brooder box build

Saturday, January 25th
The Chastain Farms
Winterboro, AL


Today  Nathan, Kimm, & SoCal Billy n’ Etti  headed out early in the morning, to take a two-hour drive to Georgia. They were headed to a rental house Nathan owned there, on a mission to get some needed repairs done before a new tenant moved in. Kristin and I stayed back alone with orders to build a chicken brooder, in preparation for the 50 two-day old chicks that would be arriving via USPS on Wednesday.

The type Nathan wanted built was a “hover brooder” – a slightly raised ~4×4′ box with two heat lights in the ceiling, a 4″ gap for chicks to duck under, and a ~6″ high box. The baby chicks would be able to stay warm as though they were being sat upon by their mothers, moving them along in their development toward meaty broiler chickens ready for sale.


So we hauled a wooden pallet back from the Camphouse and broke it down into good side boards, 7.5″ high. We cut 2 4′ sideboards, 2 4’2″ sideboards,  a 4′ x4’2″ roof of chipboard, four and 11.5″ 4×4 posts , and put it together.


Then we scavenged through the various barns and sheds, hunting for light bulb fixtures among the amazing array of materials. We found the electrical boxes quickly, but the porcelain socket plates proved far more elusive. We went through all the structures without finding any – and just when it seemed time to call Nathan and tell him to pick up a couple from the hardware store on the way back to the farm, two appeared inside different Tupperware bins we checked inside the Tool Barn.


We didn’t have the wiring to use, and had to confirm with Nathan our plan to mount them on top, dropped through from above, so we held the project there for the time being, and moved onto the net project: preparing the brooder house.

First we built a divider wall down the middle of the old stone outbuilding that would serve as a brooder house. We found an assembled section of old boards up the Tool Barn loft, chopped off the top couple boards and a bit off one end to make it both easy to step over and fit snugly into the gap from the former fireplace – it fit perfectly, stayed upright on its own, and would be easy to remove as needed.


Then we stapled some plastic leftover from the greenhouse covering over the windows to help minimize draftiness, and rounded off the day by feeding the animals their dinner before the crew returned from Georgia.


Later that night we all went over to Kimms to eat dinner and watch a movie. On the way over I commented that I was going more for the people than the movie – this turned out to be more accurate than I realized, as the pay per view system broke down on us when we tried to watch a horror movie (“The Conjuring”) and instead, a lengthy speaker-phone customer service comedy ensued – and after a couple hours of trying, we gave up and went back to the Milking Barn to sleep.


barnyard bathroom beauty

Friday, January 24th
The Chastain Farms
Winterboro, AL

This morning when we woke up, it was actually colder here than it was back in Minneapolis or Wolf Creek: 14 here, and 19 back home – only slightly, and only briefly, but it was noteworthy since it’s generally been at about 30 to 40 degrees warmer here most of the time.

Fruity Pebble pancakes with spicy jam
Fruity Pebble pancakes with Chastain Farms spicy jam


After we fed the animals, the Southern CA WWOOFers and the Alabama natives hunkered down inside, waiting for the day to warm up a bit. In the meantime, Kristin and I took our cold-hardened bodies out to the field, to tweak the levels of the high tunnel greenhouse posts (the leveling system that had been used previously had been inaccurate, so the posts needed to be adjusted to true level).

We moved down the row from the corner post, lowering each post slightly to match it with a few sledgehammer hits – until we got to the final 2 posts of the 9, which were actually still lower than the others. Not wanting to knock all the posts down even further to match, we left them be and waited for Nathan to return to the farm to decide if all should be lowered, or if we could try to pull the two low ones back up a bit.


After a couple of hours it was deemed warm enough to survive outdoors for warm climate humans, and Etti & Billy worked in the field, cleaning up the two long rows of turnips that the farmers had somehow been bewitched into planting although neither they nor their customers really wanted them. Kristin asked the to save any good looking ones so she could cook with them as well as preserve some.

turnip wagon ho!
many more turnips than we expected

While they worked the field, Kristin and I launched Operation Bathroom Makeover. You may recall how our first impression of the farm here was somewhat tainted by the bathroom – a stark, utilitarian shower/toilet combo with a permanent puddle of muddy water pooled around the base of the toilet and across the floor.


