Our Fair Field


Renee headshotA big tornado hit my old hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa, the other day. There I was making dinner here in California and Marty was watching the national evening news. Next thing I know Marty says, "Come here. You probably want to see this." And there it was.

A video of the steeple on the courthouse of my old hometown being ripped from its moorings and toppling to the ground! I was in shock. Later on we heard how the F4 tornado had made its way down Main Street and messed with just about every building there. We were amazed to hear that no one was seriously injured.

Photo credit: Fox 4 News KDFW

That got me thinking about my own upbringing in Iowa. My mom had a lot of knowledge about what to do in a tornado, or so it seemed. I was wondering if any of it was really sensible. At the time I was just a kid and I believed her.

Here are things she told us:

  • The TV will glow when a tornado is approaching. — I have not been able to find any information that the change in atmospheric conditions caused by a tornado has any effect whatsoever on a television set from the 50s. If you know of anything I would greatly appreciate your input.
  • Open the windows on the side of the house away from where the storm is coming from because this will help equalize the pressure when the tornado passes by. — Opening windows during a tornado provides no benefits. Though the center of the vortex has less pressure in it the wind will destroy your home way before the lesser pressure reaches it. Opening them only creates a portal through which more debris can enter your home.
  • Go to the southwest corner of the basement for safety because tornadoes always come from the southwest and the debris from the house will blow away from you. — I didn't know tornadoes were so rule driven! Marshalltown's tornado came from the west and went in a easterly direction. So there you go.
  • Brick houses are not safe because the walls always collapse inwards. — Brick walls actually help against blowing debris. The tornado itself usually sucks the roof off first. If the tornado is an F4 or F5, then brick walls will not stand up to that force of nature but it's anybody's guess which way the walls will collapse.
  • Wood frame houses are safest because they blow away from you. — A tornado turns a wood-frame house into a gigantic, wind-driven pry bar. As soon as some of the house gets blown away and there's a hole in the structure, the wind enters and dismantles the home like a bomb. Pronto. Think about what worked for the Three Little Pigs.
  • Towns built at the confluence of two rivers will never be hit by a tornado. Indians always made their camps near a confluence. — Marshalltown is built at the confluence of the Iowa River and Linn Creek. Now we know how well that worked!
  • Lying down in a ditch or depression will save you. — There's a partial truth here. The lower you can be, the safer you are from the tornado's powerful wind, not only because wind speed increases with altitude, but also because you are less likely to be picked up by the wind. Some experts also claim that tornadoes tend not to follow topography precisely, so they may pass over a ditch rather than dipping into it.
  • It's safe to hide under a highway over pass. — People have tried to take shelter and been killed in overpasses. The wind forced through a small, rigid opening like that can actually increase the wind speed and likely tear you right out of there, which has happened. Maybe you can survive a dust devil but not a mature tornado!
  • If the clouds look green a tornado is coming. — Green is significant, but not proof that a tornado is on the way. A green cloud will only occur if the cloud is very deep, which generally only occurs in thunderstorm clouds. Those are the kind of storms that may produce hail and tornadoes. Green indicates that the cloud is extremely tall, and since thunderclouds are the tallest clouds, green is a warning sign that large hail or a tornado may be present.

What really works:

  • Having a home that is constructed out of insulated concrete. — In 2014 my sister and I had a road trip trough Kansas. We had a blast and one of the high points was visiting Greensburg, Kansas, which is home of the largest hand dug well. Greensburg is also famous for being almost completely destroyed by an F5 tornado in 2007. The only buildings left relatively unscathed were the grain elevator and the courthouse. When we visited the museum we were told that people are now encouraged to build homes that have similar construction to the grain elevator.
  • Having a safe room. — A safe room can be as simple as a cleaned out closet (so you can all fit in) or a specially built room just for the purpose. I remember the storm cellars of the old days. Who can forget Dorothy as she desperately tried to get the storm cellar door open as the terrifying tornado approached her family's farm in The Wizard of Oz.
  • If you're driving stay in your car. — If you can ascertain which direction the tornado is moving you can outrun it by driving away. If for some reason you can't and you can't get into a safe building, stay in your car, lock the doors, put on your seat belt and keep low. If you have anything to wrap around your face do that so if glass breaks you won't be as hurt. Also don't turn off the engine. The air bags can hopefully deploy if you're hit.

