Spring 2019 Newsletter

Greetings lovely followers of The Grove!

Yes, quite a long time it has been since I offered my last ramblings of the goings-on of the The Grove. Under-promise and over-deliver is a good motto, so as always, hoping to do more content creation this year, but no promises.

So what’s new ‘round these parts?!?!

Renovations/Improvements

We have seemingly endless priorities here at The Grove, but we realized the need to elevate one priority even higher to meet the needs of our particular context – to improve the beauty and functionality of the property. A certain level of charm and mystique has existed since the days of the Olde Tyme Saloon, but certain design aspects and aesthetic characteristics have been lacking.

Before I go any further, an acknowledgement and gratitude of the colossal undertaking that the previous owners, Jim Kloss and Esther Golton undertook prior to our arrival on the property, is in order. Jim and Esther truly raised this incredible place from the ashes, as it was in very poor shape and in dire need of much more than a make-over. I’ve seen the pictures of the condition it was in before they took over, and you would be utterly amazed at what they did. With the help of others, they made the big, necessary moves like replacing the roof, gutting and refurnishing the entire upstairs and downstairs, new wiring, new plumbing, putting in a new septic and leach field, improved the foundation of the main cabin as well as the other log cabin, built yet another cabin, and had the vision to design that glorious main hall and all of its fascinating elements and engineering feats. Before I ramble on any further, the improvements that we’re about to talk about can be conceived only because of the passion and dedication that those 2 visionaries had for the place and their impressive renovative achievement.

North Wall

As many of you witnessed, we started working on the north wall of the main cabin at The Grove while my dad was visiting last summer. That wall was lined almost completely with windows that were all compromised in one way or another. Some of them were straight up broken, others h

ad seal issues and were taking on condensation. In addition to these shortcomings, the wall is north-facing, which means there’s hardly any direct sunlight coming through anyways – only lots of warmth going straight out! If that wall was on the south side, it would be a different story. So we took all of the windows out, replaced 4 of the 6 with new windows, and also made that wall thicker and more insulated, and as a result, much more energy efficient. Just a bit more trim work and the wall will be finished. It’s just drywall now, but I hope to add tongue and groove paneling at some point down the road.

Log Finishing

One major tasks of the north wall project mentioned above was the sanding, staining, and finishing of the vertical log posts and the horizontal header log that highlight that wall. I really do appreciate the rich, dark stain that currently distinguish the logs in the main hall. But as gorgeous as it is, if you look closely, most of the logs still have portions of bark still on them, limb knobs, scuffiness, and grittiness, and are otherwise unfinished. My impression is that the builders were so spent on the clearing, logging, and construction that when it came time to finish the logs, they just chose to slop a heavy dark stain on them to hide the remaining bark and blemishes. This project was a great opportunity to start the intimidating task of refinishing all of the logs on the property in a bite-sized section. I’ve chosen the method of grinding the logs down to bare wood with a 4.5” grinder, which is a very intimate interaction with every square inch of the exposed log, that actually requires a fair amount of finesse! But the logs look gorgeous, and now it’s hard to look at the rest of the logs without shaking my head and envisioning them looking the same way.

Barn Retrofit

It’s been no secret to us or anyone who’s visited The Grove since we’ve been here, that the barn has been bit of an eyesore. It’s getting even worse with the more farm “stuff” we accumulate. We totally admit it! Well, it’s time to do something about it AND utilize the space much more effectively.

The microgreens operation has expanded in capacity and in infrastructure. Last summer was the largest outdoor grow space we’ve had with a 26’x12’ greenhouse I made out of bent EMT (metal conduit). And following suite this year, we’re expanding once again. This time we’re going big and really beginning to tailor the infrastructure of the property to meet our needs. The plan is to retrofit the barn into a microgreens greenhouse as well as a mushroom production facility (see below). There’s much noodling still to be done on just how and what exactly will be done, but the main tasks are going to be cutting off a portion of the roof to add greenhouse plastic (perhaps polycarbonate panels in the future), turning the existing workshop into a germination room and possibly a mushroom colonization room, and installing all the shelving, sinks, and countertops for processing. The urgent step is getting the plastic up to make it an actual greenhouse, and then all of the rest will be done in phases throughout the summer. This is going to be a BIG project! Other possible upgrades down the road are laying a concrete slab for flooring, installing mushroom colonization and fruiting rooms, and refrigeration room(s). It’s really hard to conceptualize all the work this is going to take. One foot in front of the other.

Another project on the barn I’d like to complete this summer is adding a lean-to to the north and east sides of the barn. The aforementioned “farm stuff” needs a dedicated space out of the weather. We’ll try to use logs from our property to build as much of the addition as possible.

Bath House

The major bottleneck for nightly lodging, seasonal tenants, and larger events at The Grove is the lack of bathrooms on the property, particularly full bathrooms with showers. We have far too many overnight guests and too many large events for there to be so few bathrooms. We’re also finally getting slightly less comfortable with strangers in our (what should be private) living spaces. Figured it’d happen at some point.

