Saturday, August 2, 2008

i got a wheel, son!

Holy Moses! My friend and co-worker Trish gave me one of her old spinning wheels! (Jazz and Annie are not impressed. Since it isn't alive and can't produce food - it can rot in hell far as they're concerned.) The wheel is in need of some repair. Trish and her husband Drew (who gaver her the wheel) agreed it deserved to be fixed and used in a home instead of wasting away at theirs. So I gladly accepted their gift, and I think after a little tlc and elbow grease it'll be up and running in no time. Homespun yarn, watch out!

mark 'em up

A strange piece of farm equipment was delivered to the cabin this week. A tattoo gun. Well, I guess "gun" isn’t the right term, more like a tattoo pen. I ordered it from a rabbitry supply catalog from the Midwest. It came in a little blue case along with ink, wells, and instructions. The box had a Dutch rabbit on the front with the logo “Rabit-tatt.” It cost 45 dollars, practically the price on one of the bunnies themselves, but it had to be ordered. Here’s why:

I’m taking this rabbit breeding business fairly seriously. I’ve kept Angora rabbits as pets for a few years now, but Vermont was my chance to go from an owner to breeder. Between the egg sales at work and the two litters of bunnies planned for the summer, a little income was coming out of the homestead. A nice change. I did the math and found out two litters of fancy purebred French rabbits would pay for all the chicken feed, rabbit pellets, and straw for nearly a year! So I wanted to do it right, to help support myself here, and to learn the whole process of breeding small livestock.

Rabbits are my training animals for sheep. Like sheep they produce wool, create offspring, and require care and feeding. If I could learn to manage the rabbits as livestock - I could take the lessons from them into those first couple of sheep. That's the plan at least.

Thanks to the farm library I had a lot of help. While consulting the books “Barnyard in your Backyard” and “Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits” I learned every aspect of breeding and raising the six healthy bunnies on the porch right now. But now those bunnies are over a month old and that's when small-livestock management comes into play. Which included tattooing, writing pedigrees, and photocopying and filing paperwork for each individual rabbit. Paper work was one thing, any schmuck can buy a file box and some folders – but tattooing was something I was nervous about.

Why tattoo? Even though this litter is for spinners and pets, they were still the offspring of two amazing parents. Parents who had been meticulously bred and trucked to rabbit shows all over New England ( in fact, a rabbit show is where I got them.) My bunnies were the newest generation of that line, and deserved the same attention to detail as all the rabbits that came before them. They needed to be marked so their owners would have proof they were the animals on the paperwork. People who bought them for shows or their own breeding programs demanded it. It was my job. So here I am, tattoo apparatus in hand.

Tattooing went like this. You poured the ink into the small plastic well and then placed the tip of the pen into it. Then you turned on the needle and let it run a few seconds to scoop up the ink and load it with ink. When it was loaded, you took a bunny in your arms, braced it tight against your body and wrote it’s number in it’s left ear. The first rabbit was so aloof I thought I didn’t do it properly, but when I wiped her ear with a wet paper towel the sequence BB01 showed through in my own handwriting (it’s equally weird and neat to see your handwriting on an animal.)

BB stood for Bean and Benjamin, the bunnies’ parents. And 01 through 06 would be their identities in the litter. Within ten minutes every bunny had a light tattoo on his or her left ear. It went fast and painless, and another small first happened at the homestead. While branding livestock, even adorable tiny livestock, I joined the ranks of people bringing animals into the world and preparing them for market. Yes, it's a long call from sheep (who wouldn’t be tattooed, they’d be ear tagged) but it’s what I can do now in my little rented cabin, at least today it is. I’ll take it.

Friday, August 1, 2008

me and cyrus on the porch

*this photo and one below by Tricia Weill

out of the ground

The garden is nearly ready to be cleaned out. After months of work, all the early-season salad greens, peas, peppers, onions and herbs are nearly done. Either they've been eaten down or are ready for the jar or freezer. As I remove them from the rows, I'll replace them with lettuce seeds and some winter squashes. While the new plants are getting started, the watermelons and pumpkins will be maturing on their vines. The sunflowers and sweetcorn will be reaching to the sky. I'm so happy to report that this year my jack-o-lanterns will be from my own garden! A little personal goal finally achieved.

Last night I pulled the first potatoes out of the ground, which was actually a pretty big deal. They were grown from seed potatoes I grew myself in Idaho. Which means that the food I pulled out of the ground last night has seen more of the country in it's collective genealogy than most Americans ever have the chance to see in their lifetimes... It also makes them the first completely homebrewed veggies on the farm! Between them and the bunnies, a new level of self-sufficiency is rising up at Cold Antler. These aren't commodities I bought to grow and feed, but created right here. Tomorrow's hash browns with sided to my own hen's eggs - what a breakfast. Top that off with ridiculously strong coffee and a walk with the dogs, and you've got the happiest girl in Vermont.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

how we do business in Sandgate

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

a day in the fields

Saturday morning I was on the road to Massachusetts by 6 AM. It was foggy, and that only added to the authenticity of the day. Since I would be spending the entirety of it with British dogs and a British man - a foggy chill morning seemed appropriate. I was driving to a small farm in the western half of the state to observe a sheep dog clinic held by Dave Sykes. Dave's a bonefide UK trialer and trainer. He's worked hundreds of dogs and had over thirty years of experience. Myself and a dozen other people signed up to watch him train our dogs, give tips, and help spot problems. I was floating I was so excited.

