Highgrove Farm – Year One
Part One – The first Six Month
There’s a lot to report, so we’ve broken it into two posts: the first six months with a bit of an intro about what we’re trying to accomplish and a separate post about the last six months and some lessons learned.
From the very beginning, we’ve thought of Highgrove as more than “just” a farm. Our mission is to maximize quality of life within a sustainable footprint (a.k.a. learning to be happier with less).
The “sustainable footprint” part means that we are looking for a radically new way to farm that isn’t dependent on fossil fuels, fertilizers, pesticides or any outside inputs of any kind. That has led us to focusing on regenerative farming techniques that work with natural systems in a balanced way and to “farm slow.”
The “maximizing quality of life” part means that we are looking for ways of farming and living that support a healthy, happy, balanced life – unlearning the completely unbalanced habits of the dominant “wetiko” culture of predatory capitalism.
As a result, we are dedicated to an evidence-based, iterative, experimental process to develop both the physical infrastructure and the routine processes of Highgrove as a healthy, whole, regenerative project. Part of that involves the “aim-act-reflect” process – make a plan / follow through / reflect on what’s working and what’s not / then refine the plan and repeat. This report represents our first major reflection on progress.
When we arrived at Highgrove, we found a blank slate. The property is a former clear cut that hasn’t been worked consistently in recent memory. There was a new “barn” with an apartment on the second floor and a storeroom on the first floor with a sink and a countertop, and no other equipment or furnishing. An approximately 10 acre area was enclosed in deer fencing and a few new apple trees planted along the front drive – as much for the aesthetics as for any clear purpose. Beyond that, there wasn’t any significant farming infrastructure.
We knew that the first year would be focused on developing some basic capabilities – like kitting out a workshop, developing garden space, and building some movable animal shelters – and learning as much as we could about the property itself. For us, regenerative farming is based on working with nature rather than imposing an artificial plan on it, so we knew that it would take time to figure out what the property wants our relationship with it to be.
At the same time, we had some practical considerations. First and foremost, we needed to earn “farm status” from BC Assessment (which significantly reduces our property tax burden). This requires that we have a minimum “farm gate sales”, and so we didn’t have the luxury of not producing any products the first year. Luckily, raising pigs is a win-win. Pigs are nature’s rototillers and have been used for generations to prepare land for gardens and row crops. Pigs love to eat roots – like grass roots – so if you raise them where you want your garden to be, they dig up the soil, eat the grass roots, and provide a healthy dose of manure to fertilize the soil for next year. We also get to meet part of our yearly requirement of food from them, plus the pork sales provide us enough farm gate sales to qualify for farm status. So, pigs were the top of the list on our plan.
Beyond that, we knew we needed a functional workshop. We’ve discovered that farming is actually about 90% carpentry. You are constantly having to build a new feeder, repair a gate, or set up a new chicken tractor (the next priority in our plan).
Move-in / workshop / pigs / chickens / goats!
Chicken tractors are moveable chicken houses that allow us to 1) have a flock of chickens for eggs (one of the most productive components of a regenerative farm) that 2) can be rotated through pastures to a) scratch up the soil surface like mini-tillers b) eat up potential insect pests which are c) also high protein feed for the chickens while d) depositing an even layer of high-nitrogen poop.
Next on the list were goats. Three-quarters of the property is scrubby, hilly, rocky post-clearcut land overrun with blackberry and broom. Just as pigs are nature’s roto-tiller, goats are nature’s bushcutters. Not only that, our friends had three goats that needed more pasture. Eventually, we are hoping to breed the goats and start to do a little goat dairying, but to start we just wanted to get them in the backcountry to start clearing the area to get it ready for soil and pasture development.
We knew that we wouldn’t have time or capacity to have a garden our first year – sad as it was to go without one for the first time in years.
So, our plan mantra was “move-in / workshop / pigs / chickens / goats.”
