Just a Little Update

Well, spring arrived here in Iowa…and then it quickly slipped back into winter. The last couple days temps have plummeted back down to the high thirties. It was seventy-five last weekend, just to give you perspective. And while the rain is keeping us out of the fields, it is a necessary blessing. The radish, carrot and spinach seeds we planted last week have all sprouted, and our broccoli, kale and lettuce are enjoying the cooler weather (although not really the steady wind).

The rain has also given us the opportunity to get caught up on a few things. We’ve been seeding inside the house and repotting transplants like crazy the last couple days. We’ve fallen a bit behind on those things and its good to get that going again. I’ve also gone virtually silent on the blog for the past month, so I wanted to take this chance to catch you up on what we’ve been up to.


In March we started planting seedlings inside under lights. To see how we do that click here We’ve started around 300 tomato plants, 100 pepper plants, broccoli, melons and a few flower varieties. We have more tomatoes to seed and a few other things that will transplant better rather than direct seeding in the ground. This has been a new adventure for us, as we’ve never really started seeds indoors before. Our basement has been converted into a makeshift grow room! But its been fun, and we’ve learned so much that we will take into next season when hopefully we will be able to add a greenhouse to expand our seeding efforts.

What will we do with all of our transplants? We’ll plant many of them in the market garden, but we also plan to sell some of these at the first couple farmer’s markets of the year.


In March we also began raising a flock of 15 chickens. These girls (and a few unexpected roos) brooded in our front room until they were big enough to go outside. And just a couple of weeks ago they all moved into their new coop. FYI, it smells a wee bit better in the house now, thank you very much.


They’ve made the transition without any problems, and they love the new space to roam around. Although it took some coaching from “mom and dad” to teach them how to go in and out of the hen house. I used to think that I would never have chickens. I’ve taken care of other people’s chickens before, and it kind of turned me off on the idea. But there is something to raising our own that has changed my mind. And I can’t wait for those fresh farm eggs every morning!


We’ve broken ground on the 3 acre market garden. This plot of land had been used for soybeans in the year past, but last year was so badly overtaken with weeds that it was hard to imagine how this could ever become a garden. But we mowed, we plowed, and we ran a disc and a harrow over the ground more than a dozen times to get it in shape for making beds.

Our plan is to put in 10 distinct garden plots made of 12 beds each. Each bed is 100 ft long and 20 in wide, with 18 in space between. This will allow for a 10 year rotation between crop types, which will help alleviate disease and aggressive pest issues.


We’re adopting a permanent bed model to eliminate compaction of the soil. We’ve tilled each bed this year, partially to help line each one out and to help with weeds, but we hope to move toward a no-till process in the next couple years. Our goal is to build up healthy soil, and limiting how often we disrupt it, or turn it over, will help preserve those beneficial microbes we are trying to nurture that live in top six inches. Iowa has incredible soil to begin with, so we are already starting in a good place.

After each bed is tilled, it gets a healthy application of compost around 3 in thick. Starting next year, we’ll rotate our compost application, giving preference to the heavy feeders like potatoes and tomatoes, while applying every two years to the lighter feeders like leaf crops and legumes. Compost is expensive, and we’ve been bringing it home by the truck load. We have a place locally we can get it, but it would be in our best interest from a cost perspective if we can figure out how to provide the amount we need from our own operation.


Part of the 3 acre garden has been reserved for permanent crop. We’re putting in almost 60 raspberry plants this year, and will likely double that next year. We’ve also got around 300 strawberry plants coming and about the same amount of asparagus over the next two weeks. We hope to expand on these depending on the market in our community.


In addition to laying compost, we’re laying shredded oak chips in the pathways around each garden plot. Hopefully this will aid in weed suppression, while also giving the garden definition. Another expensive resource that I need to work on sourcing cheaper. Any arborists out there who want to donate their wood chips?


Part of our overall plan for the farm is to incorporate fruit trees throughout the property. When we bought the house, everything was so overgrown that it will likely take the next couple years to clean it up the way we want. But once we do that there will be plenty of space for small orchard plots around our 12 acres.

So far we’ve added 10 trees. 4 apples, 3 pears and 3 peaches. We’d like to double this yet this spring, with the plan on adding at least another 20 more next year.



