(First 12 pages) Why give up a lovely suburban house for a camper on 87 vacant acres?
February 13, 2013:
I was eight months pregnant and growing larger by the hour. I had been feeling sick all morning and as a result I didn’t make it into the shower until around 2:30 that afternoon. Huddled in my towel, wet and dripping all over the floor, I realized I had forgotten to snag a fresh pair of undies from the clothes drier in the kitchen. Sure I could have simply pulled-on my old pair along with my pajamas and tromped out into the kitchen to retrieve my new pair, but that would have involved changing in and out of clothes and dangling my overly bloated stomach all around trying to coordinate my legs to move in and out of holes. No thanks. I opted instead for option two: scurrying out in a towel to pluck a pair out of the dryer and hurry back to change before anyone caught me . . . or at least before Erik’s oldest daughter returned home from school at 3:05 since I WAS the only one home. It would take maybe 40 seconds. What could go wrong in 40 seconds?
I took-off toward the other end of the house desperately trying to keep my lower half covered despite my bulging front-end when the dogs began to bark outside. I had just made it to the kitchen, so I peeked out the kitchen window trying to see if anyone was in the driveway. Now normally when we are home, we leave the garage door open (due to kids constantly entering and exiting) and we close it when we leave. Today however, I had it shut to keep the last wandering fall leaves from filling the garage.
I could just make out the front of a small red car parking in the driveway, and I watched in surprise as a tall, bald man exited the car and proceeded to walk around back to our dog kennel. Perhaps one of the dogs had gotten out and he was returning it. It wasn’t uncommon for one or more of the dogs to throw themselves over the electric underground fence and romp around the neighborhood.
But no, he stood at our welded-wire dog kennel for a few minutes before proceeding on to our backyard. The hair on the back of my neck stood-up. Why was this guy creeping around out back? Now the bedroom belonging to three of our girls (two of them teenagers) was located in the finished basement – the full-sized daylight windows looked out across the tranquility of the quiet woods in our backyard. Since we had nothing behind our property besides 76 acres of vacant woodland, the windows on the girls’ bedroom stayed curtainless – the girls strolling back and forth from their basement bathroom into their bedroom in little more than a towel.
And here I was, doing the very same thing (on our main floor), the guy outside clearly having no idea I was home – what if he was waiting for Breanna to get home in just a few minutes? I skirted through the house and back to my bedroom (undies clutched tightly in my shaking fist) and slowly crept up the side of our bedroom window to peer out at the activity in the yard. By this time he had wandered over to our soft-sided round-top garage nested gently into our backwoods.
Over the summer, our yard and attached garage had become overrun with the kids’ toys, bikes, equipment and Erik’s fixed-up speedboat he had bought, fixed and used for just one summer. As fall had approached we looked at the mess, and decided we didn’t want to be the messiest yard in the community – and we hated the look so many of our neighbors took-on of parking their boats and campers in their yards all year around which wasn’t even technically allowed. The soft-sided garage was a fast and simple non-permanent solution to make our yard tidy and organized again before winter hit. And it couldn’t be seen from the road.
I threw my clothes on quickly (managing to fall over only once trying to shimmy my underwear on) and checked my phone again. Brea would be home in just 3 minutes. I slid-up the side of the window again and watched as the guy turned and walked back to his car in the driveway. I ran to our front door and pressed my eye against the etched privacy glass on its windows. I could just make out the blurry figure of his red car pulling up the driveway and disappearing down the road. Seconds later, Brea was on the porch demanding to be let inside.
Erik had been livid and the kids petrified when I told everyone what had happened. Brea most of all! Erik had even gone so far as to pull out his Borelli shotgun, load it, and tell me if the guy comes back to fire a warning shot off over his head into the woods. We had no idea who the guy was or why he was sneaking around . . . until a week later.
The hard-working Dad that he is, Erik had been busting his butt all week at his work. He was waking-up at 3am to go into work early and not leaving until 6pm most evenings just to keep up with the number of cars coming into the local collision shop where he worked.
