Our story begins with a string of events that borders on the surreal. It was the beginning of 2016, and I had a feeling it was going to be an unforgettable year of my life. I was 29 years old, still full of the energy of youth, when the doctor told me I had to have open heart surgery, or I wouldn’t survive another 5 years. I had a condition called mitral valve prolapse, and needed mitral valve repair. The news was shocking to say the least. I somehow got the surgery scheduled with one of the best cardiothoracic surgeons in the world, the man who pioneered the technology that saved my life.
I’m not rich, or even very well off, just a regular guy with an ordinary day job. I knew how incredibly lucky I was to receive the best medical care in the world. My surgery date was exactly one week before my 30th birthday on April 28th, and I spent my birthday lying in bed at home, recovering and grateful to be alive. I only spent two days in the hospital, and two weeks out of work recovering from the surgery. The marvels of modern medicine had made that possible. Only a few years earlier, and I would have been looking at a six month recovery, and a much more riskier surgery, because they would have had to split my sternum open to perform the operation.
About a month after the surgery, on a rainy day in May, my wife and I started looking at houses online. It was just for fun, we thought. We didn’t think we had any real prospects of buying a house that year. We had no money saved, and I had just spent our entire savings (over a thousand dollars) getting through the heart surgery. But we wanted to see what was out there, and find out where we stood. We found a little trailer sitting on ten acres of land in Waleska, GA. At the time we thought we wanted to find something in the mountains. Well, we decided to go for it. Ashley talked me into filling out the loan application. I had nothing to lose. I was shocked when they got back to me and told me I was approved! But there was a catch, they approved me for the loan, but told me that the trailer we had found wasn’t going to work out, because it wasn’t sitting on a foundation. So with a fresh loan approval, we started the long house hunt that eventually led us into our dream home.
We went out every weekend looking at listings we had found online. We were very aggressive about it; we even drove up a mountain to look at a little modular home sitting on 5 acres. But we soon realized that the mountain homes weren’t right for us. We wanted to start a mini-farm, that was our main priority in determining what would work for us. All of the homes with acreage in the mountains, the ones that fell within our price range anyways, were situated on the side of a mountain. The land they came with was totally unusable. We were back to the drawing board, and we decided to move our search west of Atlanta, into the farmlands of NW GA, and we took on an agent to help us. We looked at several places before we decided on an old 4 bedroom fixer-upper sitting on 3 acres in Buchanan, GA.
After going to look at it, we thought it was the one. It had some problems, but it had a lot of potential. There was a barn and stable in the back in decent condition (and Ashley wanted to have a horse one day), an inground pool that may or may not have worked, and plenty of room for all of us. I had my reservations though. The place was being renovated by a do it yourselfer who clearly didn’t know what he was doing. There were outlets installed upside down. Flooring with chunks missing where he had made the wrong cuts. All kinds of problems. But we were still interested in the place because all of the issues looked to be cosmetic, and I knew I could handle the repairs that were needed. We hired a home inspector to get a better feel for things, and that’s when I realized that it wasn’t going to work. He found a number of very serious issues, so many in fact, that I remember laughing out loud at the table when he was going over it all. We made a final offer on the place, and waited a couple of days for the owner to get back to us, but it was clear that the owner had no interest in working with us on our terms, and I finally told our agent to withdraw our offer and terminate the contract.
We were back to the drawing board, 300 dollars poorer for covering the home inspector fee, and the prospects were looking very grim. There was nothing out there. It was a seller’s market, and whenever a good deal did go up on the market, there were a hundred buyers lined up to fight for it. We were feeling very discouraged at that point. We knew we didn’t have a lot of buying power, and we couldn’t compete with any other buyers if it came down to that. We had no money saved at all for the down payment or the closing costs. We were hoping to find a place that we could pursue with a USDA loan, which doesn’t require a down payment; and to work out a deal with the seller to cover the closing costs.
The weekend that I terminated our offer on the fixer-upper, after hours of scouring the internet looking at hundreds of listing, we came across our dream house. We didn’t think it could possibly be an option at first, because the asking price was only 100 dollars less than the total amount the mortgage company had told me I could borrow. But after talking to the mortgage people and getting the ok, we decided to put an offer on it without even having looked at it yet. The seller got back to us that same night and accepted our offer. We had offered her the full asking price, with the caveat that she covered all the closing costs, and a home warranty. We felt strangely hopeful about this one, even though we knew it was the biggest long shot ever. We had no idea we were about to go through one of the most stressful periods of our lives. It took us four months of endless fighting through legal quagmires, from the time we put in our offer, to our closing day. It was by the grace of the seller, whose patience never wore out, that we were able to finally secure the financing. But we did it, we achieved the impossible. We moved into our dream home in late September, 2016. It was a 4 bedroom farmhouse sitting on 3 ¼ acres of flat, arable land. But to us, it was more than a house and a piece of land. It was our homestead. A place where we could build a future together; where we could raise our four beautiful children, and learn how to farm.
