradually take us there over the course of a few months – stopping to help out at other farms along the way.

Our first stop was at the Wu Wei Farm in Nixa, Missouri – we just knew it would be a good fit, given the name, which references the Taoist concept of natural action, without struggle or excessive effort  … the “cultivation of a mental state in which actions are effortlessly in alignment with the flow of life.

How very “que sera, sera!” Unsurprisingly, we felt right at home with the people, the space, the animals, and the river, and we know we’ll be back someday soon. Even the rocks in the field were awesome – while helping dig up potatoes, we discovered stone age Indian artifacts – flint flakes, a broken arrowhead, and a hand-held chopper tool.

As winter deepened, we headed deeper into the south, following the sun to return for our third time to a friendly and familiar spot – Yokna Bottoms Farm in Oxford, Mississippi.

We spent a few weeks with Doug and the dog pack, enjoying an unusual warm spell, which allowed us to continue to harvest and sell veggies at market well past the point that a killing frost would usually have brought things to a close.

As we had during both our previous winter stops at Yokna, we pulled everything out of the shed by the field and reorganized it – but this time, we decided to do something about the lack of organization, and built a sturdy set of shelving along one wall, using scrap lumber.

From there it was onward to another familiar farm – The Chastain Farms in Alabama, which we’d last visited during the polar vortex of 2014. It was awesome seeing all the little upgrades we’d put together in the WWOOFer cabin still in use three years later – the truck topper pot rack, the barnwood bathroom shelf, door, and floor, etc – and of course, seeing the folks.

We canned several dozens of jars of their frozen farm-grown strawberries (pictured) and tomatoes, turning them into jams, salsas, and BBQ sauce.
We canned several dozens of jars of their frozen farm-grown strawberries (pictured) and tomatoes, turning them into jams, salsas, and BBQ sauce.
Mama pig! She would jump up on the fence if you made eye contact and talked nice to her.
Mama pig! She would jump up on the fence if you made eye contact and talked nice to her.


We had a bit of a gap between farms to fill, so we paid a visit to our Facebook friend Jacqueline, in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. She’d been smacked with a case of the winter sickness, so in the mode of WWOOFers, we looked for ways to help out.

There was a cold snap and homes in the area aren’t really insulated for such weather, so we cut up some dead trees and kept a toasty fire going in her woodstove, warming the house while we chatted, made food, and dusted and cleaned her amazing museum-quality array of teapots, curios, and knick-knacks.

a fraction of Jacqueline's amazing teapot collection - a wonderful environment since I'd launched into this lifestyle with help from a couple of teapots that taught me to trust intuition and flow!
a fraction of Jacqueline’s amazing teapot collection – a wonderful environment since I’d launched into this lifestyle with help from a couple of teapots that taught me to trust intuition and flow!

Jacqueline introduced us to her friend Pat, who brought us (by Jeep) up to her off-grid mountain cabin and organic orchard where she’d been living for decades, getting her water from a stream and doing without even solar electricity … it was inspiring.

Jacqueline in front of Pat's off-grid homestead
Jacqueline in front of Pat’s off-grid homestead

From there it was onto another new spot – Rag & Frass Farm in Jeffersonville, Georgia.

WWOOFers there are expected to work 6 days a week, waking at sunrise and knocking off at sunset –  a far more busy schedule than most.

We were glad to be there and happy to help out – the work was varied and interesting … we did standard farm work such as seeding thousands of plants, and weeding, broadforking, and mulching thousands of row feet, of course.

But we also worked on all sorts of random projects that were both fun and satisfying – removing nails and screws from reclaimed lumber; tearing out musty old ceiling tiles and rotten asbestos floor tiles from the motel rooms; fashioning doorknobs from branches, lawn chair seats from old flooring, and a towel rack from a broomstick; optimizing lighting and doors; building a handwashing sink, a counter for the roadside stand, a swiveling 20-foot produce washing/drying table, and several gates;  clearing out and organizing the barn, a storage room, and the wild brambles behind the motel; repairing the kitchen table, several chairs and stools and a vintage fan … you get the idea.

the wash/dry rack project
the wash/dry rack project
two of the three barn stall gates
two of the three barn stall gates
reclaimed lumber counter/table project
reclaimed lumber counter/table project

It felt great knowing we were making an impact and leaving a positive mark on a growing operation – and we knew that once we left, it would be three weeks of lazy fishing and sunshine down in Florida …

donkeys are good people
donkeys are good people


Nearly a month later, it was time to mosey southward again – we spent a week in an RV park marina on a giant lake in the Florida panhandle with our friend Chris.

a small portion of our magnet-fishing haul - throwing a powerful magnet on a cord out along the marina docks, and carefully dragging it back in with treasures ...
a small portion of our magnet-fishing haul – throwing a powerful magnet on a cord out along the marina docks, and carefully dragging it back in with treasures …

Then we hit the Keys for two weeks with our folks, soaking up precious sunlight, ordering seeds, and preparing to get back to work on The Farm …

coconut harvesting
coconut harvesting
coconut processing
coconut processing
coconut cake
coconut cake

homeward bound, dreaming of frisbee
homeward bound, dreaming of frisbee


… and writing this website update was one of the items on our to-do list, perfect to accomplish while even the high temperatures are still below freezing.