The reason we named our farm 16 Hands was because we have 6 children. Add me and my wife and that’s plenty of helping hands, right? This is a lifestyle that we are hoping will offer our children beneficial skills and experience that will help shape their character as they grow older. Our greatest responsibility in life is to raise healthy, compassionate children who are willing and able to contribute to their community. I can’t think of a better way to do that than by growing up on a farm and sharing in the daily responsibilities.


This rain has not only been good for our germinating seed, but look at all the weeds popping up in the field! We’ve got our work cut out for us, and I’ll show you how we plan to handle these weeds a little later. But I’m very excited with how this project it turning out. It’s not easy, but I’ve learned that nothing worth having is ever achieved without working for it. And we’re happy to do so.


Apart from the 3 acre market garden, we’ve also started to put in so raised beds across the property for extra growing and research opportunities. Right now these boxes have cold weather crops growing in them, most of them direct seeded and started under the hoop frame I built in the picture above. These are great for protecting young starts and for extending your growing season. To learn how to build your own click here


When I pause to reflect on what we are trying to accomplish I sometimes get overwhelmed by the amount of time and energy that will be necessary to pull it off. But when I look at all we have already done, I’m encouraged. It doesn’t feel like work when its something you are very passionate about. Are there unknown risks? Of course there are. But the reward is greater than any of those risks. And I’m blessed to have the people I love most at my side working toward the same goal.

It’s been a crazy ride, let me tell you. How did we get here? I’m not even sure anymore. But we’re loving it, and that’s all that matters.

To see how things progress, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And if you’re in the Ames, Iowa area, we’ll see you at the market!




Experimenting with gardening: The Core Method

Happy Saturday! The weather here in northern Iowa has been off the charts. Yesterday was in the low seventies and its supposed to be in the high sixties most of this week. It’s hard to believe we’re still in the middle of February! But we know its only short-lived, so we’re making the most of the sunshine.

We’ve started putting in raised garden boxes, where a lot of our cold weather crops will be grown, with a transition into beans, and I wanted to quickly share the gardening technique we’re experimenting with this year. It’s called the Core Method, and its been around for some time. But this is the first year we’ve used it in our own garden.

The method is simple. The idea is to incorporate organic material down the core, or center, of your raised bed before planting. As this material breaks down it will release vital nutrients to your plants while enriching the soil. Most of the time this is done with rotted straw, but we’re using rotted grass clippings and mulched leaves.


We have this great space in front of the old brick barn, nestled on the southern side of the hog shed, where the ground is relatively flat. This picture was taken yesterday late afternoon, but we get at least 8 hours of direct sunlight here, and the hog shed provides decent wind break. Our plan is to put in nine raised beds this year, and to incorporate some flowers throughout the space to attract those necessary pollinators.


Once the box is built and placed, I’m laying cardboard on the bottom, right over the grass. This allows me to not have to dig the grass up (its warm but the ground is still frozen 4 inches below the topsoil) or lay down plastic. I want my plants to have access to the rich soil below and for their roots to not be restricted to the depth of the box (16 inches). The cardboard will kill the grass and act as a weed barrier as it breaks down over time.


After the cardboard is placed and soaked really good, I’m putting down a thin layer of mulched leaves from our fall pile. Then I’m placing the rotted grass clippings right down the middle of the bed in clumps about six inches deep. The grass is rotting but still green, so it should be a nice source of nitrogen for my spring crop.

Many people use straw instead of grass clippings. I don’t have access to straw without going out and buying it, so I’m using what I have readily available. The important thing to remember is that whether you use straw or grass, it should be partially rotted already. Don’t use it if its wet and slimy, as this will work against the balance you’re trying to create in the soil (think composting; same principle), and could contribute to plant disease or hinder growth. You don’t want to use fresh straw either, as you might not see the benefit of it breaking down until the following year. Using material that is already in the process of breaking down will give your plants a continued source of nutrients throughout the season. Just make sure you don’t use material that has been sprayed with a herbicide, or grass that has gone to seed! (I wouldn’t use hay either, as most hay has seed in it and will create unnecessary weeding.)


