Getting the figures straight


At last night’s farming class, we learned the very basics of putting together a business plan.

It was very informative, as I am one of those individuals who barely understands arcane economic and finance jargon — words like “supply,” “demand” and “competitive edge.”

From this class I learned that as a farm we should actually try and make a “profit.”

I’ve heard tell of this “profit” concept before, and I was very interested that other than being happy and getting a job outdoors, farming could actually produce this legendary asset (another word I learned!).

One of the things we learned about profit was pretty powerful actually: In order to continue farming, one should aim for a 25-30 percent profit margin.

That was good to know, as one of the issues I’ve been having relates to how much I charge.

If I’m lucky, I’ll actually have crops to sell in April.

If so, I’ll have to assign value to them, based primarily on how much it cost to produce them. The 30 percent number means I’ll be able to continue farming after my class ends and help me procure more land for this grand experiment.

Now, while working to make enough money (or, quite honestly, any money, to start with) to continue farming, I’ll have to temper my desire to provide food for as many people as humanly possible.

See, I know we’re in a recession, and I’d love to just grow and give stuff away, or at least sell it for as cheap as I can.

But, I’ve still got to watch out for my own financial well being, just to make sure I can actually feed people. And that’s the biggest lesson I learned in that particular class.

Now, if you’re interested in starting an ag based business, or any business for that matter, we did get a link to an interactive, web-based business planning software. Here’s the link, in case anyone’s interested. It’s Free!

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Growing Calendar Complete!

Not my farm, but hopefully we'll be looking really similar soon :)

Not my farm, but hopefully we’ll be looking really similar soon :)

I’ve completed this year’s calendar, marking plant and harvest dates, for this year’s growing season.

The weather has hampered our efforts to get started, especially with the incubator farm lot in Jacksonville.

But, any second now, the members of my farm incubator class will get an email telling us of our land prep.

I’m sure we’ll spring into action, like a farming version of the Avengers, and plant hundreds of plans into the ground, all so we can harvest and sell tons of yummy produce.

I’m so excited I can’t stand it!

Here, for your perusal, is a list of all the crops I plan to grow this year.

It, of course, is not permanent, as I’m sure it will change, but it’s a pretty solid list. If anyone has any additions to add, I’ll be happy to consider growing it.

Crops for Spring/Summer 2014:

  1. arugula
  2. lettuce
  3. onions
  4. chard
  5. tomatoes
  6. pumpkins
  7. spinach
  8. culantro (not cilantro, this is an experiment)
  9. zucchini
  10. cucumbers
  11. squash
  12. basil
  13. okra
  14. sweet potatoes
  15. eggplant
  16. Italian dandelion (not the weed, but that’s good, too)
  17. potatoes
  18. buckwheat (as a cover crop between beds)
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The great baby rabbit heist

We are the proud owners of three SQUEEE!-inducing baby rabbits.

These little darlings are part of our plan to breed rabbits for meat and for sale, and they are the first litter to come out of the process.

I noticed a few weeks earlier that Sally — their mother — seemed a little swollen. Since she’d been spending a lot of time with a few bucks (Rabbit males are known as bucks, females, are does. Young rabbits are called — adorably — kits or kittens) I figured she might be in the family way.

So I separated her from the boys and waited.

Like the good mother she is, Sally immediately began building a nest from pine straw and bits of fur she pulled from under her belly.

Then, I fought hard against the snow and sleet that has plagued our area. I knew if we couldn’t keep her or her kits warm enough, then the little ones would surely die. We covered her enclosure, packed it full of more pine straw and crossed our fingers and let nature take its course.

Last week, we were feeding and watering the rabbits and that’s when we saw them: Three kits — two grey and white ones and one black and white one.

We congratulated ourselves on our success and started constructing a new enclosure for the little family.

And then one kit disappeared.

It appeared the little escape artist wiggled his way out of the cage, in between the gaps in the wire (narrow enough to hold the mother, but not, unfortunately, one very curious and brave little kit).

That was about 5 days ago.

We feared the worst, until this morning, when we walked out the door and saw a teeny-tiny ball of grey fluff, hanging out next to the garage.

Me and two other Sunshine Brothers lept into action.

I kept eyes on the troublesome little darling, while Oliver fetched me a net attached to a length of pvc pipe we use to catch chickens.

We crept around, getting ever closer to the adorable rodent, with help from young Aaron.

