This is us. We are the Griebahns- Zach, Erin, Jonathan, Eleanor and Benjamin. We have a unique story that we would like to share with you, and hopefully you would like to be a part of.
We started out in the town of West Branch in our sprawling ranch home in a golf course neighborhood. Things were going great and wonderful, as any American family life could be. And then one night, all that changed. We watched a documentary called Food, Inc. that really painted a vivid picture as to how corrupt and unhealthy our food system had become. We stayed up until 4:00 am talking about what we could do or how we could change. We started planning our suburban 1/4 acre to be edible and spoke with town officials about having chickens. Nothing was really fitting in this domestic setting, so one day Zach came home from work and said, "I listed out house on Craigslist." Sixteen hours later, we had an offer.
So we started searching for land while living in small, two bedroom apartments and found what was to be our life long project- 30 acres with timber, ponds, and a chemical free history of pasture raised animals. But this is what it looked like...
So we planned and waited and planned and waited, and finally in July of 2013, Zach made the last payment for our land. Yes! Finally! Debt free and land in hand! Let the work begin.
We started searching for an RV to live in while we built our future home, and that is when Toby entered our lives. You see, Jonathan, our oldest son has a nack for naming things. It's incredible how much more efficient it is at naming things, like in the Thomas the Engine books, so you know exactly which object you are talking about. Our family includes
Percy, our F-150 pickup truck; Thomas, our first, small, blue tractor (who had to be sold to buy...); Charlie, the new and improved tractor with loader; Marie, the disc mower; Henry, the lawn mower; Gary, the grinder; Winny (Winifred), the windmill; James, the bailer; and our newest addition, Otis "Odie", the Honda Odyssey Minivan. See, one name tells you exactly who you are talking about.
So our RV home adventure began in March of 2014.
Food was anything from a camping propane burner, to candles, to outside on our cinder block rocket stove, to ordering a pizza. That spring was very, very cold...This photo was from April.
But, we were making ready to greet our two Jersey cows with calves in tow. One of the new calves died at birth, so when they did arrive in May, we welcomed Jane (Erin's mother), Brenda (Zach's mother), and Brenda's calf, Marianne (Zach's grandmother). Our bovines are named after matriarchs and patriarchs going UP the family tree. That's how we do it...leave us alone :)
So we began the grazing how Joel Salatin prescribes in his books, and yes, he is spot-on right! We got to observe the behavior of what cows look for, smell, and crave. Milking was a challenge, not being brought up on it and only watching others, yet we prevailed for several months. We moved the cows every day or every other day to lush new pasture and watched them mow everything down like a glorious, self motivated lawn mower.
Meanwhile, we broke ground on our house and began building our dream home.
Now I've gone through a lot of opinion changes in this whole journey, and dirt was one of them. I initially wanted to dig this entire whole with a shovel, and believe me I tried. We scraped the top layer of earth, more like irritated it, and then began shoveling it into wheelbarrows to move it aside. I got through half of the first layer and decided that excavators or a noble invention for efficient homes, and they are. We had the rest of the whole dug in less than a weekend with a rented excavator and skid loader.
So Erin and I went through a lot of house designs. I flew to Las Vegas with my friend Bob to learn how to build a log cabin by yourself with round logs. That was a glorious experience, and the price of the class had me motivated to make that dream a reality. I have always wanted to live in a log home with wood EVERYWHERE. However, I am an objective person even with myself, and after more research and rating the risks I decided that we do not live in a suitable climate for cabins. Don't get me wrong, cabins can work in Iowa. I did not want to risk building with an ideal wood for cabins that is not indigenous to Iowa and therefore "not in it's own element" to last. So we researched and designed underground houses, cob houses, straw bale houses, adobe houses, shipping container houses, blah blah blah. I had a realistic sketch of a house with an Aermotor windmill built in it after watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Yea, it got that weird.
So after a lot of fighting and waiting compromise and FINALLY reason, we settled on tiny houses. We took a look in our old life and saw four TV's, two living rooms, two full kitchens, and everything in between, we realized that all this space was slowly filling itself. So we started being very critical of ourselves and started what we call The Great Purge. When one realizes how much stuff they actually have, they start selling, donating, and finally purging at an addicting rate. We established a few rules while purging which made the process much easier: 1. If you haven't or won't use it in 6 months, DITCH IT. 2. Tools are always allowed AS LONG AS YOU USE THEM ANNUALLY. Canning equipment is a perfect example. It is needed every year, but used seasonally. 3. Clothing: make a list of what you NEED, ie. 10 pairs of socks, 10 t-shirts, 5 pairs of pants, etc. Make that pile of clothes and EVERYTHING ELSE GOES. If you go through things item by item, you'll never get rid of anything.