After the grass clippings are placed, I’m adding native soil from the property. Our soil here is a rich blend of sandy clay and I want to use it as much as possible. We had a new septic tank put in last summer, and after the leech field was excavated we ended up with a large pile of black earth. This is what I’m using to fill our boxes.


I’m starting at the sides and spreading the native soil throughout the box. I’ll cover the grass and mulched leaves and then follow with a layer of compost, which we’re having trucked in from a local business within the week. Once I add compost, I’ll mix in more native soil. Then I’ll be ready to plant.

We hope to sow cold weather crops like kale and radish over the next couple weeks. I’ll put up plastic hoops over the boxes to keep the soil warm and to protect the plants from late winter flucuations in weather. Any snow we get will hopefully serve to insulate the boxes as well. At least that’s the idea!

By the way, you don’t need to have raised beds to incorporate the Core Gardening Method. If you already have or are establishing raised beds on the ground, whether permanent or annual, you can use this method to enrich your soil. This is a neat and organic way to let nature do the work for you, and works well on a no-till garden plot!

Happy gardening!

Taking The Dream To Reality




So we’re starting to figure some things out. When we first started this adventure last year, we only had a vague idea of what we wanted to do with our acreage. We had a vision, a dream, but the details of how that dream would evolve into reality were pretty soft and vague. Over the past couple of months we’ve done a lot of research, talked to a variety of people, and really tried to narrow down what it was we wanted to accomplish this year, while working through the bigger picture of what kind of farmstead we want to build over the next several years. In other words, who are we going to be when we grow up?

We dream big, and that’s good. Dreams are meant to be inflated and conceptual. But when it comes to bringing those concepts to market, I think we have to be intentional about focusing on what matters most to us, which is producing quality food that our family can share with our community.


We have all kinds of crazy ideas and there are many things that we want to try. We’ve often dreamed of having a UPick location for fresh berries. These operations are very popular and successful back in Oregon, and we frequented them often every summer. Also popular in the northwest are orchards. We come from the Hood River Valley, where a lion’s share of the pears grown for North America are produced. So we’ve always known whatever kind of operation we grow, tree fruit would have a part of it.

We’ve talked about raising goats and chickens and feeding out pigs for meat. We’ve even talked about beekeeping. All of these things excite me. But as we look forward to spring, I have to be realistic about how much time we have to commit, and the scope of each of these projects. Each will bring its own learning curve, which will add to the complexity of its success. If we want to succeed, I believe we have to narrow our scope and hone in on doing one project right, instead of spreading ourselves too thin and perhaps never achieving success in anything at all. That sounds like a good way to burn out to me, and I think it’s where several before us have grown frustrated and quit.

So our primary effort this year will be establishing a sustainable and profitable market garden that will be the centerpiece of our farmstead. We’ll do this on the 3 acres south of us, while planting a cover crop or perhaps alfalfa on the northern 6 acres and reserving it for future rotation.

Proper rotation is a part of the solution to our biggest challenge, which is soil fertility. Building a plan that will increase the quality of our soil over the next several years will be imperative. We have great soil here in Iowa, but the ground we are working with has been used for conventional corn and soybeans for many years, and it will take a little while for us to build the kind of organic matter and tilth necessary to provide a healthy, long-term environment for the alternative vegetables and fruits we want to specialize in.

Most of what we plant this spring will go in permanent beds. The idea behind this is to adapt a no-till strategy that will allow us to introduce organic matter and nutrients to the soil on a smaller, hyper-focused scale and only where necessary, while minimizing weed growth. When you till or deep plow, you risk bringing invasive seeds to the top surface (in addition to losing vital plant resources such as nitrogen). Only disturbing the topsoil at a few inches to incorporate organic matter and compost, you’ll still get weeds, but they’ll be easier to manage . At least that’s the idea. We’re choosing to minimize the amount of mechanized machinery we use (partially to limit compaction as well as cost) and with a labor force of three, we need to keep weeds under control as much as possible. Mulching will also help. We’re still contemplating the best kind of mulch, and where to find it locally in the quantity that we’ll need.

We hope having a good rotation plan will also keep weeds, pests and disease to a minimum. There will be permanent crops, such as raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. We’re also going to grow lavender. But the tomatoes, corn, beans and squash will all need to be on a three-year rotation. This will mean we have to be intentional about where we plant this spring, while at the same time thinking forward to where things will go in 2018.

