Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I have recently discovered podcasts! I know I know...what took me so long. I am a farmer and I don't like change. But, like I said, I have discovered this wonderful form of media and I am enthralled with it. It has reminded me of a time long ago when families huddled around a giant radio in the living room for their evening entertainment. No different than families of today huddle around a TV I suppose, but there is indeed something different.

I missed being born in a time when the radio was THE thing to do in the living room, but I somehow associate this activity with a time when families meant more to each other and it was easier to be entertained. Now that I have sattelite radio in the truck I often tune in to the Classic Radio Programs from the middle part of last century and I am somehow taken back to a time I had never been. Well, now here I am smack-dab into the 21st century and I have re-discovered radio. I am especially fond of The Kootenay Co-op Radio Station based out of Nelson, BC, Canada. It is the perfect organic, hippy type thing that I like to hear. The music is ecclectic and varied and the talk programs are very captivating. My favorite program of them all is Deconstructing Dinner. You can subscribe via iTunes or a direct feed...couldn't be easier. Or you can simply listen to the radio station live over the internet.

If you are reading my blog on a regular basis and you have iTunes and you enjoy podcasts, give the Kootenay Co-op Radio program Deconstructing Dinner a try. I don't think you'll be disappointed. I especially liked the episodes on Canada's first Grain CSA called "The Local Grain Revolution". Wonderful stuff!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

a January Sunday afternoon

There was finally something to do around the farm this past weekend. At least something that pertained to farming activities. I had the Hino sitting in the yard with some amount of screenings in it. Those screenings needed to be loaded into portable totes of around 30 bushels each in order to be stored for future sale to customers needing poultry feed. I needed the Hino empty so I could take fresh grain into the cleaners this week. So I plugged in the Hino and the 766 and got to work. It didn't take too long, but there was a tremendous accumulation of snow on the tarp that took a lot of work to dislodge...without poking holes in the tarp!

In the video, I say it is the was indeed the 24th.

Turns out that I got a call on Monday from the seed cleaning plant in Stony Plain that they had a cancellation from another organic grower and wanted to know if I could put off delivery of my grain. That wasn't a problem so it turns out that I don't have to haul grain this week afterall.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Farming with horses continued

With some of the intriguing comments on the previous post I did a little digging. I came across numerous websites dealing with the subject of farming with horses. But this particular article on the website Rural Heritage really caught my eye. It deals with the pure economics of draft animals vs. modern internal combustion traction. Again, I am not smart enough to tell if it completely covers the entire discussion of true costs of draft animals and tractors but it seems fairly comprehensive.

The Article by Chet Kendell

Below is a video from JohnNorthcote. Percherons "Jake" and "Oliver" for the first time on the disc. Working nicely!

Andy Egger mowing a LOT of hay with his beautiful horses.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When the oil runs out?

I'll tell you what...when I received the latest issue of Small Farm Canada magazine I found an article that really got me thinking. It was written by Rhona McAdam and the article is called Apres Oil . I had never really thought of "oil running out". I mean when I hear myself say those words it still seems kinda silly even considering how much the topic has been discussed in recent years. That couldn't really happen in our lifetime right? But the article didn't go on to discuss the world physically running out of discussed what would happen in the very realistic scenario that the price of diesel fuel increases by three fold in the matter of a few months. What would happen if during any given future summer, the cost of diesel went up so much that it was impossible to harvest the seeded and growing crops. Could that actually happen? Would the government step in to allow farmers the ability to purchase even more heavily subsidized fuel? What if the price of fuel never came down as it did in 2009? This scenario struck me as not only possible, but highly probable within a few short years. I am not an economist but I sure saw fuel prices spike in 2007/08 and I can see how it may happen again sometime soon.

Our farm is small and we are continuing to set ourselves up to be able to sell our produce at closer to retail prices. It is a lot of work to process and market the produce to be able to achieve this pricing, but we are doing it. That means that our farm can stay relatively small and still achieve a liveable income. Because our farm is small, could we actually go back to farming with horses or oxen? Is it practical?

Well I would have to say yes when I see so many other folks doing it! Neil Dimmock here in Alberta is a prime example of someone who is more than capable of surviving without oil.