I digress....we downsized A LOT. This was our children's wardrobe before and after we moved down.
I kept reminding Erin as we went along, "Don't refuse to do something that you expect someone else to do."
Since we were going to live tiny we needed to start thinking tiny. Less clothes means less clothes to wash. Fewer dishes means fewer dishes to wash. So we began framing the footing of our house, which is the most square and plumb footing on the planet thanks to our good friend Clark.
Meanwhile, we were having our windmill put in to pump our water for livestock and our house. I'll spare the story, but we opted to pump water from our spring-fed pond to water the animals, and we are still working on the water filtration currently.
And when it finally stopped raining, then came the concrete footing (another long story), and the bricks...
And the happiness meter was at an 11....
So the block walls went up pretty quick after the orientation of the blocks was sorted out...
And then the floors and insulation....It took 5 months to get to this point...
Then in September the framing began...
It took 10 days to get to this...mind you, Erin and I built this whole thing ourselves, with the occasional weekend help from Bob.
Our home is 550 square feet on the main level, with the same in the basement. One level would constitute a "Tiny House," however looking back, thank God we did not build TINY.
So to compound this situation, fall was upon us and we wanted to make sure our RV didn't turn into a mouse motel in a feral field, I listed the RV on craigslist. This was as complete as our house was. The man who bought it came out, looked at it, and said, "Yea, I'll take it." So we looked at eachother and said, "Ok, go to town for lunch, we'll be out in an hour." So with all of our clothes and possessions being thrown into garbage bags, we had our shortest move in our lives that afternoon on October 6, 2014. So from March 6 to October 6 of 2014 we lived in an RV building our Olde Farm house, completely off grid/no grid on 30 acres. We had to finish putting up the exterior walls that day so our stuff didn't get wet, and start organizing a place to make home while we finish our house. Just to put your nerves at ease, we stayed that first night at my parents home to lighten the load.
And let there be light!!!
We use a insulation that is 80% recycled cotton (from jeans). Little pricey, but there was not way we could insulate with fiberglass (not that we would have) with little kids and us living in it.
We got the deal of the millennium on the black stove you see here. Long story, but we got it on craigslist, never been used, sixteen years old, still available on Lehmans.com (Waterford Stanley, made in Ireland)...Retails for $6000+, got this for $2000.
Rated to heat 1800 square feet, we regularly have the windows open in below-freezing temperatures from the 90 degree temp in the house. Wife's comfort = heat source + insulation. You can't argue with math...
So the winter went in 2014 without the cows. We sold them to a friend of ours due to our lack of infrastructure.
So our house in summary:
-Very simple design makes all the complex aspects of off gridness much easier, ie. south-facing windows allow winter light and sunlight penetrate home for supplemental heat and vitamin D :)
-Few windows on north side to reduce heat loss in winter.
-2x6" wall studs for maximum conventional insulation (R-19)
- Centrally located heat source, doubles as cooking surface.
-No walls. Allows for 360 degree natural lighting. No lights are necessary from sun-up to dusk.
-Skylights. More light.
-Small kitchen with full size table. Less to clean, less to maintain. No electricity = no appliances = less space required to store said equipment, ie. Mixer, blender, toaster, microwave...
-Refrigeration: winter season is stored in cooler outside utilizing "Refrigerator Weather," summer...we are bringing back Olde techniques for preservation. Remember, every human up until the 40's - 50's lived without a conventional refrigerator, and only had ice boxes in the late 1800's, and that was "unsafe" from water contamination. Not that we are haters, but there is also research that suggests refrigeration causes a lot of chronic illnesses....I digress.
-Cooling, livable basement with limited south facing windows for light. 20 degrees cooler than upstairs in heat of summer, observed.
Everything was built around stock sizes from the lumber store which kept costs WAY DOWN. So far, with siding and the interior almost complete, sans a bathroom, we have spent around $32,000 on this house.
2015 - "Let there be chickens!"
