After two and half months away from snow and subzero temperatures, our family of winter vagabonds has returned to the glorious North.
It was a successful journey – we weren’t sure what to expect from our first roadtrip with Otis, given the long drives, strange places, and constant change. Fortunately, he loved the shifting locales and characters, and we quickly found ways to make the 4,000+ mile trek bearable for the little guy while strapped into his safety bucket. He met countless animals, rode in boats, enjoyed parades, had his first tastes of so many foods, loved the Ocean, and learned to walk. It was a momentous journey for a guy not yet a year old – and a joy for us to guide him on.
Given the uncertainties, we’d planned our route around friendly farms that we’d visited before, where they know us and were excited to meet our spawn. We revisited our friends at Wu Wei Farm, Habitable Spaces, the Chastain Farms, and Yokna Bottoms Farm as we looped through the south, in between visiting family and friends along the route.
The winter wandering went so well that we’ve decided that we will continue to do our winter snowbirding, rather than build a more permanent cozy winter dwelling on the farm (yet, anyway).
While we were away, the Best Neighbors Ever kept the farm’s driveway clear, and even shoveled off our front steps in anticipation of our arrival – of course, we’ll still have some snow to battle as we get settled in to start seeds for the year, clearing access to the woodpiles, greenhouses, outhouse, root cellar, chicken coop, and storage spaces … or maybe we’ll get lucky, and it’ll all melt in the next few days?
I feel my mental gears grinding slightly as they shed the winter’s rust, switching back into Farm Mode. We’ve ordered our seeds for the season (Kristin is more than ready to get the onions started ASAP!), volunteers are getting lined up, and we’re signing up members for this year’s CSA.
It was a lovely winter and a wonderful journey – but we are happy to be home, and ready to rock.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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 …
… 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!
In late November, we tucked the Farm in for the season, ready for its sleepy cover crop of snow, and headed southward toward our planned route of other organic farms, where we would live and work through the WWOOF-USA program.
It was a good plan, a great route – but as we all know, what will be will be – and it’s rarely just what we had in mind. As it turned out, we first had to endure some loss this Winter. First, sweet mighty Cleo lost the use of her legs, after 15 years of the finest companionship a dog has ever provided man.
We kept her comfortable and happy til the very end, let her sleep in the bed with us, rolled her to her favorite places in a padded wagon, gave her all the love and treats that she wanted, and said our goodbyes at my sister’s house in Illinois.
Immediately afterward, my Mom’s health began to slide, as the cancer she’d kept at bay for a decade came back to roost. We turned back North, cancelled our plans to return to Yokna Bottoms Farm in Mississippi, and spent the month of December in my Minnesotan childhood home helping prepare the house for sale and my mom for a move into an assisted living facility.
By January, things had stabilized enough that we packed up the trailer again and hit the road for Texas – now with my mom’s dog Ace joining our family entourage. It would be just another month before I had to come back North …
Habitable Spaces (Kingsbury, Texas)
We’d spent almost the entire winter last year at this unique artists’ residency, and it was wonderful to return to see our human and animal friends, all that’s changed and endured.
Biodiverse Food Forest HomeGreen Permaculture Center (Rockport, Texas)
Their goals here are as lofty as their name is long – to transform a sandy, neglected, abused little parcel of land into a lush symbiotic edible ecosystem. Meredith and her mom are just getting things cleaned up and starting to grow – we helped them out wherever we could, and enjoyed the proximity of the ocean, in between.
Immediately after leaving Rockport, I got a call from my sister – my Mom was fading fast. I got on a northbound plane immediately, while Kristin and the dogs drove West toward our final host farm in New Mexico.
After a powerful and surprisingly positive week helping my mother make the transition into the great unknown, I flew back to rejoin them with a refreshed appreciation for life.
Last Word Ranch (Los Cerrillos, NM)
If the native soil in coastal Texas had been poor or challenging, the soil here in the high-altitude desert was barren and blasted. Irradiated by the sun and scattered by the howling winds, very little plant life grew – outside of the carefully nurtured gardens and the high tunnel packed with the aquaponics symbiotic system they’d just started up – fish living in water filtered by edible plants that used the fish waste as nutrients, a Rube Goldberg system as interconnected and unlikely as all of Life.
Although the loss of Cleo and my mom made this one of the emotionally coldest winters in the personal record books, it was not a bad winter. We shed so many tears, but death is an inevitable part of living – and life is a wonderful thing indeed. We met lovely people, reconnected with friends, bonded with family, learned, and laughed – and we are coming into Spring ready to keep on growing; forward, upward, and ahead.
Thank you all, again, for being part of this journey.
We’ve wanted to build an earth oven for some time now – we have a small camper oven, but it doesn’t really work that well, and we like to use the abundant free oak wood for fuel when we can, rather than pay for propane. We finally got our chance to try our hands at it at Habitable Spaces – where they encouraged us to build some kind of structure before we left.
Three unrelated projects that we’d helped with in December & January led us to decide on the earth oven build:
First, when we were digging postholes to fence off their first major field, we discovered that the subsoil was a rich, malleable clay, perfect for sculpting and building with.
