Building an Outdoor Kitchen on the Homestead

Anyone who has canned tomatoes in their house will know the extreme mess it can be. Seeds on the floor…juice on the ceiling, and pulp everywhere in between. I love having fresh-canned produce on our farm, but the mess I create in the process can often be discouraging. For years we have dreamed about adding an outdoor kitchen to our homestead, and finally that dream is becoming a reality.

Everything we have purchased and built for our berry business we have done with the intention for it to help with our homesteading goals as well. We are hoping to use this outdoor kitchen to prepare our canned goods for the year, but also use as a purchasing place for our berries, eggs, and other produce we sell. We plan to call it, “The Berry Barn.”

Berry Man spent the winter building the Berry Barn from the ground up. We decided we wanted it to be on skids so we could move it if need be…plus it helps on our property taxes.

Our kitchen sits on these leveled stepping stones.

Working on the shell of the building

Finishing the roof

For this season, our goal is to just make the kitchen functional. We will finalize our decorations and such as time and money allows.

 

Our chalk board is made from an old window covered with chalkboard paint.

Our gas stove is powered by a propane cylinder which sits outside the barn. We will have to use the stove to heat water for this year. A hot water heater is on our future goals list.

Cold running water comes into the sink through a garden hose. The water drains back outside of the building.

Our electricity, gas, and water all come in through the back of the building.

Instead of running electricity for lights, we plan on just getting oil lanterns. Since we will use it mostly in the summertime, I don’t see much of a need for light. I prefer natural lighting. The windows let in a lot of light, and help keep the place heated and cooled.

At this point, we are using the attic/loft area for storage. Eventually, we would like to have it set up as a multi-purpose camping spot for the Berry Kids.

Do you have an outdoor kitchen? What is it like and what do you use it for? Share your comments below.

How We Plant Blueberries in Clay Soil

How We Plant Blueberries in Clay Soil

Today is one of my favorite days of the year…Blueberry Planting Day! In order to be able to cash flow our farm, we have limited our blueberry purchasing to 100 blueberries bushes per year. That amount has proven to be beneficial to us because we can actually plant that many in a timely fashion and get a price break from our nursery.

We have learned to grow blueberries completely through reading. Supposedly, “blueberries can’t grow in my area” because the soil conditions are not right. Blueberries require highly acidic, well-drained soil. Our soil has a fairly neutral pH and is mostly clay…not the ideal environment for blueberries. We combat this less-than-ideal home by hauling out our soil and hauling in organic peat moss.

Yes…blueberries are that important to us.

In order to keep our soil optimal for our blueberries, we fertilize and adjust pH on a weekly basis using a fertilizer for acid-loving plants. While everything else we use on them is organic, we have not switched out the weekly fertilizer and pH treatments yet. We have had much success going this route, and are a little afraid of going completely organic with our blueberries at this point in time because they are so finicky in our native soils. Hopefully, once we have several thoroughly established, we can begin experimenting with some using organic fertilizers and pH adjustments.

Luckily, we had some good weather early this spring so Berry Man could get our soil prepared to plant. We got a lot of rain earlier this week, so the conditions are not ideal for planting, but we’ll get it done.

We plant our blueberries in a hill to help keep the roots drained. It is easier to irrigate them than it is to get them out of a puddle. Blueberries don’t like “wet feet.”

We surround the root ball with organic peat moss before mixing our own soil in. That seems to give the plant roots a better start.

When we can, we top the blueberry bushes with old pine needles for a sustainable mulch. Since our big land clearing project last fall, we don’t have many pine needles available this year. The chickens enjoy scratching in the pine needles we have, and they are just too hot to put around the bushes at this point in time. We will have to try something different for this year, but I know it will be excellent organic fertilizer for next year.

When the need arises and the time allows, we will lay drip line in the rows to irrigate. Thankfully the days of hauling water in buckets are over!

At this point, we have nearly 400 blueberry bushes. We are hoping to stop there and wait for them to fully mature before we plant any more. We don’t want to have more plants than we can care for.

How well do blueberries grow in your area? What experiences have you had growing them? Share your comments below.

When to Take the Homesteading Plunge

When I look back at my life, I giggle. In all of my dreams and aspirations, never once did I think, “My goals in life are to work at home with my family, preserve all my food, and grow and sell berries.”

