Parting [with heavy equipment] is such sweet sorrow

Magpie helping to clean mud off of the excavator.  Always so helpful...

Magpie helping to clean mud off of the excavator. Always so helpful…

We’ve been lucky this winter.  It has been relatively dry, which is great because we’ve had the use of an excavator and a skid steer for the past three months and we only had to cover the insurance and fuel – a pretty sweet deal.  I have to say I have had a love/hate relationship with having the heavy equipment on site.  It certainly makes moving large amounts of dirt, logs, slash and gravel easy, not to mention digging hugels and ponds possible. On the negative side it compacts the soil and tears the turf up something fierce.  All in all, I think getting a lot of the heavy duty work done at once makes it work out in the end. We will be working the soil later to reverse the compaction with our broadfork and possibly even a rototiller, plus sowing a lot of cover crop seed.  Although we are ever so grateful to have had the equipment at our disposal, I’m happy to see it go and letting the land take a much needed rest.


To finish up the last week we had the equipment we were able to dig in another hugelkulture bed and bury the rest of the slash from the trees taken out for the road.  The first hugel we dug in a few weeks ago was 100′ long and 10′ wide.  This one is 119′ x 10′.  M probably dug them about 4 ‘- 5’ deep and we mounded the slash pretty high before covering it up with the soil. It’s so nice not having that huge pile of roots, stumps, logs and limbs lying around. Knowing they are in the ground and being put to good use feels even better.

Hugel #1 on the right covered with straw. Hugel #2 to the left.

Hugel #1 on the right covered with straw. Hugel #2 to the left.


We are still working on the pile of logs and limbs from the barn/house site clearing, but we are making progress there too.  M was able to use the skid steer to move nine of the logs (cut down to 30′) under cover on the side of the barn.  It was quite impressive.  We still have another eight or nine logs to move but will have to use the Land Cruiser and winch to get the rest under cover since we won’t have the skid steer anymore.  We will do that after we get the bark peeled off the ones already moved so we can stack them.  The timbers will be used for building our house.

He carried the logs over one at a time and then brought the skid steer around, chained them up and drug them under cover

He carried the logs over one at a time using the grapple hook and then brought the skid steer around, chained the logs up and drug them under cover

I still can't figure out how he stacked them up like that

I still can’t figure out how he stacked them up like that

I chipped limbs while M moved the logs and even though I filled the back of the 8′ pickup bed full, it didn’t look like much when I shoveled it out into a pile by the barn to use for paths later.


Water Management

We’ve been wanting to dig in a small, but deep pond (kind of an upside down triangle but with a flat bottom) across the road from the barn to hold the barn roof runoff.  The pond sits above an area we will be planting out to perennial gardens and market garden crops and the pond would make it easier to water.  This water would also be free of the heavy iron and manganese in our soils, so good for watering tender greens.  Our friends (and owners of the heavy equipment) S & J  hooked our gutters up to drain lines to facilitate this a couple of weeks ago and were going to dig the pond but J was afraid the walls would cave in.  He suggested we get an underground storage tank or cistern.  Given the price of those tanks (and running mighty low on cash since the barn was just built), we decided it was time to get creative.

While skimming craigslist for tanks and cisterns, M came across an old galvanized metal grain silo and thought we might be able to use it instead.  It was available for only $250 – a whole lot less money than a cistern.  What we didn’t use for the cistern we would use as raised planters or cut them in half and make pig arcs.  The only problem was it was located way up north and it would be a logisitical nightmare to get there, dissemble it from their barn, rent a trailer to haul it and drive way south to where our farm is.

We were kicking ourselves for not trying to buy this old grain silo that was lying on the property when we were buying it a couple of years ago.  Our property was part of a larger parcel – we purchased 24 acres and shortly thereafter another couple purchased the rest.  Unfortunately the grain silo was sitting on the other parcel and we forgot all about it – until now! Opportunity lost…

In the meantime when we were down at the farm last week, we thought we’d check to see what the new barn looked like from the neighboring property.  The couple who bought the other parcel is from the Chicago area.  They will be building a home and relocating here in the next couple of years.  Anyhow, from time to time we update them on what’s happening in the ‘hood and I thought it would be fun to send them a pic of their view of our new barn.  Imagine our surprise when we came over the hill and lo and behold – there it was – the old grain silo in all it’s rusted glory! We had assumed the gentleman we bought the property from had it hauled off when he sold the second parcel.  Opportunity found…


We were so excited we could barely contain ourselves so took pics of it and quickly emailed the soon-to-be neighbors to see if they would be interested in selling it.  We were secretly hoping they would not have any plans for an old, busted and rusting grain silo and would be glad to have it hauled off their property for scrap value.  Lucky us, they said we could have it and didn’t want anything for it.  And to make the deal even sweeter – S & J just so happened to be coming out to pick up their equipment that weekend and said they’d help us get it over to our property with their excavator and flatbed trailer.  Talk about kismet.

But wait – there’s more! Since the weather was still sunny and dry (albeit freezing cold) S & J decided to spend the weekend with us digging a 17′ hole, placing the 20′ section of the silo in it and back-filling it.  Now we have an underground cistern that didn’t cost us a kazillion dollars.

Now that's deep - J has to stand up and look over into the whole to see what he's doing

Now that’s deep – J has to stand up and look over into the hole to see what he’s doing


underground spring

underground spring

Guiding it into place. Notice the step down J dug to get the whole deeper.

