Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Three Strikes

It started badly and went downhill from there.

Strike one... I turned into the driveway and began picking my way among the potholes. It was exactly one year ago on a sunny day in early November. We had just closed the deal to purchase this small farm and I could barely contain my excitement.

As the farmhouse came into view, I saw a black pickup parked in front and my reverie was suddenly interrupted by a wave of anxiety. The land purchase that was a high point of my life also marked the low point for the previous owner. Having fallen on rough times, the farm was now being surrendered to the bank and in turn to me. I hadn't anticipated running into him as he removed the last of his belongings and I worried that the encounter might be unpleasant.

I parked the car and walked toward the house all the while rehearsing a pleasant greeting in my head. As I walked, my peripheral vision caught movement from an unexpected direction and I turned my head to see a man racing toward me on a four-wheeler. He roared up the rise and parked the vehicle directly in my path.

The man was clearly upset and I was pretty unnerved myself. After several minutes of heated and confused conversation, I managed to figure out that this was not the previous owner but instead was the next door neighbor. He was upset because rumors had been running rampant about the new owners of this farm. He had been led to believe that it had been sold to a hunt club that was going to let the house fall into ruin and fill his weekends with the constant sound of gunfire.

I did my best to assure him that the rumors were as far from truth as could be. I told him that we were an ordinary family with young children who hoped to turn the property back into a working farm. My explanations seemed to be slaking his intensity at least a little when the previous owner finally approached us from the house. With a curt goodbye, the neighbor fired up his vehicle and retreated back toward his own house.

I recovered from the confusion of the past few minutes and managed to deliver my rehearsed salutation. The previous owner turned out to be very friendly and actually grateful that we had come along to purchase the property when we did. His changing fortunes had gotten him into a bind with the bank that was only remedied when they managed to locate a buyer.

Strike two... It was a beautiful afternoon only a few days after our first unfortunate encounter. The entire family had come with me to begin working on our new property and everyone was assigned a task. The children had begged to be able to bring our young Labrador retriever along and seeing no harm in it, Janet and I agreed. Having nothing else to do with him, we tied him to one of the benches at the bonfire circle and I began mowing the overgrown yard nearby. We were all so excited to dig into our new project that we barely noticed that Finnegan was barking for attention the entire afternoon.

As the afternoon wore into evening, I continued the massive project of mowing the very large lawn. At one point our daughter Freya approached to inform me that the neighbor was back and had asked to speak to me. I found him standing near the property line and walked up to see what was on his mind.

He was again quite agitated. He informed me that he had spent a very frustrating afternoon attempting to deer hunt in the woods next to his house. He had sat there in his tree stand listening to the incessant barking of our dog and he was convinced that the noise had spooked all of the deer from the area. I apologized for our lack of consideration and he replied with a statement that I should be careful or somebody might just shoot that dog of ours.

Strike three... A few days after the dog incident, I noticed that the same neighbor had placed "No Trespassing" signs on a series and trees and poles between our two houses. The problem was that the signs appeared to me to be quite far on my side of the line as if he believed that a section of our property belonged to him. I brought it to his attention and he told me that the previous owners of both properties had indicated that the property line ran where he had posted the signs.

Now to be fair, he had actually placed those signs prior to our first meeting when he feared that the farm was being turned into a hunt club. I decided that the best way to settle it was to hire a survey crew to mark exactly where the dividing line ran. A few weeks later the survey crew confirmed my assertion and my neighbor reluctantly adjusted to the idea that a couple of his acres were actually mine.

The last thing that I wanted was neighbor trouble. We were so excited about our new home and had looked forward to building good relationships with our neighbors. Unfortunately at each turn it seemed that we were just getting further into trouble.

Read the next post below "Gift Exchange" for the rest of the story...

Gift Exchange

(continued from "Three Strikes" above)

Through November and December of last year my family hauled load after load of our belongings to our new farm. It was with great relief that we finally completed the task and could retreat from the cold to spend our time cleaning and painting the interior. On the brief occasions that we did happen to be outdoors at the same time, my neighbor and I mostly ignored each other. Time passed and the cold wind blew.