Well, as floating as I could be. As you all know, I don't have a sheep dog or sheep. I was going to watch and learn, find out how to get started. I had met up with some people from the NEBCA at the Merck Forest Trial a few weeks ago, and they said if I wanted to get into the real world of stock dogs, to show up for this event. I filled out a registration form and mailed it in the very next day at work. If you knew how bad I wanted to be out there with own dog and crook, you'd understand. Really.

I pulled into the farm's driveway next to a line of dog cars. People with minivans without back seats, SUVs with breed bumper stickers, and station wagons laden with crates. Folks were walking down the hill to a round pen in the pasture below. Inside the 50-foot pen were two blackface ewes. They seemed calm. I hiked down the hill with my backpack, following people with their black and white border collies or leggy Kelpies. It felt weird, coming without my own, but I certainly couldn't bring Jazz and Annie to an off-leash sheep pen. Besides, non-herding dogs weren't welcome on the farm strictly as a liability to the livestock. So I already felt out of place, which only added to the nerves of being new in a field full of shepherds.

The day went like this. We started out by doing introductions and then people brought their dogs into the field one at a time to be observed by Sykes. For about half an hour each, they let their dogs show him their stuff. Some dogs worked in the round pen but most had the full pasture and more ewes to chase around. I learned a lot watching him, but learned more listening to conversations around me and asking questions on the sidelines. Halfway through the day we had a picnic lunch under an apple tree, overlooking the sheep below us down the hill. Sitting under that tree, with the puppies rolling around, the smells of grass and wool in the air, I felt comfortable for the first time in New England. It was bliss.

The shepherds were a wild bunch, mostly women. A drastic change from the world of mushing, where I was used to being the gender minority. If mushing was the dog sport of men, herding (at least today) was the dog sport of women. But they weren't timid gals. They were as energetic and sharp toothed as the dogs they worked beside. They had that Northeast farmer harsh wit, saying things like "Romnies make horrible herding stock... but they make a great carcass!" Not exactly the language you expect from 60-year-old women in sunhats. Like their dogs, they smile with a wolfish flair.

During one of the sit down talks, Sykes joked, wiping sweat from his brow, about how shepherding with border collies is a 40-year apprenticeship to get it right. He then looked at me, by far the youngest pup in the crowd, and pointed "So you better get started soon!" If someone handed me a puppy, no questions asked, hell, I might've.

We ended the day with a potluck dinner. I brought a pie, which was a hit. Everyone talked and bullshitted like old college friends. There's a bond between people in subcultures like these, something that lets you open up a little about yourself, more so than with co-workers or acquaintances. We talked about families, jobs, sheep, and our dogs. Everyone wished me luck, some even mentioned a dog or two I might be interested in. If you're wondering what shepherds drink, the main tap was hard cider(though that might be a New England thing...)

The best part of whole thing was just watching the dogs work. We'd sit in chairs listening about techniques and dogs and all around us the dogs just worked, happy as can be. It was grand, seeing a preview of what's ahead for myself. But also intimidating, knowing how much is involved. But the day gave me the chance to grow familiar with more and more with the names, faces, dogs, and the history and folklore around the sport. I had a wild time, and certainly there will be more to come.

When I picked up Jazz and Annie at the kennel the next day, they were thrilled to see me. And the guilt of dog-cheating on them sunk back in. I'm torn between them, and our established life's comfort - and the excitement of a new world of dogs. We pulled out of the parking lot with the windows down and Janis Joplin blaring. Annie hung out her head while Janis Cried "BAAAAAABY!CRRRYY BAAAAABY!" After a few miles I turned down the music and looked over at my roommates Then, serious as a heart attack, I aksed them "hey guys, how do you feel about getting a dog?" Jazz yawned, Annie ignored everything that wasn't outside the window.

I knew they'd been ambivalent to a new dog. Siberians are made to work as a team. Well adjusted dogs like these that were raised in packs could handle a new dog fine. It was my friends and family that wouldn't adjust well. They'd say it was taking on too much, too small of a space, wait till I own a farm someday, and so on. I understand this, and quietly drove home, certain a puppy could induce havoc.

Then havoc did happen...

The next morning, a crazy man walked into my old church in Knoxville and shot nine people, killed two. I used to sit in those pews every Sunday and had I never moved to Idaho I would've been sitting there that morning, watching my Sunday School students put on their play.

I am in no way comparing the loss of human life to getting a dog. That would be awful, tactless, and horrid. Please don't take this that way. Yet I couldn't help wondering how many of the people in my old congregation who were fired at were waiting on the approval of their friends and family to do the things that made them happy? How many of them put off bits of their lives because they were worried about making things uncomfortable for the spectators? Would they feel different now?

I did. I certainly did.

My mind is reeling.

Monday, July 28, 2008

a hell of a view