Thursday, September 6, 2018

Reflections on Squash Blossom Farm- Our Ten Year Anniversary!

Squash Blossoms  growing toward a drink in the Fish Gazebo.
Ten years ago today we became farmers!
Or at least, we closed on purchasing Squash Blossom Farm (the name we decided upon when the previous owners accepted our offer.)

Ten Years!! We have  learned so much, experienced so much, dreamed so much, worried so much, accomplished so much. Here are a bunch of photos of some of our favorite and proudest farming adventures and accomplishments in only approximate chronological order.
The farm that first fall - a blank slate (If you can call a 100-year old farmstead with all its history a blank slate.) We wondered how we would ever use all those big buildings--a barn, loafing shed, chicken coop, granary, garage. Now they are all jam-packed with endeavors and we kind if wish we had another shed!

Our daughters, Sara and Cadence, moved home, saying they wanted to help us "launch the farm." They were instrumental in making us more than just a hobby farm.Without them, I don't think we would have been brave enough to  dive into raising 2 steers, 2 pigs,  400 meat chickens, 30 laying hens, 15 turkeys, a hive of  bees, starting a big garden and baking every week for the Farmers Market - all in the first year. Here they are, carrying waste milk from the  neighbors' dairy farm to give to the pigs.

Sara and Cadence gave me a chicken-raising book and some gear for Christmas that year.  So, we got 9 laying hens and 2 roosters from a Craigslist ad and we were off on our livestock adventure!
Cadence, our vegetarian daughter since she was 12,  decided to raise steers for beef and meat birds. (Two Jersey steer calves in our car, being brought home from the dairy farm.)
Soon we had 200 broilers, free-ranging because the cows destroyed their chicken tractors. Yes, two hundred  roosters,all learning to crow at the same time.
When they were old enough, we purchased a used chicken plucker and processed the first few batches of meat chickens ourselves - until we decided this is not a task we were very good at or enjoyed and began taking them to a processor instead.
We tried raising  geese and they were totally delightful until they were mature and got too bossy and aggressive.
Turkeys were my biggest surprise because I had been warned that turkeys are stupid and mean. We have  now raised  many batches and discovered they are curious, gentle, friendly and I always weep when harvest time arrives.
We considered sheep and goats, but ultimately decided to get a Dexter cow and her newborn calf from Dream River Farm.  We chose Dexters because they are small, hardy, multi-purpose and don't have horns. Lariat the mom and Lass, her calf, upon arrival at Squash Blossom.

Cadence found our milk cow, LaFonda, on a Craigslist ad. She and I drove hours to meet her, and fell in love instantly. Nothing has made me feel like a real farmer more than having a milk cow.
We learned to milk by way of Youtube videos. Our first session took a couple hours even with Cadence and I  each on a side, but LaFonda was remarkably patient with us.
We learned so much about  animal husbandry- including how to recognize when a cow is at the right stage in her heat to be bred, how to order semen online and find an artificial insemination technician. Lariat and LaFonda birthing their first calves on the farm was among my proudest and most thrilling experiences.
We had discovered an old pheasant shed in the woods where Sara decided to raise a couple of pigs. The farm a was a big family adventure. We told our entrepreneurial daughters they could try whatever they wanted on the farm as long as they did not leave us with  all their animals when they left.  We wanted to figure out what we loved, what made sense financially and for our farm, and what we were good at. We have loved it all so far, but have not  raised pigs again because it was so much work hauling water out to them and they were remarkably smelly and a little scary to us when they got big.
 I became a beekeeper - Farmer to  tens of thousands head of bees!

 Some animals just showed up, like Orange our wonderful fluffy cat who relocated here from the  dairy farm. And Poet, our sweet black cat.
Weasel was a feral kitten the dogs found in a brush pile in the woods, and Cadence caught - boy, was she wild! It took six months to tame her but now she is a velvety soft, gentle, shy housecat.
Our herd of dogs has increased, too! When it became obvious that our beloved old dog Nutmeg was slowing down, I got my first ever puppy - a collie/border collie mix I named Zinnia, for Nutmeg to mentor.
Then Moji joined the canine force - a rat terrier whose intended job was to patrol for rodents and rabbits.
Luna, our daughter's rescue dog, joined us two summers ago and is even more serious about rodent patrol than Moji.
The first thing we did when we moved here was replace a section of the south  wall of the barn with huge plate glass windows (found on Craigslist, of course, our best resource) creating a eonderful barn solarium room.Life at Squash Blossom is one project after another - restoration, maintenance, improvement and transformation. We work hard, but it is the kind of work that is like play for us, and we have loved bringing this farm to life! A few favorite projects:
Cadence wished to live in the  granary - a crazy idea because it was totally  full of garbage and who-knows-what lived in there already. Over the winter, she totally cleared it out and over the summer, she and Rog installed windows, doors, drywall, tile, wood floor, a loft, and a deck made from the old rowing club dock. She  lived in there with no electricity, water or heat over the  summer.
After  Cadence moved away, I turned the granary into a little store for my art, farm products and  antiques, It has become pretty jam-packed with treasures over the  years!
Rog built a  sweet brick patio in front, and it is now quite inviting with  lots of flowers, hops growing over the pergola, and a bottle tree I made in a welding class.