5:30pm, Erik had managed to get home by 5, moaning and limping with his tired, over-worked feet. He had been laying sprawled on the sofa looking at property for sale on his tablet while the kids ran through the house in a Nerf Gun war. A knock on the door froze everyone in place.
I fluffed my hair a bit and opened the door . . . a tall, balding man stood on our porch along with another man who simply stared at the ground. The bald man handed me a folded piece of paper and stated that Erik was in violation of several regulations and had no less than 15 days in which to correct them or the Housing Association would take action against him.
Erik instantly came alive and sprang off the sofa, snatching the paper from my hands before I could even glance at it, and he skimmed the list.
“You’re citing me for my dogs?!” He erupted. “I’ve had three dogs for the last three years! And what’s wrong with our Round-Top Shelter? It’s not tacky nor is it even visible from the street! You’d rather have us dump our boat in our yard like everyone else? Why don’t you cite them for having huge eye-sores in their yards!? I’m pretty sure the rules book says you can’t keep those parked outside.”
The bald man maintained his calm and determined demeanor. “Your dogs are in violation – we only allow two pets per household and we don’t allow fencing made of welded-wire. We also do not allow dog breeding of any sort. I don’t know if you have bred your dogs recently but I know you have before and we will fine you if you decide to breed them again. Here’s a copy of the association rules that you agreed to when you bought your house. We referenced the pages where you can find the rule you violated. As I said before, you have 15 days to correct the violations or you will receive a fine accordingly.”
Erik replied with a slurry of curses about the poor snow-plowing job the man had done over the winter (the FEW times it HAD managed to snow) and then slammed the door in their face. Our peaceful, happy existence in the housing community was over. Erik had lived there for 3 years with no issues or grumbling from anyone in the complex – until now.
Among the items listed in violation:
1: Dog kennel “No fences higher than 5 feet and no metal fencing” (the rules handbook actually stated that materials must be high quality – they made no mention of what a fence could be made from)
2: No more than two pets per household (many people were no doubt in violation, having more than two goldfish, a dog and two cats, two hamsters and a lizard, four parakeets, etc.)
3: Pigeons are not allowed as pets – see rules book (the rules book actually stated “no pets are allowed except those that are common household ones.” Quite vague. My small cage of white pigeons kept to themselves and could not be heard from beyond the yard. And well a pigeon is a bird, and I have kept them inside the house before. Birds are common pets . . .)
4: No round-top garages (according to the rules book “no structure shall be permanently erected unless first approved by the design review committee. Structures must conform to the house design.” Now while it made plenty of regulations regarding permanent structures, it did NOT mention temporary ones. The round-top garage was a glorified tent.)
5: You must keep your dogs contained or on a leash or they will be confiscated. (In the rules book, the exact wording is “You shall not permit your pets to roam freely about the common complex”. We never “permitted” our dogs to run free. They are worth thousands of dollars. They simply figured out on several occasions how to outsmart their electric collars. We were always quick to chase them down, but boxers can be very naughty and they loved playing hard to catch. Our neighbor a few houses down however, DID permit his THREE cats to run loose all over. Not that we cared. Another neighbor took daily walks with his dog OFF the leash and his dog was known to defecate in peoples’ yards.)
6: No dog breeding. Litters of puppies will result in a $1,000 fine per litter. (According to the rules book, it stated “no commercial dog breeding”. There is a difference. To be considered commercial in our local Township you must be having at least 3 puppy litters a year from 3 different females. Even according to the AKC who oversees breeders. We however were better classified as a “hobby breeder”, someone who has one litter a year in their home.)
And the tall, bald guy who had stood at our door? Yep, you guessed it, he was the same guy creeping around our yard . . . and the recently elected complex president. I thoroughly scanned through all the regulations in our rules book, and it clearly stated that elected complex officials MUST give 24hrs notice before doing any inspections whether IN the house or OUSIDE the house. Clearly our new president didn’t bother to READ all the rules.
That very night, Erik made a quick call to a local realtor, thus beginning an adventure we could never possibly have imagined!
