Happy New Year! New Year's may be my favorite holiday. More than just an excuse to party late into the night, New Year's is a time to reflect back on the previous year's accomplishments and highlights, but also an opportunity--literally "an open door"--to make plans for the future, starting with the year ahead. Many people I've met don't place much stock in New Year's resolutions, seeing it as just another arbitrary date, with no special significance other than marking off the passage of another year. I disagree.

It's probably no coincidence that New Year's occurs so close to Christmas, which is really a Christian cultural palimpsest of earlier pagan solstice rituals. The Winter Solstice, which usually occurs on or around the 20th of December marks the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere and also the official start of winter. This time of year had significance to the pre-Christian societies of northern Europe but also to the Romans, who named the month January after Janus, the god of doorways and new beginnings, change and time. The English word opportunity has Latin roots relating to the idea of an "open door."

Janus is always depicted as having two faces: one looking forward into the future and the other backward into the past. This imagery is fitting, as we look back on the year gone by and consider the change we'd like to see in the year ahead. 

Twenty-fifteen saw many changes here at the reLuxe Ranch: on the farm in general and in Tasha's and my life. We've tried to post in this blog the major events and changes that have occurred throughout the year, but sometimes we were just too busy to write it up. And we've both done a lot of writing this year. In the past year, we were both published--outside this blog anyway--for the first time.

Tasha became involved with writing for The Grow Network, a group affiliated with Marjory Wildcraft. She's enjoyed sharing the practical experience she has gained here on the farm with others, through her writing on the site, and she's received overwhelmingly positive feedback, judging from the reader comments posted with her articles. She looks forward to continuing writing for them in 2016. Tasha has also been able to draw on her experience with the local Master Gardener program which she became involved in during 2015.

An essay I submitted to The Dark Mountain Project was accepted and published this year, in their theme issue on technology, TechnĂȘ (Dark Mountain Volume 8). Being published in the same pages with the likes of Bill McKibben and David Graeber was an amazing experience, but more than that was the satisfaction of contributing to a community of like-minded writers and getting some of my own ideas out to a broader forum. In the month or so since my contributor's copy came in the mail, I only just finished reading the issue cover to cover a few days ago. I've been completely blown away by the breadth and depth of thought, the variety of perspective and experience, presented in each and every piece of the collection. I'm humbled and proud to have been a part of it.

Apart from the opportunity for professional growth as writers that Tasha and I encountered in 2015, we each had many opportunities to improve our own skills at farming and homesteading while connecting with others in our community. Tasha upped her game considerably by going through the NC State Agricultural Extension Master Gardener program. In addition to being able to meet with and learn from other local farmers, growers, and gardeners, and to apply that knowledge directly to our farm, she got involved in contributing back to the local community. In the process, she met some pretty amazing  people like Ken and Sharon, who truly are master orchardists and gardeners.

I developed my building and carpentry skills considerably this year, and even did a little welding, starting with the three top-bar bee hives I built in winter and moving on to building a pig shelter, a wood fired earthen pizza oven, a 12-foot long behemoth of an outdoor dining table (and benches for it), a smokehouse (with plenty of help from my brother Jason), a set of Adirondack chairs and a table, and several other smaller projects. In enclosing the goat/pig pasture and the expanded vegetable garden, Tasha and I poured tons of concrete, set dozens of wood posts and ran hundreds of feet of fence, all before the growing season even started last year.

In expanding our vegetable garden by about 300% from 2014, Tasha moved tons and tons of manure, compost and mulch on her own onto rows of raised beds in the garden, in a successful bid to kickstart the rapid formation of topsoil. She divided each row of raised beds into numbered and lettered cells in order to better plan and track our vegetable production. Her tremendous amounts of work and effort paid off this year, with bumper harvests of salad greens, sweet potatoes, squashes, tomatoes, watermelons and many other vegetables. Even as I write this, we're still harvesting root vegetables and some salad greens from the garden, and we have canned vegetables and sauces to last us well into 2016.

The past year also marked our entry into the world of raising and slaughtering animals for meat. This was a proposition we'd thought long and hard about, but which we've ultimately come to embrace. We raised 15 Peking ducks starting in the middle of the summer and slaughtered them in early October. It was my first experience slaughtering an animal and one I was initially very apprehensive about. But with the help of our more experienced neighbors Donnie and Anita, we were able to quickly, respectfully, and humanely slaughter and process 12 ducks in the space of a day.

About a month and a half later, we repeated the process on a much larger scale and with much more help from our friends, family and neighbors with our four pigs. Over the course of three days that culminated with a pig roast, we learned a lot and managed to get it done. In the end, we processed ~780 pounds of pork. An exceptional amount of preparation, organization and work went into our pig slaughter, and we were thrilled with the outcome.

Another novelty of 2015 included the first in a series of goat births. In March both Phoebe and Fancy, our original does, gave birth to litters of several kids each. We were a little disappointed this first time, that out of five kids, only one was a doe. But we sold most of the males as pets and kept La Bandida, our single doe. In October and November, Phoebe and Fancy gave birth again, this time to an even number of males and females, six in all. This brings our milking herd up to six, and we plan on keeping Moose, a buck, along with Popeye, our original breeding buck. 

