Monthly Archives: November 2011

As promised…

Okay, so I’m slow in getting these up, but here are some photos from building cold frames two weeks ago.

Here’s the back of my house in all it’s redneck glory.  The cold frames are snugged up against the south side of the house to best catch the southern tilt of the sun during the winter months.

So far I’ve constructed three frames.  Two are planted with spinach, leeks and chard.  The third is waiting it’s bed of rich compost to make up for the clay and rock substrata you see before you.

Here’s a detail of the swan door…

…and here’s the trailer chic frosted geometric pattern.

Here I am applying the sage advice, “Measure twice, cut once.”

This is a detail of constructing the back wall.  Here I’m applying the backstop which acts as a rudimentary hinge for the glass top.

This is the inside of one of the frames.  I’ve laid around two inches of compost as a seed bed,  I plan on adding to this as the plants need it but initially wanted to start with plenty of growing room.

I’d really like to make a how-to video when I make the next frame, but that may be a few weeks away.  Things get really busy around here during the holidays.  Three birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas all take up a lot of our time.  Nevertheless, there is much to do and I will post as often as I can.  Thanks for reading.



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Filed under organic gardening, organic produce, self reliance, sustainability, urban farming


Here’s hoping everyone had a warm and wonderful Thanksgiving (raises coffee mug in toast). I’m sitting here with Samantha on the balcony of our rented condo in Gulf Shores, Alabama on the first real vacation I’ve taken in four years. Granted I’ve had a few few pleasurable work trips but this is the first time off I’ve taken with my family in a long time.

It’s only as I write this do I realize how shameful that is. Four years? That’s really too long.

That’s also one of my grandfather’s faults. In the forty years that I’ve been around I’ve only known him to leave the farm twice, but I assume there must have been a third. I assume he attended my Mom and Dad’s wedding.

When I was fourteen we took a trip to Pensacola, Florida. Dad, my brother, my aunt and uncle, my two cousins, Granny and Grandpa and me all piled up in my uncle’s station wagon. Obviously this was a while ago and seat belt laws did not exist. Still it staggers my mind to consider we all fit in one car.

My cousins didn’t like the beach and so we spent the whole vacation at the hotel pool. We only stayed one full day. I remember when we first got into town and we were driving down the strip, some dark haired kid in a sleeveless shirt and shorts walked across the street in front of us.

“Hey,” Grandpa said, in all seriousness, “Is that one of those Cuban refugees?

I felt like I’d stumbled into an updated version of Ma and Pa Kettle Go to the Beach.

The only other time I knew Grandpa to leave was last fall when he came to Birmingham to visit my dad in the hospital.

He has, of course, good reason for his lack of travels. You can’t neglect a farm for long. The list of chores and duties is long. Livestock must be tended to daily, often twice daily and there’s always the opportunity for a crisis that needs immediate attention. You arrange for help, but nobody cares for your stuff the way you do.

So, is a farm and a vacation incompatible? Does my desire to grow Emerson’s Acre mean that these delicious days of rest and respite with my family are all the more precious because they will soon be in even more short supply?

I sincerely hope not. I must first admit to my own tendency toward workaholism and placing my families’ long term needs over their immediate. That comes from being a stoner and a slacker for too many years. I can easily lose myself to the sense of urgency that comes from needing to make up for lost time. That’s one of the reason’s Emerson’s Acre is so important for me, you can’t rush a garden, everything happens in it’s own time and you must learn to fit yourself into that flow.

Grandpa never fully learned that. He was famous for planting two or even three spring gardens because he always jumped the last frost by a week or two. He just couldn’t wait.

I will always be grateful to my grandfather for the lessons he has taught me, both directly and indirectly. His mistakes are just as valuable as his successes. And here I think he has given me an invaluable “Do not do” picture. You know, like the one’s on the grocery carts with the three silhouette pictures two of which have red lines through them showing a mother distracted by her shopping and her children climbing like monkeys on and over the cart?

Down time is just as essential as the time I spend working. I know from experience that if I don’t take it my body will enforce this rule through injury or illness. I think maybe it’s best to be proactive in this regard.

Planning will be important. Understanding the ebb and flow of life at Emerson’s Acre will make it easier to plan, to anticipate down times and take advantage of them.