The realtor’s name was Roy. He was a quiet, soft-spoken and unassuming old man – the same one who had sold Erik the very house he now wanted to sell -- as soon as possible. The goal had seemed simple: find a four bedroom house on 10 or more acres in the countryside located in our kids’ school district. However, it was February and most people don’t think about selling their house until the weather warms up in May. There just wasn’t much available. Our second goal was to stay out of debt – no mortgage, just cash up front.
Erik had just recovered from a very slow year at work. Working entirely on commission as an automotive painter, his savings had been drastically depleted thanks to a mild winter and below-average accident rates. He had been home more than he had been at work that year. Had he not had the careful foresight to maintain nearly a year’s worth of income in the bank, he probably would have lost his house.
Because of that, staying out of debt was not just a goal; it was almost a necessity. And not willing to sit around and wait for his realtor to find him a house, Erik sat-down to do one of his favorite things: searching the internet!
HUD houses seemed to be our best option. These foreclosed houses were up for sale at bottom-dollar prices. The drawback? The conditions might not be move-in ready, and the process of buying the house could take a while. However, looking at HUD houses was better than sitting around and waiting for spring (or more letters of complaint from our housing complex), and we had plenty of HUDs around us to get us excited about moving.
It was now late February, and Erik was hopping from house to house (all HUDs) hoping to find something close to what we wanted. One house we visited should have been condemned. It was filled with black mold so thick in the air I was choking on it. Another house was lovely on the inside. Four or more bedrooms, everything new and even a state-of-the-art heating and air system designed to be 100% allergen-free. The house had been designed and built by a builder . . . apparently business had slowed-down and he went bankrupt building his house. However, craftsmanship seemed to be lacking. It appeared he wasn’t a “top-notch” builder as he had used cheap materials around his windows (the window sills were neither level NOR square) and despite the high asking price of $160,000 the house would still need thousands more put into it to fully finish it. Not to mention the mediocre lot it sat on. Just 3 acres, most of which sat in front of the house.
But our realtor Roy had an ace up his sleeve. Now I’m not sure if Roy showed every client this particular property in hopes of luring someone in, or if by chance he figured it might be something Erik would go for. But the property happened to be just a mile down the road from the house we had just looked at, and we happened to have all the kids in the car with us (a rare event during the house searching process). We followed Roy’s silver Toyota down the road and parked in the ditch next to a horse farm. The kids all jumped out of the car excitedly to look at the horses while Roy, Erik and I walked across the road to the great, vacant expanse we had come to consider.
It had all been covered in snow. Despite the mild winter, the fields clung tightly to what little snow had fallen, and we still sank half-way up our knees trying to walk through hidden drifts. Roy and Erik and one of the kids left me behind as I clumsily half-waddled through the deep snow and tall grass, panting and hoping maybe this would send me into labor a bit early. Or maybe just enough to make Erik feel bad for me and how fat and pregnant I was (something that never seemed to be a factor in his head). I had managed to catch-up close enough to hear little bits of the conversation: 87 acres of rolling hay fields and woods full of deer -- some of the other realtors had hunted it last year and come back with large trophies – it used to be a race track for horse carts and was the last remaining piece of land from a huge estate that had included the barn and horse farm across the road, and the old barn and farm house next to the property. The land had been for sale for several years at $300,000. Last year they had a developer offer $200,000 for it all with plans to turn it into a housing development. The neighbors had gone to the township to fight it, and eventually the developers gave up, citing their reasons as the land parcels not perking well enough to develop.
Roy’s real estate firm was the overseer of the property. He handed Erik a print-out of the property details and we all got back into our cars. I could tell by the gleam in Erik’s eye that he had taken the bait. His visions of four-wheeler races had now turned into fantasies of monster-truck mud rallies!
A few days later we listed our house for sale. I took all the photos – putting my photography and photo retouching skills to work to make our house really stand out from the crowd. It worked, and within two hours of Roy listing our house online we had 3 showings scheduled. It sold within 10 days . . . but now we had nowhere to move into. While the 87 acres sounded like paradise, it was vacant and we did NOT want the hassle of building a house quite yet . . . especially since we didn’t have the time to wait for its completion! Our realtor, for some crazy reason, decided to only give us 15 days to vacate our current house after closing – not the standard 30. Really? I was 9 months pregnant and we had 5 kids to pack-up and move!
