It’s been too long

So, two seasons later…

Looks like I’ve been neglecting this blog for a little bit too long. Yes, winter’s actually been pretty busy for all of us here, but that alone probably isn’t a great excuse for me not to post. I could have taken a couple hours one day. So my apologies. Here’s a summary of what’s been happening lately, and upcoming projects here at Snow Lake Keep.

Houses going up, waaaay up

An and Rodney are each building their own houses this summer, and that is very exciting. They will both have concrete foundations, with built-in rainwater-fed cisterns, and employ timber-frame construction (same as the barn and the other houses here). The timber logs have already been felled and are awaiting milling in the mill-yard, which begins next week.

An, who just became a full member of Snow Lake Keep this past equinox (woo-hoo!), picked a house site on the right side of the lane after you pass the mill-yard and workshop:

An's house lot cleared of saplings and brush

Excavator preparing An's home site

An's freshly dug home site

To clear their site and acquire their building materials (and winter’s fuelwood), An’s sure been getting some practice with the ol’ chainsaw:

Lumberjack An on their timber log

An's firewood is really piling up

Wesley hauls timber logs out of the forest

The spot that Rodney picked out for his house is perched up on the bank, on your left as you approach the mill-yard, directly above what’s currently one of our goat pastures. You can’t tell from these pictures, but he scored one of the best ocean views on the property.

The road to Rodney's house site

Rodney's house site getting excavated

While we had the excavator here, we figured it wouldn’t hurt to dig another pond, below the current one. We’ll show you pictures of the end result once it’s all filled up and looking fine.

Back-hoe digging a hole for our second pond

An makes a friend and gets busy with fur and potatoes

In January we welcomed An’s new partner, Jeremy, to Snow Lake Keep. Jeremy’s helping out on the farm in all kinds of ways, and has been a big help to An, too. Together they’ve been coming up with house designs, tanning hides, and now, selling latkes (potato pancakes) at the Saturday market in Annapolis. Expect to see them at our booth at the summer market, too!

An and their new partner in crime, Jeremy

An and Jeremy keeping busy with hides

An's beard seamlessly blends into ginger cowhide

Chef An set up with latkes at the winter market

Rodney spends time with draft horses

Over the winter Rodney has been spending a lot of time with draft horses owned by our neighbours, Sally and Howard. Rodney, with our friend Rick’s help, has been getting to know the horses and getting some practice training them to wear harnesses and pull small loads. Eventually, Rodney would like to see us start using draft horses to haul logs out of the forest so that we don’t need to rely solely on a tractor to do that work. Horses do much less damage to the land, are not directly dependent on polluting fossil fuels to operate, and have much more interesting personalities.

Rick leading Captain in harness

Rodney convincing Captain to pull him in the dark

Deryk’s keeping busy

Deryk has a lot on the go this year, from planting his new blueberry field to helping build the two houses on the farm as well as construction and carpentry projects off-farm. For the blueberries, he cleared a spot in the forest just down from the chicken run, where he’s already begun to lay down brush to start his hugelkultur beds:

Hugel-beds started in Deryk's new blueberry field

Upholstery, coding, and cabin building

Laire got a part-time job doing upholstery with our neighbour, L.G., at her shop down the road, Cottage Upholstery. I’ve gotten pretty busy doing website development for various clients over the winter. At home, Laire and I finally finished building our bathroom and have managed to tackle a few other interior carpentry projects as well. We’ve got plans to build a little A-frame bunky in our backyard this spring, called Triangulaire. Our good friend Adam is supposed to come back to the farm in May, and will hopefully spend the summer here. We’re hoping he’ll help us build Triangulaire, as it’ll give us another spot to accommodate guests, like Adam!

Maple syrup, baby goats, and cheese!

We tapped all our trees for sap some time ago, and have gotten some good sap days, but the yield hasn’t been anywhere near as good as last year’s. It’s just been too cold, for the most part. Still, we’re doing our best.

Maple syrup getting bottled

Probably the most exciting development, recently, is the addition of four new baby goats – Prue, True, Lunch, and Rug. I think they’re best described through pictures and a video.

Cocoa's baby Prue

True, Prue's brother

Prue up close

Cocoa's babies True and Prue

Lunch looks like a puppy

Sissiboo's baby boy, Rug

Mocha with her boy, Lunch

Rug up close

Now, kidding season isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, sadly. The birthing process alone can be stressful, especially for those of us with little to no experience. Baby goats sometimes don’t figure out how to latch onto their mother’s teat soon enough on their own, and that was the case with Delia’s kid, Latchie. A few of us took on the task to help her learn how to drink her mother’s milk. After a couple days, we felt that she’d finally figured it out, and Latchie was doing it on her own.