So too, will be the cultivation of adequate help. I don’t have to be a total loner on this project. Bringing in like minded friends to help and maintain things while I’m gone not only will bring the peace of mind I’ll need on a vacation but will help further spread the ideals of Emerson’s Acre. After all self reliance is a lot more fun when you have people to share it with.


Filed under organic gardening, organic produce, self reliance, sustainability, urban farming, urban gardening

Cold Frames II

Sunday morning I got up and made breakfast.

Sunday breakfast is best because it is then that I have enough time to devote to making a proper breakfast. Monday through Saturday I get up early for work and breakfast is usually a protein shake and a handful of vitamins.

Sunday I sleep relatively late, make coffee and set about to feeding my family properly. This past Sunday’s breakfast consisted of free range organic eggs, spicy pork sausage and sliced tomatoes.

Once properly fueled I set about the day’s project, the much anticipated cold frames.

Last weekend I made a start on the first frame. Using my sawzall (reciprocating saw) I broke down several oak pallets separating the ½ inch boards from their 2x runners. The pallets I had collected had boards with widths ranging from 3 inches to four inches across.

As an aside, pallets are, in my opinion, an excellent source of cheap (read free) lumber for any project for which cosmetics are not of prime importance. I have used pallet wood to build shelves in the garden shed, my compost bin, a jig for cutting firewood to length, the goat house and now my cold frames. Pallets are usually made of oak or poplar wood and can usually be found in the waste area of most industrial businesses. There are several such businesses just around the corner from the gym. I stop by on my way home from time to time and stock up.

I built the frames to match the dimensions of the shower doors creating a slope from a 16 inch back to a 12 inch front. A detailed description of their construction would just be confusing here, so I promise to post a video of how they’re made soon.

Piecing together a 12 and 16 inch wall out of 3 and 4 inch boards was time consuming, so on the second frame I took advantage of the ½ inch plywood I had scored from Independent Presbyterian Church (from the dumpster, remember, and I had permission, it’s not like I stole plywood out of a church. Sheesh). I made the back and sides from the plywood and the front of the pallet wood so that it might match its neighbor.

Thalia helped me clean the soap scum off the shower doors and we decided on an alternating pattern of swans and frosted geometry.

So far my total cost for the project is the gas to Mulga and a box of exterior screws.

Once the boxes were made and the glass laid I saw the need for some sort of hinge to make opening and venting the boxes easier. Samantha will tell you that I’ll take any excuse for a trip to Home Depot. She’ll also tell you how time consuming it can be.

I didn’t have any hinges and I wanted to go ahead and fill the boxes with compost just in case Stephanie was coming out this week. Once filled it would be difficult to access the hinges as I had placed the boxes up against the house to take advantage of southern exposure. What to do?

To my own credit and without prompting from my darling wife I saw the inefficiency of a trip to Home Depot and came up with an alternate plan. I attached a four inch board of pallet wood along the back of each box, allowing the board to rise a full inch over the back edge. This board now formed a backstop against which the glass door could stabilize and hinge.

Now to fill the boxes. The soil in my backyard is pretty bad. Actually, it’s downright awful. I’m amazed it will grow grass. It’s all rocks and clay, especially near the house where it has been graded for drainage.

Using a garden fork I broke up the soil. I then followed with one of my favorite tools in my arsenal, the grape hoe. This is one bad-assed hoe. It’s also called an eye hoe, as it has a round eye at its top that its especially stout handle slips through. This hoe has a wide face and its heavy. I call mine, Earthquake. So Earthquake and I made short work of the clods and reduced the ground to a fine bed of nutritionally questionable soil. I made a few passes with the rock rake and removed the most offensive rocks from the bed.

Now for the compost. I have a two bin composting system that I maintain in the back corner of the yard near the garden shed. All organic material goes into the compost and I make a habit of turning the pile once a week, transferring it from one bin to the other. When I need compost for the garden I use a stout screen I made from hardware cloth and 2x4s and sift the compost over a wheel barrow. Anything that’s not yet “done” gets tossed back onto the pile.

The sun was setting by now and so I turned and sifted by headlamp until I had acquired two full wheelbarrows of rich compost, one for each cold frame.

Compost has a great conditioning quality. With time, root action and the percolation that comes from watering the overall soil quality of my frames will be increased, even beyond the original soil level.