Soon, we were mere feet from the wild beast, and I struck. Heroically, I swung my net toward the beast, faster than the eye could follow, victory surely in my grasp.

Dear reader, I discovered today that rabbits really are rapid little animals.

That tiny little terror sped under the garage much quicker than my net could move, disappearing.

After an animated discussion with Oliver and Aaron to determine who was at fault for losing our prey, we decided to put a little more thought into it. By the way, while we never determined which of us deserved the blame, I did walk away from the chat secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t me. I don’t know about the other two Sunshine Brothers.

I came up with the genius idea of using the creature’s mother to draw the enemy into a trap.

I figured, if we brought the mother’s enclosure close to the kit’s hiding place opened the door a little the the kit — who surely missed its mother — would go inside the enclosure. Then, with our catlike reflexes, we would rush to the enclosure, slam the door shut and capture our prey.

Our little kit came out of hiding. Oliver crept close in an attempt to push the enemy into the cage.

Aaron, who — bless his heart — was unable to stay still, served as a jumping, wiggling distraction for the rabbit.

I kept watch from the deck, maintaining situational awareness as we attempted to flank the enemy and push him into an ambush, using a mother’s love as bait.

Dear readers, baby rabbits may be fast, but they aren’t smart.

This kit obviously wanted to be next to its mother again. It walked right up to her enclosure, and shared a touching moment through the wire.

Then it stood there, maddeningly twitching its nose, ignoring the entrance.

The idiot rabbit refused to go into the enclosure, ignoring the warmth and safety of its mother’s side.

I hated that little rabbit, just a bit, in that moment.

After several attempts over the course of 45 minutes to push the rabbit into the enclosure, only to have it either walk completely around the cage or to run under the garage, I decided it was time we regrouped again.

I gathered the Sunshine Brothers together.

I decided to try our secret weapon — Oliver.

Oliver has a super power: He can remain still and quiet as a stone for extended periods of time.

I’ve seen him fish, silently, staring at the water, for 20 hours solid, wide awake and alert the entire time. Not even moving for a bathroom break.

I placed him about 12 feet from the enclosure, armed with a net and told him to out wait the hateful little monster.

I then sent Aaron wiggling his way into the house and went with him, as I no longer trusted myself to keep the little kit’s best interests at heart.

About 30 minutes later, Oliver came bebopping into the house.

“Got him,” he said.

Evidently, after everyone left, the little rabbit just decided to hop right into the net, easy as pie.

Oliver scooped him up and the little family of four was reunited, just like that.

I really do think I hate that rabbit.

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Whoa! That’s a big job…

I enrolled in the farm incubator program at the Onslow County Extension Office here.

Part of that program includes leasing a quarter acre of land for use to plant crops next to the County Extension office.

In January, I saw the field for the first time.

A quarter acre is a lot of land.

I must admit, my legs buckled a bit when I saw how much land a 70′X140′ lot actually is.

I signed on for a lot of work.

I’m no quitter (not yet anyway, squash bugs may break my heart, however), and the extension office, as part of the program, has made available all their combined years of experience, education and expertise.

Which means anytime I find myself in a bind, they are there to pitch in and help out.

My classmates are a great group of passionate, devoted people and I’m honored to be counted among them.

Despite my fears (that’s a lot of land, I mean really, a lot) I’m excited about the opportunity and can’t wait to get to work.

And — Bonus!– part of the produce I grow will go to area food banks to help the needy.

And, if you’re in the Onslow County area, I should have produce ready for sale at the Onslow County Farmer’s Market at the Commons in Jacksonville and at the Richland’s Hwy. location in April!

Wish me luck and good weather.

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Weeds are the best thing ever!


I love weeds!

Not the Showtime hit, not the proverbial herbal smoke touted by Willie Nelson, but those “troublesome” organisms that infest your gardens and cause countless amounts of labor every day.

It sounds nuts, but, if you love gardening, at some point you have to admit a love of actually gardening.

Because that is what weeds are.

Weeding your garden, seeking out those “harmful” organisms, day in and day out: That is gardening.

A thing can be best described by what it consists mostly of, and gardening consists mostly of weeding.

A simpler person would only love the other, minor aspects of the garden: Planting, watering, – and everyone’s favorite – harvesting.

But once you actually sit down and think about it, weeding is the thing.

Gardeners, farmers and homesteaders aren’t drawn to “easy” things. We like hard work and delayed gratification.

We like getting dirty, we like being uncomfortable.

