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About this column

Join me in my misadventures as I attempt to turn my 17 acres in East Tennessee into a permaculture paradise. I will share every success, and more importantly, every failure with you for your reading, and viewing, pleasure. Learn from my mistakes so that you can avoid them yourself and have a good laugh at my expense at the same time.

Articles in this column

Jeffrey Dols

Who am I?

Hello. My name is Jeff Dols and I am the proud owner of Fallen Oaks Farm. This column will be dedicated to chronicling my journey to transform my 17 acre property into a permaculture farm. Five years ago, my wife and I moved to Loudon, TN to get out to the "country" where we could have more space for ourselves and what would become our herd of dogs, cats, parrots, horses, pigs, chickens, and goats.

After buying the new house, it was time to make room for the horses and pigs that belonged to my wife. They were living out at her parents place since we didn't have room for them at our old house, and there was almost no fencing at our new house. For the first year, we set about fencing off areas for the horse pasture and the pig pasture. I learned a great deal about the many types of soil on my property, and I also learned the important of wearing gloves whilst pounding in t-posts. After several months, several hundred posts, and a few thousand feet of fence, the pastures were finally done and we welcomed the pigs and horses out to the new homestead. From there, we soon acquired a small goat herd so that I could chase my dream of producing my own goat cheese (a dream I am happy to say I have finally achieved). And finally, we added a small flock of chickens for eggs production.

Permaculture

About a four years ago, I became familiar with a gentleman named Jack Spirko of The Survival Podcast (thesurvivalpodcast.com). Thanks to Jack's podcast, I became aware of something called permaculture. From the moment I first of heard of it, I was hooked. I began trying to learn all I could about what it meant to develop a permaculture system. If you do not know what permaculture means, that's okay. I will be talking about it plenty in future posts, but it revealed a real passion that I didn't know I had. I've learned that I want to be closer to the land, to know where my food comes from, and to help my community do the same.

It was again Jack Spirko that first taught me the word PermaEthos back when it was in its infancy and was meant to be a community in the wilds of Texas. Needless to say, that vision did not last, and soon turned into something entirely different. PermaEthos would now transform farms into showcases for Permaculture's benefits, and the project would be initially funded by a Permaculture Design Certification course. The sale of the PDC was limited to only 1000 students, and on the day of the sale I recall sweating in the shade (I was putting up more fence) beneath a tall pine refreshing my phone's browser feverishly while waiting for the sale to go live. When it finally appeared I frantically smashed away at my phone with aching thumbs as quickly as I was able, and to my relief I became founding member #150. 

Using what I have learned in the PermaEthos PDC, it is my goal to turn Fallen Oaks Farm into a permaculture farm to provide my community with fresh, wholesome food, and to help people to develop similar systems for themselves. I want to be able to show visitors how everything in the system from fruit trees all the way down to mushrooms, it working together and then be able to provide them with the very same plants they've seen. My dream is to become a Permaculture teacher and consultant so that I might spread the knowledge and understanding that I have gained. It's going to be a long journey, but I look forward to every bit of it and sharing it with you. Until next time, take care!

Jeffrey Dols

Why Homesteading?

The idea of homesteading has been one that I have entertained for many years. I have always loved the idea of living off the land, tending to a flock of chickens or a herd of cattle. My head was full with the romanticized notion of living off the land and producing everything I could ever need. My garden would never wither, I would never be plagued with pests, my goats would never think to kick and buck as I milked them...I had no idea of the rude awakening that was coming my way.

Don't get me wrong, the past five years have been wonderful, but it has been full of disappointments and hard work. These trials make even the smallest success that much sweeter. You reach a point at which every small victory is something you crave. Learning to put up a fence, watching that first tomato grow, learning to milk a goat, collecting that first fresh egg. All of these first moments that we work so hard to reach are truly wondrous. I truly believe that we are all meant to enjoy these moments. I believe that there is a part of us the needs to be in touch with the Earth. I don't mean in a hippie sort of way, but I think there is something in us that needs to work in the soil, to get our hands dirty, to accomplish things truly meaningful and valuable in our lives. Things that last.