For me soil is the essence of gardening. The plants and produce that are yielded are an expression of the quality of the soil, just like our own outer health and vitality are expressions of our nutrition and inner health. So gardening for me is all about making great soil.


Filed under compost, organic gardening, organic produce, self reliance, sustainability, urban farming, urban gardening

Cold Frames

Fall is officially here in Alabama. And while the temperatures are not cold yet (remember we are in Alabama and cold is relative) the leaves have turned and the days are noticeably shorter.

We have lettuces, brussel sprouts, and some braising greens growing in one of our ten by ten beds but we’d really like to extend our growing season and keep fresh produce coming into the house year round. Enter the cold frame.

If you’re not familiar, a cold frame is a mini green house. Usually it’s a smallish box with an glass top that can be adjusted to vent out air and control temperature.

I’m in the middle of constructing mine now.

Stephanie had found, through four glass shower doors. All we needed to do was come pick them up.

Sunday morning Bronwyn, Olive and I loaded up in the truck and headed out to Mulga, Alabama to pick up the doors. The trip took a little longer than it should have because we missed a vital turn but luckily Wayne, our shower door benefactor, was looking out for us.

About an hour after my initial call he called to find out where I was.

“How many lanes are you on?”


“Oh, you’ve gone too far.”

With his advice and Bronwyn girling the GPS on my phone we made Wayne’s house in short order.

I guess it’s my grandfather in me, but I love making things out of nothing. But I’ve learned over the years to never look a gift horse in the mouth and that you frequently get what you pay for. Glass shower doors are not exactly the pinnacle of high bathroom design. These fell even shorter. They’ll do the job, of course, and I’ll use them because, well, they’re free, but they are, shall we say, a little “rednecky.”

Two of the doors are frosted with rectangular designing reminiscent of the finest bar area in your nicer mobile homes. The other two feature white silhouettes of some rather regal looking swans. Maybe off set with framing built from oak boards scavenged from pallets they’ll look fine.

Over the rest of the week I managed to score some other free construction materials.

On Tuesday Samantha and I walked past Independent Presbyterian Church which is undergoing some renovations. The dumpster was full of half sheets of 3/8 inch plywood and there were several wall sections framed out of 2x4s that were being thrown away. I took a minute to ask permission and then scurried back to my truck to load up what I could get. My neighbor was throwing away an old window, so I snagged it and a friend of Stephanie’s brought by some French doors. I’m now overloaded with materials and the junk man in me is brimming with joy. So much utility for so little cost!

I can’t wait for the weekend and getting to work on the cold frames again. Temperatures have dropped over the last two nights and my backyard is starting to look like Fred Sanford’s.

As understanding as she is, Samantha’s patience does have its limits.


Filed under organic gardening, organic produce, self reliance, sustainability, urban farming, urban gardening

Goat Power Part 3

The goats spent the week in the trailer in our garage. Rob wasn’t available until Friday and I wasn’t about to risk a repeat of Bonnie’s escape. Every day the goats got fresh fodder and corn. The fodder I cut from the overgrown areas of the backyard and the corn was left over from Bonnie’s brief stay.

On Friday Rob came over and we trained the goats on the collars and the invisible fence. We then released them to the back yard and allowed them to forage. Sophie was much less responsive than the other two but seemed to have a good appetite. I remained optimistic.

While the goats got adjusted to their new lives in our backyard we let our dogs, Olive, a two year old German Shepard, and Trixie, a seven year old poodle-terrier mix, explore their new boundaries in the front yard. Still shy from Bonnie’s escape I wanted to make sure these goats wouldn’t make a break for it. To be honest I just couldn’t face admitting to more runaway goats at the gym.

Over the weekend, Sophie began to appear more and more lethargic. She still ate but would frequently lie down. In my experience, goats don’t normally lie down during the day. If they do the certainly jump to their feet at the first hint of your approach. I began to worry.

Staring Saturday afternoon we began treating her with an antibiotic.

That Monday I got hurt in jiujitsu practice. An over zealous training partner sprained the medial collateral ligament in my left knee. Tuesday I opted to stay home from work. Only able to stay in bed so long I got up and hobbled around the house as the girls got ready for school.

Bronwyn was helping out by giving Sophie her antibiotic. She came in with a look of worry. Sophie was not very responsive at all. I had Bronwyn carry her down to me at the back door. She was looking pretty bad.

