Saturday, April 26, 2008

hell among yearlings

I don’t think I have ever been a better student than I was this past Saturday at my Intro to Sheep class. I took eight pages of notes. I raised my hand. When volunteers were needed, I literally jumped over the fence to hold down a 200 pound ewe. The whole day was like a dream theme park to me (Ruminantland!) Only instead of rides there was opening lambs mouhts to look at their bites and powerpoint presentations about barn plans. To me, it was pretty much Disney.

Besides myself, about a dozen other people were taking the hands-on course. There was a retired Norwegian broadcaster from New York City, and a woman (who along with her husband), was starting meat CSA in Mass. There were people who just got lambs last night, and people like me who have no idea how the hell they’ll ever pull this life off... All of us together at Smokey House Farm, a kind of agricultural-based outward bound center that was hosting the University of Vermont for the day, (who was running the show.)

The day started in an old farmhouse-turned-classroom, with a three-hour lecture for beginners. As far as lectures go, this was done right. There was a full spread of bagels, fruit, juice, coffee and apple pie. All us wannabees sat in wooden chairs and benches spooning in yummies while Chet, our instructor, talked to us about all things sheep. We covered everything from wool specific breeds to shelter building - we hummed together over the finer points of second cut to first cut hay (and when to feed which.) There were videos and slide shows and a long lunch by a pond. I got to meet people from all over New England and hold and a taxidermed ram stomach. It was the bee’s knees.

After the morning book learning, we headed out to the barn. There we got to get our hands on the animals, learning to tell their weight by feeling their spines. After a few examples I could tell a skinny sheep from a fat one (not always easy when covered in wool.) We saw a hoof-trimming demo and watched a lamb with a curled eyelid get a shot of penicillin (three of us had to hold down that bugger). All the while there were lambs and a llama mulling about our feet. If Chet started talking about the correct way to dock a tail or tag an ear I could reach down on the floor and touch a ewe’s to see for myself. I don’t care how many books or videos you read about farm stuff, sometimes you gotta grab an ear.

During all the barn demostrations there was a little ram lamb that wouldn’t leave us alone. He was this little black guy with a white blaze on his head. If I stopped petting him he’d chew on my jeans, so I just crouched down by him and let him lean against my side while Chet talked about foot rot. It was my own private fan club, it was a nice little self-esteme boost when you're covered in sheep manure from the knees down.

I got a lot out of the class. It was my first time (outside of books) learning anything about taking care of a small flock. I was worried it would get me over excited and I’d start pounding fence posts soon as I got home, but it didn’t. The class was exactly what I needed, and introduction. It showed me just how much time and money and effort needs to go into my sheep and how much preparation I’d need. It won’t be until I have a farm of my own someday that I’ll start calling fence builders and looking for Columbias (I think after today, it’s the breed for me). Right now, the closest thing I’ll have to a shearing day is whenever I get my new Angora Rabbits and need to trim them… but someday this highland girl will have sheep. The day that those hooves first touch my pasture, will become an official holiday in my home.

From that first anniversary on that date becomes holy. I won’t go into work. The kids will stay home from school. And the phone will be taken off the hook. And all of us, including Saven the Border Collie, will sit on the hill and watch the sheep. There will be homemade wine and fruit pies and a bonfire in the honor of all three-stomached beings (even you giraffes!) You can all come and get wild with us, it’s going to be a hell of a time.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

corporeal bird

Yesterday when I got home from work my neighbor Katie was trying to herd the Polishes back up the hill to my property. The birds wattled down the hill to her muddy, slug filled creek bed earlier in the day, and as dusk fell became confused and couldn't hear the other hens back up at the coop. They collected near her garden shed, waiting to be let in the hostel for the night. I saw her struggling to help me out, and while I was touched at her concern for the birds, I felt bad she was going out of her way to wrangle them home for me. I walked down the hill at a wide berth, hoping to help her get the chickens back up the hill. I shouted over to her "Thank you!" and she explained the whole bit to me while we side stepped and shooed the birds home like a pair of border collies. After a while it felt ridiculous and I just picked up Abigail Adams and Cecilia (the Polish hens, now named) and left Benedict on the ground, confused and alone ran into the woods instead of following me to the coop. Let the games begin.