Well, having lived with it a few days, we’d come to realize it wasn’t awful – if you wore sandals to shower, the water was hot and the pressure was good, and showers felt great. But still – it was an ugly room and we knew it was a negative experience for the other WWOOFers and something that could give bad impressions to new visitors very easily. So we decided to help them fix it up a little.

We weren’t able to level the floor or reroute any plumbing, but we figured there were some key steps we could take.


First, the hideous eroded slab of laminate particle board countertop serving as a shelf had to go. There was gorgeous old barn wood laying around everywhere, and all kinds of possible options ripe with character and beauty. The bathroom would never look sterile and modern and gleaming – so we figured it should be dressed up a bit to bring out the rustic character of the farm.

Kristin found an old wooden box that immediately improved upon the old shelf, but we knew it could be even better – we’d keep our eyes peeled for even better options throughout the day.

We decided a raised wooden floor platform would really help – it would hide the dirt, keep feet dry and clean, and make the bathroom into a place you could venture barefoot without fear, or in socks without grody wet feet.


When we’d re-roofed the greenhouse with boards scavenged from the Tool Barn’s loft, I’d set aside a couple cedar floor boards that seemed to be too smooth, straight and clean to use for tacking down plastic roofing – these would be perfect for the bathroom floor, I reckoned.


We took measurements, built a frame from 1×1 treated lumber, and got it together without any major trouble. We were putting the finishing touches on when Nathan returned from the circus he’d been attending with his son’s school class all morning,

just after we dropped it into place – before cleaning off the barn dirt

In the process, Kristin found a gorgeous piece of barnwood with a cool knotted edge – we determined that if we cut it right, it would be an awesome shelf over both the toilet and the back of the sink,  with the wooden box mounted atop the wide part.

sweet tin toothbrush/paste holder found in a pile of junk in the Tool Shed (not to be confused with the Tool Barn) & cleaned up
barnwood bathroom shelf
the far right end of the barnwood shelf,(where the narrow soap dish end meets the wall) is also uncut and weathered – the spacing from the existing end was just naturally perfectly aligned for the sink

Finally, we replaced the crusty chrome plastic soap dish & added an old tin planter & some other scavenged decorative pieces atop the medicine cabinet (complete with mossy old brick) – and the bathroom remodel was complete.







rat terrier dream come true

Thursday, January 23nd
The Chastain Farms
Winterboro, AL


Today, after I finished some sledgehammer tweaking of the existing greenhouse post levels with Nathan, we all weeded the fenceline around the horse and cow pasture.


The other WWOOFers worked ahead with machetes, taking out the small brush, me behind them with some kind of hoof trimming tool I’d found and deemed good for ground-level cutting of those macheted stumps that were too tall and thick to be weed whacked (which was one part of my role, in addition to removing sticks, pulling the wire out of the ground in anthills, stomping said hills flat beneath the fenceline, keeping Kristin smiling, and carrying extra gasoline and weed whacker cord ). Kristin brought up the rear with a weed whacker.


Along the way around, we experienced some kind of buried object (presumed whiskey still), weird curls of ice crystals extruding from the ground around the base of certain plants, some cow bones, a beautiful assortment of dried weed flower heads (with which we created a bouquet-ish decoration for the sleeping bunker), and two pigs actually having oral sex. Seriously.


probably an old whiskey still
probably an old whiskey still

The pasture is quite large, and this took some time.

When we got back, Nathan was running a John Deere tractor around an area of miscellaneous field near the Milk Barn (aka the kitchen/”coffee shop”/sleeping bunker building). As the concentric circles of mowed grass got tighter and tighter, more and more rodents of the grasses fled into a smaller and smaller area of tall grasses … until it was time for them to break for safety across the open field. A big hawk divebombed and flew away with a plump kill in its talons – I assume that country hawks quickly learn to pay attention when fields are being worked through with tractors.



