Project Recap: 2021

Construction on our strawbale home grinds on as the year progresses

Hey y’all. Ben here, with some conflicting feelings about the time of year. On the one hand, it seems like this season of growing, building, and learning has really gone by quick. On the other hand, or maybe on the same hand… I’m not sure which… this summer has been glacial in the consistent farmstead tasks that I have grown weary of. Something I haven’t done at all, admittedly, is update folks on all our doings here at the holler.

2021 was intended to be a year in which we put some of our food growing work on the backburner, so that we could focus energy on expanding our tiny strawbale house into a modest one. Much work remains to be done, but we have a foundation, a roof, most of the walls, and a lot of plaster work completed. We’ll be putting our heads down and pushing through some batches of earthen plaster as long as the weather remains above freezing, for the sake of effective application if not comfort.

Still, in spite of the looming house build, I could not help but plant a quarter acre of chestnut trees this summer, knowing damn well that if I’d done it nine years ago when we started I’d have nuts by now.

Establishing a chestnut orchard on north facing, highly erodible slope

The chestnut orchard is located out on a pasture site that has proven itself to be too fragile for any livestock other than turkeys, who in my observation, are perhaps the lightest on the land of any of our critters. We got our seedlings from Red Fern Farm up in Wapello, Iowa, along with a dozen pawpaw trees for good measure. In addition to all this, we’ve also added in a few more siberian pea shrubs, some plums and peaches, and a couple dozen apple rootstocks… many of which we’ve grafted with PRI scionwood.

We also started up on two exciting soil health projects in 2021, the first of which was submitting samples for assessment to Cornell Soil Health Laboratory. We now have some baseline soil health data to help us determine which practices are most helpful in our goal of increasing the carbon capturing abilities in our pastures and plantings. I hope to write more on the initial assessment and our work going forward in a future blog post.

Our inaugural biochar burn using the Ring of Fire kiln.

This year I also somehow managed to write and receive a grant for a biochar kiln. I expected the application process to be nerve-wracking, as I’m not good at telling people what they want to hear or putting on airs, but by simply filling out the application truthfully, we were somehow deemed worthy of this portable biochar kiln from Wilson Biochar. There was a fair bit of drama for nearly a month when this 7 foot long, 250 pound pallet of steel was somehow missing at a freight depot somewhere between here and Oregon, but the kiln eventually found its way here. Thus far we have produced a couple cubic yards of charcoal by recycling prunings and scrap wood into stabilized carbon. Unlike wood that is allowed to decay, this carbon, if properly handled, has the potential to stay out of the atmosphere for thousands of years. Another benefit of producing stable carbon this way is its ability to bond to nutrients and provide a hospitable environment for beneficial microbes and fungi. This winter we’ll be experimenting with biochar as a bedding medium in our barn, as well as a healthful feed additive.

Of course, in spite of all the construction and mad science experiments on the farmstead, I’ve still managed to get myself in over my head with turkeys, piglets, goat kids, and doing the opposite of what I said I’d do and planting our biggest garden yet. What can I say, I’m just cursed to toil in the soil. Which reminds me that I’d better get some hot sauce blended up before getting to bed tonight. Just thought a recap would be helpful for anyone trying to follow along on our adventure, and a good way for me to recommit to writing, now that the nights have grown longer again.

Published by Ben

Working hard at being simple.

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