Sure, some people like the easy thing, the fruits of the labor, but weeds, and the work that goes with it, make the fruits sweeter.

I love fresh, organic, beautiful fruits and vegetables, but I love growing them even more.

I love the serenity which overtakes me as I pull weeds out of the garden. I love looking at one of our raised beds after weeding and seeing clean, soil, the consistency of sugar. I love knowing I can actually improve one thing in my life for the better, visibly, without concern.

Weeding my garden is one of the few things when I’m finished with, I can honestly say I have made the world a little bit better.

Weeds are so useful, too!

Our rabbits, chickens and goats adore them. They make great additions to our compost and some are even edible.

We have discovered wild ground cherries among our weeds, along with green briar, which produces grape-like edible fruits which mature in January (right in the cold months!) which is evergreen and evidently makes incredible jelly.

And let’s not forget perhaps the most well-known weed, the dandelion, which almost heroically pokes its yellow mane above the ground, providing greens and blossoms which help balance out a salad.

You can make wine with it!

What’s not to love.

So, do what I do. When in doubt, go weed the garden. It will make everything better, I promise.

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The Truth About Homesteading

Goat farm

Years ago, when we first conceived Sunshine Sisters Farms, me and the entire Sunshine family thought the enterprise would be one that was immensely rewarding.

And it has been. We’ve learned about agriculture in a real and positive way, we have developed close personal relationships with a vast worldwide community of sustainable farmers and homesteaders and we have come to expand our family with a veritable menagerie of animals.

This whole project, however, may have been the worst decision we ever made.
Let me explain.

When we first came up with our genius idea to start a homestead, I personally envisioned sunny days filled with cooling breezes as I tilled the soil, planted seed, marshaled growth and reaped the rewards of a bountiful harvest. I imagined handmade baskets filled with a rainbow array of organic produce.

I believed my work with the earth would allow me to commune with nature, filling my hands with beautiful dark soil, like a prayer for a hopeful future. I believed our animals would fill our lives with meaning, as we stewarded them through a fruitful life. They would provide us with eggs, milk – and when the time came – they would nobly, yet tragically, sacrifice themselves to provide wholesome meat to sustain us through our lives.

I was wrong. Dead wrong.

I spend my day dragging loads of topsoil around acres of land. The weather is a fickle mistress, determined to keep me in the optimum levels of discomfort.

I lost count of the number of times I have had to sit down to avoid passing out from the heat. Bugs are evil creatures determined to make me cry. Seeds do not germinate as advertised, if they germinate at all. Plants put into the ground are prone to whither, blight, fungal infections and infestations and epidemics of all manner.

And the animals, Oh my gosh, the animals. I have snobby chickens who I swear have some sort of chicken powers they are using to try and kill me with. I have no idea how they manage to poop so much, over so many things. I think they tried to blind me at one point (It’s a long story).

Ducks are messy, ill-mannered animals. I learned recently they cannot control their bowels. They destroy things just for the sake of seeing them destroyed. Guineas are funny looking and loud.

Our goats bite me constantly. One head-butted me as I tried to repair a gate. We also have rabbits, who I think know we purchased them solely as a meat source. As such, they treat us with constant suspicion, punctuated by ugly claw marks whenever we try to treat them with the dignity and respect we believe animals deserve.

And one of them has the worst teeth you have ever seen on an animal. I did not know orthodontics applied to small rodents, but I have been proven wrong several times now.

At the end of every day, even an “easy” day, I am usually wet, filthy in ways a sewer worker would be repulsed by, exhausted, dehydrated and incredibly uncomfortable.

Here at Sunshine Sisters we often get in stupid, exhausted arguments about ridiculous topics among ourselves.

No doubt driven by the constant worry and vastly reduced blood sugar that is a farmer’s lot in life. I mean, really, does anybody really care exactly what kind of kale we plant. I have been involved in extensive discussions about such things for hours at a time. I have no idea why.

I am, as my wife, Sunshine Sister Melissa, is apt to remind me, an “unusual” individual (she also says I am somewhat of a “crybaby.” I disagree, usually through tears). As such, I have a vast array of interests, all of which I have ignored for almost a year now. I used to be a person who cared about things like books and movies and the world around me.

Now, my entire focus is on our thousands of square feet of raised beds and what it means when animals make any of their extremely varied noises.

One Sunshine Sister swears she heard a hen attempt to crow yesterday. I do not know what that means, but I am concerned it is some sort of apocalyptic omen which we would be unwise to ignore.