In conclusion, I'm glad the whole time I was growing up in Marshalltown we never had a direct hit. I may not be here to tell the story if we had been. Mom didn't know what she was talking about!

Old Fashioned Seed Saving

Renee headshotHave you ever thought of saving seed from your vegetables or flowers only to get stymied because it seems like a lot of trouble for possible failed returns? I'm here to assure you it isn't as hard as you might think and it's also not as risky. You might read about seed saving from the experts, if you wish, but don't let them intimidate you. They throw around big words like "open pollinated" and things like that, but let me tell you great grandma did not have this science. She just knew that she would let certain plants go to seed and then she'd take them. It wasn't a big deal. I was curious as to when commercially packaged seeds became available. They're ubiquitous now. Almost no one saves their own seed but not too long ago that's all everyone did.

According to Wikipedia, the Watervliet Shakers near Albany, New York are thought to have been the first to package seeds in small, paper envelopes and then sell the seed commercially in 1811. I think it would be very cool if everyone started saving seed again. There's only a few things you really need to know.

This year I am saving seeds from sunflowers, spinach, tomatoes and cilantro. I might also try zucchini and zinnias. These all have "big" seeds that are easy to find. Just for fun I'm also going to go along the road sides and take seeds from the wild sunflowers I find. I want to seed the ditch in front of our house for a nice crop of wild sunflowers next year.

If you grow a garden from store bought seed make sure you get varieties that say "perennial." Here are some of the sunflowers I am growing this year that I'm going to let dry out and get seeds from. I like the idea of sunflowers. The seeds are really big and are almost fool proof.

Look at these beauties!

seed head
A dried up sunflower ready to have seeds removed.

sunflower seeds
This is a lot of almost free seed!

For anything where I plan to save back seed I grow extra so I could have some to eat, use for cut flowers and some to let go to seed. I also leave some for the birds. They have to eat, too!

And speaking of birds that's one way to tell if seeds are getting mature. Watch to see when the birds are coming to eat. If I've grown a lot there's plenty for both them and me so I don't worry to much. I wait until the flowers die back and get brown and crunchy. I keep looking at them as they wither to see when I'm getting some seed. This is when the flower is pretty dry (see above).

For crops that produce "wet" vegetables, the seeds are usually not mature when the vegetables are ready to eat. We eat eggplant, cucumber, and zucchini when the fruits are immature and tasty, but before the seeds are actually mature. This means that I need to leave a few vegetables to fully mature to save the seeds. You'll see a vegetable that is getting very soft and even decaying. The harvested vegetables are either crushed or cut open, and the seeds are extracted from the flesh and then the seeds are dried. I'm going to do this with my tomatoes this year. Last year I let some tomatoes stay on the vine and this year a got a few plants just growing like "wild" all by themselves. I have had this happen numerous times.

Certain vegetables, like lettuce or beans, can be harvested once seeds are dry and hard. Cilantro is an herb I grow a lot to use in tacos, sauces and marinades. What I love about cilantro is that not only can I use it fresh but I can crush the seeds and make coriander which is an Indian spice.

spinach seeds
Here are my spinach seeds. Pretty big, huh?

Little round seeds of the cilantro are not quite ready. Let them get a little brown and dried out.

Lettuce is also not ready. Wait until the flowers die back and dry.

Store your seeds in a cool, dark, and dry place. When you get really good at this you can think about selling the seeds as a boutique home based business! But that's another story!

No need to buy sunflower seeds next year!

Bitter Tomatoes, Tiny Onions and Weird Zucchini

Renee headshotTry as I might, and in spite of reading everything I can get my hands on, I always have failures in my garden. Some days I think to myself that I am not very good at this.

So for all you people who are agonizing over why your garden doesn't look like Martha's, or even your next door neighbor's, please take heart. Failure is a part of gardening and it's actually more often than not and especially when you're just starting out. Don't give up!

Good morning, sunshine! The Earth says hello!

This year I have a small garden. We are spending so much time rehabbing this property that I don't really have time for a big garden. It's OK. I do more and more as time goes on.