I got the girls in with the Rhodedottes and then turned around to walk down the dirt road and try and catch Ben, which I've done before. As far as roosters go, he's fairly calm and lets you hold him if you mean it. Ben was barely in view of the cabin, off the main road heading for the woods. I doubted he had the guff of Ringo, and his top hat of feathers already hurt his vision from predators. I had to get him back.

So Katie pulled up the rear, trying to head him from the field near the tree line back to my garden/coop area. While she struggled I decided to try calling him home. I went in the coop and picked up Ringo, which of course made her scream only the way a crazy chicken can, and Katie yelled "keep doing that! He can hear the girls, he's running home!!" So I grabbed another Rhodedotte, and they all screamed like I had shake and bake in my back pocket. Ben wad running but then, he hit the fence. The garden fence runs about thirty feet right in front of the coop. The rooster could see the coop in front of him, hear the girls, and in the panic of the crazy people and the flurry of hen noises he just kept running into the chain link. As if he'd become incorporeal if he really meant it. I stared in awe at his stupidity. Katie just shook her head as she walked up the driveway..."That is one dumb bird..." Yes.

After a few panicked moments he walked around the fence and into the coop, jumped up on their branch roost and settled in just as night fell. My dumb bird found his way home. Let's hear it for Ben.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

ringo the feral chicken and other adventures

I woke up at 5:30 Saturday morning, hazy eyed and slightly excited. I knew it was going to be a hell of a long day. I was picking up livestock upstate, then picking up a friend from the city at a train station. Nisaa, an old college friend turned New York Red Sox Fan (they do exist) was coming to hang out, escape the city, and help plant my first veggie garden of the year... And it all started with getting my butt in the silver Subaru and driving up to Lake Champlain to pick up some laying hens.

Which might sound like an unbelievable distance to drive, over two hours one way, but you have to consider the circumstances. Small hobby farmers like myself can't buy animals in bulk or always plan far ahead. When the perfect animals come you better be prepared to work your life around it. So when I found a farmer selling young, fat, and healthy homebrewed free range laying hens (cheap), I jumped at the chance to take home five at once. The hens were a mix breed of farm-hatched Rhode Island Reds and Wyandottes, they lay like gangbusters and can handle the Vermont winter with the best of them. Making them more than worth the drive.

I needed layers. I already had a deal in the works with a local cafe in Bennington that needed a full time organic local egg supplier. A great side business for my little farm, but my Polish hens little white eggs weren't going to cut it (specially since they have developed the awful habit of eating their own recently, but that's a story for later)

So, the excursion was going to pull me into parts of the state I have never seen. I was wound up with anticipation while loading the wire cage into the hatchback and pouring coffee in the car mug. Every time I get to add some more animals or plants to the farm I feel a separate kind of happiness. Something that's pleasantly fulfilling because I know they'll be contributing to my life here in ways most things you buy can't.

I drove off towards Burlington with a light heart. While rolling the station wagon past the dairy farms and high water creeks, I realized chickens have been my personal New England tour guides. Forcing me to drive into parts of New York and Vermont I would've never had to navigate though if I wasn't trading for livestock. Meeting people I would've never otherwise met. I am in love with all of this. I drive like it's a chance to be grateful at high speed.

I pulled into the chickens farm, put on my gloves and helped the older gentleman and his wife load the cage with the fat, squawking, HUGE birds. Compared to the Polish hens they were monsters. Almost seven pounds each. And when you're bones are hollow, that's a lot of chicken, son. I drove them south, listening to some Irish music I was trying to learn on the fiddle, and stopped at a garden center for some pony packs of salad greens and some bags of garden soil and compost. Driving towards home, with a car full of chickens and soil, plants and tools, gave me a smile on my face that was a force to be reckoned with. The day had already peaked at 77 degrees. Warm sun, healthy animals, dark soil.

How dare I ask for more at 12:30 on a Saturday.

I unloaded the birds. Two escaped. Shit.

They flew right out of the coop and ran into the woods. It was foolish to chase them. All that could accomplish was scared birds running even further away from safety in a place they didn't know. I could only hope they'd find their way back. The Polish hens hated the new birds and literally segregated themselves to a far corner of the coop in protest. Wonderful.

I got a shower, and hoped in the car for another two hour drive, this time over the mountains and past Mt. Snow to the funky town of Brattleboro. Nisaa was getting off her train there and when she started walking toward me at the station the years apart melted. I hadn't hung out with Nisaa since three states ago. She knew nothing about Tennessee or Idaho and Vermont was her first real connection with me in years. But it was like we just talked yesterday. She bought me dinner in Bratt, we paroozed a music store where she shouted in glee to finding Paul McCartney's Ram for 3 bucks on vinyl, and we drove home through the mountains in the dark.