And then… The Pandemic
After almost a year of negotiations, with several heartbreaking last-minute setbacks, we were finally able to sign a lease for February 15th, 2020. We managed to move our stuff from the various locations it had been stored during our nearly two-year period of RV living (thanks to a fantastic group of friends both on Pender and in Saanich), but we were in the middle of lambing at the old farm, so we weren’t actually able to move in until March 2nd. About a week later, the WHO (not The Who) declared the coronavirus a pandemic and within a few days of that, life in BC began to change dramatically. As a result, many of the particulars of our plan changed as well.
While not specifically part of our original six-month plan, we had always assumed that we would have frequent farm visitors and helpers like we had at Valley Home. That was the first casualty of the pandemic. We knew we were on our own for the first season, at least. Likewise, we are committed to buying as low on the food chain as possible. We had planned on furnishing both our living space (since we had been living in an RV for the past 2 years, we had practically no furniture of our own to start) and the workshop and farm with as much second-hand materials as possible. The lockdown in BC made this a fairly unworkable option for us, so we revised those plans as well. We also decided that given the potential disruption to the food supply chain, we would try to dedicate some effort to establishing what we ended up calling our pandemic garden (more on that below).
Beyond that, though, the pandemic only underscored the importance of this project and of moving as quickly as possible to a new way of living and growing healthy, local, resilient food.
Projects and Progress
Moving in posed many more challenges than we anticipated. First, we discovered that not only did the apartment not have an oven or stove, it didn’t even have any connections for one. So, job one was figuring out how to kit ourselves out with some means of cooking anything. Think camping, but inside. It took weeks of back and forth between our landlord, property manager, original contractor, and new electric contractor to organize the installation of a 220 outlet for the stove in the kitchen (including a hunting expedition by the new electrician to find where the electric line had been hidden in the floor because of faulty instructions from the original contractor). After that, we found a second-hand stove which very nearly functioned. Almost. Eventually, our friends Erica and Chad came to the rescue (again) by gifting us with the stove from their farm kitchen, which they wanted to get rid of.
Meanwhile, we still had the challenge of finding some sort of basic furniture. We moved in with a dining room table, an armoire, two folding tables, and a couple of bedside tables. There had been a table and some folding chairs left in the barn which we used in the pinch. We also had an inflatable “guest bed.” And that was it. Due to the lockdown, heading to the second hand stores or even the furniture stores was not an option.
So, IKEA to the rescue. Or so we thought. I’ve always been a bit of an IKEA addict. I love wandering the maze at the store while over-pronouncing product names. But the online experience is, um, not so much fun. It included being forced to place multiple orders, a computer system that told us things were in stock until we ordered them and then made us guess which item (of the 40 things on our list) was the missing one, being told our address didn’t exist and finally being told that we had to pick up our order (in Victoria) within 48 hours only to arrive at the location that was closed for the next 72 hours for the holiday weekend and THEN being told the following Tuesday after the long weekend that I wasn’t allowed to take the order (which I could see on the floor in front of me) because we took too long to pick it up so they were going to ship it back to the warehouse. And that’s just the highlights. After a very long (and frustrating) adventure, we finally had a bed to sleep in. But with no mattress.
The mattress, however, arrived with no problems. We ordered one from Endy, and it was delivered to our new address, even though Google Maps had not yet included it on their service. (P.S. Over a year later, and we still aren’t on Google Maps. In fact, all three of our requests have been declined. They insist they can’t verify our information in spite of the fact that the municipal government has our road on the official map, and Canada Post has us in their records. Go figure.)
The last move-in challenge was getting our internet connection. We live on a small island with very few options for Internet providers. The “big guy” is Shaw. Unfortunately, we are the first people to live at this address and Shaw decided we don’t actually exist. We talked to our next door neighbours and confirmed that they have a Shaw connection, but nothing we could do would convince Shaw of this. We were transferred to their “research” department where we were assured by the nice lady on the phone that someone would be in touch within 24 to 48 hours. A few days later after no contact, we called again and the second nice lady assured us that the first lady had lied to us because you never get word that quickly. It would be at least a week. A week later when we called back, we were informed that they would get back to us when they were good and ready and would we please stop calling them. And, you guessed it, a year later and they still haven’t called us back.