This year I got well ahead of the heat and I amended the soil a lot. I took soil samples last fall and spread gypsum before winter set in so in the spring I could till the soil a little better. We have hard pan, also known as sandy clay with a bit of loam. There's almost no organic matter.

Having done all that, I planted peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, potatoes, and garlic. My first failure was the garlic. I put in about 50 sets and they started to grow, and then one by one they all croaked. Just rotted away. I never did figure out why.

Last year I planted Walla Walla onions. I really love sweet onions. When we lived at The Ranch, the local Hmong people had the most wonderful giant Walla Walla onions so I got inspired to try them. Mine never got to any decent size, so I asked a friend what she thought was wrong and she said maybe they didn't get enough water.

Only a few are left once I harvest all the tiny ones.

So this year I started out much earlier and made sure I watered before things got too dry. Sure enough the telltale signs started to appear. The tops started to fall over. Not all of them this time, about half of them. So I staked up the floppy ones and let them keep going as long as they would.

Pretty soon some of the onions started to get tops on them and produce seed. Today I noticed all the onions, except for the large ones with seed, are finished. "Pau," as they say in Hawaii. So I harvested them and got a lot of small onions. Not a total disaster, but definitely not what I expected.

early girl
These look good but they taste bitter.

My tomatoes looked good, but when I took off a few ripe ones and used them in a salad they were awfully bitter. Not sweet at all. Very acidic. I have no idea why.

At least I have no blossom end rot. I had that in spades at The Ranch because our soil and water were very alkaline. The plants were not getting enough calcium. See? I now know about lack of calcium for tomato plants.

If I hadn't split one open I might have thought these were baby watermelon.

Here's a picture of this year's zucchini. Last year I planted zucchini and they grew very well. This year something is happening and, again, I have no idea why.

At first I thought they put watermelon seeds in the zucchini package. They were round as softballs. When one got pretty big, I decided to see what was inside. When I opened it, by golly it was a zucchini all right, but a very mature zucchini.

How could this be? Is this how this variety is supposed to be? Again, I have no clue.

Gardening is a science, but also an art. The more you know, the more you realize you don't know. I've talked to Master Gardeners all over who say the same thing. It's a boots on the ground and a loving of the process and less about the end result.

Of course, it's great to have a bountiful harvest. Some of us try to feed our families from the garden, so sometimes it's more than just a fun project. It's about quality of life and good nutrition.

All I can say in summary is to soldier on and you will get better at it. That's my plan.

And just so you know that it's not all doom and gloom, here are some pictures of a few of my successes.

I'm pretty sure you can't kill mint.

If you remember to thin the carrots they'll do all right.

Potatoes galore!

Photos property of Renee Benoit.

I Love Lombardy Poplar Trees

Renee headshotWhen we bought this place we loved that it had a lot of mature trees. Trees give beauty and shade, fruit and firewood.

Shel Silverstein wrote a great book years ago called "The Giving Tree," and it's true. Trees give a lot.

In our back yard we have a gigantic fruitless mulberry tree that makes the whole back yard a more pleasant place to be when it's hot. Without it the yard would be intolerable when it's over 100 degrees.

Photo property of Renee-Lucie Benoit.

Our southern facing front yard has a large Deodar Cedar but it's off to one side and does not cover the whole area in shade, so in the front yard we planted a Raywood ash that does well in the extreme heat we have here in summer. These existing trees are all planted appropriately which means not close to the house and in such a way that when they mature they will give shade and a natural air conditioning effect.

Photo property of Renee-Lucie Benoit.

The rest of the property also needed a few trees here and there especially on our lane and to replace dead tees we had to take out on the perimeter fence. I did some research.

I wanted trees that grew fast and that were tall and thin for our borders so as not to take up open space! What I found surprised me.

The poplar tree, also known as the Lombardy poplar, grows almost 6 feet a year in the right conditions and this was a tree that I remembered with fondness from my childhood. My grandmother had some in her yard. As a wind break and privacy screen they excel.

lombardy poplar
When a person needs trees in a hurry... hooray for the poplar trees. Photo by Getty Images/xeipe.

I love how they sway in the wind and that the leaves "quake" like their cousins the aspen and cotton wood trees. It's like they're waving at you. Little flags in the breeze.