Our brief hibernation ended as the children and I emerged in late January to begin tapping the maples and boiling the sap down into syrup. I spent most of February and March carrying sap from the woods and sitting out behind the house tending the evaporator fire late into the night. I can't recall who it was that broke the ice first, but soon my neighbor was taking a minor interest in our sugaring activities.

One evening in late February my cell phone rang as I was sitting by the fire. My neighbor was calling to make an offer to give me a large pile of firewood that he had accumulated and couldn't use. Before long he had loaded up the trailer of his four wheeler began delivering load after load to our back yard.

This generous and friendly gesture changed everything! Before long, I was knocking on his door to deliver a bottle of our syrup and the reciprocal gift exchange continues to this day. I delivered a tin of cookies, he has returned the tin with strawberries inside. We have given him watermelon and green beans. He has brought us cucumbers and zucchini.
As the summer months have faded into fall our once tense coexistence has steadily grown into a friendship. We regularly loan each other tools and equipment. He has joined in my coop construction effort when heavy lifting was required. He has offered helpful advice and I have done my best to design the coop to reduce the crowing noise in the early morning hours.

It is now common for us to call each other when something interesting happens. In the early spring we called him to come see the snapping turtles that were crawling from our pond to lay eggs in the garden. In late summer he invited Aidan and I to join him in the woods where he showed us salamander eggs that he had found beneath a log.

I can't tell you what a relief it is that this has sorted itself out for the better. He and I are now looking forward to our joint adventure coming up this early spring when we plan to expand our maple operation to include his woods as well as mine. I am amazed at how far a little habitual generosity can go to overcome even the worst relations and build the foundation of a lasting friendship. I heartily recommend that everyone get in the habit of bundling up a little something, taking the kids and delivering it with a smile to your neighbors!

At Long Last...A Proper Clothesline

Even the simplest of requests can take forever to complete when they are added to my pile of projects. Quite early in the spring, Janet requested a clothesline be set up somewhere in the yard. It seemed a little thing but I just could never manage to bring it high enough on the priority list to get it done. There was always something that demanded more immediate attention, something so far behind schedule that I couldn't spare a few hours to get the clothesline done.

As spring passed into summer, I had still not manged to make much progress. To my credit, I did purchase the posts, rope and hardware, but had left them sitting in a neglected heap as I walked around them on my way to more pressing things. Janet continued to use the dryer but longed for the fresh smell of line-dried clothes. Being resourceful, from time to time she accomplished the effect by draping the linens over the deck railing.

As if in sympathy for Janet's suffering, the dryer even did it's part to move the project up the priority list by breaking down. It refused to generate enough airflow to get anything dry. Unswayed by these strongarm tactics, I strung a temporary clothesline across the driveway from the front porch to the gazebo.

Further to Janet's credit, she withstood the embarrassment of having our laundry hanging on the front of the house and overlooked the apprehensions of visitors who were afraid to drive beneath the ropes. They worried that the clothespins might scratch their car roofs or that they would lose their radio antennas when they become snagged on the line.

One summer day, I awoke determined to finally get this item off of my plate once and for all. I used the tractor to bore the post-holes, poured in cement, added the cross members and hardware to the top. Once the cement had set up I added the ropes and we were finally in business! Janet could not be happier with her new clothesline and I am relieved at having something completely crossed off of my list.

An Unusual Sight


This post has little purpose other than to display the picture of Janet with mud on her face! She had been working for hours with our new power washer, blasting the weeds out of the cracks in the driveway. She made lots of progress as you can see.

When she was done, she headed into the house to clean up. The children and I intercepted her, grinning ear to ear at the sight of mud all over her. Any of the rest of us might appear this way on any given day, but on her it was so unusual that I had to grab the camera and record it.

She deserves great credit for being a good sport about it.




I received a mysterious call at work today. My cell phone indicated that the call was from Janet's cell phone but the only sound I could hear when I took the call was wind whistling across the phone's microphone. The sound went on for a moment or two while I attempted to get her to answer and then the line went dead.