So planning began to get a different animal now that we had a stable place to live. We wanted eggs and chickens really, really bad, considering we had been buying all of our food from town, we wanted the taste of home-grown pasture-ized animal products. So I took a look at the calendar and saw that I needed to get chicks NOW if I wouldn't get eggs for 6 MONTHS!! So I did some figuring (which always makes Erin terribly concerned) and thought 250 was a nice number, right? Uhhhh.....take a look.
Since we didn't have any buildings on the property, not even a completed house, there was no other place to keep 250 baby chicks except our living room. Now before you freak out, notice the lid. This made this possible, and NO, I do NOT condone this approach for anyone. These chicks lived in our living room for two weeks and then moved into the brand new brood house.
The end near the stove did not have a lid and I built it where it slid under the stove so heat would go into the box, plus we boiled water in large pans and then placed them on pot holders inside the pan for thermal mass. Yes, it worked. It kept it at a toasty 90-100 degrees for little chicks comfort. But the brood house is where they needed to go...
Ps. the pink is primer, not paint. We might be crazy, but we have good taste in colors :)
So then came the broiler chicks.
So then the weather warmed up and we started to get the chickens outside...
"Ok, two down, ten to go!"
So the broilers get big quick!
At the busy part of the season we had 700+ chickens alive and moving. This was quite exciting, nerve racking, expensive, and worth every minute. We learned for ourselves how to raise a lot of chickens if we or our customers every asked. We now know with certainty how to keep chickens, not only alive, but happy, healthy, but efficiently. That is the trick to this organic movement, being able to do a lot of something without making it unhealthy. We can scale up whenever we want, we just need more land.
So the hens kept growing, and eating, and growing, and EATING and nothing. But then, July 9th of 2015, we got our first egg! And while I was at work, I got the most glorious voicemail from my daughter...
So the eggs have been coming in ever since. But, like anything desirable, there are always lurking eyes...I'll save you the long story: over the course of 3 months, we had a chicken eaten every night by some predator, of which we have not caught, but we narrowed the playing field.
In all, our predator count was: 4 raccoons, 3 possums, and a badger. Yes, a BADGER! But we were still losing a chicken every night, to what we are almost positive (via trail cam) a mink. So we lost a total of 120 hens that were in production by the time we were left with no other option to preserve any part of our flock: the broiler pens.
So this has really been my passion, to build the Joel Salatin broiler pen into the workhouse chicken building that can really make a farmer love what he does. This thing can really be the humvee of the organic, grass-based farm for poultry because, contrary to popular opinion, chickens are destructive little pests if not managed properly. We can fit 40 broiler chickens per pen at 64 square feet, but only 16 hens because of their foraging behavior. If we let our hens stay in an area too long they didn't graze it evenly and they would turn one area into a clay patch and not touch another area. So the Salatin pen allows us to protect them from predators, shelter them from the elements (sun, wind, rain, snow) and control their treatment of the pasture. We are religious about moving them once a day like the broilers, and they do the same amount of agitation as the broilers with 16 because they scratch and poop and scratch and poop, yada yada yada. It was PERFECT. Now if only we could get them to lay in something other than the dirt..... EUREKA!!
Again, this is my PASSION! We have retrofitted the pens with chicken nipple waterers, a feeder that you don't have to get into the pen and keeps the chickens from pooping in them, nesting boxes, and fresh grass every day, and the whole thing costs less than $150! This thing is amazing.
So being without infrastructure, we entered the winter with a challenge to protect our chickens from predators and the elements. We didn't really have time, space, or money to put up a "building," so the question was, "can we make this pen be a year round solution for hens?" The answer, YES!!!
We covered the sides except for one section to keep out wind and rain, and we add the bedding throughout the season to keep everybody dry, and the birds instinct, just like penguins in the south pole, huddle together for body heat and handle the sub-zero temperatures of Iowa winters. Plus, they are able to metabolize feed and water into heat and insulate that heat to their bodies with their down feathers. Yay!
So now that the winter is here, wood must also be here, and in the wood stove. So since time is of the utmost value to us, this is a technique for splitting wood that will save you time AND A TON OF MONEY!!!
Don't bother buying a log splitter. I just split a cord of wood this afternoon in less than 2 hours. No loud, smelly gas engine running. Just me and the wood. And the Mrs. stacking it of course :) Yes, tell your friends. I saw this in a magazine and my life has never been the same.
And then there were sows...
More on our pigs later....