Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Fey Territory

I finally took the opportunity on Saturday, to go walk in the woods at the property I'm thinking about purchasing.

I need to go back and take some photos but I'm not sure a camera can really capture the essence of this place.

To get into this wood, you must first navigate through a short stretch of briars and begin the descent. The walk is relatively easy, but still steep. Each step is accompanied by the crunch of deep leaf litter underfoot. Your shoes disappear beneath the first layer and I felt as if I was walking on a mattress someone had laid on the floor. It was springy. You could feel the energy of millions of tiny things feasting on the deep layer of leaves creating leaf loam. Making top soil.

I walked past some old trash dumped down the hill by some harried farm wife (or her husband) from the past. Sticking up out of the leaves I saw an old broken crock, a few broken bottles, rusted buckets and I'm sure under this surface layer, there is more. Near the top of the hill, were two large metal rings which I recognized as feeding containers for pigs. I'm fairly certain that the farmers before me kept a hog or two in the woods there. It would have been an easy walk to this site from either of the older houses to toss both trash and scraps. I was walking through a pig pen and midden.

Proceeding further down into the bottom and following along the ridge that ran upward to my left (southern edge of the property), I followed the blue and orange plastic flags tied up by the survey team the day before. Sometimes the brush was thick at eye level, but if I bent down or squatted, and scanned, I could find the next flag 10 or 15 feet off in the distance. The property line appears to angle in a gentle curve down towards the south west. The flags were all perched in a precarious manner over the edge of a water drainage area, a dry creek that probably runs full when the rains are heavy.

When I finally reached the second to the last flag I noticed that just 10 feet beyond the line drawn by the flags was running water. It emerged from under the edge of the leaf litter and ran downward towards the larger river below. This is either ground water runoff or a spring.

When I reached the last flag, I turned and looked northward towards the area where the large open field is supposed to be. I did my best to walk due North, but having no compass with me at the time and having to go around large trees and thick stands of laurel and some trees that had fallen, I got a bit off track. The trek at this point was uphill again.

I made note that the trees, here, deep in the woods were a nice mix of oak, hickory and tulip poplar with some small maples. There were few pines. And these hardwood trees were large. Most were at least 18 inches in diameter. Many were far greater. They reached high and created a dense canopy overhead that let in little light so the undergrowth was relatively sparse with a few huckleberry bushes and ferns here and there in the low parts of the woods and dense hedges of laurel running along the central ridge line.

I was having difficulty making forward progress up the hill because the laurel with its gnarled twigs and tough springy branches would not allow me passage, so I cut across again toward the East and went down into the swale again. Here the walk was easier and I went up hill at a more leisurely angle.

I was once again looking around and admiring the pristine nature of this woodland when I heard a large animal come crashing, thumping down the hill from the East. It was a huge buck. He was horse sized. He still had his antlers and he stopped in the middle of the swale up the hill from me and standing broad side to me, but staring at me, gave out a grunt. It was sort of a grunt and snort actually. I felt strongly that I was about to be attacked. As I'm standing there in these isolated woods, alone without a cellphone or any way to protect myself or call for help, he grunted at me three times, then galloped to a brushy area at the top of the inner ridge I had just come down from. From there, behind the brush pile of downed tree limbs and tangle of mountain laurel, he grunted at me again. Then all grew quiet.

At that point, feeling the danger was past, I looked again at my surroundings. I was standing in the center of what was, no doubt, a perfect fairy ring of ferns. I was an intruder here. I think the buck had come to caution me about my intentions on this land.

As I continued to walk up the swale, again headed north, I came to a small bed of crushed grasses. I had come across the night spot of some deer. It seemed too small to be the nest of the buck who had confronted me.

And there was wildlife in those woods. Birds sang constantly from high up in the trees then would come down and toss about through the leaf litter. Turkey feathers were scattered haphazardly throughout the undergrowth. And there had to be a thousand squirrels. They ran in pairs and triplets up and down the trees and across the woodland floor. The tree trunks being too far apart from each other for the squirrels to make an easy jump of it from tree to tree. There were multiple burrows carved into the steep slopes on either side of the swale. Fox, perhaps? Or maybe ground hogs or some other burrowing animal. The burrows were large with opening under tree roots about 8 to 10 inches across.