I would be well advised to try to stay in touch with Neil and learn all I can about farming with horses. Cindy and I are no stranger to horses having been around them and involved in raising them for many years in the past. I don't think that either one of us is necessarily looking forward to owning horses again, but if there was an actual purpose behind owning them as opposed to them just being really expensive grass mowers, I could see it happening sometime in the near future. Of course, first things first. We have to get ourselves moved and our new farm built and operating. I hope that can happen before the oil runs out!?!?

Above is KYGuyz using a hay gathering implement to load the wagon. Below, Neil Dimmock seeds his fields with the Percherons.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Feeding cows....during the winter months on our farm things are a little relaxed. Perhaps too relaxed. I feel lazy in the winter and I don't really like it. We still don't have a heated shop, so I cannot really spend much time outside dealing with machinery maintenance or repairs. That sort of stuff has to wait till March at the earliest.
So, now all we have to do is make sure that the stupid cattle waterer stays ice free and the cows and chickens are fed. I would comment more on our cattle waterer but I fear unwanted attention from the manufacturer should they see what I have to say about it. Suffice to say that at one point in time, I called in complete frustration to complain about the ongoing problems with a frost-free livestock waterer that was anything but frost-free and I was told something rude and hung up on. I certainly won't be buying another Nelson Waterer anytime soon. I've said too much now so I may as well just keep going...just make sure that if you are in the market for a freeze-proof waterer that you do your own extensive homework. A badly designed waterer will cost you a significant amount of money and much headache. Our waterer was designed with the heating element above the valve, immediately below the bowl...heat rises so needless to say the valve freezes. The bowl of water stays nice and liquid right up until the cows drink it...then, because the valve is frozen the bowl stays empty. Another problem we had was that the bowl of water easily splashes over when thirsty cows or horses are jostling around...the water then dripples or slops down the outside of the bowl and lands on the heating element assembly...blown heating element in about a month and a half even with the water level significantly reduced in the bowl. The waterer was installed as per the instructions. We haven't had any problems with lines to the waterer freezing or anything else...just the waterer itself. We should have simply purchased a livestock waterer from the local UFA store. They have been selling the same brand for are easily available locally and they appear to be ok in our area because everyone has one...except us.

Now I have the waterer rigged up to work as long as the light bulb inside stays on. I installed a socket below the valve level. It works well now except when the bulb burns out from time to time as light bulbs do, but we'll limp along until we move when I can buy a proper livestock waterer.

Feeding the cows is pretty easy. As I mentioned before we are moving the feeder each time we bring a new bale. The field is getting manured up nicely and I am already cherishing the fact that I don't have to haul and spread manure this spring.

Small Farm Profitability – Part 2

I have started small, marketed what I had (once I figured out what worked for us and our customers) and grew from there. I am still a long ways off from where I want to be, but I see our plan developing before our eyes. Only a few short years ago, Cindy and I would sit across from each other over coffee and talk about decisions that impacted hundreds or thousands of dollars; now we are talking about decisions that reflect 10’s of thousands of dollars. It is still growing and I can see a day soon where it will be a family business that can employ our kids and their families should they decide to go that route. Start small, stay as small as practical and grow when you have to…that would be my advice to anyone starting out in farming. The other key in my mind is to produce a product that fills a niche market. Something that people are willing to pay a premium for. Be it Organic or Local or Boutique…fill a need…do something that you love to do…charge a good amount for the product.

What to charge is always something we struggle with. We are often torn between wanting to provide people with "deals", but in the end it costs us a great deal of time, money and energy to produce that beef and market it. We tend to look at it from a standpoint that we have a good product that is better than what can be found in a supermarket and it is still a litte less expensive. I suppose that is as good of a "deal" as anyone can expect. I think that farmers are always prone to undervalue what they produce...why is that?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Small Farm Profitability – Part 1