On the Great Plains growing up we had a huge cotton wood tree on our back property. I love the aspens you see in the mountains.

I looked around and could not find any poplar trees in any nursery. Apparently they are not very "poplar" now (sorry). They have a reputation for short lives (15 years) and for being disease-prone.

I did not give up but now I did not want to spend a lot of money for a short-lived tree that might die on me. I looked online and I found some there but those were too expensive.

Then we visited some friends who lived in the foothills near here. Lo and behold, they had some full grown poplar trees on their property. Could I have a branch or two I said? I know they can be propagated easily. Yes, they said. Have as many as you like.

So I chopped off some branches about a foot long and took them home and put them in water. I kept them in water for a few weeks and then roots started to form. After I got a good amount of roots I planted them in pots with good soil. I kept them from completely drying out all winter and, of course, they lost all their leaves.

In the spring I was happy to see that they over-wintered just fine and were now sprouting new leaves. When the weather was past frost, we dug holes and layered it with natural soil and soil conditioner (we have heavy clay soil here) and then I watered every other day.

Photo property of Renee-Lucie Benoit.

This growth is just after a few weeks. Here's one and it's 3 feet tall already. I predict by fall we're going to have a 6 foot tall tree or maybe even taller!

Next year they will take off and we'll have pretty good size trees. Free. You can do it, too.

Rehabbing Your Farm: Part 2

Renee headshot"The Goat Farm" in Tracy

We've been on three places in the last 10 years. How did this happen you might ask? Well, it's just the way it turned out.

First, we rented an acreage in Tracy, California. Then we worked as managers on a 1,000 acre cattle ranch in a remote part of Northern California. Finally, we bought our own acreage in the Central Valley of California.

Let's go back to the beginning. Let me tell you about Tracy. When we came to Tracy we had looked around for a place to rent for quite a while. The day we saw it we knew it was what we wanted. Luckily, we were able to prevail with the landlord and sign the lease that very day.

It was known by the locals as "The Goat Farm." This wasn't just a backyard with goats. There had been hundreds of goats that had lived there. We never did find out what they did with all those goats but the most likely thing was they were raised for meat.

In any case, the effects of having so many goats was immediately apparent. The place was overrun by gigantic, lush weeds because of all that great fertilizer. In the middle of one large field we found the remnants of the goat shelters. There was also a big pile of concrete in the second large enclosure that was used by the goats as a "mountain." Goats like to climb.

The hay barn is on the right next to the blue grain storage.

The old wood hay barn was missing so much roof tin that there may as well have not been any roof at all. Inside there was a bunch of old rusted equipment, discarded bagged feed and moldy hay. Near the barn we uncovered one giant concrete water trough that was full to the top with baling twine.

Someone had un-baled the hay and just threw the old twine into the trough. "There! Good enough for government work!" In between the barns and the pens someone had laid concrete but it was cracked and buckling everywhere.

A large storage shed also missed half of its roof. We guessed it had seen better days has a milking shed or something to that effect. It had been a pretty nice shed back in the day, but now the floor was half-covered with bird poop.

Starlings had used the holes in the walls to build nests. When you went in there you heard a chorus of peeping from the baby birds. Black widow spiders lurked in every corner.

The horse stalls were in the best shape of all the out buildings but there were no runs. It was just three stalls in the middle of decrepit concrete driveways. The run fencing was long gone. But all we needed was a water delivery system and removal of all the spider webs and those structures would work.

The previous renters had kept chickens which they just gave us when we moved in. There were 12 hens and a large rooster. One of the hens had bumble foot. One had only one foot and all of them were scrawny and infested with lice.

They were living in squalor, poor things. The pen was a literal pig sty. The floor was muddy and the roosts were covered with poop. Just to make everything complete the roof also leaked.

chicken coop
Diatomaceous earth and straw on the right waiting for coop rehab efforts.

That was the state of the out buildings.

Our house was in pretty good shape. The roof didn't leak and the heat and air conditioning was functioning but there were no screens on the windows. Another problem was the walls were covered with dirt to about 3 feet high from the large dogs who lived inside with their owners. Mice droppings were everywhere.

Cute little ordinary house. Works for me!

