Homestead Roots Newsletter - 2/28/2024

How we pay our kids. Cooking sap into syrup. Our high tunnel collapsed.

Homestead Roots Newsletter - 2/28/2024

The big news on the homestead this week has been cooking down our sap into syrup. It is a big, time consuming task and one that I am kind of thankful we only have to do one time per year.🙂 With that said it is also very much part of our seasonal rhythm and for that we love it. It means winter is ending and spring is coming. Our life on the homestead has a clearly defined flow and we love it. Always something to look forward to and always something going on. Enjoy the newsletter and as always feel free to send along any follow up questions you might have. I have loved the conversations I have been able to have so far with all of you!

Cooking Sap and Figuring Out the Chicken Puzzle

Syrup making days become “Sap School.” Lots of reading by the fire.

The sun sets on a long day of boiling.

Sap cooking has been our world this week. We started on Sunday getting everything prepared. We had to pull our sap cooker out of storage, get it level and clean our sap pans out. Early Monday morning we got our fire going and got the first pans full of sap on the heat. We had a beautiful day for cooking sap! 65 degrees and sunshine! After 12 hours of cooking we pulled the nearly finished syrup off the fire and transferred it to two big stock pots. We finished cooking the sap on our propane burner on our deck. Finished sap needs to get to about 219 degrees, and if it goes even a couple degrees above that you end up with crystalized syrup, which is a bummer after a long day of boiling. After day 1 we had 4.5 quarts of syrup. So just over a gallon. We were expecting more but had some boil overs that cost us some syrup.😞 

After pulling the syrup Monday night we refilled the pans and let them go overnight while the fire died down. By Tuesday morning they had cooked down nicely and we got the fire stoked back up for another day of boiling. Our process for boiling with our 4 pan system is we keep our fire under the front two pans. The back 2 pans are used to preheat the sap and the often do gently boil, we are constantly adding sap to the back pans and moving the preheated sap from the back pans to the front pans. It is an all day affair with stoking the fire, and moving the sap around. By the end of the day Tuesday we had an additional 2 gallons of finished syrup. We have 50 gallons of sap left that we will need to cook off, which we will do as it warms up. That should bring us up to about 4 gallons of finished syrup.

The kids pulled all the taps from the trees as the collected the last of the syrup on Tuesday morning, so we are officially done with our syrup season for 2024. Last year we cooked sap on April 9th! What a year! Homemade syrup is just the best stuff in the world. I am so glad we are stocked up for another year.

In other homestead news we've got something going on with our chickens. I have found there are often mysteries in chicken keeping. Things I don't understand are going on with the flock. We have tried all the low hanging fruit but as of now they aren't laying at all. 100 chickens, ZERO eggs. A few weeks ago we thought they were coming back. We got 6 eggs a day for a few days, but then they quit again. I think it is a combination of the age of our flock and some other element we are unaware of. Typically this time of year they would be laying like crazy so something is definitely going on. Hopefully soon they will figure things out!

How We Pay Our Kids for Work

Bergen hauling in carrots to be washed.

Elias with some ducklings he sold.

Throughout our 14 years of parenting we have considered different options as far as allowance or paying our kids for their work. Learning the value of money is important. As of right now there is no compensation for their homestead chores and work around the house. That work is done because they are a part of our family team and the team needs their hard work to make everything function. We do however, compensate them for their garden work though we do it in a unique way.

For the past 4-5 years we have taken earnings from our market garden business and "paid" the kids by making a contribution to their Roth IRA, the last couple of years we’ve been able to “max” out their Roth IRAs. Roth IRAs are a great savings vehicle and can be used for college expenses as well as retirement. The stipulation for a Roth IRA is that you have to be earning income. So the farm as a business is able to pay them and then they are allowed to put as much as they are paid into their "future fund" Roth IRA. If they choose to use it for school they can, or they can save it for their own retirement someday. As a business this helps us keep our tax burden down and paying the kids is a nice expense on the books.

For spending money the kids have their own entrepreneurial endeavors. Elias is raising ducks and selling eating eggs, hatching eggs and baby chicks. He has been doing very well with this! Espen last year started raising bees and was able to sell a bunch of honey last fall and over the winter, he is planning a significant expansion for his business this year. Bergen sells bouquets and is just getting into the business of herbal salves and tallow lotion and things like that. In all these cases the kids are tracking expenses and earnings and making sure they are saving money for future expenses. Espen is needing to buy more bees this year for his hives so he had to put away a significant part of his earnings from last fall. Elias made good money last year but had some significant expenses that kept his income down. All excellent lessons for them to be practicing and learning. It has been fun to watch them grow into their little niches.

I will say that as Elias has turned 14 we are going to be paying him hourly for his work on the farm this year. We are considering a couple 4 hour shifts for him per week. In this way he will be working not as the family but more as an employee, aka you can't complain or whine when you are given a task.🙂 He will also be asked to work outside of those shifts and we will continue to try and put some good savings away for him as well. He would like to start saving money for future school, a car and other items and this seems like a good way to keep him around and get some good work out of him too.