Who am I? How could this happen?

The long story is incredibly complicated, but the short story is incredibly simple: GOD.

All my life, God has prepared me for the mission ahead of me. From a young age, I begged my parents to grow a garden. I remember once my dad helped me plant a strawberry patch, but not long after my mom mowed over it.

That was the end of my gardening adventures at home.

Luckily, my high school jobs directly prepared me for what I aspire to do today. I spent my first couple of working summers cleaning out the bird barns on my dad’s hunting preserve. Later I began conducting agricultural research projects for my soil-scientist uncle. I was in charge of the horticultural studies, growing vegetables in 100 foot rows, much like I do today. While I knew I enjoyed this line of work, I didn’t realize that I would one day try to open my own specialty crop business.

My college years led me to a large city a couple of hours away. I began as a business major. All I really knew is that I wanted to work in a business and make lots of money (ha!) While I did fine in my business classes, I really didn’t know where it was all going to lead.

After a couple of years away from my small-town life, and I realized that a small-town was where I needed to be. A degree in business really didn’t make sense in the small-town world. I found myself enjoying coaching and teaching younger players on my athletic team, and decided that I had the heart of a teacher. So, off I went to change my major from business to teaching.

I loved every minute of my education classes, and just knew that teaching was something I would enjoy for the rest of my life. I never thought I would need all of my experiences taking care of birds, growing and researching vegetables, and learning the in’s and out’s of running a business, but it looks like God has a different plan.

Eventually, I married Berry Man, had a few kids, and had my dream job in my hometown. Life appeared great on the outside…even I thought everything was great. But as time went on, I began to realize that my priorities were way out of order. My job became an idol in my life.

You see, I am quite a perfectionist and thrive on being the very best at everything I do. In order to keep my job during our school’s economic crisis, I decided that it was imperative that I prove that I was the very best teacher in our district in order to keep my job.

This turned into endless hours for researching current best practices, creating differentiated units to meet the needs of each individual students, documenting behaviors and interventions, and when I actually had time…teaching a room full of cherubs.

School came before everything…before God, before my family, before myself. 

During that time in my life, I pretty much was just running on fumes all the time, because in addition to all of this, I also ran our developing berry business in my “spare time.” It wasn’t until Berry Man started working here full-time that I was able to actually slow down enough to realize the work that God was doing in my life.

Working in the berry patch in the summer has been my saving grace. Picking berries alone in the field is my time to connect with God. It seems as though when I am out there, everything is right in my world.  I can see God all around me, and reflect on life and see His guidance through it all.

With Berry Man taking over many of the day-to-day chores around the homestead, I was able to spend more time reading God’s word and listening to his guidance in prayer. The more time I spent with Him, the more I realized how off-track my life had become.

The more I put God first, the more I can see His path unfolding before me, like a deer trail in the woods. I can see the path, but there are so many branches and thorns in the way that it is difficult to travel, and I am not completely sure the best way to reach my destination.

Patience is not my strong suit, but I know I need to to look for and wait for God’s perfect timing. I can see God’s plan weaving through my experiences, and while I am anxious to be able to homestead and work from home full-time, I know I cannot do these things in my own power.

Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that whoever reads it may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. (Habakkuk 2:2-3)

Sanitation Struggles on the Homestead

Sanitation Struggles on the Homestead

There are certain things that you really don’t consider when beginning your homestead. For us, it was garbage.

Before Berry Man came home to work on the homestead full-time, we took the easy way out. Sure, we burned paper every week in a burn barrel like most country folk, but we gathered the rest of our garbage in a huge black trash bag. Berry Man performed his weekly trash duty by hauling our big black trash bags to the dumpster at work. Out of sight, out of mind.

We knew that once he transitioned to our full-time homestead man, we would need to figure out something to do with our trash. There was a dumpster at my work, but hauling there wasn’t an option. We really just figured we would add trash service…until we made the call to check prices. WOWSERS!

We knew that we would have to reevaluate our sanitation situation in order to meet our homesteading goals. 

So we decided to take it back to the basics with a new plan.