It was hard to figure out what to do first. But on a farm or ranch animals come first. Obviously, the chickens needed help right away.

We covered the roof in tarp until we could build a permanent solution. We cleaned out all the poop and spread a thick layer of straw over the mud.

On top of that we spread diatomaceous earth to start the process of getting rid of the vermin. Then we gave them a real watering solution as well as feed. I started giving them a bit of hamburger every day for protein and a little scratch for weight gain as well as their regular lay pellets.

The chickens went crazy with joy. It really made my heart sing to see them so happy. Because I spoiled them so badly, eventually I could let them free range and when I called them, "Here, chick, chick, chick!" they would come running from all over the yard. They loved me and I loved them back. The little one-footed hen was my best layer.


Then we had to mow to find enough space to keep our horses. The horse pasture was in not too bad of shape and it had the added advantage of being able to be irrigated. It turned out that we had the privilege of using the irrigation water from the alfalfa field across the way. So we let the horses out there and rented a large industrial size mower for the rest and set about taking the weeds down.

The old goat enclosure was big. We decided to turn it into a riding arena. The second goat enclosure was also gigantic. This was the field that had the concrete goat jungle gym.

When we started mowing we found that there were the shelters in the weeds. We got the weeds taken down and were getting ready to disk when we discovered that there was a lot of metal in the form of rotten fencing materials and nails of every shape and size.

Marty had a metal detector so he swept while I picked. I wish I had a picture of all the metal we got out of that field. (P.S. the metal detector has turned out to be a really good investment. We have used it everywhere we've gone.)

We bought hog fencing and built an enclosure for the dogs. Our dogs are outside dogs and only come in when the weather is super bad.

charlie cat
Charlie Cat on his perch.

At night after the animals were taken care of we started in on the house. First sweeping and then vacuuming to get rid of dog hair and dander. Then scrubbing the walls to get rid of the dirt.

Every morning we would wake up to mouse droppings all over the counters. That precipitated "The Look." Every husband knows "The Look." He knows he is in for it. The little woman has plans and he can't wait to hear what they are.

In this instance the word is: "Exclusion!" A person can trap or poison rodents until the cows come home but mice have a tendency to reproduce like crazy so that method is a never ending battle. Even legions of cats can't keep up! The only way to keep rodents out of the house permanently is to exclude them.

I tried steel wool stuffed in under cabinets but only went so far and then you have to go to the lumber yard and buy enough hardware cloth to go around the exterior of the house at foundation level. Expandable foam fills in what holes that is not easily covered with the metal mesh. Remember mice can get in holes the size of a dime or smaller.

Anyway, with this technique voila! No more mice! Oh, happy day!

The next project was then to — little by little — add window screens to all the windows. Did I tell you there's nothing better than curtains blowing in the breeze? You can have that without window screens but then — in farm land — you also have house flies taking over. I give a big thumbs up to Marty who put in all the screens while I was commuting to my job in the Big City.

Other things we did: Finish off the tack barn. Start a straw bale garden to thwart the gophers. Re-roof the hay barn so we could store our hay in there. Add pipe corrals to the horse stalls so the horses could be there when sick or the weather was too bad.

This place turned out pretty nice. With all the fixes it really looked like home.

The view from my kitchen window in the morning.

Photos property of Renee-Lucie Benoit.

Easy to Make Goat Cheese

Renee headshotGoat cheese, also known as "chevre," is a really easy cheese to make. The only cheese that is easier, in my opinion, is paneer cheese. To make paneer cheese all you do is add lemon to cow's milk for it to curdle and then you squish out the whey. You can use it right away. I make Sag Paneer, which is an Indian spinach and cheese dish.

I live in an area where there are a lot of back yard goats. I didn't want to keep any goats of my own because we're too busy fixing this place up as you already know! So when I made friends with a neighbor who keeps goats and she offered me fresh milk I jumped at the chance.

Here's how I make it. This recipe makes about a pound of cheese.


  • Large stainless steel pot, heavy bottom is good, with lid or something to completely cover it.
  • Butter muslin or fine cheesecloth or a clean single layer of a clean pillowcase.
  • Large spoon for stirring, measuring cups and spoons, colander. (All stainless steel: these can be boiled to make sterile).
  • Cheese thermometer (I got mine from New England Cheese makers).
  • Optional: Chevre molds (I've never used them because they are a little expensive, but if you want little cylinder shapes they are great).

goat cheese ingredients
I made this at night so my photos are a little dark.