So many of us work our lives away in cubicles and offices because we are taught that is what is expected of us, and that is what normal people do. How many of you have worked away the days in a windowless box not knowing if the sun is shining? How many of you have worked for years in a job that makes you successful by society's standards and yet you feel miserable? How many of you work hard, but you know that if you didn't come to work tomorrow it wouldn't make a bit of difference? I've been there too. Today we are told that happiness resides in the shiny and the new, in the expensive and the extravagant, in deeper and deeper debt. Yet deep down we know that we are not happy. We need something real, something meaningful, something that will still matter when we are gone. We won't be remembered for the car that we drove or the clothes that we wore.

My beginnings

The path to creating a homestead is not always easy, but once I began, I immediately knew that I was finally heading the right direction. My therapy became pounding in t-posts, rolling around rolls of fence, and raising barns. Once the infrastructure was complete, we brought out the four horses (2 miniature horses, 1 mule, and 1 quarter-horse) and our six potbelly pigs. Seeing them out in the pasture as I cam home every day gave me a profound sense of accomplishment, and I wanted more. Soon we added four goats in with our pigs, and three livestock-guardian dogs to look after them. I never knew that watching a goat browse could be exciting, but I was fascinated with trying to learn what they ate and what they didn't.

This lead me to try and identify the plants and trees on the property. I still don't know half of them out there, but I know more than I used to. I started a garden (it's pretty pitiful as you will soon see) to start producing some food on the farm. There are few things as rewarding as starting plants from seed and seeing them grow so quickly. I have even learned a few things about making my own jerky. There is a good redneck story behind that. One of my wife's coworkers saw a deer struck by a car, and she called my wife to tell her about. She called me to tell me all about it and I said, "Get that sucker!". So my wife ended up field dressing this dear with a scalpel (she's a vet) and taking it to the butcher shop. One hell of a woman, I know. Anyway, so we wound up with a freezer full of deer and I learned how to make jerky from ground venison. If you have never had it, it's amazing.

So this post is getting a little long. In the future I will address many of the skills and ideas that I have mentioned here in far greater detail. My hope is to show you how important homesteading has become in my life, and how fulfilling it can be. I had no idea what I was getting in to when I started, but I have acquired so many new skills, and I owe it all to the wonder of homesteading. Until next time, take care!

Jeffrey Dols

Today I set out to make some ricotta cheese from goat milk. It is not a easy as making chevre, but you get your cheese faster since it only takes about 4-5 hours from the time you start boiling water to sterilize your pots to the time the cheese is done draining (if you choose to drain it at all).

Getting Started

Whatever cheese you are making, it always begins the same way. You need to boil all of the utensils and cookware you plan to use during the course of making cheese.

Today all I needed was:

  • 8 qt. stock pot with lid
  • Thermometer
  • 1/2 C measuring cup
  • 1 tsp. measuring spoon
  • Skimmer - picture a big spoon with holes in it (a ladle can also work)
  • Rubber spatula
  • A strainer or colander with small holes - a mesh strainer might even be best, but I don't have one to try
  • 2 tsp. citric acid
  • 2 tsp. sea salt - You can use kosher as well, but never used iodized salt or your cheese turns green
  • 1/2 cup of heavy cream (heavy pasteurized works fine)
  • 1 gallon goat milk

So to begin, I put my utensils in the pot and covered them with water and waiting until it boiled. I pour off the hot water and use the skimmer to fish out the hot utensils and set them aside on a clean towel.

Making the Cheese

Measure out your 1 gallon of milk and pour it into the pot along with your acid, 1 tsp of salt, and the cream and gently mix it together. Cheese makers commonly recommend using a gentle up and down motion to mix milk rather than the typical swirling around the pan. Now that the easy part is over, it is time to SLOWLY heat the milk to 184 degrees F.

And I MEAN SLOWLY.

If you have a double boiler that can hold a gallon of milk, that would be ideal. I don't have one so I had to scrape the bottom of the pan regularly with the spatula to try to stop the milk from scorching, but I still got a little scorching. It took about an hour and a half (maybe 2 hours) to slowly get the milk to 184 degrees. After that, remove the pot from the heat, set the lid on and wait for 15 minutes while the curds really set up. After 15 minutes, fish the curds out with a strainer, ladle, or spoon and place them in the strainer or colander.