That night was the Beatles on the record player, wine in our glasses, and catching up in our conversations we were like girls in a dormroom back in college again. Nisaa was excited about gardening for the first time, and I was looking forward to teaching her what I learned so far. Before bed I went out with a lantern to see if the missing hens had perched in low branches in the woods around the cabin. I never saw feather or heard a coo. I felt upset, guilty those helpless birds were in the New England woods living on a prayer.

Well, Sunday started out nice enough. The sun rose, Ben the rooster crowed ("Is this really happening?" Nisaa asked from the bathroom shower as Benedict belted out the morning thunder) Before any labor was to be procured from my guests, I usually buy them breakfast in town. We hit 'Up for Breakfast' (second floor restaurant, get it) and after full stomachs and some shopping at Northshire Books, we drove back to the farm. We found out that one of the runaways had returned! There with the other hens was a fourth, pecking away, back from the wilds. She somehow wasn't eaten by a coyote or raccoon. The lucky thing was back in the safety of the farm. The other hen was still missing. I chalked her up as a loss.

And then, we gardened. Nisaa, to her credit, is too stubborn to give up on a project even if she hates it. The romantic ideas of gardening were flushed down the Jon when she realized that breaking sod, throwing rocks, pulling weeds, carrying fifty pound bags of dirt, and always-biting bugs meant gardening was awful business if you aren't into it. As she huffed and puffed with her hoe in hand, she just shook her head and said "we are VERY different people" By the time we had broke sod, added in our fresh composts, made rows, and planted she was pissed off at gardening in general. She said she'd come back and look at it when she forgave it. I liked that Nisaa didn't pretend to be into gardening. She had no interest in being like me or impressing me, but I was impressed. She might be a city person but adapted instantly to the garden work, and while she didn't like it all - the sweat and manure, she loved the garden by dusk. Said it looked great, even felt proud of the effort. But she'd stick to flower pots, thanks. I respected her more than ever.

We cooked a big homemade meal of fettucini alfredo with homemade garlic bread and applie pie with ice cream for dessert. I love homemade food more than most. I have no shame in this and ate like a girl who deserved it. My sore arms and sunburned nose proved it up. Bring on the white sauce.

As dusk fell I gave the meals scraps to the chickens and hoped my four-star leftovers would win over the missing hens. It must've worked because in the distance, we noticed a miracle, the fifth hen had returned! it had also survived a night in the woods and was back with the other girls. But as it became dark out she ran off to the woods again. Great. I doubted we'd ever see her again. A chicken is exactly equipped for a life in the pines. But maybe this would be her bit. The wild chicken of Vermont, farmer by day and werebeast by night. Living with the grouse and cardinals like a true highland girl. Fighting of coydogs with kung fu like maneuvers of talon and beak!

Eh, she'd be fox poo by 4 AM. I gave up on her. Nisaa called her Ringo as she ran into the forest, saying, "She's not really missed when she's gone but nice to have around when she's here." Ringo was my feral chicken.

Monday morning we made scrambled eggs and checked on the birds and backyard salad bar. All made the night and Ringo was outside by the coop waiting for me to let her friends out to play. I couldn't believe she survived a second night. People, me included, don't give these birds the credit they deserve. She joined the flock, always wary of me when I came by. As the other birds played in the dust and scratched for bugs wihtout so much as looking up, she would stare at me like I was the equivalent of a human trafficking operation to a labor camp. I guess to her, I was. I felt kind of dirty when she glared at me, throwing me hands up in the air saying "What!?" like she'd cut me some slack. Ringo hated everybody. The world owed her something.

The weekend ended with Nisaa's train back to the city, and Ringo joining the flock in the coop that third night. I guess two nights of kung fu was enough and apple pie won her over. But I had a garden planted (the first of many), and chickens laying delicious eggs right in the yard. I felt that I was starting to use the six acres correctly, and went to sleep sore and happy. I am a big fan of getting dirty with friends and animals. Feeling the long days in your body and smelling the farm on your shirt when you take it off at night. The world is full of people who hate the smell of dairy farms but like the smell of gasoline, when are we going to realize how messed up that is?

The weekend was grand. Let's hope for more.