It was a great winter, and looks to me like the forecast calls for an even greater growing season.

We’ve already started the first seeds of the season, and we’re ready to keep them alive through the freezing nights of our northern spring.

Welcome to 2017, thanks for joining us in another year’s adventure!

Alabama to Florida

Monday, February 3rd
leaving The Chastain Farms
Winterboro, AL


old silage pit once used to feed cows - Nathan would love to bury a school bus in it ...
old ‘silage pit’ once used to feed cows – Nathan would love to bury a school bus in it someday …

We woke up and fed the Chastain animals for the last time, and then got moving all our stuff out from the Milk Barn, into our van and trailer.

bringing the pigs their daily slops
bringing the pigs their daily slops


pigs harassing their new bovine pasture-mates
pigs harassing their new bovine pasture-mates

Then we all took a field trip across the road, back to the Lodge – this time to get a tour of the upstairs, where Old Man Joe had been working to rehab the historic structure. It was full of old donated junk, so we had a good time picking through it all, but the coolest thing by far was the 8-foot tall bird nest in the wall – made from generations of birds adding new material annually in a tall narrow space between the wall joists.

The nest towered over us, and reflected when the neighboring lands were changed from wilderness pine straw to cultivated wheat straw, decades before.


When we returned to the Chastain Farm, we were all packed, ready to roll, and were a bit ahead of our planned schedule .. but it just felt wrong leaving without helping the crew get the high tunnel greenhouse ribs assembled and put up. We’d helped dig in posts, level posts, re-level them repeatedly, cement them in, drill and attach multiple layers of toeboards, etc – days of work, but with almost nothing to show for it … and it had gone so smoothly putting up the first, test rib with the full team cooperating to align segments, screw them together, and hoist them up and down into place.

So we dug out muck boots back out from the trailer and went back out with the farmers and the SoCal WWOOFers to raise the roof.

The crew worked quickly and efficiently, dividing the labor into sensible chunks without any one person leading – the project just carried itself along and we rapidly had all the ribs screwed together on both sides and ready to move into the receiving foundation posts we’d worked on all week before the snow came.


It had rained intensely the previous night, and the tilled, loose soil within the perimeter of the high tunnel had become a thick ooze, ready to swallow the unwary.


We built a bridge from extra 2x6s, allowing the group that was setting the post on the far side of each rib to make the crossing without going down like Atryeu’s horse.


Once we’d finished the build and the obligitory celebratory photography, we said our goodbyes, once again hoping they were “see you laters.”


We had loved our time on the farm, and would miss the good people we had met there, the endless Kool Aid, the woodstove chimney pipe made from scavenged tomato cans, the amazing junkpiles bursting with potential, the cyclical rhythms of animals and old men.

branded by the DIY tomato can stovepipe
branded by the DIY stovepipe

We’d loved playing rustic aestheticians, practicing farmyard feng shui, bringing utility and rough beauty together. We had learned much from their selling of various value-added goods, from bouquets to preserves.

decoration we left behind in the WWOOFer bunker bedroom
decoration we left behind in the WWOOFer bunker bedroom

But it was time to move on, and go southward, sunward. Onward to Florida, the sunshine state!


The temps rose as we dropped deeper southward – by the time we reached our destination (our friend Chris’ place in an RV park in Tallahassee), it was dark.

We ate some “mater sandwiches,” talked with Chris for a couple of hours, and called it a night relatively early, wanting to get rested for the next two days of recreation and relaxation in the Panhandle.


boot rack

Sunday, February 2nd
The Chastain Farms
Winterboro, AL

It finally felt WARM when we woke up; 53 degrees! I was up earlier than usual and witnessed something only the early birds witness – Old Man Danny feeding the feral barn cats. There had to be at least 10 of them – with several free-ranging chickens intermingled among the roiling horde that followed Danny, Pied Piper style. It was a wonderful sight, and I was so delighted by it in the moment I failed to get a photo. But trust me, it was sweet.