But then one day, when nobody was around the barn for a few hours, Latchie managed to squeeze through a surprisingly tiny opening in the gate of Delia’s pen. She couldn’t figure out how to get back in. Cam, who was visiting, and I found her huddled up in the corner trying to stay warm. We did whatever we thought we could to try and save her. Cam spent a while feeding her Delia’s milk with a syringe, first in the barn then up at the house. But, she was probably too far gone already, and she didn’t make it.

Tragedies like this one can happen on the farm. But, move on we must.

With four of our does now lactating like crazy, we’ve suddenly got lots of milk to deal with. So we’re getting busy again making cheese, yogurt, and soon, butter. Here’s a new cheese I’ve been experimenting with, called Valançay. It’s a soft chèvre curd, normally formed into pyramid shapes (except I don’t have cheese forms of that shape, so these will have to do), then coated in ash and aged in a cheese cave (root cellar, in our case) for a few weeks. It starts off looking like this:

Valençay from above

Valençay, in progress

Over time, it starts to look like this (at least on our farm it does, where the common blue-cheese mold, penicillium roqueforti, must be particularly abundant):

It got pretty good reviews by those who ate it, even though it doesn’t have that nice pure white rind that it’s “supposed” to.

See you at market!

As usual, we’ll be at the Annapolis Royal Farmers’ Market when it opens on Saturday, May 20th. Until then, catch An and Jeremy at the Winter Farmers’ Market and savour some of their hot, delicious, locally sourced potato latkes!

Suddenly building a cabin, and how to cook fiddleheads… again!

So, lots is going on here rather quickly these days. It’s actually quite wonderful. Last week, a friend and past visitor of the farm, Laurence, returned here to stay for most of the summer. Laurence is close with An, and so is bunking in An’s woodshed for the time being. They seem happy there for now, but it would be nice to be able to offer them a space of their own, considering the length of their stay.

We’d already had plans to build a guest cabin for the very purpose of providing a private space to anyone who might want to stay at the farm. Because currently, visitors are forced either to camp or be hosted by another resident. Laurence’s arrival has spurred us on to make it happen a little sooner!

So led by Deryk’s building mastery, a group of us here have started to build this little cabin (currently dubbed the Summer Shack) as of yesterday. I can’t say I have contributed anything more than on the promotional side myself, but I think I have some valid excuses (read: I’m busy). Besides, it turns out a rather small group can accomplish a lot in two days:

An working away on the frame

We sited the Summer Shack in the forest just below the Meadow (formerly known as the Hayfield), not far from Snow Brook. It’s a beautiful little spot, but rather thick with black flies at the moment. An is well prepared, though:

An well protected from blackflies

And here is An spectacularly showcasing two days’ work:

An featuring the Hermitage

Hope you enjoyed that.

Now last week, many of our customers at the market were asking how we cook fiddleheads. Some folks haven’t had the best luck preparing them – either undercooking them and getting indigestion, or overcooking them and finding them too soft and mushy. I guess it does takes a little practice, because I’ve definitely eaten them both undercooked and overcooked – and neither way is ideal!

Now, I can’t speak for Rodney, Deryk, An, or Laurence, but I know the way that Laire and I love to prepare fiddleheads. I actually blogged our recipe a year ago, turns out! So I’ll just include a link to it:

FiddleheadsForaging for fresh food from the forest floor!
How’s that for a tongue twister? At this week’s Saturday market, like the last one, we will have (among other things) an abundance of foraged fiddleheads picked from ostrich ferns, now bursting out of creek floodlands and the forest floor (we won’t tell you exactly where!)…

Hope this helps some of our customers out!

Oh, and two more things: The Summer Market in Annapolis Royal starts this Saturday, and we’ll have lots of fiddleheads! Also, tomorrow (Friday) is our first Farm-Gate Friday of the season, from 4-6pm. Get a leg up on the selection, and a tour of the farm if you like!

Building our timber-frame barn

As some of you may already know, we’ve been pretty busy the last couple months building a proper barn for the community – a central place to keep our goats, their feed, their hay, and their water year-round. (And maybe, someday, a place to keep other animals.) This will be a major improvement, because currently the goats are crowded in one small barn, their feed is stored outside, their hay is split between another temporary shed and a giant tarped pile in the driveway, and their water… well, often it’s hauled by the bucketful from home. In the middle of winter with 8-foot snowbanks, that’s not a particularly fun chore. And with potentially four mama goats kidding next March, the little old barn they’re currently in now just won’t cut it!