Luckily, we have an alternative provider – South Island Internet – the “little guy” based on Saturna Island who is running a radio internet service that beams service directly to an antenna. It’s not quite as fast as cable and a bit more expensive, but he seemed to believe that we actually existed and answered our calls, which was a nice change of pace.
The problem was that his towers on Saturna are just over the hill from us, and for the connection to work, the broadcaster and receiver have to be in line-of-sight. The solution: hiring a guy to climb a 150-foot tree about halfway up the hill, then running a cable down the hill with a special booster, then running the cable through a culvert, along a fence, and down a tunnel to get it into the house. If everything lined up and the fates smiled on us, the nice man assured us, it just might work. Maybe.
In the end, and after a series of cancelled appointments due to storms, ferries and other disruptions we finally got our internet installed. Praise be! The next day, the company announced that due to the worsening pandemic conditions, they were suspending home installations – so we got in just under the wire.
So, even a year later, we still aren’t completely moved in. There are still some pictures to hang, and we still need to sort out some more kitchen storage, but on the whole, we consider the move-in 90% done. We have a functioning kitchen, a bed to sleep in, and a very good internet connection. We’ve even been able to flesh out our furnishing with the generosity of friends and neighbours on the island and it’s all starting to feel like home.
The original pig plan was pretty simple. Our friends Erica and Chad have raised pigs for the last few years and were taking a break this year, so we were basically going to follow their model including the use of some of their equipment. We would get eight piglets from a local breeder they discovered who raises heritage breeds, raise them on conventional pig feed in the space that would become our garden, and then off to market at the end of September. Pig troughs, and a water barrel would come from Chad and Erica, and all we needed to do was build a shelter out of pallets and get some electric fencing to keep them contained.
The first setback happened when Roland contacted the breeder for piglets. He managed to catch the guy as he was literally coming in from burying the piglets. He lost the whole litter. We don’t know why as it seemed inappropriate to ask at the moment. So, we went with plan B and contacted a couple in Saanich who bring piglets in from a big operation in Alberta. They aren’t heritage breed and they aren’t raised in the homey conditions of the local breeder, but we were in a pinch. Plus, the local couple who bring them in are incredibly caring and knowledgeable, so we were very comfortable working with them.
The first step went well. We picked up the piglets – at the time, small enough to pick-up and fit four to a dog carrier. We brought them home and put them in their newly constructed pig house and were amazed at how quickly the little guys started to root around in the grass – almost instantly starting to dig up and eat the roots. Plus, they were just adorable – curious, friendly.
Then a couple of weeks later, tragedy struck. We noticed that one of them seemed sluggish at their Saturday dinner time. We talked to our friends and they gave us the standard advice – if it’s still eating, it’s probably fine. Pigs are known for how hardy they are. The next day, though, the little piggy wasn’t eating and was looking really bad and we found vomit. Of course, this was a Sunday in a pandemic. Ferry service had been drastically cut, so going to town wasn’t a possibility, and of course the vet wasn’t open (our vet actually commutes in from Victoria). Even the drug store wasn’t open. We called around to farmer friends on the island, did some frantic Google searches and found someone with antibiotics to share (who, of course, lived about as far away on the Island as it’s possible to get). I went to get the shot for our sick piggy and basically by the time I got back, a second pig was sick. We gave them both shots and then waited. That was about lunch time. By dinner time, the second pig to get sick had died and the first one was having violent convulsions. There was nothing to do but bury the little guy that died and wait it out with the other one.