I was now past my due date and the doctors were threatening a c-section if I didn’t go soon. Erik decided it was the perfect opportunity to go for a walk and explore the property and hopefully induce labor. It took us 3 hours just to follow the fence-line on one half of the property, trekking through swamp and brush with our rain boots on. I wasn’t as tired as I’d hope I’d be, but my hip joints were screaming from all the waddling I had done!
As we came back towards our car, we noticed the neighbors outside at the farmhouse just 20 feet away from our car. They had a horse outside with them, a buckskin that was little more than a sack of bones, looking anciently old. Erik decided to wander over and meet them while I went to the car to sit for a few minutes. I didn’t get to sit long as I heard voices escalating.
“There ain’t no road going through here so don’t even try! We own everything back to the woods. That’s OUR property!”
The 87 acre property had been split into three large chunks a few years prior when the last real estate developer had begun getting everything legal for his planned development. I finally figured out that the lady who had been yelling at Erik thought he was another developer planning to buy the 40-acre chunk way in the back. Erik had asked about an old access road and the lady freaked out. She didn’t know he was referring to an access road off the back property coming-off another street.
I gave Erik the look to “shut your mouth a minute” and re-worded to the woman what Erik had been saying and that we intended to buy ALL 87 acres and keep it as farmland. Instantly a switch flicked behind her eyes and she smiled warmly at Erik and began telling him the history of the property as a horse farm and horse-cart racetrack. They introduced the horse grazing by their feet as “Silky”, their daughter’s horse. They claimed she was in her 30’s and that their 22 year old daughter had neglected her all winter and she had lost a lot of weight. Chunks of fur were hanging from her boney frame and I half wondered if they wanted to sell the poor thing. We had plenty of pasture grass on the property we planned to buy and the thing looked like it could use a good buffet.
They said she’d look better after losing her winter coat but they might be interested in selling her. Erik had been thinking of buying it for Jada . . . as fragile as the thing looked I didn’t even think she’d hold ME, let alone a girl much heavier. I had been thinking the younger kids would have to ride her!
I had the baby, Earen, in mid-April – two weeks late. As soon as I was home from the hospital I was packing and cleaning, trying to make the current two week move-out deadline. Our buyers were apparently having trouble getting financing and could not close until they were approved for a loan. Roy, the thoughtful realtor that he was, continually neglected to call me or Erik regarding house inspections. So it never failed that I was feverishly trying to get baby Earen to take a nap when someone was pounding on the door – and I was still in my pajamas at 9am. Another time, one of the inspection guys simply let himself into our house using our electric keypad entry system (because Roy had instructed him to do so!) while I was nursing the baby on the sofa.
Earen could not have been born at a worse time. Most of his daytime life consisted of rides in the car to look at houses, tractor equipment or horses. Since half the new property was covered in hay fields, Erik decided it was a good investment to buy hay equipment and get his Grandfather’s old Farmall tractor from the 1950’s running again. After talking to the overseers of the property, they agreed to let Erik cut and sell the hay from the property even though we hadn’t technically bought it yet. And then there was Erik’s grand scheme to buy his step-daughter a horse for her 16th birthday as a big surprise. She had always wanted a horse since she was a small child and Erik hoped that getting her a horse would encourage her to get outside more and be more active (she currently struggled with depression and obesity).
Despite its exceptionally high asking price, Erik finally did decide to sign an “agreement to buy” paper for the 87 acres Roy had hooked him on. I wasn’t as excited about the idea, I mean, why did we need 87 acres? Ten would have been fine, even 40. But 87? It seemed excessive, and there seemed no chance to stay out of debt if we had to build a house. Even Erik who had in fact signed the “agreement to buy”, was not 100% sure and he continued looking online at both houses with property and HUD houses.