So we’ve been pushing hard to get the new barn built and ready to accept its residents before this coming winter’s heavy snow. And it’s coming together nicely, even if we’re a little behind schedule. The weather has been pretty gracious.

I figured you might be interested how we’re building this thing. Well, it’s getting built more or less the same way all the structures on this property have been built – slipform stone masonry for its foundation, berm wall, and buttresses, and timber-frame construction for the rest. Conceptually it’s really quite simple. In practice, it can be a little finicky sometimes, but maybe that’s just how construction is in general. We just let Deryk figure out all the hard parts, and he tells us what to do. Seems to work out pretty well.

We picked a site for the barn that was fairly central relative to current and proposed pastureland, and mostly uphill from the gardens since much of what comes out of the barn (i.e., manure) will need to be wheelbarrowed to the gardens eventually. The site also needed to have a sharp downhill slope in it, so that we could drive into the rear of the hayloft from the the lane while still being able to walk the goats directly out to pasture from the lower level.

The site we chose is right next to what we call the Hayfield, and close to the pond. The pond could serve as an extra/emergency water source for the animals, too. But the barn would have a cistern built into in the poured concrete foundation, supplied by rainwater – the same as it is in all the other houses on the property.

The site started out as forest, and so we had to do some cutting and then excavating before it was ready to build anything on. Then we built simple forms for the footings, filled them with concrete, and stuck our first lengths of rebar into them. Footings are the concrete pads you pour to create a level surface capable of supporting the loads you expect them to bear. Deryk has done this a million times before, so he knows how to figure out how big they need to be.

Site before excavation

Footing formsFootings after being poured

Then we set in place forms on top of the footings for the first and every subsequent level of slipform masonry. I explained how all this works in my last post where I talked about the wood shed extension on our house. We’ve gotten quite good at it as a team, I daresay. An really has a knack for making tight fits. I’ll say no more about that.

First level of slipformsFilling slipform walls as a team

TeamworkAlmost done slipforming

And then after all the forms were off, the walls looked like this!

The finished masonry walls

I didn’t mention how we built the cistern, mostly because I wasn’t there for that part and missed taking any pictures of the process, but I did see how we did the root cellar, which is similar. The root cellar was a bit of an afterthought in the design of the barn: We had a bunch of space to fill in the floor, but instead of filling it with dirt, we decided to leave it hollow so that we could store big bags of root veggies to feed the animals over the winter. We lined the base of it with gravel, then built concrete walls around the cavity using slipforms, and then created a structure out of two-by-fours and plywood to support a concrete floor above it. Before we poured the floor we reinforced the surface with a grid pattern of rebar, which is needed to support the weight of people and animals walking all over it.

Getting the root cellar floor ready for pouring

The next step was to parge and tar the outside of the berm and stem walls to protect the concrete from the threat of water seepage. If water gets into tiny cracks in the concrete and freezes, it creates bigger cracks in the concrete and over time threatens its structural integrity; tarring protects against this. When that was done we had the backhoe guy come back and move tons of gravel, soil and sand back against the berm and stem walls, and do some other landscaping while he was at it.

Tarring the berm wallStem wall tarred

Backhoe backfillingBerm wall backfilled

Now it was time to put up the timbers! Deryk and Rodney got the first level of sills and posts up pretty quickly, and the next day we got most of the ground floor posts and beams up. Finished that and started laying out the loft decking afterwards. This stuff can happen pretty fast (if the weather cooperates); it’s like putting together a 3D jigsaw puzzle. When everything’s in place and level and square, all the timber joints get pegged together tight with oak pegs that Deryk has carved beforehand.

Stem wall backfilledRoughing out the loft deck

While Deryk was busy carving the rafters and collars (lots of them), we finished cutting and nailing down the loft decking. We also got the sheathing on front of the barn done. And today with the rafters all ready to go, as a team we put up the trusses. As I mentioned earlier, timber-frame work can be a little finicky; timbers can warp a little as they dry, causing bowing and twists that can make it quite difficult to get them to fit together just right. We just let Deryk make the necessary tweaks to tenons or shoulders or whatever until he’s satisfied. The trusses all get pegged before they are raised into place.