We still aren’t sure, but the likely cause is something called strep suis – the same family of bacteria that causes strep throat – but in pigs it’s a fast killer. It’s also something that is practically unheard of in pasture reared, small-scale breeders, but not uncommon in the big operations; sows are inoculated against it, but there are so many strains that some are resistant. It’s also highly contagious – so we gave all the pigs a prophylactic shot of antibiotics and waited and watched.
We quickly converted our storeroom into a sick bay and loaded our sick piggy into a dog kennel and moved her inside so we could keep an eye on her and make sure she was warm and hydrated. We made a weak slurry of some pig food and water and used a syringe to squirt as much as we could into her mouth. When we tell people we’re farmers, they always say “that must be hard work” – usually referring to the physical effort involved. The really hard part, though, is the emotional stuff. It’s impossible not to feel responsible for the little lives in your care, but usually there is so little you can do. The hardest part of nursing our sick piggy happened before we even got to the store room, when we were walking down the stairs wondering each time we went in if she would still be alive. That, and sitting through the convulsions until they stopped, feeling helpless.
Luckily, our sick piggy got better. It was touch and go for a few days, but by mid-week we could tell she was on the mend. There were still convulsions, but they were less frequent and less intense and she was starting to drink on her own and then eat on her own. For the life of me, I can’t recall how long we had her in the sick bay. At the time, it seemed like a couple months, but it was probably a week or two. Then came reintegration with the rest of the herd (a herd of pigs is known as a ‘drift’) and keeping a careful eye to make sure she managed the transition. And we are happy to report that she made a full recovery and eventually it was hard to even tell which one had been sick. She was a little smaller than the others if you looked carefully, but just as energetic. The easiest way to tell, though, was that she was usually the one that came over to see us first after a feeding.
So, at the time of the great covid pandemic, we had our own mini-epidemic. Just like the big one, it came up out of the blue all of a sudden and it disrupted everything for a while. Once again, we had to adjust our plans to account for the unexpected. In the end we lost one pig and saved one. We’ll never know if we prevented any of the others from getting sick through our actions or if it was an “overabundance of caution” but I would do the same thing again in the same circumstances. A stitch in time…
Chickens (Part I)
The original plan was pigs – chickens – goats, so we were already gathering supplies for our chicken tractor while we were getting the pigs settled in. In fact, Roland had already built the base and started cutting wood for the frame. And then…
Events have a consistent habit of disrupting plans. In this case, three things happened at once. First, there was our pig pandemic that gobbled up more time than we were planning on. Second, because of the global pandemic there was a sudden demand for chickens and our local supplier (a friend we like to call our “chicken pusher”), had more orders than she could process. Third, our friends with the goats needed them moved sooner rather than later. So, the chicken house went on hold to prepare for…
We had the good luck of having friends with three very well-behaved and socialized goats that were looking for extra grazing: Scrumpy, Orson and Mrs Malloy. Our plan was to keep the goats in a permanent enclosure with deer fencing (more or less) and use moveable electric fencing to set up rotating paddocks for them. We also needed to re-build a goat shelter and feeder, mostly from disassembled parts from our friends, but with a few little new bits here and there. In reasonably short order, their new home was ready and they were dropped off for their adventures at our sleep-away camp.
So, a few words about goats. Shortly after the goats came to visit, we asked our neighbour who has raised goats if she would be willing to give us some pointers. When she came over, the first thing she said was “if you have goats, you have drama.” This has pretty much summed up our experience so far.
Of course, drama isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So far, all of our dramas have resolved themselves – many of them quite quickly once we recognized what the goats were going on about. And the flip side is that by participating in the drama, you start to understand those devious little goat brains a little better.
Our first challenge was getting them to “respect the fence.” Our goats are trained to electric fencing which generally means that they know enough that if they touch the fence, they will get a jolt. But because goats are clever buggers, it also means that they have trained themselves to know when a fence is “hot” or not. Apparently, they can sense it through their whiskers.