Secondly, we dismantled and felled the giant tower, made from three massive cable spools stacked upon one another – revealing a perfectly useable concrete foundation pad beneath.
Third, we’d spent a lot of time scavenging the ruins of two old homesteads on their property, which had been home to Shane’s grandmother and other ancestors. We metal detected and scrounged, and Gabe created a skullpture with items we discovered throughout January.
In our scavenging, we discovered piles of old bricks, and several dozen partially-buried split limestone blocks, at both sites – these had once been house foundations. We’d excavated them when we found them, and left them propped up on the surface for possible retrieval later on.
Once we realized we wanted to create an earth oven, we decided these blocks would be the perfect base to build upon – beautiful, free, and full of the character and history of the land. So we borrowed the farm truck and a wheelbarrow, and got to collecting …
Kristin ordered a book on earth oven construction – this would be our Bible for the duration of the construction project that we embarked on, not sure if we’d even have time to finish it before we had to head to Austin in three weeks …
We began mortaring in the blocks, one tier at a time, spending hours fitting the stones together with minimal gaps and maximum stability/levelness.
Next we mixed the first batch of insulation – clay slip and pine shavings – the shavings dry up and even burn out completely, leaving air pockets and a clay-foam heat barrier.
The insulating clay was used to fill a foot-deep layer designed to prevent the infinite thermal heat sink of the ground from leaching away the oven’s heat. We included a layer of wine bottles, and a layer of beer bottles (from the bottle house supply pile) – these would form stable insulating air pockets within the insulation clay.
Once we got within four inches of the top of the base, we paused to mix up a batch of “oven mud” – clay and coarse sand. Oven mud clay is designed to hold heat for baking – it would be roughly the same clay used to build the interior of the oven dome, later on.
The sand we were using was quite rough & coarse – ideal for structural stability, but also quite good at abrading one’s feet completely off. We quickly switched to our rubber muck boots for stomp-mixing. (It might have been easier if the mix was wetter, but we wanted to avoid slumping and long drying times, so we kept it as dry as possible.)
The first batch of oven mud was used to make an oven pad, in the same dimensions as the firebrick interior baking floor would have (we laid out the firebricks on the ground to determine the measurements).
Then we filled in the surrounding gaps with more insulation mix, keeping everything level with the top exterior bricks.
In the meantime, we’d created several “test bricks” with different proportions of sand and clay – as well as one of pure soil (from the layer above the clay, but beneath the topsoil).
For the oven interior dome, we wanted to find what ratio would be strongest, and crack or shrink the least. The bricks dried out over a couple of days while we prepared for next steps and gave the water-soaked base insulation time to dry out some.
Next we worked on the arch opening. The book said that the ideal opening height was 63% of the interior dome, but we had to go just slightly higher to get a nice stable arch, with good supportive edge-to-edge contact throughout. We also tested to make sure that Habitable Spaces’ pizza peel would fit through (yep, just right!)
The resulting arch shape was traced onto plywood – Ali helped cut out two pieces in the proper shape and build a form by joining them together with 2x4s. This supported the bricks while we spaced them out with pebbles, and filled in the gaps with oven mud mortar.
We also started work on the protective roof – while rain wouldn’t destroy the oven, it would saturate the clay, requiring many more hours of firing time to get it up to temp, and shortening the working life of the oven. There were a couple short pieces of roofing left over from the house and kitchen, perfect for our needs. We scavenged together some cedar posts and scraps with lovely knotty character, wanting to make the roof match the organic, natural appeal of the oven’s base.
Before starting the next phase of the build, we mixed up a huge batch of oven mud, making it a little bit wet and leaving time for it to dry out a bit, before we launched the most significant single piece of the construction – the interior dome.
First, we built the sand mold, like a sandcastle – this was the shape of what would become the void within the oven. We sprayed it with water and patted it tightly as we worked, attempting to create a smooth, flowing interior that fire and hot gas would roll through nicely.
The hardest part of the sand form was the newspaper layer, which would help us remove the sand from the clay later – it was frustrating to get it to stay smooth and in place, but we learned as we went, using lots of water, and smaller pieces of paper.
The sand form and the oven mud interior layer had to be done the same day – we we launched immediately into it.
The going was slow, as we carefully packed the oven mud into place, a fist-sized chunk at a time, maintaining a consistent 3″ thickness, and only applying force into existing clay (not into the fragile sand form). A CD we’d bought in Austin from the musician Kiko Villamizar played on repeat for hours – it was not the first or the last time the album provided the soundtrack to our work, but it was the longest continuous stretch.
We each worked from one side of the arch to the back, meeting in the middle – and then switched sides for the next layer, so that any idiosyncrasies in our individual methods would be evenly distributed on either side, and layered with the other’s style.
Darkness fell, and we set up lights on each side so we could finish the vital layer.
While the interior oven mud layer dried, we left it alone and spent a day working on the protective roof, not wanting to impatiently cause a collapse.
Once it seemed dry and stable, we filled in a couple of drying cracks with oven mud, and pulled out the arch form to reveal the sand within.