And then the news came from Roy: our buyers wanted to close in two weeks . . . we’d have only 15 days after that to pack-up and leave. Roy seemed to come through for us however, showing us a cute refurbished farm house just 2 miles from the property. It had a small barn for the dogs, a huge pole barn for the kids to play in, but just 2 bedrooms. We could rent the place for $1,000 a month. It was small but a perfect solution if we really wanted to build a house on the property. And it would allow us to move-in fairly quickly if our buyers actually DID manage to close in 15 days.
Erik had to make a fast decision – buy the property and rent the farm house down the road until we could build a house, or buy a different house THAT WEEK. It meant we might have to live with my Dad, 40 minutes away for a month or so.
We had even gone to the extent of calling several builders in town to see about building a simple house on the property, and those that did finally call us back told us they were booked for the next 6 months, so we’d be looking at a year before we could move-in. Live with my Dad for a year? That would be pushing it.
Erik decided to go with the rental house and began making plans on how we would arrange the move. He had been in contact with our realtor Roy all week about the terms of the rental. Things were almost finalized. Then there was a problem. Unbeknownst to us, the house had also been up for sale. It had conveniently sold just before Erik walked into the office to sign the papers to rent it. Thanks Roy, for letting us know in advance.
Our buyers ended-up being turned-down for financing and the closing date postponed . . . again, and again, and again. We probably would have never gotten stuck in the whole camper mess if Roy had had the sense to find us different buyers who COULD get financed. Erik planned to buy the property but wanted a house to live-in nearby until we could save-up again and build one onsite. Or maybe he’d find something nice with a house AND property instead. And so began a series of events for the next several months of looking up houses online, visiting them in person and bidding on HUD houses. Erik even found a dream log cabin he considered quite seriously for a while, instead of the 87 acres. Erik was in heaven over the cabin, as were the kids. From a more practical viewpoint, I thought the cabin was lovely, but not workable. The main cabin only had the two bedrooms. Sure the double-wide (yeah, a double-wide . . . it was coated in logs and attached by a small hallway) had 3 bedrooms of its own, but it was on its own. Buying this house meant that Erik, the baby and I would use the two bedrooms in the main house, the kids splitting up the three bedrooms in the mother-in-law house (the double-wide trailer) on the far end. The cabin in the middle had the potential for 1-2 bedrooms in the loft area, but it was not finished-off and would entail more money and more work.
I didn’t want to stomp all over Erik’s ambitions to buy his dream house, but I knew exactly what would happen with this house. Either the kids would be up all night horsing around in their VERY private almost separate house on the end with all the bedrooms, or, they’d all pile into the small living room of the main cabin, too petrified that something would “get” them if they slept in the end cabin. And my poor daughter Nuriel would be in the end cabin utterly alone on the nights when the kids stayed at their mother’s house (exactly half the week).
I also knew precisely what I’d be doing all day in the cabin. Since the three were connected by a series of hallways and rooms, I’d be dragging a laundry basket behind me on a rope, baby on my hip, picking up all the random items scattered from ONE END of the house to the OTHER, tossing them into the basket behind me. Finding dishes with old or rotting food scattered here and there, long forgotten. It’s no wonder there were mice taking over the basement. We’d have to buy three barn cats to throw down there just to take care of the mice issue!
But, like any good woman, I wasn’t going to tell Erik he had to change his mind. I simply assisted him in gathering all the facts in making his final decision! Yes we could make the cabins very nice. We could even detach the double-wide from the main two houses and sell it. We could finish-off the basements and turn them into bedrooms since they were full daylight, walk-out basements. However, we didn’t know what to expect in costs of utilities OR home insurance. Erik’s current home insurer stated that they would not insure a cabin unless they knew who built it. And while the geothermal heating system was supposed to be more efficient than a conventional furnace, it did need some work and adjustments, and running it still required electricity. Oh, and the property taxes (at that time) for the cabin(s) on 20 acres was the same as the 87 acres at the non-homestead rate. There was a good chance in 20 years that they could go up. Way up. There was a good chance that this seemingly practical cabin could end up being a money sucker just to keep it livable.