“Put her near the water and I’ll see if I can’t take her to Dr. Martin.”

Dr. Martin is our vet. He’s a wonderfully curmudgeonly old man with a gruff exterior and an apparent impatience with sentimentality. I suspect like most tough exteriors he’s all soft on the inside, but is loathe to admit it. I think for the first few years we used him he thought me an idiot. When Lucy, our first Shepard mix was hit by a car, I think I finally won him over.

Lucy was a stray who adopted us. As such she had many of the nutritional deficiencies common to an early life on the streets. When I brought her in after the car hit her Dr. Martin told me she probably wouldn’t make it. She stayed with him for two weeks. I visited her every day and hand fed her. She did make it and continued to live with us for several more years.

I called his office and made sure he would see a goat. I sent Bronwyn off to school with her sisters and the promise that I would take Sophie to the vet.

I then set about hobbling around to get ready myself. Once ready I went out to get Sophie. She lay still and unblinking.


Now what was I going to do?

I spent several minutes making sure she was really dead. This was not shaping up to be a good day.

I went back inside and called Samantha. Digging a grave myself was going to be difficult. I began to explore my options.

I called my good friend Ned who was handling both the 7 and 9 am workouts at the gym. He graciously agreed to come over.

Together we held a simple service and returned Sophie to the earth in a corner of the Back Forty that is quickly becoming the pet cemetery. At present the residents of the pet cemetery include, a robin, a rabbit, a neighbor’s cat, Lucy and Sophie. At least they’ll keep each other company.

I used the rest of the week to keep an eye on the other two goats. Hopefully whatever Sophie had had not been communicated. I really began to regret having kept them so close the week before.

Goats, I have learned, are remarkably intelligent. Honey, the three legged one,, quickly presented her self as the alpha. During their stay n the backyard she could be seem frequently “checking us out” through various windows and the back door. She refused to be approached but was often seen spying on us.

On Sunday I felt secure enough that they wouldn’t make a break for it and set them to their intended task. I was still hobbled a bit but could manage well enough to get around. I stopped at our local Home Depot and bought a few pressure treated 2x4s. Using these and some scrap plywood siding I built a cozy little shelter the goats could use to escape the elements. Once finished with this it was time to move them.

Herding animals is easier said than done. It requires a coordinated team capable of convincing whatever it is your trying to convince that they way you want them to go is the way they want to go. My team consisted of Samantha, Bronwyn and her friend, Ella. We were not very convincing. Every time we’d get close to running them through the gate they’d find a hole and shoot through.

Finally I got frustrated. Taking advantage of their running into the tool shed I cornered them one by one. Starting with Honey I bodily escorted them both to the back and let them go. Indignant at first over my coarse handling they quickly realized the bounty of their new situation and set to feasting on briars, privet and wisteria.

Every evening at dusk I now have Bronwyn deliver a bedtime snack of dried corn. Someday I may need to catch them again and convincing them that at least some humans are good will go along way toward making that easier. Nonetheless, I should probably purchase tranquilizer darts as a back up plan.

At present I am thrilled with my genius. Both Honey and Harriet are growing fat off the land and I’m beginning to see gaps in the foliage. Progress is being made. Eager for more, I’ll see what rejects Grandpa has when we go back up for Christmas. I’m salivating for my Spring garden now and all the possibilities this new land will offer. More goats equals more space faster. Besides they’re kinda cool to have around.


Filed under goats, organic gardening, self reliance, sustainability, urban farming, urban gardening

Warm and Toasty

Last Friday marked the first fire of the season. We might have pushed it a bit but there was enough of a chill in the air that at the time it felt justified.

Two winters ago I bought a used woodstove and had it installed in the chimney of the main family room. It came equipped with a blower and for the past two years has effectively replaced one of our two furnaces during the winter. In the next year or two I’d like to install a second stove in the other half of the house. I love everything about heating the house with wood.

Here in Alabama firewood is pretty easy to come by. I haven’t paid for firewood in three winters. Everyone knows me as the “firewood guy” and for two seasons I even sold firewood.

They say that the great thing about firewood is that it warms you twice, once in the cutting and then in the burning. I find the whole experience of firewood to be immensely rewarding.