On a cold day in early February, 2017, I went out into my backyard and started tilling the soil with my next-door neighbor’s tiller. We had bought a truckload of topsoil to help get us started, and I was spreading it over the garden bed with a shovel. I didn’t realize then what I was getting into. I assumed the whole project would take a few weeks to accomplish, and I wasn’t worried about the time constraints of getting things planted on time.
We had already started our seedlings under lights in the house. I had talked my wife Ashley into getting one of those big grow lights that the hydroponic people use, and she had somehow managed to hang it from the ceiling by herself in our sun room. So before long we had hundreds of healthy plants growing in little seed flats, and I began to realize that we were going to need a very sizable garden to plant them all. I didn’t have any real farming experience, but I was no stranger to hard work, so I set myself to the task with enthusiasm.
We started by prepping our cold crop rows. At first we talked about building a hoop house, which is a custom greenhouse made out of PVC and lumber, but after researching a lot of different building plans online, and getting an estimate on the cost of materials, we decided not to go that route. It was going to cost at least $700, and I had never built anything like that before. Furthermore, we had already ordered ten ducklings, which were going to arrive the next month on March 8th, and I still had to build their duck pen. After weighing all our options, we decided to build hoop rows over the crops to keep them covered until after the last frost date. This allowed us to plant things a full two months early, and ensured a strong spring harvest. We found the design for low tunnel hoop rows on the extensions websites online. It’s a very simple construction. The hoops are constructed with 10 foot sections of half inch PVC pipe anchored with 2 foot sections of rebar in the ground, and a 50 foot roll of ag-fabric is spread over the hoops and weighed down at the base of the tunnel with large stones or bricks.
It was simple, but it still took a lot of prep-work, and getting the hoops flush with each other was a challenge. I still recall the joy we felt when we got our first row successfully constructed, and planted it with onions, garlic, and carrots. We were mounding the soil in our rows, and thoroughly clearing them of all debris before we planted them. It was incredibly slow, painstaking work that we had to do by hand with the pick axe and garden spades. I didn’t realize then that we were making a mistake trying to get every trace of the grass out. It was a battle we could never possibly win, and it cost us a lot of unnecessary labor.
I recall that we also had trouble with ants and some kind of flies that were breeding inside of the hoop rows. The ants moved into the first row mound we had completed, and started turning our carrot bed into a giant ant colony. Everything under the row cover was thriving, so we were devastated by the ants. We bought a propane torch to help us fight them off, and we dumped boiling water into their colonies. We lost half our carrots in the effort, but we eventually drove them out.
We could have bought some kind of “garden-safe” poison to do the job for us, but we decided from the start that we were going to stick with organic pesticides, and permaculture techniques for pest control. We didn’t see the point in having a garden if we used conventional pesticides, because the produce we grew would be no better quality than the cheapo crap at Walmart.
We finally got the ants under control after they returned to haunt us a few more times, and we set up fly tape to help keep the flies under control. But we had one other major pest issue, the onions and garlic were covered up in little white worms, and we were starting to lose our crop. We decided to try a method called biological control. Ashley learned about it on one of the extensions websites. There were three types of nematodes you could introduce into the soil that would help control pests like the white worms that were killing the garlic and onions off. They helped with a host of other pests as well.
The way it worked is the nematodes were parasitic organisms that would invade the host insect and lay their eggs, which would hatch and eat the insect from inside out. We bought the nematodes online, and mixed them into a watering pail, and watered them into the rows. A couple of weeks later the worms were gone, and most of the onions and garlic survived. We were off to a good start, but we ran out of time to get everything we wanted planted. I wanted to get a fourth row up, but we had to make do with three, and we had another big problem that we didn’t know how to fix yet: the garden was being shaded by a cluster of pine trees, and wasn’t getting nearly enough sunlight every day.
I didn’t know what to do about the pine trees. I told Ashley that we just had to hope for the best this year. And I had to focus on another major project now; we had ordered ten Golden 300 hybrid ducklings, and they had finally arrived on the morning of March 8th. They shipped all the way from a large hatchery in California. They were packed into a crate the day after they hatched, and arrived at our local post office a couple of days later. Ashley picked them up and brought them home while I was at work. It was an exciting day for all of us. I came home to ten adorable little squeakers, the cutest things I’d ever seen. They required a lot of special care and attention the first couple of weeks. We had to wake up in the middle of the night to feed them, change out their water, and check on them. We had to keep the light on over them 24/7 to keep them warm, and I always worried about the fire risk in the back of my mind. But I had a much bigger worry, I needed to get their pen constructed by the time they were ready to move out of the house in 4 weeks, and I hadn’t even gotten started yet.