Speck, Cleo & Widget chilling
Speck, Cleo & Widget chilling

A few days earlier, seeing how we’d fixed up the bathroom with junk from around the farm, Rachel had made a request – that we create some kind of boot rack, for rubber muck boots to be hung upside down on. (They were currently scattered around the ground  outside of the kitchen / Milk Barn door.)

We’d been keeping out eyes peeled for days for something perfect. But nothing really seemed right, and the things that somewhat appealed were off limits for re-purposing.

But we were now in our final day at Chastain Farms (whoa! that snuck up on us both), and nothing had worked out yet. So, while Nathan & Kimm worked with the SoCal crew on finishing the gate project, we set out to build a boot rack, somehow or another.


There were some big weathered posts in a pile out on the edge of the woods, but we weren’t sure how to assemble them into a rack. There was a pile of bamboo poles that had some promise, but again, nothing came to mind for how to bring them together. I thought maybe a roll of wire fencing would work, with them sticking up and out at an angle, with one boot hung on each … but when I brought some of the stout poles over to see if anything clicked, it just seemed like a mess to build, that it would take up too much space, that it would tip over unless it was anchored deeply into the ground, etc.

my belly took this while I was walking
my belly took this while I was walking with my camera around my neck

And then we asked Kimm where the rack should be located – and realized it was on the concrete pad by the kitchen door, so whatever we built could not be sunk into the ground for stability at all.

So it was back to the drawing board – or really, back to the junk piles. But wait .. when we moved the underutilized shelving unit from the spot that the hypothetical boot rack would live, we found a metal gridded frame, once used to imprint a pattern into fresh concrete. And we discovered that at about a 30 degree angle, boots would hang nicely from the spaces – narrow, smaller boots in the vertical slots, and larger men’s boots in the horizontally-oriented ones.

All it would need is some kind of frame to hold it securely in place … we didn’t want to just use 2x4s or something boring and ugly like that. So we walked out to peruse the junk piles for the perfect something.



What we wound up using in the end is visible in the picture above, but we didn’t get it on the first pass through – we went through here, and back to the Tool Shed (not to be confused with the Tool Barn), finding nothing. Walking back, we found a heavy red steel rack that seemed perfect – until we got it back and leaned the grid against it, and found that although the angle was perfect, the metal red bars were slanted such that they blocked access to many of the potential boot holes.

So we decided to use the cool old cash register thing we’d admired in the steel junk pile – drawer frozen open, rusted all over, beautiful and shining with character, and likely originally used in the old Chastain Grocery store.

attaching the 4x4s to the cash register
attaching the 4x4s

We chose a nice length of weathered old barn board for a shelf at the top and two salvaged white-painted 4×4 posts (matching the weathered paint of the door), and screwed it all together, with scavenged rusty washers, to avoid unseemly shiny new bits.  The rack sat in the edge of the drawer and leaned back at the perfect angle – all it needed was to be secured at the top somehow.


An old horseshoe tacked down with a couple of corroded old nails did the job with style and grace.


freestanding, sturdy, and made with all farm-scavenged materials
freestanding, sturdy, and made with all farm-scavenged materials

After the others finished work on the gate, we walked the perimeter of the huge pasture, trying to determine where the fence was grounding out, resulting in no electric shock action surrounding the pigs and cows.


It took awhile, but eventually Jimmy and I found and fixed it up in the woods, where a sagging line was contacting a grounded line.


When that was fixed, we drug the aluminum rib pieces out of the weeds, and assembled the first of the arched ribs that would support the plastic of the greenhouse, and tested out the first of them.


Billy photo bomb!
greenhouse rib raising at Iwo Jima
greenhouse rib raising at Iwo Jima


It was Superbowl Sunday – we ate dinner over at Kimm’s while folks half watched the commercials and slightly watched the game.

After we got home, rather than going to bed, we decided we had to fix just one more thing in the bathroom – the shower curtain was held up with a couple of unsightly, if functional 2×4 chunks with white PVC cap pieces. Kimm had mentioned that she had wanted the curtain rod to be located up within the doorframe, rather than inside the room – and Kristin had realized that the rusty “cow kick stop” (which we’d found but not used for the pot rack project) would make a perfect curtain rod holder.

So we got a flashlight, and took a walk out through the slippery mud to find the drill, back by the greenhouse. (I know it was slippery, because I totally fell down in it and got my pair of just-washed jeans coated in mud.) Then it was quick work to take down a trim board, cut the curtain rod down to size with a hacksaw, mount the cow kick stop and the rusty old hook with some washers, and install the new rod in its rusty new home.