Don't use a cheese cloth!

I made this mistake and it does two things:

  1. The curds are not setup completely and you will lose cheese as it is sucked into the cloth.
  2. The curds will settle to the bottom of the cloth and stop the whey from draining.

Instead, gently place the curds into the strainer and gently fold the remaining 1 tsp. of salt into the cheese. After that you can enjoy it immediately or you can drain it for up to an hour depending on how much moisture you like in your ricotta.

So all in all this is a pretty simple cheese, but it requires your attention for up to 2 hours if you are slow and paranoid like me. If you have any tips or tricks to speed this process up without ruining a weeks worth or milk, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section. Also, consider letting me know some other topics you'd like to see. Until next time, take care!

Jeffrey Dols

Chickens are an incredible addition to any homestead. They are relatively easy to care for, which makes them a great choice for beginners to animal husbandry, and they can give us so much in the form of eggs and meat. A typical way of keeping chickens is in a coop with one or two runs that are fenced in. While this is an acceptable means of keeping chickens, provided that the chickens are kept in a clean coop with plenty to eat in their run, the chickens are not doing as much work for you as they might be. The same is true for free range chickens. They are free to do as they like, but without some guidance, the chickens will choose their favorite areas and potentially over graze their favorite plants. This eventually leads to a pasture that is devoid of the chickens preferred vegetation.

What we can do instead, is use our chickens to improve the fertility and increase the diversity of our pastures, and through good management, we can actually use our chickens to establish a pasture that will help to feed them. The basic idea is that moving animals quickly through a  small pasture in a controlled manner will create a disturbance in the soil. This occurs naturally through the chickens scratching the soil, eating vegetation, and trampling their droppings and other vegetation into the soil. I have a small tractor that I keep 8 chickens in. The tractor is about 8 ft. x 8 ft. so the chickens have a good amount of space. I keep them in one spot for a day or two and then I move them to the next spot, and I let the area that I just moved them from rest for about a month. Moving them this way increases the fertility of the land that they are moved on, and creates an opportunity for me to broadcast seeds of my choosing into the disturbed area. The alternative to tractoring is a paddock shift method. This method breaks a pasture into smaller sections called paddocks. The chickens are rotated through the paddocks and seeds are cast behind the chickens. The time spent in each paddock will be determined by the size of your flock, the size of the paddock, and the current quality of your pasture. but by the time the chickens are put back into the paddock that they started in, all of the vegetation should be regrown.

As I move the birds from one place to the next, every area is given about a month to rest, which is plenty of time for the seeds to take root and produce vegetation. My plan is to spread the seeds of plants that the chickens will eat. This helps give the birds more of the nutrients they need, and it cuts down on my feed bills. It is also of note that seeds germinate up to 60% better when the seeds are covered with something like hay or straw.

Below is a list of some of the plants that can be used for a chicken pasture:

Perennials

  • Trefoil
  • Red Clover
  • Strawberry Clover
  • Ladino Clover
  • Dutch White Clover
  • Perennial Ryegrass
  • Chicory

All of these perennials can be found here.

Annuals

  • Black Oil Sunflower
  • Millet
  • Amaranth
  • Mustard
  • Kale
  • Buckwheat
  • Alfalfa
  • Rape
  • Lettuces
  • Dock (Sorrel)
  • Cowpea
  • Sorghum
  • Dandelion
  • Annual Ryegrass

Many of these options can be found here. I am sure there are more options that I have forgotten, but there are many varieties for you to experiment with and see which plants your birds prefer. Not all seeds will sprout at the same time, with large mixes there can be many different conditions needed for germination. You may be discouraged when your red clover does not sprout in the fall, but you may be surprised next year when you suddenly find it popping up all over the place. As the pasture becomes more fertile and more diverse, eventually you will need to contribute less seed until hopefully even the annual crops reseed themselves to the point that they are essentially perennials.

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