Tweaking collarPegging rafter to collar

Raising a trussGo team

And finally, the barn is taking shape!

Trusses in placeBraced trusses

Braced trussesTime for a break

Next tasks include framing up the dormer, attaching hurricane braces and roof strapping, and by next week putting on the steel roof! Exciting, especially for those of us who aren’t afraid of heights. We’ll be posting more barn updates on our Facebook page.

Building a wood shed using slipform stone masonry

Back in November, Laire and I discovered that we would eventually move into Thor’s Den, a beautiful, uninhabited dwelling residing at the Keep that needed a little love and a little work to finish its construction.

Laire, my in-house architect, decided we needed to add a separate bedroom, as the home only came with a sleeping space in the loft. He also thought that the wood shed, which was on the south end of the house, should instead be on the opposite end, adjacent the driveway, so that you could drive a truckful of firewood right up to it. So we would convert the existing wood shed to a bedroom, and add a new wood shed to the north end. We consulted with Deryk, and he was game. Which was great, because we had no friggin’ clue how we’d do any of it without him.

Converting the old wood shed to a bedroom wasn’t all that hard. Before we got there, the shed had been used to house a couple goats for a while. Our billygoat liked to sharpen his horns on the concrete wall, and the walls and floor were probably well infused with his scent. So we did a little cleaning first. We like to get things “broom-clean” around here. Then we added an insulated floor and insulation on the walls and ceiling, and we shut the room in with windows and a door. Trim went on, then cedar shingles, and we’re now working on the drywall. Now, all of this took a helluva lot longer to do than it did for me to type those few sentences. But from the outside, you can see we’ve made some progress!

Thor's Den with goat in wood shedWood shed turning into bedroom

Laire shingling bedroom Bedroom close to done

Thor’s Den is a very solid structure whose walls are mostly stone and reinforced concrete, built using a technique called slipform stone masonry. More than just charming in appearance, these walls have enough strength to support the weight of the hill that is bermed against the back of the home, which greatly helps to moderate indoor temperatures year-round.

But to add a new wood shed, we’d have to extend this concrete wall, since this extension would still need to support that hillside in behind it. So we got a pal to dig the dirt all out for us, right down to ledge. That was step 1. Easy peasy.

Next, we had to pour the footing. That required building some pretty clever forms, because around here, ledge is rarely just flat. It’s all kinds of crazy ancient mountain shapes. So piece by piece, we had to build some pretty intricate forms out of various pieces of wood to contain the concrete that would become the footing. I let Deryk figure out the math mostly. He just got me to hold things, hammer things, or cut things, which I did gladly. In the end, we had concrete that became one with the ledge. I don’t think a strong wind is going to blow this wall down easily.

Footing forms along uneven ledge

Pouring the footing Concrete becoming one with ledge!

Then we attached slipforms to the footing forms to start filling up with rock and more concrete. Slipforms are just frames made from 2x4s with plywood on one side. You can make them whatever sizes you need and reuse them. It’s important to brace them to make sure they stay square and level, and also that they don’t burst open from the weight of the concrete and rock they’re meant to contain.

When you’ve done a couple levels of forms, you can remove the forms on the lower level and reuse them for the next level up. Sometimes they’re a little tricky to take off, especially when you have PVC drainpipes passing tightly through them. But as you can see below, Laire was all smiles.

Our buddy Wayne got involved with this project, mixing all the concrete for us whenever we needed it and helping us assemble and disassemble forms. He’s been a huge help.

Pouring the foundation using slipforms

Wayne and Deryk preparing the last level of forms Removing the first forms

And there’s the finished wall!

The finished wall after removing forms

Now I’ve neglected to mention all kinds of critical details of how this wall got built, like how the slipforms were properly braced and wired together, how we criss-crossed the entire structure with reinforcing rebar at particular intervals, how we fit the stones around the rebar and made sure there was still enough concrete in between opposing stones so that our wall didn’t fall apart, how we had to get the concrete a particular thickness or runniness depending on what stage we were at, how we even got some of those giant rocks lifted into place in the first place, and how I repeatedly held up the entire process because I’m too finicky and I can’t help getting lost in the details.

Oh, and obviously, that we’re not actually done building the wood shed. We’ve only just done the wall. The floor is next. And then the timber frame. Then the roof. There’s lots of steps in building things. Lots.

But I don’t have time to share any more details right now because it’s harvest day tomorrow, and we also have giant rubbermaids of blueberries to preserve. Man, I’m such a slacker!