After discussing all the options, I think we’ve decided that attaching it to the west gable end of the main cabin is the most practical and convenient place to put it. We initially wanted to put it in the middle of all the tenant cabins, but as a stand-alone structure that far away from everything else, it would require another septic, heating source, electric, well or water line, etc. Spendy! While folks from those cabins will have to walk just a bit further, it’s going to be way better than it is now and way more practical from a cost standpoint. AND, it’ll provide overflow bathroom use for events at The Grove.

Not sure when this one is getting done. We’re hoping we can at least start this year, but no promises. It’s a high-ticket item and will require outside help.

Farm News

Microgreens

As mentioned above, the microgreens operation continues to grow each year, and this year is no different. Over the winter growing season, we ended up moving the grow area from the extra downstairs bedroom into our downstairs living area, which helped both in ambient temperature for the microgreens, and ambient natural light and shelves of vibrant life for the human species living there. The number of members to the microgreens program was as high as it’s ever been and we’re back online with one of our favorite restaurants – 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern just south of Denali National Park. The incredible chef/owner, Laura Cole, also seized an opportunity to take over the Muse Restaurant in the Anchorage Museum and all of its many associated catering jobs, which means more Anchorage action for us from a reputable venue and chef. We’re so lucky and honored!

We look to continue partnerships with Talkeetna businesses that will act as drop-off points for their employees and perhaps others. As of now, Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT), The Talkeetna Ranger Station, Sunshine Clinic, KTNA, and Northshore Cyclery are all summer drop points for their staff this summer. A huge thanks to KTNA and Northshore Cyclery for being points of pick-up for others in the community! So if you don’t work downtown and are looking for a pick-up, reach out to either of these locations. Also, we plan on participating in the farmers market at the Fairview during Live at 5, and anyone interested in the microgreens program can always pick up there from 5-8pm on Fridays. And, you can always pick up at The Grove – 24 hours / 7days a week. To sign up, please visit our website at thegrovealaska.com. If you’re interested in being a pick-up location for your business employees or others in the Talkeetna area, please let me know!

Mushrooms

The thing I’m probably most excited about this year is the introduction of mushrooms to the farm. This will probably be a rather slow introduction, but it’s a product we’ve been thinking about and toying with for some time now. In the past, we’ve inoculated birch logs with shiitake spawn, which apparently isn’t the best wood to use for shiitake production. That coupled with Alaska’s climate prevented the logs from fruiting until years later, which makes me wonder about the viability of commercial outdoor production of mushrooms on logs this far north.

This summer and into the future, we’ll be focusing on Oyster mushrooms, supposedly one of the easiest of all fungi to produce indoor or outdoor. I’m sure I have a ton to figure out and trial, but it seems like oyster mushrooms are going to dovetail nicely with the microgreens operation, since it’s very similar in terms of grow cycles and growing conditions.

There will certainly be challenges. The best grow mediums for Oysters seem to be supplemented sawdust/wood chips or straw. Sawdust and wood chips are easy to come by in these parts, but they need to be steam sterilized for many hours which is both technology- and fuel-dependent. Straw only needs to be pasteurized in hot water, but is not as easy to come by up here in the north. It sounds like hay might be too “green”/not woody enough for reliable oyster production. I suspect that figuring out the right grow medium and how to adequately sterilize or pasteurize it will be the biggest hurdle to production. I think the new greenhouse is going to prove fabulous for growing mushrooms, which need certain gradients of warm, humid conditions for colonization and fruiting. At the top of the barn, just under the hot roofline should be great for good hot colonization, and the lower levels should be great for fruiting since temperatures there are slightly cooler and prone to frequent misting. This is going to be an adventure! Let us know if you’re interested in oysters mushrooms from The Grove and we’ll be sure to get you on the list.

Pigs

Pigs are coming back to The Grove! Oh how dearly we missed the pigs last summer. We’ll be picking up 10 piglets during the last week of April or first week of May and they’ll be hard at work again, digging, tilling, clearing more land, and making more pasture. They’re such incredible animals to have on the farm. I’m not sure which is the primary objective for us, the meat they provide us or the farm work they do for us. No, that’s not true. It’s been so long since we’ve had our homemade bacon, we’ve forgotten how valuable their culinary uses are! Needless to say, they serve many purposes at The Grove and we’re so happy to have them back.

Sheep

The newest species on the farm that we’re so incredibly excited about, is sheep! Our farm is about to take another large step in diversifying and becoming more and more full-circle. Being the permaculture farm that we strive to be, we realize just how important grazers are to the fertility and overall health and efficiency of a farm. Continually knocking the grasses, forbs, shrubs, and small trees back increases soil health by adding organic matter to the soil by way of proportional root die off, trampling by hooves, and of course, by what comes out of the animals back end. Not to mention, the vast majority of their diet comes back year after year and is essentially free! What an absolute godsend for a permaculture farm.