Another project, one I started in 2014, has started to come to fruition in the last couple months. The 50 or so shiitake logs I began inoculating with plug spawn have started to produce delicious mushrooms. After several failed attempts in Maryland, and with spawn that was slow to take off from the 2014 logs, I was pleasantly surprised to find the upside of the El Nino rains of recent months to be a series of unexpected shiitake fruitings.

And going all the way back to the start of 2015, Tasha had a dumpster brought to our property and single handedly cleaned up the trash that had been dumped in piles around various parts of the property by its former occupants. She filled an entire full-length dumpster over the course of a couple weeks last winter while I worked my day job.

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With all of this behind us to build on, 2016 looks to be a year of continuing advancement and refinement. With a lot of the one-time heavy duty infrastructure projects completed--like expanding the garden, fencing the garden and pasture, building out our outdoor living spaces--we can turn our attention to the more subtle tasks of starting fodder projects to offset the cost of feeding the animals, pruning and maintaining our perennials, and creating amazing cheeses and yogurts from goat milk and charcuterie and other meat products from the ducks and pigs. With all of this work starting to pay off, we're anticipating having a substantial surplus of vegetables in 2016 and trying to get the business end of our endeavor going.

Tasha has begun working to implement a business plan that has been evolving since we first started tossing around the idea of homesteading years ago. Not wanting to go the CSA (community supported agriculture) route, we are more comfortable with the idea of selling locally at the various farmers' markets and directly from the farm. Tasha wants to offer a CSA-style mixed basket of agricultural products every week, but without the upfront financial commitment of a subscriber base. Moreover, she wants to offer a more exotic selection of choice herbs and vegetables, hand selected and beautifully presented, a la French market style, along with more advanced and adventurous recipes, beyond the typical CSA practice of just passing out heads of kale, for example. Hence her concept of the Culinary Adventure Bag (CAB).

Tasha has also hit on the idea of hosting day-long duck slaughter and processing classes. Provided you have a pond, Peking ducks are as easy to raise as chickens and quickly produce wonderful, delicious, high-quality meat and fat that is worlds apart from the bland and less substantial meat of the chicken. There seems to be relatively little awareness of working with duck in our community, although people are open minded and tastes are evolving. With these projects and a couple more in the offing, we hope to explore the possibilities of creating some farm-based income while spreading awareness of sustainable food and agricultural practices, and an awareness of permaculture and whole-systems design implementation. 

Throughout the course of 2014 and 2015, Tasha and I both planted many trees, fruit bushes, and perennial vegetable and fruit plants, in between our more defined major projects. In July of 2015 over the course of a weekend, I built a row of five endpost trellises for our vineyard. We will begin wire training the vines over the winter and expect 2016 to bring our first harvest and vintage. Many other perennial systems we've been working on since our arrival in March 2014 should begin to produce this year. 

We got a little asparagus last year, but this year we should get a full production from the original bed of 24 plants along with a smaller contribution from the add-on bed I planted in 2015. Likewise, many of the fruit trees and berry bushes we planted in previous years should begin to produce in earnest this year. I'm particularly excited about the strawberries to which Tasha devoted several rows in the annual garden. Also in 2015 we built three hugelkulturs in various places on the property. Now that some of the woody material comprising them has begun to break down, no doubt accelerated by the heavy and frequent rains, we're eager to begin trialing them with a variety of vegetables and berries.

Over the winter, one of my projects is to build a new website in support of this endeavor, on which we can post photos, produce updates, recipes, logistical information, and hopefully conduct some business. I'm also planning on updating this site, which from the get-go was limited by my free hosting arrangement in terms of what code and design themes I could implement and how many photos I could upload. Now that I pay for hosting, I have a free hand to do whatever. My focus for this project has always been as a forum for writing, not as a showcase of good web design principles and practices. Anyway, since that's what I do professionally, I've always felt a little bit like the cobbler whose children go barefoot. I hope to overhaul this site with a new, mobile-responsive design theme and add more visual and multimedia assets where appropriate over the next year.

Of course, the original intent of this blog was as an outlet for Tasha's and my writings. With the recent good fortune we both had to be published in other venues, I'd like to re-commit myself to a disciplined practice of writing, beginning with more frequent and varied posts in this space even as we look to reach a broader audience through other vehicles and projects.

In trying to wrap up what was originally intended to be a brief recap and look to the future, I'm realizing anew how much we actually did accomplish in 2015. We couldn't have done most of it without the support of our friends, family and neighbors, and we want to extend our gratitude and appreciation for how lucky we both feel to be part of such an excellent and supportive community. Another major event of 2015 was the arrival of my parents, Tim and Sue, to the area. After a months-long search, they fell in love with a house in nearby Mount Airy and are now part of our wonderful community. Both Tasha and I are looking forward to spending more time with them in 2016.

Now it's time to get to work on the buck pen we've been trying to build for the past couple weeks. Hopefully, I'll also get started on a bouldering wall this weekend, so I can get back into shape for rock climbing this year, another driving passion of mine that brought us to this area that's taken a backseat to our development projects here.

Tasha and I extend to all our best wishes for a happy, healthy and wonderful new year, and may it bring you a world of opportunities.