I think this entire experience has made me crazy … well, crazier.

See, in spite of that laundry list of concerns, especially the thing about the chickens trying to blind me, I would not trade any of it for the world. How messed up is that? After spending an average day of feeding and watering animals, watering plants twice a day, planting seed, hoeing beds, mulching, mucking and staring at various and assorted animal body parts for signs of ill health, I do end up filthy.

I usually find myself washing five, sometimes six, different types of animal poop from my hands, face, body and – worst of all – mouth. While I am performing my cleaning rituals, I sometimes find an imbecilic grin on my face. Through the body aches, the sore eyes, the runny nose from my allergies, I am grinning like a fool. I end my day thinking about how well my kale crop is doing; thinking about how silly the chickens looked while scratching in the dirt; thinking about something my kids said to my while they helped trim rabbit teeth (never thought I would be doing that in a million years). I am absurdly happy. It is surreal. My life has never been better.

How stupid is that?

This post appears in the latest issue of From Scratch magazine. Read it here. Don’t forget to subscribe — It’s Free! (Note: if you do subscribe, be sure to verify your email address. Otherwise you won’t get you copy when it comes out)

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Chicken Poop

After saving Sunshine Sisters Farms from the drought caused by a fancy fridge, I determined it was time for our chickens to graduate.

To keep confusion at a minimum, I recently made the decision to call our brooder Kindergarten, the pen we keep one set of juveniles in elementary school and the pen we move our chickens into before releasing them into the run high school.

You may ask where middle school is, but as we are a poorer school district, we combine it into our elementary school.

So, the chickens in Kindergarten were moving to elementary school but first the chickens in elementary school were moving to high school.

As each school was emptied of its “students,” we cleaned each pen, as good animal husbands (is that the right word?) do.

Elementary school was easy to clean and that process went off without a hitch.

Moving the Kindergärtners to Elementary school wasn’t much of a problem either: Only one of the chickens got loose during the process and it was quickly caught and put up.

I was feeling great about this job, as our chickens were very happy to be in new environs, more suited to their ages.

At this point, I only had two chickens to put in Kindergarten: Naked Chicken and Baby Chicken.

Naked chicken is about 6 weeks old and at some point, he lost most of his feathers, they’re growing in slowly over time, but he is putting on weight slower than his peers. Because of this, I found it necessary to hold Naked Chicken back a grade. Baby Chicken is only about 2 weeks old, and is the only survivor from our last round of incubation.

I figured they could keep each other company in Kindergarten and get a little chance to de-stress and pack on some ounces.

I wanted to make sure both of the little chickens were in a clean brooder.

So I took them out and started to remove the poop tray. For the uninitiated, many store-bought fancy brooders have poop trays, which can be removed and emptied out to keep Kindergarten clean and dry.

This particular poop tray is cleaned out every two days. During the early part of Kindergarten, this is plenty, but about the time chickens get ready to move into elementary school, it fills up nearly daily.

And gets wet, because the chickens start splashing water everywhere.

So, when it comes time to empty this tray, it is filled to the brim with wet, sloshy chicken poop.

The tray is about three feet long. I asked one of the younger Sunshine Brothers to grab one end and help me carry it to the compost pile, where the greasy, gross poop would turn into nice clean fertilizer.

They flat refused, pointing out that I could not make them while holding one end of a tray of wet, chicken poop.

Well, this was a teaching moment. I could yell and caterwaul, demanding they do it, or I could show them how a job should be done, with dignity and pride.

The poop tray was too awkward to carry at my waist, so I decided to lift it up over my head, in the way a waiter does a tray of drinks to navigate a crowd.

This was a good idea, I am sure of it, but I feel the execution may have been lacking.

As I hoisted the poop tray high, it somehow got off balance, tipped forward and covered me in wet, slimy chicken poop.

The younger Sunshine Brothers understandably laughed.

I graciously gave them about half a minute before shooting a poop-encrusted glare their way and politely, yet firmly requested they bring me the hose pipe, while working to keep my mouth closed as much as possible.

They took off like hounds to a rabbit, giggling the whole way.

The delightful children helped hose me down, I finished cleaning out chicken Kindergarten and decided to call it a day.

There must be a better way to handle a poop tray.

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Modern Day Homestead

Join us behind the scenes of a small working family farm. What started as just a measly chicken coop has transformed into 15 people and over fifty animals.

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