  • 2 quarts goat milk (can be pasteurized store bought. If you buy fresh milk make sure it is from a person who keeps everything REALLY clean).
  • 1/8 tsp MM100 (mesophilic) culture (Look online for this unless you know of a handy place. There's New England Cheese makers, for example. I get my culture at Mountain Garden Supply in Ben Lomond, CA).
  • 1/4 cup cool water.
  • 1 or 2 drops rennet (can be vegetarian or non-vegetarian type. Non-vegetarian is made from the lining of the 4th stomach of a new born calf. Some people object to that. Vegetarian is made from fermented soybeans).
  • Salt to taste.
  • Fresh or dried herbs to taste.


  1. It's best to pasteurize this milk at a low temperature because it's going to sit on the counter for a few hours to culture. I do this so I don't worry about it going bad. Also doing this makes the cheese last longer in storage. Up to two weeks in the fridge. If you decide not to heat it make sure you keep everything clean. That's why I suggest all stainless steel equipment so it can be sterilized.
  2. heating up goat cheese

  3. Pour milk into pot and using your thermometer heat it to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. I am not so lucky as to have a gas stove, but if I keep a real close eye on the thermometer and when the electric coils start to get hot and the temperature is approaching 145 degrees I turn it down. Keep it at 145 degrees (5 degrees more or less) for 30 minutes.
  4. Cool milk to 80 degrees. To speed up the cooling process you can put the pot in cool water or even an ice bath.
  5. If a "skin" formed on the milk while it was heating just stir it in and then sprinkle the MM100 culture over the top of the milk. Let it re-hydrate for two minutes. Stir it in gently.
  6. Drop 1-2 drops of rennet in the 1/4 cup of cool water. Remove 2 tablespoons of the water and mix it into the cheese. Discard what remains of the water.
  7. Cover the pot and let it sit at room temperature for 8-12 hours. I make my cheese in the early evening. It cultures while I sleep. The longer it sits the drier it will eventually be.
  8. In the morning a soft curd will have formed if everything goes right. Like thin yogurt. There will also be clear whey on top. It will smell like tangy yogurt. Yum!
  9. goat cheese curds

  10. Drape the butter muslin over the colander which is set in a large bowl. Carefully decant the curdled milk into the center of the colander. The whey will drain into the bowl for other uses. Another trick is to gather up the bag by the corners and tie them. Then hang the bag from your cabinet doors over the catchment. Let a good deal of whey drain out and then lift up the corners of the muslin and tie around a stick which you can suspend between cabinet handles.
  11. If you've decided to use chevre molds carefully ladle the curds into each mold that are set over something to catch the whey.
  12. goat cheese draining

  13. Drain cheese for another 8-12 hours. Like I said before the longer you let it drain the drier it will be. If it is very hot out, I put it in the fridge after six hours or so. The curd is ready when the whey stops dripping. The cheese will be the consistency of cream cheese. If you want a "harder" soft cheese let the cheese age and further drip whey out in the fridge for a day or so.
  14. drained goat cheese

  15. Blend the salt in, about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon for a pound of cheese according to your taste. Start with a little, taste it, and blend in more if it's not enough. You can't take it out! It's fine not to use salt at all. I use herbs. It's up to you what tastes good to you. The resulting cheese will keep, covered in a glass container or packed in olive oil, for about a month in the refrigerator. It also freezes really well. Bon Appétit!

Author's Note: I'm taking a break from thinking about what it's like to renovate an old ranch. My neighbors gave me some fresh goat milk so I just have to make some goat cheese!

Photos property of Renee-Lucie Benoit.

A Fixer-Upper Farm

Renee headshotI remember the first time it hit me. I was standing on the back porch after a long day's work and all of a sudden reality set in. This is never going to end.

Let me pause here and say this is not going to be a doom and gloom story. There's reality, and then there's truth. Reality is what gets you in the day to day. Truth is what keeps you going to find the rainbow at the end of the storm. I have found my rainbow and let me tell you how I did it.