I became disoriented more than once coming through the wood. In retrospect, I am sure the Fey contributed to the illusions of confusion and depth perception. I, at one point I thought I saw a row of pine trees at the top of the swale running away perpendicular to the woods to the east but the only row of pines on the property, line the driveway which runs parallel to the swale where I was walking. Fearing I was getting lost, I went back up to the long, narrow strip of flat land at the top, thinking I had to be near the end of it. I was very surprised to see I had only walked about half the length of this strip.

Thinking it might be easier to walk along the edge of the wheat field to reach the end of the woods, I again turned northward. The farmer had plowed and planted so close to the wood-line, however, unless I trampled through his crop, I would not be able to follow the wood line. So I went back into the woods, this time angling towards the north west. After a few minutes I came to the area where the Realtor had brought me in before. The overhead canopy was thinner here and most of the trees were tulip poplar and the undergrowth was denser with more briers and scruffy things. The downward angles here were harsher and seems, almost lumpy.

I imagine at one time in an effort to clear the field just to north, the farmer dumped debris at the top of the swale both preventing erosion of his farm field down the steeper slope and "lumping" up what would otherwise have been a smooth slope to the river.

You could camp here, if you cleared away some of the more unpleasant undergrowth like poison ivy and Virginia Snake Root vines, and it might allow for more of a breeze than the bottom which was surrounded on all sides by steep ridges, like an amphitheater. From this central point of the northern boundary of the wood, I walked west until I reached the corner of the field. Here I discovered the remains of what might have been an access road. It may have been a timber road or perhaps just marked the boundary of the property. But my path was again soon blocked on this ridge line with downed trees and the snarl of laurels.

It was hard to tell without the flags if the property line runs along the top of this ridge, angling out to the west, or if it cuts down through a second ravine or runs the length of the bottom of the ravine. I will have to wait for the survey to be completed to find out. If the property juts out along the ridge line, encompassing the second ravine, it would serve well as a pond should I ever find the funding and get the permitting to install a freshwater pond. If the second ridge is not included in the property line, the pond would have to be much smaller and got at the top of the first swale, with camping below it. Another option might be to approach the adjoining land owner and see if they would also like a freshwater pond which we could share.

This pond would be used for water for my animals (they would not be permitted to drink directly from the pond, but the water would be pumped out for them), stocked with freshwater fish for future fishing, and for emergency fire water for the neighborhood. This endeavor would require assistance from the Army Corp of Engineers and I would hope there would be grant money available to help install it.

But that is perhaps a dream.

In any case, my walk in the woods continued. I finally made my way back to the southwestern last flag by going down the second ravine and then up the backside of the central ridge from which I hoped the buck had fled. From that flag, I walked along back toward where I had left my car at the top. As I climbed the hill a yellow butterfly came and settled on my left shoulder leaving only as I broke out into the bright sunlight.

I was hot and sweating and itchy but very excited about what I had seen and experienced. I know now that it may not matter how many actual acres are in the property or in the woods. If it is smaller, I may be able to secure the land for less money. If more, I will get it for that which was offered and be delighted.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hey piggy piggy...

I broke the news tonight to Ken that I hope to farm, not just sheep and hay (he had sort of accepted that), but would like to add chickens and cattle and pigs to the mix. I have not mentioned a milk cow, but he's not stupid and I'm sure he has some idea where all of this is going.

I know my husband and so I broke this news to him while among friends who were most excited by the whole enterprise and believe somehow that they will all now have a free camp ground. I'm not sure this is possible as I'm not planning on installing a bathhouse with toilets and they will have to pay for port o potties and put up with cold water from a hose for washing. Not to mention that all the flat land is open field which will be occupied by animals or hay. The woodland is very sloped and will likely be best used for 1. a pond (stocked, of course) 2. heritage pigs 3. hunting.

When I mentioned the pigs my friends strongly encouraged me to think again about this as they immediately said that pigs smell, are dangerous and if they get loose are gone like the wind and are very destructive. So the pig idea will either be nixed or wait.