You may have guessed that part of my plan for small farm profitability is to be cheap! I think that the biggest single problem that beginning farmers face is the pressure to take out a loan, run to the nearest Kubota dealership and plop down 20-40 thousand dollars for a tractor that should have only cost them $3000. Of course, I don't begrudge the fellow that buys a new tractor...hell, I would love a brand new tractor with the plastic covering still on the seat! It's just that I have bought countless numbers of implements and other farm equipment from auctions and select private sales. Tractors from the 40's, 50's, 60's and 70’s in good mechanical condition are cheap, reliable and have all of the benefits of modern tractors. Small tractors haven’t changed much at all in 80+ years! Think of it this way. What would that same $20,000 buy me? A tractor, a few different cultivators, a seed drill, a small swather, a potato planter and digger, a small combine, an auger…perhaps even a small grain truck or gravity wagon. I am good to go start making money and the guy with the Kubota is still just riding around on his tractor. Starting small means being frugal and putting up with other farming neighbors looking down their noses at you as you bark and surge along the gravel road in your 1967 International 503 combine! Air conditioning is for wimps!

My list of the best, most reliable, easy to fix tractors in order of my preference for a small livestock or market garden farm:
   1) Any 1970's IH tractor under 100 hp with 3pt hitch- ie 766, 666, 566. Should be around $5,000-$10,000 Parts still available at any Case/IH dealer. Engines are practically bullet-proof. Most have cabs here in Canada. Any number of loaders fit them for an extra $2000 and most should already have them mounted. John Deere's are good, but they are incredibly over-priced for what you get.
   2) 1960's Allis Chalmers D series tractors - D14, D15, D16, etc. As above on parts, price and reliability (except you need to go to an AGCO dealer). Most already have loaders attached. Ingenious 3pt hitch system called "snap-coupler". If you find the implements to go with the tractor buy them!
   3) Probably the most under-rated tractor in history was the Ford tractors from the 50's. Late model 8n's, 1950's 600 series, 800's and later 900's were tremendous tractors. Parts are still available, but you shouldn't need any. Tough little tractors with ahead-of-their-time hydraulic systems. Because of the way they were engineered you can get a much older tractor and pay less for it but have the same features of other manufacturers' later models. The only reason I place them 3rd is that the later models with indpendent pto's can be difficult to find...they were under-rated as I said earlier and sales started dropping way before they should have. By the 70's Ford tractors were not well-built and I don't consider them an option.

Above is a random video from uTube on the subject of Ford Tractors. Please check out all of "stembre's" other uTube videos to see what an 8n Ford can do! Please keep in mind that I do not consider myself an expert on tractors but these are my opinions on the subject. Take it for what it opinion. Happy Farming!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A quick ski trip!

We decided late last week to take advantage of some nice weather upcoming and we headed for the mountains. The weather was spectacular for this time of year. It was above freezing each day and I think the highest temp we had was plus 6 degrees C. The skiing was fantastic and because we were skiing during the week the crowds were non-existant. At one point in time we were on the back face of the mountain and we could see all the way down the various runs, perhaps a couple miles, and there was not one person in sight. It was like we had the entire ski hill to ourselves. We stayed in Banff, Alberta and we did our skiing at Lake Louise. This is our favorite ski hill. The runs are incredibly long and because of the terrain it is a little more sheltered than other hills. When it is windy in the mountains this is the hill we seek out. Needless to say we had a great trip and we are now wondering why we don't do this more often!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

We're Moving! some point in time

Over the Christmas break we were supposed to take delivery of our Berkshire pigs. But suddenly we made a decision to not take the pigs. I guess it is not common knowledge with everyone what we are up to with our farm plans. So, here it is. Perhaps by making our plans public so to speak, the cosmos will line up and everything will go as planned...because they sure haven't so far. It's kind of "The Secret" sort of thing.
Taking on another project like the pigs will only serve to complicate our move more than it already would be should our house sell sometime this year.

Mrs. Schneider and myself along with our two wonderful children have been trying to sell our farm for almost 2 years now! We missed the hot market here in Alberta by a few months and now we just can't seem to get it sold. We currently live on a 40 acre parcel of land only a few minutes west of West Edmonton Mall. We are very close to the city of Edmonton. We are also very close to several large suburban subdivisions. Our property is very beautiful with large mature pine ridges and a hollows of Tamarack and Birch. Interspersed amongst the trees are our small fields and pastures where in the past our chickens and pigs and sheep and cattle have grazed.