The property of 87 acres however had the potential of earning a steady income, not eating a steady income. It had limitless potential. We could do a produce stand, sell hay, raise animals for food, board horses, lease it for hunting, create a paint ball course, run a bed and breakfast, etc. We could build a nice retirement income and stay 100% out of debt.
The downside? It would take years. It had nothing – no electricity, no gas, no foundations, barns, houses or septic. Not even a real driveway. Whatever we dreamed-up for the property would take plenty of work and commitment. It would take time. Lots of time.
Erik put some thought into it for a few days. He could see I wasn’t thoroughly excited about the cabins. He repeatedly tried to convince me that they were beautiful and a dream come true. I would just smile politely and agree they were very nice. He finally made-up his mind and called-up Roy and told him he would put a substantial down-payment on the property to secure it. Two weeks later, we all got a good taste of what we had to look forward to with the property.
Summer weather hit fast and hard, and the 90 degree temps caught us off-guard. The kids swore up and down that they were living a live version of the “Exodus” movie; Erik barking out orders and cracking invisible whips to get them moving faster in the blistering heat. He planned to cut the hay on the property in a week or so. Unfortunately for the kids, this meant hard labor. Dense, thorny bushes dotted the hay fields, and needed to be cut level to the ground and hauled away. Most were greater than 8 feet in diameter!
So there we were: five kids (9, 9, 11, 14 and 15) and myself with a baby dangling down the front of me only a few weeks old, trailing along behind Erik who had the chainsaw. He’d deftly slice through the bush trunks at ground level and one of us behind him would grab the trunk and haul the bush off (sometimes with the help of another) to be thrown onto the trailer. The only nearby shade was the Journey pulling the trailer and the kids were bickering and arguing constantly as to who got to sit in the front seat closest to the main air conditioner vent. Despite being confined to a hot, front baby-carrier, Earen didn’t seem to mind the extreme heat, nor the constant jostle of my walking -- his long legs continually crashing into my thighs as I struggled to haul large chunks of thorny branches through grass almost up to my shoulders. I had to keep one hand in front of Earen’s face to prevent the tall grass from smacking him in the eyes as we went by – which it did on a few occasions when I forgot to cover for him!
Some of the kids, including Jada the (almost) 16 year old were hard to keep motivated and hated the hard labor. I constantly heard complaining about how it wasn’t their job to be hauling branches out and they didn’t want the property if it meant hard work. Erik was way ahead of us with the chainsaw ripping quickly through the bushes and toppling them down, occasionally pausing to yell at the kids to quit complaining and get their butts moving. A few times Erik turned around to catch sight of me tripping over Earen’s dangling legs, falling behind the group as I struggled to haul bushes without stabbing Earen in the leg with one of the many thorns. Erik gave me a warning look to “get busy”. I wanted to whop him in the back of the head with the huge branch I was hauling when he had the nerve to yell at ME to get MY butt moving. Instead, I scooped up a handful of red ants with my gloved hand from one of the many above-ground ant mounds and patted him deftly on the back to congratulate him on a good job cutting . . . hoping the ants would make their way down his pants and give him a good bite!
It had been six hours and the sun was setting. The temps had finally begun to fall and a sunset made a glamorous appearance, blanketing the sky with bright pink hues. We had all been dripping with sweat, and now a chill was filling the air. The kids however paid no attention, running all around the (now bushless) field, hiding in the grass nearly taller than their heads and catching frogs and snakes to throw at each other. Their bellies were full of pizza and pop, courtesy of Erik who had driven into town just five minutes away and picked it up as a reward dinner. Earlier in the day, he had also promised them ice cream at the shop in town if they did a “good” job hauling branches.
It was our first look at the property as belonging to US. Our new home. It might be a few years away but it was ours. The frogs included. The kids were less than thrilled about all the hard farm work, but as Erik and I watched the kids running happily and getting along with no tv’s, video games or internet we knew this was it, this was what we wanted for them. A simpler life appreciating the beauty all around us and thanking God for all He had given us.