Benefits to Having a Business on your Homestead

Disclaimer: This is about taxes. I am far from an expert. Find a good accountant if you have questions.

We started talking about homestead businesses in last weeks newsletter. I wanted to expand on that a little bit and discuss the tax implications of creating a business for your homestead. The obvious discussion topic here is write offs. Write-offs are a great benefit to having a homestead business. As you work to expand your homestead and have expenses, you are able to write those expenses off, as long as they are tied into your business in some way. There is a TON of gray area here and God bless our accountants for helping keep us straight on it. The ability to run a business tied to your homestead and then reduce your tax burden on your business while you build your homestead is a huge benefit. This has helped us immensely in the last several years as we have added infrastructure and equipment.

The second tax related item I already mentioned in the previous section. But if you have a business it allows you to pay your kids in a professional way. That money paid out to your kids for their work is an expense for you and it allows them to invest their money in creative ways that will help them in the future.

So while the most obvious reason to have a business on your homestead is to earn money to help grow your homestead these tax implications are also super important and should also be considered. One element here to consider is that you do have to be an actual business to make this work. So that means creating an LLC and having a business bank account. Pretty easy stuff in this day and age. I will say one more time how important it is to be well versed on the tax code or know a good accountant. It is a bonus if your account has some experience with farmers as there are certain things in the tax code that clearly benefit farmers.

Seeds are in Soil and a Look at Our Garden Plan

Baby lettuce seedlings popping through.

Soon this rack will be full!

Last week we were able to finalize our garden plan for 2024 and also got our first seeds planted. The first crops planted are hardy greens like spinach and lettuce that will go into our high tunnel. The high tunnel gives the seedlings extra protection from the elements and will allow us to get plants and seeds in the ground around March 15. We will still need to watch things closely on really cold nights. We also started some onions that need a longer time to be ready for transplanting. We are starting to see those first seeds germinate so it is an exciting time in the garden!

I mentioned finishing our garden plan and I wanted to share some of the details with you. We used a new piece of software called Heirloom, overall it worked well through there are some kinks that they are continuing to work out. We were able to get everything placed and the additional tools within Heirloom should be a huge benefit to us. The really cool thing about Heirloom is how after we create our planting plan it is able to create a task list for all those plantings. It should really help keep us running on time this year. We also love how visual the tool is, it is so easy to see where everything is planted and make sure you are covering your bases. There are also neat features such as, it estimates earnings based on your plan, tells you when you will be most busy during the year, helps give estimates of how many seeds you will need, along with other cool features. I have below our planting plan for 2024. You can see our different field blocks as well as the succession planting we have planned. Some beds will rotate through 4 crops this season. This allows us to produce a lot of food from a small area.

Our garden plan for 2024!

The team at Heirloom has been awesome about taking feature requests and working them into the software. I am sure over time the product will only get more useful and easier to use. We are on a 3 month trial right now, based on our use of it early on we will plan to pay the subscription fee when that comes due, that will be $189 for our first year and $270 after that. I will be the first to say it can be hard to spend money as a small business but tools like this make such a difference that I think they are worth the cost.

The Great Tunnel Collapse of 2019

The collapsed tunnel.

Late May and tomatoes are in.

The snow melted and we got it apart.

Rebuilt tunnel looking good!

2019 marked our second year of focusing on our market garden and hoping to turn it into a successful business for our family. Unfortunately, the year didn't start off on a great note! After building our high tunnel and successfully growing in it in 2018 the tunnel collapsed at the end of February 2019. You can see the picture of it above. Talk about heartbreaking! We had the most snow of any February ever and while I was doing my best to remove the snow from the tunnel I was gone for a weekend and it collapsed. Tons of lessons were learned about shoring up the tunnel from the inside and making sure to get all the snow off the peak but at that precise moment we just had to clean up the wreckage and make a plan.

I called the guy we had bought our tunnel from in 2018 and he had 1 more of the exact same tunnel. So we went and picked that up from him. This allowed us to keep the foundation poles and end walls in place while just removing the damaged plastic and bent hoops. It was a mountain of work! But we got the tunnel rebuilt and got our tomatoes planted almost on time.

Later that year I was able to take the bent poles and re-bend them back into shape (mostly). Those poles became our second tunnel that is now up on our property. It is a little misshapen but does the trick and is a huge asset to our farm.

We now put in 2-3 wooden posts under our ridgepole in each tunnel. This year I haven't had to clear snow even 1 time! But last year I cleared snow probably a dozen times. This just means using a snow rake to pull the snow from the peak and off the tunnel. Many tunnels are shaped in a way to shed snow more naturally, but ours are just a little too flat on the top so we have to snow rake. At the time the price was right!

Thank you as always for reading and for following along on this journey. As always I would love to hear from you. If you have questions or suggestions just reply to this email and I will be in touch.