2 2×4 trips

Saturday, February 1st
The Chastain Farms
Winterboro, AL

Today marked the halfway point of our working honeymoon; we’re one month in, with a month to go before we start working our w.ay back North.


We woke up to the news that one of the horses had somehow escaped the pasture, and was in the garden. Although there were no crops for her to devour, there were rows of plastic mulch that did not withstand heavy hoof traffic well.


We lured her out of the garden by freeing the other two horses and leading them past the gate toward the chicken coops, where the sweet feed (for Blossom the old nag) was kept.


A loudly-shaken bucket of this feed got them to follow Nathan back to the gate to their pasture … but no further. They knew where he was taking them and they were more interesting in somewhere new.


This worked out fine since the plan was to move them to the massive, wooded pasture area, where the Camphouse and little pond are located – leaving the cow pasture open to move the pigs into.

rustic wire grafitti
rustic wire graffiti


Cleo walked behind the big alpha-female Appaloosa as we secured the gate behind them, and learned that horses kick, the hard way. Fortunately, it was a light kick – knocking her over but not hurting her any,


Once the horse situation was under control, Nathan led the SoCal WWOOFers in a project to tear down a superfluous segment of fence. Kristin and I started on the next phase of toeboard work – a second tier of boards beneath the first, on the side with the massive gap between the ground and the  bottom of the boards, due to the slope of the land.

This meant more drilling through the galvanized posts.


We started on the side with the largest gap with 2×6″s – staggering the gaps as needed, connecting sections in pairs, then mounting these pairs onto the drilled posts, and connecting them to their neighbors with the same splice boards we’d used to connect pairs. As the land sloped and the gap narrowed, we switched to shorter 2×4″s.


The work on the 2×4 section took two trips out to the Camphouse – the first time we returned empty-handed, convinced the 2×4″s we found there were not treated for outside use.


Then we were told they were, in fact treated, so we took a second beautiful walk through the mossy, towering forest.


For lunch, Kristin made venison, corn, & sweet potato tacos, for us and Rachel and the two kids.


After we wolfed that deliciousness down, we helped get the project started to add a gate to a corner of the field adjacent to the just-removed fence, permitting equipment to be driven in and out.

For this to work, we needed to run an underground insulated wire from one side to the other, for the electric fence.


So Kristin dug a trench, while Nathan and I pulled a bent old steel fence post from a pile of similarly used posts, selected due its long straight section. I used a diamond angle grinder to easily cut the piece down to size, taking a selfie as I did so.


The post would be used to protect the buried wire, six inches beneath the roadway. But not yet – we still needed to find and install hinge pins to the existing fencepost, add a new post, mount the gate, wire the fences to the wire, etc. And it was dinnertime, so we closed it up in a temporary fashion, to be finished tomorrow.

clearing the ice ring out of the old horse's water
clearing ice from Blossom’s water

After dinner, I scavenged a long spring from the milking stalls in the Tool Barn, and upgraded the newly-faced bathroom door so that it would swing shut automatically; it was a simple, minor thing, but it gave me joy, and I found myself opening the door for no other reason than to enjoy it swinging closed again.


7-Up pound cake

Friday, January 31th
The Chastain Farms
Winterboro, AL

We woke up and fed the animals – discovering that in the night, a marauding beast skulked into the chickens and slaughtered one of the golden gang – the recently-free-ranging crew of roosters that we both loved, as they were used to humans and would follow us around at times and get up close.


The head and neck were completely gone, while the body was left behind – a sign that the predator was probably an owl or an underachieving  raccoon, which are both known for this kind of kill.




Then Kristin and I worked together to install the first course of toeboards to the high tunnel construction, while Nathan did some computer work for his job and the other WWOOFers built a lean-to type shelter for the pigs.


Since we’d buried the pre-drilled holes down into the concrete, we first had to drill new 5/8″ holes in each of the 26 galvanized posts at the same height. This took quite a bit of force.



Kimm came down and helped us work.



When the sun was getting low in the sky and our efforts were completed for the day, we headed out for a walk to check out the creek on the edge of the farm’s woods.









lichen-covered poison ivy vine
lichen-covered poison ivy vine

To end the day, we walked across the highway to the Plank Station Lodge, where Joe (of the Coffee Shop Old Men tribe) served as President and groundskeeper. They were having their popular annual Spaghetti Supper fundraiser event, and we were all invited. The people were friendly and talkative, dinner was comfortastic, and the desserts were incredibly delicious, especially the 7-Up Pound Cake, which almost caused a riot when Joe’s grandaughter intercepted a thrown piece Jimmy tried to throw to Nathan.