I still wanted to whop Erik in the back of the head though. Just once.
June was also the month Erik bought ME a horse. He had asked a few times over the last few months about my interest in horses, to which I replied it’d be fun to get some a few years down the road after we settle in – I just don’t have the time for one right now. So when Erik hauled me off to go look at yet another horse, I figured it was for Jada. This horse however was just a few miles down the road, and Erik was quick to let me know it was one he wanted to get for ME.
Sailor was a stunningly pale palomino gelding. He was quite young, 6 years old, and it soon became apparent that he didn’t have a good deal of experience with riding. His owner had not yet arrived but a few other girls had been out riding their horses at the small boarding facility and gave us the scoop on him. He sounded a bit crazy and possibly dangerous . . . the only one who could ride him effectively was the property owner – a skilled cowboy.
Sailor’s owner, a teenage girl, finally arrived and saddled him up for me to ride. I hadn’t ridden in several years and after the stories I had heard from the other girls was not excited to jump on Sailor’s back! His owner claimed the saddle was too big for her (she had left hers at home) and she could not try him out for me. Fortunately, the gentleman who owned the property was on site and offered to ride him instead. Immediately Sailor began bucking around. As nervous as the bucking made me, I could see something in his eyes that drew me and I fell in love.
We were then able to negotiate the price down from $1000 to $550! Lucky for us there was a stable just two miles down the road that was accepting new horses for boarding as we had no pasture or fencing for him on our property yet, and the place he was at now was downsizing on boarders. We had one horse, now we just needed one for Jada.
Finding a horse for Jada was no easy task however. She had never ridden before, so we needed something easy-going, calm and well trained. It also needed to be decent sized to be able to hold her weight. We looked into draft horse crosses, but everyone we talked to advised us against it saying drafts could be very pushy and might scare Jada away. It took weeks, but Erik finally settled on one horse that seemed to fit the bill.
“Ace” was a stunning, brown and white paint horse. He had been trained in a type of Natural Horsemanship known as “Parelli” and his owner was also a trainer. She had been using Ace as her lesson horse but wanted to find him a forever home. He certainly looked beefy enough to hold Jada. The downside? He was priced high at $2500, but the owner agreed to do a partial trade for hay (our not-yet cut hay). He seemed very calm, slow and obedient, and the Parelli Natural Horsemanship program offered Jada a chance to work with her horse on the ground until she was comfortable enough to ride him. The seller even offered to give Jada five free horsemanship lessons in Parelli. So we agreed to buy him.
Now we needed some hay.
July was speeding by, with Jada’s birthday looming on the horizon. The weather had stayed dry (and hot) and Erik had sent me off to haul home the last piece of equipment he needed to be able to cut and sell hay . . . a sickle bar cutter. Any farmer could tell you that a sickle bar cutter is a very old, simple cutting machine that is pulled behind a tractor (or a horse). And it can be a huge pain in the ****! In the summer, few people have hay equipment to sell as they are all busy using it, so this cutter had been the only one we could find. It was old, incredibly rusty and we hoped it would work. I had literally dragged it out of some farmer’s overgrown field, tires crumbling so badly I didn’t know if it’d make it down the road behind the Dodge Journey.
To Erik it was perfect, and he had high hopes for it. He hooked it up to his just-as-ancient tractor and away he went. Almost. It kept clogging up with grass and ant hill clumps, and Brea or myself (with the ever-present baby dangling from my front) were stuck trudging along behind it yanking out the clumps whenever Erik stopped . . . which was every few feet thanks to the 3 foot tall grass! Erik frequently leapt off the tractor to kick at it and swear, and the old tractor returned the favor by sputtering out and dying.
You couldn’t help but feel bad for him. He was dripping in sweat from the 90+ degree heat and he was the only one who could do the job. I especially felt bad . . . if it hadn’t been for the horses we probably wouldn’t bother cutting the hay grass. He was doing it for me, and for Jada. He was also doing it for profit, but we knew we’d need hay bales stockpiled to be able to feed the horses in the winter down the road. So there was a good chance we would have NO profit this summer from the hay.