In cold December 2010, we got a solar photovoltaic system installed on our south-facing barn roof, which has been happily providing electricity for our farm ever since.
With the help of our first interns, Bethany and Brendan, and another fearless volunteer, Chad,  we erected a high tunnel greenhouse for extended season growing.
The high-tunnel served us very well, providing us with veggies most of the winter and later housing dozens of aquaponics growing towers, until we determined we needed a more permanent structure for both growing and events.
We purchased a used greenhouse, which we naively thought we could  dismantle, move and erect in a weekend or two. In reality, it took two summers and countless volunteer hours by dozens of friends and interns to completely finish erecting the greenhouse structure.
We have continued to work on it ever since, with Rog creating a clay/brick/log floor, adding heat and
I made a glass mandala window to hang in the peak (making the window was the easy part- hanging that 400-lb  beast was the real challenge. Good thing I am married to an architect.)
The greenhouse has turned out to be a magical space for dinners, concerts, parties,classes, disco dances, small weddings...oh, and growing plants.
There was an old silo foundation on the south side of the barn which we decided to turn into a fish pond.
The next year, Rog built a gazebo structure around it that can be enclosed with polycarbonate panels like a little greenhouse in winter. We turned it into an aquaponic system with growing beds and towers and catfish, koi, bluegills, and goldfish. It is a favorite spot to sit a moment and relax.
Our most ambitious undertaking, most risky investment, hardest work and greatest accomplishment so far was building a commercial kitchen in our barn. It took years of planning and persuading of the authorities. We held a successful Kickstarter that raised over $25,000 toward the  construction (thank you, dear Kickstarter supporters!), borrowed against our retirement funds, scoured  Craigslist for recycled building materials and equipment, did nearly all the work ourselves (except for plumbing and electrical)with the help of interns and friends, and after  more than year of construction, ended up with this amazing, beautiful certified kitchen that two photos cannot  begin to tell the story of!

The wood-fired oven now bakes pizzas for about 160 people every Sunday during summer and two huge batches of sourdough breads every week, year-round.
Building the commercial kitchen required construction of a new well, new septic system, and an accessible restroom. We commissioned Darin Smith (Rochester Stained Glass) to  create a sunflower window for our restroom - we dare say we have the most beautiful barn bathroom in SE Minnesota.
Of course the veggie garden is a key aspect of our farm, growing veggies, herbs and berries for our pizzas, farmers market baking and CSA. It has grown over the years and each year gets more beautiful, I think.
Our hardworking interns deserve the lion's share of credit for keeping the veggie garden beautiful and under control.
The Unbearably Cute Garden Shed was just a shell when we got it and artist/carpenter Chad Austin made it taller, built a door, added windows,= and an arched Dutch door,  sided and trimmed it, built a tiny deck, and turned it into this adorable and functional shed.
Maintenance of the buildings on a 100+-year old farm is a never-ending and expensive prospect. We have put new roofs on the house and garage, and hired Eric and Ethan Eggler to build new fences and put metal roofs and new windows and siding on our chicken coop and loafing shed. Interns and friends have helped with painting buildings, siding and fences.
We are determined to preserve the  character and authenticity of these precious buildings, even while we sometimes update their uses.  The next building slated for new roof, insulation, and siding is the granary/store.
As we developed our vision for Squash Blossom Farm, we decided our primary goal is Local Food, Local Art,Local Music.  When our commercial kitchen was approved, we started "Summer Sundays at Squash Blossom" - inviting the  community for live music and wood-fired pizza. Rog's band, The Nodding Wild Onions, was our house band the first year - and  members helped construct our barn stage.
We have a different band every week now and sell out of pizza almost every week.
We make both meat and veggie pizzas, with our own sourdough crust, homemade sauce and garden veggies and herbs. It is thrilling when someone tells us this is the best pizza they have ever eaten!
We are in our 9th summer of baking for the Farmers market. Thank you to our enthusiastic customers who ensure we rarely have to take any baked goods home with us at the end of Saturday morning market!
Last year, focusing on the Local Art part of our  mission, I started a sculpture garden at the edge of the woods. The concrete mosaic Prairie Woman was created thanks to a grant from the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council.
A life-sized metal bison sculpture was a treasured gift from Shepard Buffalo Farm when the owners retired and sold their farm.
We love hosting theatrical, music and other public arts events. The rollicking Picnic Operetta has come to perform original operetta  on the farm twice - and is coming again this September 23rd!
We brought Nature:A Walking Play about the friendship of Emerson and Thoreau to Squash Blossom - performed at 5 locations on the farm. It was the most remarkable theatrical production I have ever seen - and we are working to bring it back next year. If we succeed, don't miss it!
At this very moment we are in the  midst of preparations for our 7th Annual Cow Puja and Farm Fair, coming September 30th.  Originally suggested by our first interns, Bethany and Brendan, as a way to honor our beloved cows, it has grown into an annual fall festival with food, amazing artisans, great music, pumpkins, kids' activities, and of course a Puja ceremony.
With the passing of our dear old milk cow LaFonda last year, our young Scottish Highlander heifer, Courgette, has stepped up to fill the starring role.

And there I am going to end this summary of highlights. (But I am  leaving out so much! Cheesemaking! ReBlossomFest!  Building the Mike Podulke Memorial Oven! Weddings! WWOOFers! The Pollinator Garden! To mention just a few.)

We are indebted to our  daughters, parents, friends, staff, interns, customers, musicians, neighbors, volunteers and everyone else who has supported our farm dream and wished us well. Thank you all. And  special thanks to  Ruth our bookkeeper/beekeeper/baking assistant, this summer's awesome interns Danielle and Lindsay, and our regular pizza night helpers Tracey, Betsy, Eli, and Renae. There is no way we could do it without you. We love you all.
What will the next ten years bring?