5 Ways We Reduced Waste On Our Homestead

5 Ways we reduced waste on our homestead

  1. Use real plates.
    • Paper plates really are quite a convenience. After spending my day herding cats, I mean teaching children, I would often want to use paper plates for supper just because it was easy. While paper plates can be burned, they don’t burn well and would fill our burn barrel more quickly than we would like. Washing four more plates really isn’t that big of a deal. Plus, you get the bonus of money saved from purchasing paper plates.
  2. Compost your scraps or let the animals compost it for your.
    • Sometimes we would just haul off scraps because we didn’t want to take them outside to the compost pile. We need all the compost we can get for our gardens, so we needed to come up with a more convenient process. At this point, we have a container with a lid that we fill. Once it is full, we take it out to compost. We keep the compost bucket on our porch and bring it in each day when I cook. Sometimes we take it directly to compost, but the rabbits and chickens also help us with our veggie scraps. It is a nice supplement for them, especially in the winter months.
  3. Find a place to recycle.
    • Much of what we were throwing away each week could actually be recycled. Once we started paying attention, we realized that instead of hauling trash to town, we could begin hauling recyclables to town. Most cities, and even many small towns now, have a place to take recycling at no cost to you. Reduce waste and reduce cost…It’s a win-win.
  4. Consider what you purchase.
    • I have been a label reader for years. Searching for strange-sounding ingredients is second nature for me, so looking for recycling symbols was something easy to add to my shopping routine. When choosing an item to purchase, consider what you will do with the waste. I’m looking for waste I can burn or recycle. Since I make most of our meals from scratch, there isn’t much that I purchase that produces much waste that we cannot recycle, burn, or compost.
  5. Reuse or repurpose. 
    • Berry Man is the king of repurposing. Not only does he like to keep every item we can’t dispose of, but he remembers where he puts it, and is able to find it at a moments notice when we need it for a project. Boy, did I pick a good one!

Not only have these steps helped us figure out what to do with our waste, but it has helped us reduce our waste, increase our compost, feed our chickens and rabbits, and save money. We went from having at least one large black bag of waste per week to having a small grocery sack of waste once in a while, which is very easy to dispose of at no cost.

Convenience is nice, but sustainability secures our homestead for the future. 

What steps have you taken to reduce your waste? Leave your comments below.

 

 

 

 

How We Expanded Our Homestead Without Buying Land

 

land revised (1).jpg

As our berry farm has grown, we have been contemplating how we are going to have enough land for proper crop rotation. All strawberry farmers know that long-term success evolves around the ability to rotate crops. We were left with the question, “How can we expand our ground without purchasing land?”

The Problem

Growing conventional strawberries requires proper crop rotation. Strawberries can stay in the same place for a few years, but as time goes on the berries get smaller, risk of disease increases, weeds get thicker, and insect damage increases.

Space is essential to start new strawberry patches and eliminate older ones.

When we started our berry patch, it seemed as though we had enough ground to do everything that we wanted to do, until we realized that we needed to keep our strawberry land separate from much of our vegetable land. You see, strawberries are not friends with many of the vegetables that we enjoy growing…tomatoes, beans, squash, potatoes, etc. They attract the same insects and diseases, therefore, it is best to keep them separated throughout your crop rotation.

We like to grow about an acre of strawberries. With crop rotation, that means we need about four acres of land devoted to strawberries (and cover crop during the rotational years). We already had about an acre planted in blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries. So, in order to continue keeping the quality of strawberries that we wanted, we needed a little more land.

Just purchasing a little more land is quite an obstacle. We really needed something within walking distance from our homestead so we could tend to it on a daily basis while watching the kids. Plus, the risk of theft with specialty crops increases greatly without constant surveillance.

We inquired with a few neighbors to see if they would sell an acre or two, but nobody was interested.

So we started thinking about a different way…

Our Solution

Clearing some pine trees from our own land seemed to be the best option. When our place was first built, this area was intended to be a Christmas tree farm. The trees just grew up and took over the area.

 

A before look from the east

Before clearing the trees, our new strawberries didn’t get quite as much sunshine.

 

Clearing pine trees from the west

After it was cleared, we planted cover crops to help rebuild the soil and reduce the possibility of erosion.

We kept a few pine trees in the front for some landscaping.

 

We also cleaned up the edge of our woods to bring in more sunlight to our existing field. This also gained us several more feet of farmable area.

What We Gained

Clearing our land gave us exactly what we needed. We now have more farmable land in order to handle our strawberry crop plans. Proper crop rotation will help us be sustainable with our berries in the future.