Anyway, our first attempts to get them into a movable paddock involved the necessity to turn the fence off long enough to get the goats inside, replant the movable fence post, and hit the on switch. This process took much longer than Mrs. Malloy’s process of spotting an unplugged fence and jumping clear of it, mostly just to make a point. She didn’t really wander away. In fact, she mostly grazed what was just beyond the fence. But the point was well made.
Plan B for the paddocks involved a lot of manual clearing to be able to put a paddock directly next to their enclosure, which we had designed with a second gate on the far side for just this purpose. But that was still going to take time and what could we do in the meantime?
It turned out there was a very simple solution. The goats love to go for walks. Pretty early on, we figured out that if you set a direction, the goats will naturally follow you. (Usually.) It didn’t take long to develop a habit of the daily walk with the goats, even now when we have their paddocks system working. It’s a great opportunity to see what they are interested in eating and take a slow look at the state of things. I’ve also started to incorporate some pruning and caretaking activities into the walks.
Chickens (Part II)
After re-building the goat shelter from the parts provided by their owners, our rebuild meant that there were leftover bits. Roland used them to put together a brooding box in anticipation of the chicks, replete with guillotine door for when they’d be old enough to come outside and a hinged lid with a mesh top for ventilation, mini roosting bars and a heat lamp attachment for when they’re really little. Then, when the pigs and goats were settling into their routines (and so were we), it was time to move our attention back to the chicken house. We revisited the plans, made a few last minute tweaks to the design, and got the last bit of supplies to really get to work. And then…
Since before we arrived at Highgrove, we started spreading the word that we were in the market for all sorts of used items that people are often hoping to get rid of. As a result, we’ve received so many gifts from friends, it’s truly humbling. Lathes and hand tools and even a table saw.
Early on, a friend contacted us to let us know her grandfather wanted to downsize his workshop and would be willing to give us his castoffs. When the pandemic hit, this plan went on hold. We definitely didn’t want to risk her grandparents’ health. Eventually, though, things in BC were good enough that it felt like the optimal time to go, so we put the chicken house on hold again to try to finally kit out the workshop. Besides, we reasoned, it would be a lot easier to finish the chicken tractor once we were properly set up.
Our friend’s grandfather was worried that we were going to be disappointed with what he was offering and wondered if it was worth it to make the trip north. When we arrived, we were blown away. Complete sets of vices and clamps, files, a drill press, fine woodworking tools, hand sanders and an electric jigsaw, two skillsaws and a hand planer and more than I can list here. The crowning glory, though, was the radial arm saw! We had no idea what it was. We had to google it when we got home, but wow! What an incredible gift!
Her grandparents made us lunch and wouldn’t let us clean up. They were grateful that we were there to lighten the load and clear things out and we were so grateful for the jump start this represents for our workshop. It was a shining example of how the gift economy works. It’s so much more than economics. Somehow, all those tools have been hallowed. They aren’t just tools, they represent a link in the chain of relationships that reaches out into the future.
And, of course, having received such incredible gifts, we felt like we owed it to them to provide the tools with a proper home, so we set about building a series of custom benches for the lathe, drill press, radial arm saw, and all the hand tools. It was an amazing building experience and we’re still getting used to working in a purpose built space. And we know that these are just version 1.0.
Next step is building out storage for all the hand tools!
Chickens (Part III)
To be honest, there were probably a few more parts to the chicken story, but I just couldn’t bear to write it. Long story short, we received a dozen 2 or 3 day old hen chicks and 6 older (10 or 11 weeks at the time) chickens (5 hens and a rooster). We have the chicks in a purpose-built chick box complete with “exercise yard” made from alder saplings and the chickens are in a small, portable chicken coop that we were gifted from an old farm that had more than they needed.
At the one year mark, the new chicken tractor is about 90% finished. All things considered, we’re considering that a success.
The Happiness Project
“Happiness” is a misleading name for this part of our project. It’s the part where we think about “what does it mean to maximize quality of life?” It’s challenging, because most of our taken-for-granted ways of thinking (no matter how “green” or “alt” we like to think we are) translate this directly into material goods. Quality of life = GDP. More stuff = Higher quality.