Then it was time to scoop out the sand form, and create the void.
Once the oven mud was stable and we’d pulled the sand out, we started on the next layer – 4 inches of the same wood shaving/clay slip insulation that we’d used in the base. This layer went much more quickly – the insulation was simple to mix, and fast to apply and shape in big double handfuls.
The next day, we started the first-ever fire inside – a drying fire, which we kept going for about two straight days, speeding along the drying of the water-soaked insulation – we needed it to be mostly dry before we applied the final exterior clay, and we were quickly running out of time at Habitable Spaces.
In order to use the oven effectively before we left, we had to dry out not just the insulation layer over the dome, but the insulation down in the base – which was now wicking moisture up, into the dome, and out into the air as the top dried out more and more.
While we burned the drying fire for days, we built a baking door out of cedar scraps – this would seal in the heat of the oven after a fire had heated up the clay thoroughly, the embers had been removed, and the pizza or bread or pie was inside.
We also mocked up a simple “fire door” – not totally necessary, but nice to have on windy days when the fire is struggling to breathe due to turbulence. Cool fresh air comes in the bottom to feed the flames, and hot gases and smoke swirl out the top of the arch and above the door.
It was rainy on the final day of the drying fire, so we put the unfinished roof over the oven as it continued to dehydrate. We prepared for the final coat by mixing up a big batch of exterior mud the day before – this consisted of a new mix:
some fine playground sand,
a bunch of subsoil (above the clay layer and beneath the topsoil – we did a soil test with a jar of water that indicated it contained mostly very fine sand),
some clay (about 1 part to the 2 parts of fine sand), and
about 3 gallons of fresh cow manure (for the smooth strength of the fine fiber of 7-times digested grass)
Once we had a 2-4″ layer of plaster mud all over, we got to work shaping and decorating – smoothing, adding flame and ember colored rocks around the base and arch, and sculpting flames and heat waves in the mud …
We had just two days left before we were leaving Habitable Spaces – and we were determined to be able to eat some food from the oven before we left!
So we started a new drying fire inside, knowing that the fast drying would likely lead to cracking, but willing to take our chances.
There was, indeed, considerable cracking due to the fast-drying action of the fire, but the scary-looking cracks turned out to be easy to fix – we waited until it was dried out and stable, then filled them in with a wet mix of the same plastering material.
The warm exterior (from the sunshine and drying fire) caused the repair slip to dry almost instantly, creating a rough surface – which led us to the discovery that some wirebrushing created a nice light color, which highlighted the flame patterns pleasantly.
We built some tools from the junkpile (a scraper, a cleaning swab, and a fire blowing tube) – and eagerly awaited the next day: our final full day at Habitable Spaces, and the day we would finally test the oven out on some food!
We tinkered and smoothed and prepared throughout the day and the following afternoon …
We kept the drying fire going – now it was going to provide the heat for the first baking!
Kristin prepared two kinds of pizza dough – Neapolitan & New York style, and we soaked the inside of the cedar baking door by floating it in a large bucket, in order to minimize burning/charring.
Finally, we there in the first pizza, which sizzled satisfyingly as it hit the firebrick. Within minutes, delicious scents began wafting from the narrow gaps around the baking door …
And five minutes later, we pulled the first pizza from the oven. (It will take less time in the future, once the oven is finished drying out – at first, it loses efficiency to the energy that water takes to steam out.)
We baked into the night, leaving each pizza in for one minute longer than the last, until we were all too full to eat another slice and we’d exhausted our supply of ingredients. Then we threw a shortbread crust in for awhile, took it out and added a filling of blackberries, apple, ginger, and sugar, and replaced it inside for another 40 minutes of baking.
When it was done (and devoured), we used the considerable remaining heat to overnight slow cook a cast iron pot of beans with jalepenos, pepper, and cumin for our breakfast tacos the following day – our last morning at Habitable Spaces, capping off our wonderful two-month stay!
A couple of days after we left, Shane and Alison sent us the photos below – while they were soaking the door (in preparation for a bakefest of 8 pizzas & a loaf of bread), both a chicken and a cat had decided that the earth oven was a “habitable space,” indeed ….
It was a lot of work but incredibly rewarding and fun – we’re looking forward to visiting again to eat from it someday … and we can’t wait to build our own, back home on our farm!!
In our first post from Habitable Spaces, I mentioned how when we first arrived and the van got stuck on a tree stump, it seemed like a sign of how would be rooted and grounded here.
It turns out this was more accurate than we knew – our planned three and a half week stay has transformed into a two months, as plans fell apart with the next two farms that we’d lined up.
This could have been a minor disaster, but for two things – we like Habitable Spaces, and they like us.
We’ve been having a great time settling into to the space, getting to know the people, the animals, and the area … here’s some of what we were up to throughout January!
(they’re not really in order, I assume no one really cares ….)
So that was January! We’re going to be here through February 19th before we start making our way west toward Arizona – and from there, home again in mid March to get the farm kicking! Its coming fast now … woo hoo!