My twenty-first farm was Mountain Top Goat Gardens in Piercy, California. Joshua and Tanya have been homesteading for twenty-six years. Tanya grew up on a farm in Idaho where her mother had a large garden. Joshua is a fifth generation Californian from San Jose. Joshua’s mother was a seed saver who collected seeds when traveling to other countries. Joshua shares her passion for learning about and growing plants from other cultures. Tanya and Joshua met during high school in the Bay area. When they went back to Tanya’s home in Idaho, they would pass a tattoo parlor. Tanya wanted a tattoo but was too young. However, they got to know the tattoo artist at that parlor. Joshua studied graphic arts and taught himself tattooing. Tanya mastered black line drawing which is used in tribal tattoos. While living in San Francisco they met the leading tattoo artist of the 1980s. That connection helped them set up their own tattoo parlor in the back of a bookstore. Working in San Francisco was just a stepping stone to the lifestyle they wanted–living off-grid on a peaceful homestead.
They quickly saved enough money to buy a twenty-five acre property on a hillside just off a quiet stretch of Highway 101 in Mendocino County. Their yearly property taxes were less than a month’s rent in San Francisco. Most of their land is heavily forested. “It occurred to me I could sell firewood to pay the property taxes–our biggest expense. That gives a feeling of security,” Joshua told me. The homestead site includes a colorful two storey house, designed and built by Joshua that is surrounded by green vegetation; a guest cabin with silvery interior walls farther up the hill; a red barn; an orchard dripping with fruit: and an animal area for the Nubian dairy goats and egg laying chickens. Tanya and Joshua’s pride and joy, besides their goats, is their garden. It’s an organized tangle of edible plants from around the world.
My Farm Experience
I had an awkward start. After WWOOFing on twenty farms I had developed some skills, yet I was still far from an expert. My first task was to pick berries: blackberries for preserves, and strawberries and raspberries for breakfast. The drought was bringing on an early and sweet-flavored crop. As I went down the strawberry rows, I made sure to only pick the fire truck red berries as I’d learned from Eric and Ryan at U. R. Organic. Next I found the tall raspberry canes and played Nancy Drew, peering here and there among the jungle of vines looking for a glistening red ruby as Patty instructed me at Hamilton Farm. I saved the prickly blackberries for last. Once I’d carefully snaked my hand between the vines and reached a blackberry, it either squashed between my fingers or wouldn’t release itself. Many were still green so I decided to leave the blackberries for another day. I took my berry harvest into the house where it got a positive but under whelmed response. After breakfast Joshua and Tanya came out with bowls to pick berries. Quickly their bowls filled with plump blackberries. Where were they finding them? Sure, Joshua could reach the highest blackberries that were over my head, but Tanya was no taller than I. She swore as she reached between the vines, and I wondered if Tanya, a fiddle player, and Joshua, a guitarist, worried about pricking their fingers. I imagine in the spirit of the show must go on, they just had to play through the pain. When I saw Joshua at the strawberry patch, I walked over. “You left a lot of ripe ones,” he commented. “Aren’t they supposed to be fire truck red,” I asked. “That’s only for commercial growers,” Joshua responded. It turned out these strawberries could be half green and be ready to eat. I picked a couple to try. It was true.
As I watered the garden, the hay delivery arrived. “It’s good to have help getting the hay in the barn!” Joshua said happily as he climbed up the stack of hay bales to the upper barn door. My stomach dropped knowing I’d have to break the news to him that moving hay bales was beyond my ability. He didn’t believe me. “Can’t you just roll them up to me?” I tried but they wouldn’t budge. “How about if you come up in the barn and slide them around?” I crawled up the bales onto the top floor of the barn. Like most barns, there was a wooden floor with a large hole in the middle that was used to toss down the hay. There were no railings and the floor was slippery from loose hay. Even with a slick floor, I couldn’t get the bales to slide. And what if I did and we both went out the hole? I also realized there would be a problem getting out of the barn once all the hay bales were inside. Tall Joshua went out the hole and down a couple of railings to reach the floor. That wouldn’t work for me. I offered the only thing I could in this situation: moral support. I stood in a safe corner of the barn while wiry Joshua rolled about thirty 120 pound bales inside and stacked them against the walls. “It’s times like this I wish I had a male WWOOFer,” I heard him mutter. I sneaked back down the stack of hay bales and went back to watering the plants.