Erik only managed to get half the hay in the front field cut since his tractor had given up on him after six hours, so Saturday morning bright and early he was back out there trying to fix his tractor and finish cutting the field (it turned out that it had run low on oil). By 1pm he had finished, and sat proudly on his tractor seat surveying his hard work. Sure it looked like a hack job with chunks still uncut here and there, and 3 foot tall grass standing everywhere around the rest of the outer areas, but he had successfully cut almost 3 acres of grass with a crappy cutter and a crappy tractor. It was certainly a job to be proud of! But we were far from done.
Two days later it was back to the field to “rake” the hay. Hay takes 2-4 days to fully dry, and depending on what type of cutting machine you have, you may need to rake it. The rake flips up the cut hay into neat rows which you can either flip again a day or so later, or run over with your hay baler and turn the rows into hay bales. The weather that June had been incredibly dry, but rain was forecasted for later in the week. If your hay gets rained on, or your bales get rained on, they will quickly mold and the whole crop will be a loss. That’s not to say that many farmers don’t let it get rained on anyway and continue to offer it for sale to horse owners . . . we saw plenty of bales left in rain storms, or rows of raked hay left out to be rain soaked. Moldy hay is fine for cows, but horses have a more delicate digestive system and moldy hay will often make them sick.
As we were new hay famers out to establish a POSITIVE reputation for good quality hay, we were NOT about to let our hay get rain-soaked. After letting it air-dry for a day and a half, Erik checked it and it was dry enough to flip and rake. Another day to dry and we were all back on the field on a Wednesday. We didn’t have a choice – rain was expected Thursday and Friday! Besides, Erik had scheduled a hay delivery to the girl who had Jada’s horse, and he was planning to take it to her as soon as we had it baled and all stacked.
Now we had bought our hay baler from a guy who had sworn up and down that he had used it with no issues the year before, so we were really hoping the baling would go smoothly despite its age. Things for once did. Erik’s tractor putted along just fine pulling the baler which gave-off awful slamming noises as it pounded mounds of hay into squares which then were squashed together into a bale. The bale grew until it reached the preset, desired size and then it was squeezed along a chute, slowly getting pushed out by the next bale forming behind it. Finally the baler would slowly “poop” out a bale.
Erik had the easy job – he sat on the tractor and drove around the field. The kids and I had the task of hauling the bales over to the Journey and trailer and stacking them up. The guy he had bought the baler from said he had it set to produce 65 lb bales (average is 50 lbs). 65 pounds is a load for a small kid to carry, even for TWO small kids to carry together and it wasn’t long before certain kids began to run off and get distracted. The kids were clearly getting sick of all the work our new property would entail. I did my best to encourage them and compliment on good hard work when I saw an attempt. There was no question it sucked. The bales were heavy and awkward to carry. They were dusty and pokey and the sun was creating a stifling heat. We were all dripping sweat and it was only late morning. I was, after all, right there with them, baby Earen as always hanging from my front, steadied by one hand as I struggled with the other hand to help one of the kids haul over a hay bale. Even Earen was wearing a hat to help protect against the blinding sun.
On the plus side, I was rapidly dropping my baby weight and developing some bad-ass muscle in my butt from all the “baby squats” I was doing. From picking up thorny branches, to squatting low to yank grass out of the sickle bar’s cutter blades or hauling a hay bale, all trying to balance a very young baby dangling from my front. During the first week, my back had felt like it was going to come unglued from my body. After that week however, my muscles all adjusted and it was more of an exhaustion factor than a muscle one.
By the time we were done loading our freshly baled hay onto the trailer and onto our pallets set-up in the middle of the field and tarped-over, it was early evening. Erik wanted to get his hay delivered before dark fell, but he agreed to the kids’ non-stop pleading to stop for ice cream. I sat in the car nursing Earen (for the millionth time that day), so Erik brought me over a chocolate-covered strawberry sundae. I tried eating it while Earen nursed. I managed to eat half and wear half thanks to Earen’s curious kicking at my cup.