Now we have land exactly where we want it…right within our homestead.

Although we began clearing the trees ourselves, we did decide to hire a crew to clear the land. We felt our time was needed elsewhere continuing to build our business. Using our own tools, this would have taken all year. Hiring a crew with the appropriate equipment was still a substantial savings from purchasing land.

We are excited about all the possibilities we have with our new space. Our chickens have already been busy trying to rebuild the soil.

What was your biggest obstacle when beginning your homestead? Leave your comments below.

 

 

Why We Started a Berry Farm (Part 2)

When we planted our first blueberry bushes in 2012 we really weren’t sure how successful they were going to be. The more we talked to people about planting blueberries, the more stories we heard about locals trying to plant blueberries in their home gardens with little or no success.

While we were determined to figure out how to get the blueberries to produce, we knew it would be 5-7 years before they would reach full production.

Instead of just waiting until then, we needed to continue adding to our homestead.

Our Short-lived Tree Farm

With this in mind, we actually started our business plan as a tree farm, rather than a berry farm. That first year (around the time we planted 100 new blueberry bushes), we planted 1,000 Norway spruce seedlings. All of them were planted by hand, in open space on our land and in the woods.

We thought this could bring us some variety, but with the drought, all it brought us was 1,000 dead Norway spruce seedlings.

Water was an insurmountable challenge. All the trees needed to be watered by hand with watering buckets. The trees were even further from the water source than the blueberries.

It came down to the fact that we had to choose what to keep alive. The cost of the blueberry bushes and the potential profit years down the road resulted in us fighting for those little bushes instead of the trees.

Just a Few Strawberries

While I was so excited about those little blueberries growing in the field, my husband wanted to grow a few strawberries, just for us to eat. I went to the local gardening store and purchased 18 strawberry plants and put them at the edge of a field. I knew that we wouldn’t get many the first year, so I just planted them, watered them once and a while and forgot about them.

We decided not to even straw around them in the winter time. If they made it through the winter, they made it. If they didn’t we weren’t out but a few bucks. I figured we could try again another year, when the weather was more favorable, and I felt like I had more time to devote to them.

Besides, who would want to spend all that time bent over picking strawberries?

Strawberry SURPRISE!

The following spring, my husband took the day off from his other job to get caught up around the homestead. While he was evaluating what needed to be done, he noticed that the strawberries went a little crazy over the winter. There were runners rooted in everywhere!

So…he gets an idea…

By the time I got home from work, he had broken the sod and tilled up about half an acre with an 18″ hand tiller. Then he transplanted all of the new strawberry plants, enough to almost fill the area he tilled.

Screenshot 2016-01-08 at 7.43.34 PM - Edited

Our 18 strawberry plants turned into 125, with almost no day-to-day effort on our part!

We sold every strawberry we didn’t eat that season. A few people heard we had strawberries, and before we knew it we had more demand for than we could possibly fill.

This really got us thinking and evaluating all the time we were spending on the blueberries, irrigating, mulching, adjusting soil pH levels, and checking for nutrient deficiencies.

This was when we made the decision to go “all in” on strawberries, at least until our blueberries were producing. We ordered 2,000 strawberry plants to plant that summer. It takes a year before they really produce, so we were hopeful that by the following summer, we would have enough strawberries to be able to fill the demand in the area.

The First Sign

One day while we were planting some of the 2,000 strawberries we ordered, my husband stopped me and wanted to talk.

Apparently he had been praying for a sign that we were doing the right thing starting our berry farm. As he went out the door that morning, he asked the Lord to give him a sign that he was making the right decision to move forward with the business. We had no idea how we were going to make everything work.

That day he experienced his first direct answer to prayer. He was working on a planter for a local farmer. This farmer was unsuccessfully battling Stage 4 cancer. The two of them were talking about the work that needed to be done when all of a sudden the farmer grabbed him and said, “Boy, if there is something you are wanting to do, you better do it!” Then he went right back into the conversation.

This conversation was exactly the sign we were looking for. Following our own hearts and our Lord, we decided that a berry farm was exactly what we needed.

Want to learn more about why we started our berry farm? Click the link below.