Then Widget got in touch with her Rat Terrier heritage, and started her rampage – with 4 kills confirmed within minutes of the mowing’s completion.


I found a pile of old … cow steering things? I didn’t really even know what these are. Anyway, they were just rotting away outside in a heap, so I brought them back to decorate the spartan exterior of “The Bunker” (as I had started to call the Milk Barn). They fit great into the window wells, adding a bit of rustic vintage character from both the outside and the views from inside. Luckily, there were just enough to fill all the windows in the front side.


Then we went for a walk – out to the far rear of the property and beyond, through the woods, past the camphouse, and up to a hunting blind structure we found up on the edge of the field.


the walls were carpeted
the walls were carpeted


the bird nest was empty
the bird nest was empty
the Bud Light was full
the Bud Light was full


the view was lovely
the view was lovely




old cow pelvis shaman mask
shaman mask!



For dinner, we experimented with various recipes using available leftovers and canned goods atop of white hamburger bun halves, broiled in the oven; Chastain sweet potato butter dumplings 2 ways, jumbalya sloppy joe mini pizzas, open-face shepherd pies. Then for dessert, more of the same basic concept, but with chocolate chips, Chastain Farms ‘Cowboy Candy,’ spicy raspberry jelly, and Sweet Potato Butter.


Some of these experiments were quite a bit tastier than others, but all were at least entertaining and edible – and some were absolutely delicious.

We went to bed full.


southern-style pear salad

Wednesday, January 22nd
The Chastain Farms
Winterboro, AL
making breakfast hash with Chastain Farms sweet potatoes & eggs

Today Kristin and I teamed up and took on the project of re-covering the greenhouse with a new layer of 5 mil plastic sheeting. The old one was holey and falling apart, and the greenhouse wasn’t really retaining any heat as a result. Given the massive polar vortex hunkered down over most of America, this was a problem that needed addressing sooner than later.

the bowl that broke this window was left in situ as a leak block …


Since the old plastic was going to remain as a secondary semi-insulating layer, first we needed find new boards to pin down the sheeting along the roof. In the loft of the “Tool Barn,” we discovered a pile of bowed and somewhat chewed up old cedar tongue and groove floor boards that would work perfectly, and brought them down and cut 14 of them to the proper length.


Then we climbed up on the roof and got the new plastic sheeting spread across the peak of the roof and draped down both sides. We screwed the new slat boards down on top of the old ones, with long screws on those aligned with the trusses, and short ones where there was no solid support underneath. This also meant that we could only put our full weights on every other board. I was glad to have my skate shoes and not just the rubber muck boots I’ve been wearing almost daily since we came South, as we balanced across the roof, attaching boards and supporting one another’s tool and screw needs.


Once we had the top all secured, we folded, rolled, cut, and stapled the edges down, and put pieces of the extra plastic over the broken and missing window panes. As a finishing touch, we found a screw that fit to replace the one missing from the decorative aluminum flourish on the door, so it no longer rattled and clanked loosely whenever the door was used.

the dogs admire our handiwork

We helped shove three round bales f hay off the trailer and into the horse and cow pasture. While we worked, a brown cow who is notorious for such behavior (she’d gotten Billy last week) snuck up behind Cleo and headbutted her in the butt.

I forget her actual name; I call her Headbutt


Then we set several new foundation posts for the high tunnel greenhouse,  with a lot of attention paid to things being precisely even and level.

Nathan, nephew of Thor

We saw the wild cats and kittens that live in the semi-ruin of the Tool Barn; they were gorgeous and adorable, but completely uninterested in human interaction.

For dinner we went down Chastain Road to Kimm’s house, where we were introduced to the Southern food experience of “Pear Salad” – a  canned pear (canned on Chastain Farm) topped with mayo and shredded cheddar cheese. It didn’t sound bad, but I was still surprised at how well the three ingredients actually worked together.