We are interested in using all 3 of the major resources that sheep offer, but we’re particularly interested in raising sheep for lamb (the other 2 being fiber/wool and milk). I’m very curious what the Upper Susitna demand will be for lamb. We’ve gotten very good feedback from the little surveying we’ve done. Please let us know if you’d like us to get you on the “interested” list.

The sheep should be on-site by early May and I’ve already begun preparing for them. I made a skiddable structure out of a couple of old log hewn logs and some of the greenhouse bows that I bent for my old microgreens greenhouse to move around the pasture for rotational grazing. It’s a 12’ x 12’ structure that should be perfect for allowing the sheep to get out of the hot sun and cold rain. More to come on the sheep in future newsletters and blogs.

Chickens

Chickens are going to be downsized this year, but will still certainly play a role on the farm. We’re going to move them out of the barn and are revitalizing the shed in the middle of the yard into the chicken coop. Hope they don’t make too much noise for our guests! They’ll continue to munch away on microgreens scraps and we can never get enough of the fertility and eggs they produce.

Meat chickens are still on our minds, but not for this year. We hope to implement them again maybe next year!

Other Stuff

Ok, here’s a rapid fire round of everything else I’m thinking of regarding the farm! We have excellent prospects for 3 farm volunteers this summer – Jesse, Jonah, and Hanna! They’re all incredibly positive, sound like they have good work ethics, and are all skilled in many ways that can contribute to the farm.

We’re now on Instagram – even though I think we only have 3 pictures on there as of now! If you’re curious, our Instagram handle is “thegrove34”.

We had by far our busiest winter in the “Events” realm, so thank you so much to all those who participated!

Ok, that’s it for now, folks. Sorry it takes so long to update, then have to do a year’s worth of catching up! Thanks for paying attention to us and for all of your support. The Grove continues to move forward, helping nourish body, mind, and soil! Hope to check back in with you all much sooner rather than later next time!

The Dream Continues

The Dream Continues

This message has been a long time coming, and to be sure, it’s been a roller-coaster trying to navigate the next chapter of our lives as a family. As you’ve probably heard, last winter we had planned on leaving the state to move back to Michigan and farm my parent’s 15 acres that’s been in the family for several generations. And as you’ve also probably heard…now we’re staying! The truth is we never wanted to leave Talkeetna, but time away from family, finances, energy, and logistics were all running short and we were simply running out of steam on our Alaskan dream. Luckily, it looks as though we may have scratched and clawed just long enough and through various twists of fate, may have made it over the proverbial hump. It certainly hasn’t been easy.

Nevertheless, the summer of 2018 was very good for us, psychologically and from a business standpoint for several key reasons, which began to give us the hope we needed. We finally finished our tiny house for nightly rentals, which gave us 2 available rentals on the property instead of one. Now only one more to go! We’re now beginning to optimize and leverage the structures on the property that have been so financially burdensome in the past. This “burden” is now working for us, which was the idea from the start, it just took longer than expected to execute! We feel like we have a lot to offer on this little farmstead and we’ve really enjoyed connecting with all the guests that have been drawn here. We’ve actually had a much greater reach within the small farm/homestead advocacy space than we’d otherwise have. It’s always been an objective of ours to support this movement and we’re loving this role as a demonstration site for people around the world.

We continued fine-tuning the microgreens business, although there’s always room for improvement there! Our sales weren’t necessarily greater, but we cleaned up our operations to the point where we’ve made it a much more efficient and viable enterprise for us. Now were looking to take big steps in moving that operation out to the barn next summer. More to come in a future blog there!

After a healthy break for Arlo’s first year or so, Mindy has gotten back to working full-time at the brewery in a new role(s) that she loves very much. Denali Brewing has been such a crucial piece of the puzzle for us over the past 4 years and we’re so grateful they’re such an accommodating employer for our family and our community.

And finally, Sunshine Station Child Care have proven critical in helping watch Arlo, and in no small way has helped pave the way for all of the former to happen by freeing us up. Raising a child has been such a humbling dose of reality for us, where we never thought we’d be handing him over to someone, somewhere else so much, but it’s just what needed to happen for us to be able to make progress. And he loves it there, and gets time with other kiddos and adults, and time away from mommy and daddy. Turns out all these things are good, just not how we envisioned it. It’s nice to surrender, or rather, alter, some of your values sometimes. And things rarely turn out as you plan them, as it turns out.

Taken together, all we think all of these things will give us the ability to carry the dream forward, give us the ability to get back to see our families more often, and provide us some space to breathe. Thanks for all your support and understanding, and sorry we’ve been so flaky. Talkeetna is our home for now, and hopefully for good!

Many more blogs on musings from The Grove to come in the coming weeks, months, and years. Stay tuned!