My crowning achievement for the day was milking the goats in the evening. With their long floppy ears, Nubians look a lot like Goofy the dog. They are also very talkative. “It took awhile to learn that when goats make a noise like something terrible is happening, or they are going to die, it just means ‘We’d like something to eat,'” Joshua mused. Joshua milked the first goat, Stella the herd queen, to show me their milking routine. Then he weighed the milk. I’ve milked a lot of goats in the last two years so I felt confident. The next goat jumped onto the stanchion as Joshua cautioned me to watch out for feet going into the bucket. I must have had cold hands because all the goats jumped around like grasshoppers. A hoof landed in the bucket. “It’s so dry out, I don’t worry about a hoof in the milk,” Joshua said. A few more squirts of milk in the bucket, and then a hoof knocked it over. After each goat, the milk was weighed. I was milking with diminishing returns. After a hoof completely emptied the bucket, Joshua commented, “It’s clean now since there isn’t any milk.” By the time I was done, there was about enough milk for tomorrow’s coffee. I slunk over to my cabin.
I started off the next morning by chopping out the Oregon grape that Joshua had told me not to cut. Its pointy green leaves looked to me to be remarkably similar to the tan oak shoots I was supposed to cut out. Thankfully, in my quest to annihilate the Oregon grape, a few uncut branches were hidden under the leafy debris. “We had a WWOOFer almost cut down our redwood tree,” Joshua said. “I guess we should mark the plants we want cut.”
My next project was turning compost. “Make it lozenge shaped,” Joshua said. I moved the compost to its new spot a few feet away. “I wanted it lozenge shaped,” Joshua said shaking his head. “Sucrets or Luden’s?” I inquired. He wanted oblong Luden’s, and I’d made circular Sucrets.
Even with my unhandy beginning, Tanya and Joshua fed me well. At 9:30 in the morning, coffee was served. They took coffee seriously. Tanya bought the beans from a local roaster, then muscled the beans into grounds using her grandmother’s square, wooden coffee grinder. The grounds were brewed in a Moka pot which brought out their distinctive flavor. A cupful of this delicious beverage was waiting for me when I entered the house. I stirred in a dollop of fresh goats milk to make it complete. That’s all I got until around 1:00 when I heard Joshua announcing breakfast was ready by playing the bugle. Joshua had worked as a breakfast chef so breakfasts were especially good. We lingered over pancakes covered in fresh berries, Joshua an even slower eater than I. We’d chat about plants native to Latin America, Joshua and Tanya’s family histories, and the ads for growing marijuana plants in the local hippie newspaper. The bugle sounded again for dinner at around 8:30. It was dark by then. To save on solar power, the dining room was lit by a string of Christmas lights and two candles softly lit the table. Tango music played from a CD. While I practiced my ukulele in my cabin, Tanya and Joshua worked magic with what they harvested from their garden. Again we lingered over the food and the company. Occasionally, a bottle of wine would appear. More frequently, a freshly baked pie popped out of the oven. How did they find the time?
Joshua took me on walks through his garden. He’s half Mexican and has an interest in the ancient grains of Mexico. Chia, I learned, is a sage that is one of the ancient grains of the Aztecs. As we entered the magical garden, pink and lavender hollyhock flowers waved from stems nine feet tall. The meandering paths took us past shady trees, a large pond, and tall plants I’d never seen before. Many were from other countries. Joshua would stop at one of his favorite plants and explain its uses and how to care for it, and tell interesting cultural facts. He is a plant encyclopedia. I listened patiently, impressed by his obvious passion for plants.
The drought had an interesting effect on the garden. Tomatoes ripened weeks early. The peach, apple, plum, and pear trees bore fruit in abundance. I found the Asian pears to be ambrosial.
There’s probably not a homesteading skill that Tanya and Joshua don’t know how to do. Seed saving and cheese making are two of my favorites.
The daily farming routine was broken up by gigs. Joshua plays the guitar and Tanya plays the violin. Their musical interest is world dance music. As the duo Frisky Brisket, they played on Saturdays at the Calico Diner and occasionally at the farmers market in Fortuna. (The brisket is the lower chest of a goat that is close to the heart.) I was surprised that they played the same songs each time. “Don’t people want to hear something different?” I asked Joshua. He replied that people like to hear tunes that they know. I found this to be true. After listening to their performance a few times, I was humming along with them.
My final project was thinning trees. Slender, young evergreens grew in thick clusters that were difficult to walk through and created a fire danger. There were no worries of cutting down the wrong trees: this was a foolproof task. I cleared away dead branches and cut down the small trees around my cabin. It made quite a difference in brightening up the area. The goats liked the leaves, and the wood fueled the hot tub. I was pleased to finally make a positive contribution.