Try it!

Alabaman day one

Tuesday, January 21st
The Chastain Farms
Winterboro, AL

We will be spending the next two weeks on the Chastain Farm, right off of Chastain Road, which is lined with land and homes of Chastains past and present.


The Chastain Farm land is owned by Jimmy Chastain. He used to have a dairy farm on the land, as well as a small grocery store. Then he sold off his cattle to some guy who offered him a great deal, and lost his store when the road out front was to be expanded into a 4-lane highway and they eminent-domained it out from under him.


He lives in a house on the corner of the land away from the rest of the buildings, works at the school across the road. He is around a lot and helps with various things, but the main point man on the farm is Nathan, Jimmy’s son-in law – although he may have an equal or superior in the main point woman, his wife Rachel. Both have full time jobs, although Nathan’s computer-work job’s hours are highly flexible. The General in the field is Kimm, the couple’s close friend and the Farm Manager in all but actual title (she says shes an Office Manager, but that is far too narrow a title). She probably has actual boots on the land here for more hours than the other three combined, from what we can see so far.

Then there are kids and dogs. (Cats too, but they are wild & unnamed.) Nathan and Rachel have a 7 year-old son named Coleman and an Italian Mastiff named Moose, Kimm has a 14 year-old son named Jason, and Jimmy has his wife’s deceased son’s deaf-and-almost-totally-blind-yet-still-active-17-year-old cattledog named Speck. There are two other WWOOFers here, 20 year old Etti and 18 year-old Billy, both from southern California.

kitchen Kim
Kimm in the kitchen



Morning reveals that the weather around us is changing yet again, as cold air moves in, via lots of intense wind. The winters in the South are not all that cold, but they are very dynamic. Windy weather means no greenhouse work – the plastic sheeting would fly away, perhaps with us attached.


Every morning the animals must be fed. First, we give 2 scoops of sweet feed and one little scoop of minerals to the sweet, elderly horse Blossom – living out her retirement from a camp for the deaf and blind.


Then a scoop to each of the three different groups of chickens, and whatever food scraps have accumulated for the four pigs, augmented by  a scoop or two of food as scrap volume necessitates.


If anybody needs water added or de-iced, we do that. If we can find where the chickens are hiding their eggs today, we bring them in (other than the questionably-effective lure egg in the easy to get to location)

That didn’t take very long, and was a nice way to connect with the space and the animals – I can see it becoming a fun morning pre-breakfast ritual, like our morning walk down to the chicken coop at Yokna Bottoms.

Next we cleaned up a few rows of the garden – removing dead weeds and bean plants from a couple plastic-mulch-stripped rows, and pulling up said plastic from another row.



Then we hiked back to the rear of the property, way back beyond the pigpen, to check out the “camphouse” – which we had hoped to be able to use as our sleeping quarters. However, it had no heat, no windows, and no electricity or plumbing – and it was getting cold at nights … while still well above zero, unlike the temps back home, they were still nothing we wanted to sleep out in. But the walk was pleasant, the woods were gorgeous – huge oaks with sparse pine understory and almost no undergrowth – and there was a scenic meadow clearing and pond beyond it.


After lunch, the four of us set upon some piles of corn stalks and dried up bean plants, using a variety of axes and choppers – our goal being to manually break it down as much as possible for  the farm’s use in compost. (We personally prefer a more laissez faire approach, back home.)


finely chopped corn stalks for compost
hey finely chopped corn stalks, can I axe you a question?

Kristin made chicken & dumplings with green beans for dinner, and Kimm made chocolate chip cookies for dessert.


We set up a box fan to blow over the woodstove, across the pipe, and toward our room in the back. Etti was sleeping in the “coffee shop” next door, so we pushed the bunkbeds together and made a blanket cave out of the bottom two, using sleeping bags, pads and blankets from the van.


It was a wonderful first day – we both went from skeptical to really liking the farm quite a bit, and being confident that we would enjoy our time here.


living close to the ground