I started three years ago when a friend of Nana’s had an ancient oak fall on her property. There was no real damage and as such no insurance money to remove the tree. I would go out and whittle on this giant oak on the weekends and take home manageable rounds to split and stack for firewood.

This tree was easily 300 years old and took me several months to cut and clear. I sold nine full cords and kept two or three for myself.

Which brings me to an aside and a peeve.

A cord of firewood is a stack four feet by eight feet by four feet. What’s sold today by most sellers if you order a cord is technically a “face cord,” which is a stack four by eight feet by whatever the length your firewood is. In most cases this is really a half cord at best, providing that you buy two foot sticks of firewood. Your average seller takes full advantage of the fact that you don’t really know what a cord is.

My other peeve is that most sellers sell “green” wood. There’s a guy who has a set up on my way to and from work. I’ve watched his operation over the years. In fact his was the last load of firewood I bought.

He has an arrangement with a tree service that come October will start delivering the trunks of trees they’ve cut down. This is advantageous for the tree surgeons as they otherwise have to pay to dispose of the trees. This firewood seller then spends his weekends busting the trunks down into firewood for immediate sale. These trees are days from being alive and sold like this will not make satisfactory firewood.

As a consumer of firewood I recommend you buy next year’s firewood this year or better yet cut it and stack it yourself.

Green wood will burn, but you will be frustrated by it. Green wood is slow to light, is very smoky and requires a hotter fire to keep burning. In addition to this, the smoke contains a higher concentration of creosote which lines your flue and increases your chances of chimney fires. I have burned green wood in my stove before but found it a much more “high maintenance” endeavor. Seasoned wood is best.

I try and cut firewood during the spring and summer months. An Alabama summer is plenty hot enough to dry out split firewood in a month or two. Wood I cut in July is sufficiently dry to burn in November.

Many folks will try and tell you it has to sit for a year, but that has not been my experience here. I split my wood while it is green and stack it for maximal airflow. Sometimes, like this year, I’ll even cut and set aside wood in October as a back up for the end of the season, just in case I run out early or cold weather extends further into March.

At present I load my firebox three or four times a day. In the morning, as I’m the first to rise, I open up the air vents and fill the firebox. Last night’s coals quickly catch and I run the box at full blast to get the house good and warm for everyone else. When Samantha leaves for school she makes sure the box is full again and closes the air vents to minimal airflow. This keeps the fire going and the box hot enough to keep the thermostat driven fan going. That evening we reload the box and if it’s cooler open up the vents. The final load is right before bed and the vents are closed again to keep the fire burning slowly through the night. Our thermostat on the gas furnace on that side of the house stays set somewhere in the high sixties during the winter and it rarely ever kicks on.

Few things are more satisfying than the feel of warmth that hits you when you enter our house on a cold winter’s day or sight of smoke drifting from the chimney. It warms the house and my soul.


Filed under firewood, self reliance, sustainability

Goat Power Part 2

Even though my first attempt was an utter failure.  Even though it made me the subject of ridicule and friendly ribbing.  I knew the “goat idea” was a good one and I was determined to see it through.  Providence, I believe, agreed with me.

Some months after Bonnie had made her bold escape I got two new clients, a married couple who would come to weigh heavily in the future success of Emerson’s Acre, Rob and Stephanie McDonald.  Rob is the owner of a local Pet Stop franchise and his wife Stephanie, in addition to being the mother of two awesome kids, is the Operations Manager of the Emerson’s Acre gardening project.

Rob had experience with his Pet Stop product and using it to contain livestock other than just dogs.  In fact the product has been effectively used to pen cats, horses, deer and goats!  A plan began to form.

Rob and I decided to trade a Pet Stop invisible fence, collars and installation for my training services for himself, Stephanie and their 12 year old daughter.

In very short time Rob had his crew come out and install the invisible fence around the entire perimeter of my property.  In the front yard the wires were placed under ground and in the back they were attached to the existing fence structures.  Rob’s guys do a great job and everything looked tight and right.  Rob then came out and trained both of my dogs and go them used to their new “freedom.”

One of the great ironies of life is that Rob is a dog person.  You can tell right away by the way he interacts with dogs.  He’s well suited to his business and it is clear that he understands dog psychology quite well.  What’s so ironic is that once the training process is complete most dogs won’t have anything to do with him.