Head spinning yet?

The breadth of this can seem enormous at times. Once we started to really narrow down on what we wanted to accomplish, it was easy to see there were several parts of the “dream” we had to let go. That’s okay. There will be time to incorporate those things back in, slowly and methodically. The market garden has to flow from year to year, and establishing it right in the beginning is essential. This is the part of the “dream” that can potentially be the most profitable for us, which will lead to growing other parts of the farmstead. So we have to give it every bit of time and energy we have to make it work.


It’s all good. This whole journey has been exciting to me. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. We strive to be good stewards of what we have been given, to make the most out of these opportunities, and to learn and grow everyday.

I can almost smell the dirt. Can almost feel the spring sun on my face. I can’t imagine another way of living.


This Sudden Change Of Weather

When we first told our family that we were moving to Iowa, my grandpa asked me if I knew that Iowa gets “weather”. That wasn’t the first time we were asked that question, nor was it the last. Even when we finally did make the move, well-meaning Midwesterners asked us if we’d experienced Iowa winters yet. When we said no, not yet, they’d kind of nod and smile with a knowing gleam in their eye. Just you wait, sonny, that look said. You’ll see.

Yeah, Iowa gets “weather”. Summer brought its humid downpours and electrical storms and straight-line winds. But they eventually gave way to an almost uncanny autumn, where temperatures were more than pleasant. It was almost unfair how beautiful the weather was just a month ago, when midday temperatures were still in the high sixties!


Now comes winter with its hoary vengeance. The temps have plummeted and the ground has essentially fossilized with a frozen rigor mortis. Everything is white with crystalized snow. Yesterday arctic winds drove the windchill down to thirty below, and we watched as drifting tufts of snow rolled across the fields like waves. It was kind of amazing.

Somewhere a seasoned Midwesterner is looking out their window with a gleam in their eye. He’s grinning, I think.


So we got a little “weather”. To be fair, half the country got blasted with a version of this storm. So the weather fairy seems to be sprinkling her wares less judiciously than perhaps some would care for. However, thirty below wind scald is an all time new thing for this native Oregonian. But it didn’t keep me inside. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t wait to get out in it and mess around.


Yesterday would have been out of the question. The wind was bitter cold and almost dangerous if exposed to it for any length of time. But the sun was out this morning and all was calm. Sometime in the night the clouds scuttled off and the sky was scrubbed clean.  There was a kind of peace across the land that only a freshly fallen snow at the wake of a storm can bring.


I took the dogs out and puttered around the property for a while, basking in the solitude, experiencing the bone chilling cold of Iowa winter really for the first time. There’s something incredible about fresh, unmolested snow. Banks of white that kind of soften the otherwise hard angles of the trees and the buildings at the point where they crash into the earth and stab into the sky. And there is a beauty in that breath-stealing chill and how it leaves its mark upon the earth, like time itself has frozen still.


I took pictures as I walked and while the dogs scavenged ahead of me. While I walked, I thought about how strange this place can be, and how strange it is that we are even here. What’s more, I thought about how strange a thing it is that we are enjoying it all. All of it. Every part. I think maybe there were loved ones that we left behind that had thought, maybe even hoped, that wouldn’t be the case. That’s a sad thought, actually, to consider. But most likely true.


This has been a year of changing seasons. Not a turning of the page or even another chapter, but more like a whole new book. Written in different language. Its funny, because at the beginning of this year I had the sense that 2016 would turn out to be a year of change, but I had no clue what that could possibly mean.


But sometimes we need our lives to dramatically change to remind us of the things that are truly important. We certainly have come through some terrible things this year, but we’ve experienced good things too. Great things.


Iowa may not be heaven, but it has still become something transcendent for me. More than an ideology. More than a place. Its become a medium for reflection and growth. This place, with all its quirky unfamiliarity, has become a living and personal therapy for me. And the changes that have followed us since moving here, personal and professional, have been the best kind of counsel. Stepping outside of what is comfortable and facing the unknown encourages the only kind of evolution that matters. Evolution of the heart.