 

 

 

 

Why We Started a Berry Farm (Part 1)

Why We Started a Berry Farm (Part 1)

Some of the questions we so often hear are, “Why on earth would you ever want to start a berry farm? Isn’t that A LOT of hard work? How do you have time? Why not just go to the store like everyone else? You pick all those berries…BY HAND?!?”

I could spend hours addressing each of these questions, but for today let me just start from the beginning.

Some Family Background

Since my husband and I got married, we have been discussing the possibility of starting a small business. Both of us had decent paying jobs, but were looking for something more. We wanted to share our skills and passions with our community and be able to work from home doing something that we love.

We just were not sure what that was yet.

We considered a bunch of possibilities, such as gunsmithing, leather working, opening a gun shop, etc, but none of those things seemed to be able to meet all of our needs.

Fast forward several years…

After surviving the child-bearing years, I revived my love for gardening. Our county had a small farmer’s market which I had considered growing for. The children were getting old enough to help a little…or at least not be much of a hindrance. Plus, I truly enjoy being outside working with my hands.

My garden…Before starting the Berry Patch

We had been working on becoming debt-free using Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover. Saving money was a daily discussion.

In our minds, money was the key to being able to establish the life that we wanted for our family. We thought if we had everything paid for, we would be able to start any kind of business that we wanted.

How It All Started

One sunny morning, my husband and I were drinking our morning coffee on the porch while discussing our hopes and dreams…Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?

This sunny, morning I just happened to be reading an article from Backwoods Home Magazine about Growing Blueberries as a Cash Crop. Blueberries are one of my favorite fruits, so I turned to my husband and asked him, “Do you have any idea how much money I spend each week on blueberries?”

I do all of the grocery shopping in my family, so I figured he had no idea.

I bought blueberries either fresh or frozen every week. I estimate that I spent at least $5-$10 per week just on blueberries. That’s $260-$520 per year…just in blueberries!!!

This was definitely something that was up our alley.

We started evaluating our space to see where we could put some blueberry plants for our family to enjoy. I thought I may be able to sell a few, but didn’t know how much interest there would be in this area.

Increasing Interest

Over the next few weeks, I began talking to my “foodie” friends from work about our plans to grow our own blueberries in the spring. Most of them questioned the ability to grow blueberries in our area. Many had tried to grow blueberries before with no success.

Blueberries require well-drained acidic soil…not the clay soil from our area, but we were up for the challenge. One thing about me is that if someone tells me that I can’t do something, I go on a mission to prove that I can.

Before I knew it, I had several people lined up who wanted to purchase their blueberries from us.

With this in mind, we decided to purchase 100 1.5 year-old blueberry bushes in the Spring of 2012. Buying bushes this young was not a huge monetary investment, and we figured it would be enough to make sure that we could get blueberries to grow in our area.

As soon as we made the decision, my husband was on the tractor with the plow trying to turn the sod the best he could. We knew it would need the winter for the sod to break down and be ready to plant in the spring.

The winter before we planted the blueberries

The First Season

We planed our first 100 blueberry bushes in March of 2012. We did not have the land ready for the bushes yet because we were not planning on getting them until much later. It was an early spring, so the company we purchased them from insisted that they go ahead and send them.

Because the soil was not properly prepared for planting, we decided to just spade the bushes in the ground. We figured we would try to prepare the soil around them at a later date when the ground dried up and we could get out there easier.

The spring was always a busy season for us. My husband worked in the agriculture industry, so spring and fall were his busiest times of year. I am a teacher, so my free time  is June-August.

Finding time to tend to those first berries was difficult. We would work all day on our full-time jobs, and then work until dark putting organic matter around the blueberries, monitoring our soil, and watering the plants.

We did not have any means or irrigating besides watering buckets. The berries were about 30 yards from the nearest water spigot, so it could take hours to water all 100 of them by hand.

That first year, we had to pull all of the blooms in order to help the roots produce a strong bush. I did keep a couple, just because I had to see if they would produce.

Berries on one first-year bush

As the summer progressed, the irrigating became more difficult. In the Midwest, 2012 is regarded as “The Year of the Drought.” Watering was never-ending.

At the year’s end, we had 60 of the 100 blueberry bushes survive. I thought that was pretty good considering the survival rate of the seedlings we purchased was only about 50%.

We beat the odds, even during a drought.

Want to learn more about why we started our berry farm? Click the link below.