I know that sounds terrible.  You’re probably thinking, “Good God, what a terrible product.  How inhumane!”

I’ve seen the training process first hand and felt the product at work.  Rob understands dogs.  His training process is gradual and quite gentle.  It just so happens that when the dogs get their first taste of the “Hey, don’t cross this line” shock it’s Rob who is by their side and they forever associate him with that feeling.  Personally, I find that a favor.  I’d much rather my dog fear Rob as the possessor of crazy, electric, mind powers than me.  Otherwise it gets in the way of cuddle time.  I want my dog to respect me, not fear me.

By the end of August, the fence was in place and both dogs had been trained.  Now it was time to get the goats.

I mentioned my grandfather before.  I will mention him many times again.  You can expect many future posts about him.  He’s 92 and still hale, if not as hearty as he once was.  He’s also a vast repository of farming knowledge.  While he doesn’t farm as much as he once did ,he still maintains, with the help of my uncle and my cousin’s husband, Gary, a 300 acre farm with cows, chickens, several fields for hay and sharecropping and important to this article, goats.

Since the Great Depression Grandpa has been in the “goat business.”  When he started out he would buy a goat for a dollar, butcher it into quarters and sell the quarters for 50 cents apiece.  In a matter of a few hours he could make a good day’s wages and he could easily do this two or three times a day.

Today he still keeps a herd of twenty to thirty goats.  Their meat now sells for a lot more than $2.00 a head.

Since my Dad died I have made an extra effort to get back up to Tennessee more often.  It’s only a four hour drive and despite my busy schedule I have promised myself to visit at least four times a year.  Our last visit was for a reunion over the Labor Day weekend.

A week before leaving Birmingham I called my grandfather and told him and my uncle of my wish to purchase a few goats.  Grandpa has little patience for the phone and so I did most of my negotiating through my uncle.

“Tell Grandpa to work me up a good price,” I said.

“Oh, I can pretty much tell you what it’ll be,” my uncle Kenny replied.

Grandpa wouldn’t charge me a penny.  I’m family and to charge family is just not how he does things.

That being said, my grandfather is no one’s fool.  When I got to Tennessee he had hand picked the goats he was going to give me.

The first was a white, mid sized female, my daughters named Honey.  Honey only has three legs.  According to my uncle she had gotten her leg caught in the baling twine surrounding a hay bale put out for feed.  Kenny only gets out to the farm on weekends and so Honey was trapped for several days.  Over that time she broke her right rear leg trying to free it from the twine.

Kenny freed her as soon as he could and she hobbled around with a dangling leg for several days.  Eventually it just fell off.  Luckily for Honey she healed well and adjusted to life on three legs.

The second goat was a sweet, tan and white female the girls dubbed Sophie.  Both Kenny and Gary told me she was sick and probably wouldn’t survive the ride home.  Great.

Grandpa’s magnanimity would only go so far.  Sure, he’d give me goats but he sure wasn’t going to just give away the best of his herd.  Luckily for me Kenny and Gary convinced me to take an extra one for insurance.

Our “insurance” was another female, black and brown with a white “lighting bolt” on her forehead.  My oldest, Madeline, named her Harriet.

The reunion was a success.  Most of the local McLaran’s came out.  My grandmother’s birthday was right around the same time and everyone came to wish her “Happy Birthday.”  Gary, my cousin Jason and I barbecued a goat for the gathering on Sunday.  It was awesome.  The meat was clean, grass fed and would have brought a premium price at our local Whole Foods.  Here it was just the natural consequence of life on the farm.

Monday I met my uncle at the farm and we set to loading up our three de-foresters.  Kenny had already sequestered the goats in the barn and we set to modifying my three by five box trailer to get them home.  Using a half sheet of ply wood, a small length of wire fencing and uninsulated aluminum wire (the duct tape of the farm) we rigged a roof for the trailer.

With the goats in the barn they were relatively easy to catch and transfer to the trailer.  That Monday was a soggy one and we worked in a near constant drizzle.

Once loaded up we trucked on out and headed home.  It rained the whole way and once in Birmingham    I opted to push the trailer into the garage and leave the goats in the trailer.  The garage quickly took on the warm hay and manure smell of livestock.  Emerson’s Acre suddenly felt like a real farm.

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Filed under goats, grass fed meat, sustainability, urban farming