I tried to call her back right away but she was apparently making another call. Thinking about the likely course of events, I decided that she was outside of our house trying to call me to tell me that her car was in the pond. My mind jumped to this odd conclusion because that same morning I had walked out and noticed that her car was missing from its normal parking spot. Looking around, I found that it was sitting out in the field having rolled there during the night after being left without the parking brake engaged.

Shortly thereafter, she called again and uttered a phrase that erased any remaining thoughts about errant cars. She said, "I just got off of the phone with the County Sheriff". I listened intently to the rest of her tale with a pit in my stomach.

Shortly before, Janet had glanced out of the front window of our house and noticed a strange light blue pickup truck parked about a third of the way up our driveway. She saw that two men were sitting in the truck looking at our house. In case you don't think this sounds odd, we live way out in the country and people just don't drive up private driveways without having some business there. As well, anyone who was legitimately visiting our home would have driven up to the house instead of lurking on the rise overlooking the front yard.

Assuming that they were up to no good, she balled up her courage and headed right out to confront them. As she crossed the porch and headed up the driveway, she dialed my cell phone number in case she needed me for backup. That is when I came into the story as a tiny voice saying "Hello, Janet?" into the breeze as she walked rapidly toward the truck.

The men in the truck saw her coming and clearly didn't want to talk. They quickly backed out of the driveway and sped away. She hung up the phone and called the Sheriff to report the odd behavior. Soon thereafter, she had to leave the house to go to work.

I talked to the 911 dispatcher later in the afternoon and asked if they would send a car by the house to make sure that nobody had returned in our absence. They agreed and suggested that if there was ever another similar occurrence, we should remain in the house and call them so they could try to pull into the drive behind the intruders before they could get away.

We have many problems with break-ins in our area because so many houses are left isolated and unprotected. Our home even shows signs of such an event in the past with a metal back door that still carries the scars left by vandals who pried it open long before we had bought it. I had been meaning to get a monitored home security system installed for some time and today's incident seemed the perfect motivation to get it done. We are now scheduled for installation over the next few days and we will be able to set that worry aside.

"It's So Noisy Here!"

Prior to our move to this farm, we lived in the city of Ypsilanti. We lived on a little postage stamp of a yard in a little brick ranch house surrounded by a sea of little brick ranch houses. Our house was located two blocks from a major freeway and the roar of it permeated our existence. We also had neighbors who would sit in their cars late into the night and listen to their car stereos until 2 or 3 in the morning. Those cars sat in the driveway a dozen or so feet on the other side of the wall from our headboard!

Since our move, I have been reveling in the serene quiet of the countryside. Whenever I am outside I am always listening to the birds and any other sounds that come to me. I have been shocked at how easily I can pick up conversations from my neighbors' houses that are a quarter mile away. When our dog Finn barks to be let back into the house, the sound rolls and echoes through our woods and back again like a shock wave disturbing the tranquility of the world around us.

In late winter, I happened to be walking through the woods with my seven-year-old son Aidan. We were intently listening to the sounds of the nuthatches and woodpeckers as they flitted from tree to tree around us. It was then that he looked up at me and said something that I just couldn't wrap my mind around. "Dad, it's so noisy here!"

I remember expressing my dismay at his statement. "How can you say that?" "It's amazingly quiet here!" His statement made no sense to me. He didn't offer an explanation that I could grasp and I gradually forgot all about it as I immersed myself in the pleasure of our walk in the winter woods.

It wasn't until Aidan had uttered the same phrase to my wife and I several more times that it finally dawned on me what he was saying. Aidan has lived his whole life in the sonic shadow of the freeway. To him that background noise was normal and it drowned out or at least diminished everything else in our surroundings, especially distant bird songs and conversations.

Now I understand that his experience of having the background noise turned down is one of suddenly being conscious of so many noises around him. The birds, dogs, people and cars out on the gravel road are all so much louder to his perception than they have been in the past. While I am confident that the overall sound level is much quieter here, the individual sounds against a background of relative silence make them seem so much louder.

So I guess I have to agree that it is noisy here but it's the kind of racket that is music to my ears!
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