Continuing the tradition of raising beef cattle on the family homestead, Otto built up his own herd when he was a young man of 26. He barged his first cows off a remote island where a rancher had left them to multiply. Otto's father, Yule, established the Fox River Cattlemen's Association with other nearby homesteaders in order to lease an area of federal land that would provide enough summer forage to make cattle ranching possible. When Alaska gained statehood in 1959, this rangeland at the head of Kachemak Bay was transferred to the state, which still honors the lease. The yearly rhythm of moving cattle in the spring to pastures on the Fox River Flats and then bringing them home in the fall to winter on the homestead marks the changing seasons in Kilcher Country.
When the cows are gone, much of summer is spent growing and harvesting enough hay for winter feed. Otto has been haying and taking cows to the summer range and back since he was young. Cutting hay by hand and making huge stacks for storage was the norm in those early days. Equipment helps get the job done more easily now, though it is still a monumental and time-consuming task. Our often rainy summers can make it hard to put up good hay. Every year we're reminded that harvesting hay while dodging rain is our biggest farm stress, and a colossal weight is lifted when haying season is finally over.
In addition to beef cows, we have several milk cows that stay home with their calves during summer. Milking duties are shared with the calves allowing us a more forgiving milking schedule than dairy farmers have.
Herding cattle and carrying us into the backcountry give our horses something to do beyond just mowing the grass. Sometimes we still harness a horse and hitch him up to pull a buggy, sleigh, logs, or a go-devil sled with a load.
A steady flow of eggs rolls in from our chickens and ducks. Mostly viewed as Charlotte's pets, our fowl rarely make it to the chopping block. Hens usually die of old age instead of being culled when they slow down on the job. (Charlotte's farm strategies are not always based on maximum productivity. She's actually not a very practical farmer at all when it comes to the animals.)
Lacking a homegrown sweetener other than birch syrup, we took the plunge into beekeeping. Not only do we get quantities of beautiful honey now, but bees provide hours of amazement with their interesting lifestyle and behavior. Mead, made with honey, is another tasty product we've added to our cellar thanks to the bees.
Our garden keeps us up to our eyeballs in delicious summer veggies, also providing plenty to freeze, can, and pickle for winter. Root crops, cabbage, and onions keep well through winter in the root cellar. Apple and cherry trees, along with raspberries, strawberries, and currants, provide fresh fruit and stores of frozen berries, dried apples, and jam.
To lengthen our growing season and increase crop production, we added a large high tunnel cover in 2011. The difference in productivity is remarkable. The added heat also allows us to grow crops that don't typically do well in the cool Alaskan climate. Tomatoes and squash, for example, can now be grown in abundance.
Also a flower farmer, Charlotte started growing peonies in 2010, joining a wave of farmers establishing this Alaskan crop for sale to national and international markets. Growing these exquisite flowers is her “retirement” plan.
In addition to farmed food, we are surrounded by abundant wild and edible plants. Some of our favorites include nettles, dandelions, and lamb's quarters. In late summer, we set a "personal use" gillnet to fish for Kachemak Bay silver salmon, which we freeze, smoke, and can to eat year-round.
There is no end to the work of growing, harvesting, and preserving food on our homestead, but the tradeoffs in freshness, taste, and satisfaction are enough to keep us loving this part of farm life.