Fortunately, one of the friends was a farmer and was able to note that I could electrify the fence with either batteries or solar power (and he said these work very well) and I could get the water out the ground with a wind mill. No electricity needed! Yeah! I'll have to investigate further.

Ken, of course, said he was NOT going to the be one to take care of all these animals. But moments later admitted that the sheep really are not labor intensive and notes that they come right to him with the shake of a grain bucket.

I need to figure the finances on renting a tractor, hiring a tractor driver, or buying one and learning to do it myself. But I may be able to get away with borrowing one when I do need it (perhaps once a year) and bartering something for it's use. I also need to put together a fence team of strong people who can work well together with one expert who knows what he or she is doing.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Losing my mind

I've talked to my parents (Dad specifically) and I think I've come up with a way to expand my sheep raising efforts. The primary thing keeping things small has been lack of land.

But I think I have found a pretty piece of property of about 16 and a half acres (more or less) with about 12 acres (we think) in open farm land. The price is a little high perhaps. But location, at this point, is everything. The place is across a field or around a corner from my parent's home.

Eventually, when they are either ready to move into a smaller, maintenance free place or (hopefully not soon) pass away, Ken and I will move into their place.

Most people would say the property on which I've put a bid is too cut up for any real use... but if the survey comes back the way I think it will, it might just be perfect for what I want to do simply because it's sort of cut up. The angles are a little weird as it follows some the lines of the landscape, but in the middle of the place are three houses that belong to other people. Most folks would find this detrimental. I'm looking at is protection for my sheep. These will be neighbors who are virtually on-site and if there are any troubles, they will be my eyes and ears.

There is a large area that can either become hayfield with the smaller odd bits becoming sheep pasture, or the small bits strung together can be hay fields with the large area enclosed as a whole then subdivided into small rotational pastures. I need to further assess all areas before I make a decision how it will be used.

There is also a large wooded area which will be available for hunting by friends (and maybe family), and maybe, just maybe an area in which to raise one or two hogs each year for family use.

Now, watch me dream like a crazy woman...

I can see sheep. This one is easy. Chickens... also pretty easy since we've done it before and with proper perimeter fencing might work better. The chickens can be for both meat and eggs. A hog or two in the woods. One or two steer pastured steer for meat. And eventually, a lovely milk cow living on the three acres of cleared land in what is now my parent's front yard (it is currently being farmed for grain/soybean/corn).

In the history of the county, this property has never been surveyed. It has been passed down through many, many generations; cut up between kids and cousins, re-assembled, cut up again, sold off in small bits and now, finally, this is (I think) the last piece of the tract in this area still owed by the original family. Because it has never been surveyed and I learned of it and put an offer on it before it was marketed, the real estate folks have had to hire a survey company to figure out what it's actual dimensions are.

The current owner has been paying taxes to the county for 16.92 acres. And they claim that all but 2 acres are in the open. But looking at satellite images, I'm thinking there is more like 5 acres in woodland. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the woodland is basically a large swale or series of swales leading down to the river. It's value as farmland is nil. It's value for hunting might be a little higher. If there are a decent number of oak trees in there, it might be good for firewood, hogs and growing mushrooms. (See I can be creative in my thinking). But I don't know what's in there yet as we are waiting on the survey people to put in the stakes so we can see it.

To raise animals I will need to install sturdy perimeter fencing around the areas designated for pastures. I will need to have electricity brought in. A well will have to be dug. The whole farmed area will have to be converted to hay or pasture from tilled farm. There is a small erosion problem in one section which appears to be addressed now by the current farmer letting it go back to scruffy trees. The neighboring land owner, however, has failed to address his erosion problem and that may impact on my land soon and will have to be addressed.

What is interesting is that the neighboring property is the property that is directly across the lane from my parent's house. Perhaps if I can get positive things going on this initial piece, and run the current farmer off by taking back this larger tract for my own use, the neighbor will consider selling or renting that piece to me for additional pasture, which could do nothing but help cut down on the erosion there.

But I'm really dreaming here.

At this point, I'm waiting on the survey... and feeling very grateful for parents who are allowing me to, essentially, take a loan against my inheritance before I'm too old to do anything with it.