In 2016 we bought an acreage where we intended to keep our horses, have a household garden from which to feed ourselves, and for simple room to breathe. Some days I think all the work we have to do will do me in. It seems like just as I get one thing fixed another thing breaks.

Most days there are many, many things broken all at once and it's hard to figure out where to start. My farmer uncle from Illinois said, "Don't buy a place of your own unless you like fixing things," and he was right.

Who can afford to buy bare land and then build from the ground up? Most of us, and that's including me, have to buy something that someone else's grubby little paws have messed with (I'm laughing I hope you know!). If you're lucky whoever they were did it the right way but I'm here to testify that most of the time they don't!

Not only that but the current owner is very likely to be the 3rd or 4th in a succession of owners and never did know, for example, where the water lines were or where the electric lines to the barn, the arena or the yard lights are. They just always worked until they didn't so when you buy the place they're still broken!

Here's an example: when we managed a cattle ranch in Northern California prior to coming here we were shocked to see that how they fixed broken electric lines. Since they had no clue where the real lines were they just strung heavy duty extension cords!

Anyway, that was the predicament we found ourselves in three years ago when we bought our 2-1/2 acres in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. Everything was in disrepair. But we knew that then and we accepted it.

We knew that the bones of the house and outbuildings were good and we got it at a fair price. Our plan was to put in a lot of sweat equity, sell it in about two years so we didn't have to pay taxes, and move up to something even better.

Two and a half years later...

I should have known. Everything that we have worked on has become more complicated than I thought or could have imagined. Nothing goes the way it is planned.

Some days we laugh. Other days we cry. We soldier on. This is our dream, after all. This is what we signed up for and we can't quit until we succeed.

So, like I said, we're currently half way through our "Two Year Renovation Plan," and it's been two and a half years. Marty keeps saying, "Next year when we finish...!" And I keep saying, "Yeah, right!"

Let's go back to the day we moved in. Just to keep it interesting, that very evening the well quit on us. Home warranty insurance took care of the majority of the cost to put in a new pump and we only had to go without water for a couple days.

Fortunately the livestock troughs had been topped off the day before the well broke and the weather was cool so the animals could make it. Good and auspicious start, don't you think?

Roofing and windows

OK, well fixed. Now what? Clearly the roof and windows had to be replaced. We had a 35 year old shake shingle roof and there was no way we were going to take a chance trying to make it through the winter. This was one thing we did not want to fix on our own.

We got a HERO loan so we could pay for it and then we got a window contractor who subcontracted to a roofer so we could get everything done at once. The windows were original single pane, metal builder grade and covered with dirty screens which made the interior of the house dark like a cavern. The hippie in me started singing, "Let the sunshine in!"

A "before" picture of the windows and roof.


So, while that was in the works, we turned our attention to our rotting infrastructure. Nearly all the fence posts and many rails were rotten and the only thing that kept them from falling apart was the no climb fencing wire.

However, we had to put our horses some place right away and could not afford to replace all the fencing at once. The first thing we did was put up hot wire inside all the horse pens to prevent the horses from pushing down the fences until we could get to a more permanent fix.

fences lake
One of the reasons why the posts were rotted is that they were inundated with water every spring.


The next thing we did was rent the T1000 version of a "terminator" lawn mower to take care of the hip high weeds. Finally things were getting under control. When we were out and about we discovered ReStore for many of our materials (thank you, President Carter).


I did a sediment test to see what soil composition I had and it was mostly clay and sand with a little bit of loam. Then I sent another soil sample to a laboratory to discover all its other qualities.

When that returned, I found I had what I thought I had all along: very little organic matter and low calcium. So I added gypsum and put down heavy mulch in the area where I planned to plant next spring.

Then it started raining and we got almost nothing done all winter. It was a 100 year deluge.

future garden
My vegetable garden starts out nicely fenced but that's about it.

Some days it's exhilarating and other days it's overwhelming, but in the end it's satisfying. I can go to bed at night and sleep like a log satisfied in the knowledge that I have accomplished something even though the progress is glacial.

We have improved our land and by extension our planet. Even a little bit of progress is progress and that's what I remind myself. I am content.

Next chapter: Some details of renovating a broke-down ranch.

Photos property of Renee-Lucie Benoit.