There will be weather. But instead of hiding away, instead of ignoring what I can’t control, I want to go out and be in the middle of it. I want to be exposed by it. Because that’s where I am challenged. That’s where I am brought closer to where I want to be.


And the storms don’t last anyway. If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far from living in Iowa. If you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes and it’ll change.




New Bathroom For Christmas

All I want for Christmas is a…bathroom?

It was one of the first things on the list when we bought the old farmhouse. A hundred years ago, families were big right? Lots of children running around the house. And only one tiny bathroom? Well, they certainly knew how to make do with less back then. For my brood? We need two bathrooms.


When they added the attached garage to the house in 2006, they left this perfect space for a bathroom addition. This space sits just outside the laundry room (on the other side of the pink insulation) and our weird hall space (behind the wall on the left). On the other side of the wall to the right is the great outdoors. You can see the old siding still left on the walls.


Kind of a cool thing about this space is the fact that there are two large cisterns underneath the ground here. We pulled back the concrete covers to take a peek and found them to be in great condition. I wish I would have taken pics before they were covered. It’s likely these were used once to capture water from the downspout during storms, but they’re bone dry now. Most people will fill these old cisterns so they don’t capsize. Our would make a cool wine cellar or hidden passage, but we decided to simply close them back up and build over them.


New plumbing has been put in. Plenty of space for a 36″ shower/tub, toilet, 36″ linen closet and 48″ vanity. We’re also bringing the laundry room wall back three feet to expand that tiny space a little.


This window will go away and the tub will sit here.


And this is where the laundry room will come out. Take a look at that cool shiplap we uncovered to the left! This was behind all that old chippy white siding. I had the contractor save what he took out so I could use it later.


The new fan is vented and the linen closet is framed.


This will be the door to the house. On the other side of this space is the weird hall I mentioned before. It’s a space that annexes the dining and living room, and is large enough to be its own room. We’re still trying to figure out what to do with it.

This is another good look at the beautiful century old shiplap I told you about. We considered leaving it exposed but in the end decided to drywall over it.


During the bathroom install we also had the heat pump/AC replaced. The old one was twenty-one years old and on its last legs. We had it moved from the side of the house to back here so we can put a wrap around porch on the house next spring.

It seems kind of strange to put in a new AC with snow on the ground, but we’ll appreciate it next summer for sure.


Good things are happening to this old farmhouse. We’re slowly making it our own, one room at a time.



Beggar’s Night In Iowa

If you’re gonna go Trick or Treating in Iowa, you’d better be ready to offer a joke to win your candy. It doesn’t have to be a funny joke. Anything will do. It’s all part of the tradition here that goes back a long time.

It may be Halloween on the calendar, but in Iowa its called Beggar’s night. The tradition began over seventy years ago when the city of Des Moines experienced a high ration of vandalism. In 1938 city police received 550 calls of vandalism on Halloween. The next year, Oct 30th was set as the new Beggar’s Night, thus ushering in the tradition of bad joke telling and candy collecting curfews.

I’ve read that there are other states that participate in some version of Beggar’s Night. Ohio, Massachusetts, parts of New York. I’ve even read that this tradition of earning your candy might go further back to earlier times when children often had to perform for their treat. Somewhere along the way, the Halloween protocol went from being a benign exchange for goods to kids threatening “Soaps or Treats” (Trick or Treat in the modern era), of ghouls running wild in the streets and smashed pumpkins littering the asphalt.

But not in Iowa.

So Beggar’s Night it is. Tomorrow, October’s older sister November will bring her cold winds and a hint of winter’s kiss. But I’m holding on to this night just a little bit longer.

We took the kids to the little town down the road. It was strange to see so many houses darkened. Our experience with Halloween in Oregon and Arizona was a little different; pushing through mounds of chattering kids dressed like super heroes or ninjas as we all kind of sweep from house to house to house in the endless pursuit of a bag full of tootsie rolls. Tonight we connected the dots between the few houses that were lit, weaving from one side of the street to the other, through fallen leaves and over broken concrete. The crowds? They never showed. The streets were mostly empty. Small town remember? But I think most of the kids around here go to the Downtown celebrations held a few days before Halloween where they shop businesses. Makes a kind of sense after seeing how many people don’t participate.