Of course, this is absurd even on the face of it. We all know that. And yet there’s an aspect of it that is baked into our social DNA. So, part of the happiness project is learning to spot the ways in which we are falling back onto those wrong-headed assumptions and challenging them.
The other part is adopting new ways of working together that align with and support a real commitment to maximizing everyone’s quality of life.
And here’s how the two work together – if the idea of actively working together to maximize every living thing’s quality of life seems impossibly idealistic, you have gotten tripped up by one of those “cultural truths” that’s actually a lie. The more you adopt new ways of working together based on the human genius of cooperation, you realize how unfounded those old assumptions were/are.
All this to basically say we’ve been trying to walk the talk for a while now and, turns out, the system works! What system is that, you ask? The basic idea can be explained using very different words that come back to the same core idea. The trick is to look where they point, not to the hand that is doing the pointing. Many people have tried to describe it and different formulations work for different people. The idea of “finding the flow” works for me. Or wu wei – the action that is effortless – that simply arises and is expressed. Roland and I talk about it as getting to what’s really real. However you describe it, most of us know the feeling when we experience it. The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao, but it signals towards it.
Farming is, of course, an absolutely ideal pursuit for putting these ideas into practice because ultimately it is about the dance between making plans and responding to circumstances. We call it the Serenity Principle: the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. The wisdom part is where we all get tripped up. But farming will keep you very clear on what you must simply accept; it makes short work of the delusions you might have about “being in control.” And, ironically, that ultimately is a source of comfort and relaxation.
Odds and Ends
The Pandemic Garden
As we mentioned earlier, the pandemic inspired us to plant a garden of sorts. We were inspired by Pascal Poot who has been selecting vegetable seeds that grow well without irrigation and significant care in the dry Languedoc region of France. So, we planted out a selection of beans and squash in 1m squares laid out in a grid over some disturbed, heavy clay soils that had been tilled after the pond construction and the roots from the previous tree cutting had been pulled out. We didn’t prepare the beds except to clear away the largest weeds to provide access to the soil and turn the soil over with a shovel. After planting, we mulched with a thick layer of shredded broom. We haven’t done any watering or weeding at all.
Obviously, we aren’t expecting these plants to grow enough to feed us, but they have all produced a significant number of beans for seed and even a few squash which didn’t in this first attempt provide any seeds. Next year, we’ll plant these seeds again in similar conditions and again keep the seeds that do the best with the least amount of care.
As for the new apple trees planted by the landlord before we moved in, we kept them well hydrated by putting down a thick layer of chipped broom, which retained the water as it started to break down. The soil under those trees never dried out after we set down the chipped broom, an encouraging testament of the merits to our mulching plans.
Given the quality of the soil on the former clearcut, we identified early on that soil building was important. Apart from the experiments with the Pandemic Garden and the clearing and manuring the pigs did for our impending garden space, we’ve also started experimenting with thermal composting. The quantity and frequency of manure from the pigs didn’t quite go as planned, but we’re getting compost and coffee grounds from the Slow Coast Cafe to add to our pile. We currently have three composting bays, two to more easily turn the active pile and the third for the older pile as it finishes mellowing. We’re working with a combination of the Berkeley Method and the Soil Food Web system.
The icing on the cake of our first six months was finally getting the hay in. The front field has long been used for haying. We knew that the Grimmers of Fir Hill Farm hayed it last year, and we approached them to do the same for us, which they agreed to. It was a long wait because of the unusual weather we had and the big demands on the Grimmers so the hay was well past its prime, but it was done, and we kept half the harvest (100 bales) for our own use. The sale of the other half will help significantly in our efforts to get farm tax status. We’ve been using the hay to supplement the goats’ feed over the winter, and will use any excess for mulching and soil building and improvement.
We’ll post the next six months with lessons learned next week.