Guiding it into place. Notice the bench J dug to get the hole even deeper.

easy does it

easy does it

Ta Da!

almost there


Backfilling.  The pipes coming from under the road are hooked up to the barn gutters. J later hooked them up to the cistern by cutting a hole in the side of the silo.

M worked late into the evening on the skid steer spreading the soil dug out – we wanted to bring the grade up a little in that area anyway so another win-win with the extra dirt.

good thing it has lights!

good thing it has lights!

S finished up the next morning spreading the salvaged topsoil on top of the clay subsoil(she’s a pro at it!) while J hooked the barn roof gutter drains up to the cistern.  Mission accomplished.


We are toying around with ideas to spruce it up – either bricking around it, painting it, or just planting close to it to soften up, but not lose its rustic appeal.  We will also fashion some sort of mesh cover for it to keep debris out and maybe build a trellis over it.  We also need to add in a spout to handle overfill and will be digging very subtle pathways through the [future] garden below so that the water ever-so-slowly makes it way down hill and irrigates the plantings along the way. In the meantime it has some lovely plastic orange mesh fencing around it to make sure no one accidently falls in.

M calculated that the cistern should hold just under 3500 gallons of water.  With our usual rain fall and the huge barn roof surface, we will be filling that thing in no time. Sunday morning there was already a couple of feet of water in the cistern from the underground spring.  If it’s a year ’round spring, we will still have water in the cistern should the rain water collected from the barn run dry. Bonus!

The heavy equipment was put to good use these past three months – we dug a pond and an underground cistern, put in a 400’+ curtain drain and silt pond, dug and filled two 100’+ hugel beds, did some logging (of sorts), gravel hauling/ spreading/compacting, extended the culvert  in the road, and lots of compost turning and mixing in truckloads of cow manure.  We are lucky to have met S & J – not just because they have cool toys – but because they are the nicest two people you will ever meet.  So generous with their time and their toys.

2014 is starting out on a positive note and we are looking forward to another productive year in our journey to our farm.


About La Femme Farmer

Starting up a small farm is the goal for the second half of my life. It's a late start I know, but better late than NEVER! Growing food, cooking and eating are my passions and now I get to do it full-time (and then some). and yes, that's a tomato from my garden!
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8 Responses to Parting [with heavy equipment] is such sweet sorrow

  1. DM says:

    Lots of great pictures (and lots of hard work). Thanks for sharing your experiences with all of us. Chipping branches takes a lot longer than a person realizes. I rented what i thought was a fair size chipper this past Spring..forget about it 🙂 spent most of the morning and barely had anything to show for it. I was hoping to chip up my apple tree branches and use the chips for smoking (and selling the excess)… The idea looked good on paper 🙂

    • We had an old Sears type chipper when we first bought the property that ended up being stolen. I remember being so bummed about it but now we see it as a boondoggle. It gave us the excuse to purchase a new DR Chipper – it is waaaaay better but still takes me several hours to chip up a truck bed full. However, that does included time spent trying to pry limbs out of huge piles made by the dozer that took the trees out. It’s a workout for sure but glad we have the DR now.

  2. DM says:

    I was just rereading some pamphlet produced in the late 1800’s for immigrants coming to Iowa. they mentioned that good ground water was accessible. “just” 30 feet down…Imagine digging a well by hand 30 feet deep…no thank you 🙂 …

    • I guess we were pretty lucky – we hit this spring at about 15′ in blue clay – the water was as crystal clear as could be.
      and NO – I Cannot/Will Not imagine digging a 30′ well! I balk at digging holes to plant trees!!!
      Thanks for stopping by DM.

  3. Eumaeus says:

    hugelkulture, looks interesting. thanks.
    looks like you’re going to have quite the set up. congrats.
    funny how patience with things like that silo is rewarded.
    you guys are impressive .
    until it be marrow

    • thanks Eumaeus. fingers crossed we come close. one weekend at a time makes it slow going though. hoping to get down there full time (at least me) soon and make more progress. I’d like to get going on the actual farming part, but getting the plan down and the infrastructure in place will pay off in the end. hopefully not when I’m too old to do it though!

  4. I’m very impressed with the new use for the old grain bin. That’s definitely a score…especially all the serendipitous timing of equipment, weather, time and manpower all happening together.
    Way back when, when I first read about permaculture, I had no idea of the type of earth moving doing it on a larger scale might involve – somehow the charming line drawings in Mollison’s manuals don’t really give one an inkling. It wasn’t till I read Sepp Holzer’s book that I found out that some permaculture requires a fair amount of heavy equipment, at least for a short burst. And of course, once I’d seen one book about it, it suddenly popped up everywhere. And then it occurred to me that swales are pretty much fundamental to Mollison’s notions of permaculture, and how on earth did I suppose he’d dug them…by hand? No – duh. As my kids would say :).

  5. Geoff Lawton, Mollison’s disciple and now one of the most prominent permaculturists in the world, makes no bones about the earthworks part of permaculture. It was disconcerting at first because it seems so harsh in the context of “being sustainable” and “caring for the earth, but in the long run doing all of this up front will benefit the plants, the soil and us. We will be digging more swales and ponds this summer if all goes according to plan and then things will settle down and we can begin the process of nurturing the land and growing things.
    Geoff is doing amazing things worldwide. He puts out a lot of free videos and they are well worth watching. Try not to be put off by the music and the scent of doomsday in some of his titles/intros. He is not at all like that and is quite engaging. He loves what he does and it is infectious.

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