But it was good to be out with our own little ninjas and bat kids, and they had a blast. The sky was clear and there were a million stars (last year it poured non stop in Oregon). The temp had risen to just over 60 degrees after nightfall, which was warmer than it’s been all day. It was a good night, a swell goodbye to our old friend October and the kids brought home just enough candy to be dangerous (and be gone in a week).

There’s something eerily sweet about being out on Halloween in a small town like Jewell. It reminds me of any scene out of any horror move worth its salt. Think Haddenfield, Illinois (Halloween…Michael Myers..yup) or Gatlin, Nebraska (Children of the Corn…Malachi and Isaac and He Who Walks Behind The Rows). What kind of things lurk behind the shadows of these narrow streets? What happens beyond the walls of the darkened turn of the century homes? What stories lie just underneath the surface of the quiet solitude?

But our kids are safe. They’re armed with jokes remember?

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“Happy who?”

“Happy Halloween!”

And it was.

Now we’ll slip into November and ALL THINGS CHRISTMAS will start bleeding into everything (been to Hobby Lobby lately? Yeah, Christmas Mecca). The pumpkins will give way to snowflakes and lights. And I bet this community goes BIG on Christmas.

But for now, Happy Beggar’s Night!



Down The Country Road

It was one of those days where you just want to jump in the truck and go someplace new. Someplace never seen before. Sunny October days in Iowa are made for exploring, driving down a country road, through cornfields now stripped and barren. And if you’re lucky that country road might just take you to a barn sale where you’ll spend hours rooting through old heirlooms from an era gone by.

Colo, IA is a small midwest town about 30 minutes southeast from our place. Just outside of town you’ll find a place called Leisa’s Farmtiques, which is really just a beautifully restored barn filled to the brim with unique turn of the century furniture, old toys, boutique clothing and ancient memorabilia. When you enter the barn you’ll instantly be greeted by Leisa, the owner of Farmtiques, who is one of the most genuine and knowledgeable people I’ve met.

Sifting through the relics (there are two stories of glorious junk) you’ll find that its easy to get lost. The place is almost timeless. There’s so much detail in the structure of old things, and that detail demands attention. There’s no skimming here. You don’t want to overlook anything. These old things each tell a story, and you’ll find yourself wanting to hear the words, to know those stories intimately, to let them become a part of you. Cool things like these sports memorabilia from the twenties. What happened to the kids that wore those gloves? Who threw the footballs? Used the bat? Where are they now?


And there are certainly the creepy things that will haunt you. Dolls and old hats. Perfect for Halloween.


We scored these cool metal chairs for a decent price. When we lived in Hood River, OR we used to go to a farm stand every summer and they had a host of these old chairs, all brightly painted and cheerfully lined up in front of the barn. Everybody wanted to sit in the bright metal chairs! We’ve been hunting for our own for some time now. It’s not that they’re hard to find. We’ve come across them in various places, but haven’t been able to find the right price. Until now! Just a little cleaning and some paint and these two chairs will look great outside the old brick barn.

Another score for the day was this cool sideboard from the late 1800s. Its rough, its primitive and its got character. There are stains on the shelves. The top is worn. The doors don’t close neatly. And its seen more autumn months than anyone still alive on this planet!

What do you do with a sideboard like this? Do you restore it? Do you keep it as it is? I have no idea. But I know its going to look great in our dining room, and its going to be well used. When we choose an antique piece, its got to be functional as well as aesthetic. This sideboard certainly fits the bill.


A little ways up the road from Colo is Marshaltown. Take the exit off Hwy 30, head through town and at the end of Main street you’ll find Appleberry Farms. Apple trees, pumpkins, holiday decor and crafts. Plus they make their own cider!


We took the boys here to find their pumpkins and to check out the apple stock for saucin’ and we found a whole lot more.

If there’s something you’re looking for, Appleberry Farms has it. Glassware, old tins, handmade birdhouses, creepy mannequins. Their prices are very reasonably fair. We came for pumpkins and apples and we left with a lot more than that. The owners are friendly too, which is always a plus.



A short trip through Central Iowa on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and we stumbled on a world we didn’t know was there. We met new people and we came home with more “project” material than we can probably find time for. All because we wanted to go down a country road.