Since we made the decision to re-enter the grain production side of farming we have sought parcels of land to rent where we could actually grow grain. Obviously, our property is not conducive to any type of large scale production of grain. When we decided to sell though, we found we were presented with all of these wonderful options and we could start over with whatever we dared dream as far as house options and yards and gardens and orchards. It is a tremendous feeling to have a blank canvas...if only we could get our place sold. We want more land for growing grains and food, less house for maintaining and heating, and a better property layout for becoming more self-sufficient with our food and resources.

For the past several years we have dreamed of nothing but a very simple and small off-grid house. Because we live where we live and don't want to move too far away, we are faced with the facts of bitterly cold winters. So our house of choice will be a straw bale home! I will have to write more about that choice later. The fact of the matter is that straw bale construction is nothing new. There are straw bale homes in the mid-west of the U.S and Canada that are well over 100 years old. They are durable, storm-proof, incredibly warm and efficient, quiet, easy to construct and as important as all that they are extremely environmental in their construction.

Along with what kind of house to build we have also had to decide on our style of house. That is not quite finalized but we know we want something small. Currently, our house is 3000 sq. ft. on two levels. That is just too big. We have discovered that we could quite handily live on nothing but our top floor if we wanted to and all the rest is just a waste of space.

The off-grid stuff is more complex. We live in Sunny Alberta so we would be silly to not incorporate solar electric panels in our design. We will catch rain-water from our steel roofs for both drinking and grey water systems. We will heat in a few ways. The easiest way to heat our home is passive solar or properly located windows and properly designed roof overhangs to allow winter sunlight in the living space and summer sunlight out of the living space. Besides that, we haven't quite decided between a simple wood stove, masonry fireplace, in-floor hydronic heating from an outside heat source like an outdoor wood boiler or maybe all of the above? There are so many heating options to choose from. Part of our decision will stem from what kind of property we end up purchasing. Is there a wood lot for instance?

There has been much to think about. One of the blessings of not being able to sell our property is that we have had the chance to perform even more research than before. The plan shown is one of our favorites although it probably needs to be expanded a little to try to hit the 1500 sq. ft. target. We like how simply the plumbing is incorporated and we love the efficiency of the open space design. A couple short hallways extending from the bathrooms would isolate any noise from the living area to the bedrooms. This is likely the house you will see us building sometime soon.

We would truly appreciate any help or advice from folks who have made the transition to off-grid or alternative housing or anything else you might have to offer. Please wish us luck and stay tuned for much ensuing entertainment should the house suddenly sell!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Heritage Grains for 2010 – Part 3

Harvesting (Combining) the seed plots once they get too big to harvest by hand becomes more of a challenge. I have been agonizing over the purchase of a newer, larger combine for the past year. I have pretty much made up my mind to buy an International 914. It is a large pull-type combine from the late 70’s. It is a conventional combine as opposed to a rotary so it is simple and cheap to repair; and I have the 3788 2+2 to pull it with. They are a good sized combine for under $2000! With this new combine I will be able keep the Gleaner C2 free to harvest the smaller plots and just clean it out between plots. It is small enough to clean very easily. I am always on the lookout for another C2 sized combine. They are less than $1000 and usually closer to free!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Heritage Grains for 2010 - Part 2

To harvest the grains from our very small test and seed plots I simply cut the heads off of the still standing plants and place them in a threshing box. This is a simple wooden box with wood slats on the bottom. I place the heads in the box, step in and shuffle my feet for a minute or two. I then take the air compressor and blow out the chaff. It is a great way to obtain a completely clean sample from a small plot of grain. It really doesn’t take much time at all. Of course the grain heads need to be completely dry prior to attempting threshing otherwise they will not want to come off the head cleanly.

In order to grow the varieties into commercially viable quantities I plant the grains in progressively bigger plots and fields. I did this with the Blais Red Fife in 2009. I now have 15 bushels of Blais Red Fife which will seed about 7 acres in 2010. I always maintain a set of very small farm implements like my old John Deere seed drill for these purposes.