Sunday, October 19, 2008

i get by with a little help from my friends

Here's Jazz and Annie helping with firewood duty today. Ah, the benefits of working housedogs...what could have been a horrid job was made easy by my canine work force. Together we brought in three sledges of fire wood. Not too shabby! We did it while the Vermont sun gave us a warm (well, warm for New England) afternoon, and now we'll have a fireplace going every night this week without having to buy any extra quick-burning pine that costs a jillion dollars and armload at stores. Now, the cabin doesn't depend on wood for heat alone, but a roaring fire means I can have the thermostat down to 50 degrees and the house can be warmed up to a toasty nest the rest of the way. Plus, who doesn't love a fireplace?

The work went like this. First I'd take the empty sledge (a kids snow sled, but sledge sounds more badass so let's go with sledge) and my trusty hand saw and spend about thirty minutes sawing up the fallen trees in woods near the farm. When the logs were loaded and tied down, I'd harness the dogs to the gangline and give them the ever familiar "Hike Hike!" and they'd lunge forward and drag the sledge back to the cabin (about 100 yards or so) with ease. The sheep seemed to think this made for very entertainng goings-on and watched from the edge of the electric fencing with intense interest while the sibes worked past them. (In that photo above, if you click it for the larger version you can see the wethers watching in the background.) Usually the sled dogs would do anything to get a bit of wool in their teeth, but in harness they are all business and ignored the flock. I'm certain Maude would have mocked them if she had the ability. But regardless of possibly jeering sheep, they got the wood in like rural superheros. Jazz and Annie may be useless at herding, but they sure know how to work as a team.

Friday, October 17, 2008

banjo camp!

A new book just came out for all you future (and present) banjo players! Banjo Camp is part instruction, part history, and part backstage pass to the modern world of this old time instrument. It comes with a CD, which is full of examples and recordings. So not only do you get a written introduction to the world of banjos, you get to hear the lessons (very very important for beginners learning without a teacher.) I'm really excited about this book. I flipped through it at our local bookstore and wanted to take it home (but I think the cover price was already allocated to fresh straw bedding.) Anyway, it looks like a light and rustic introduction to the bluegrass banjo and if you're considering getting that twang in your hands I'd invest in this and then head over to and take home one of those Morgan Monroe Hobos I've been drooling over. (Notice that banjo comes with a Native Ground book, because they are awesome)

All this kinda breaks my heart since I'm currently banjoless. I sold my old one because it was the wrong type for the music I play (it was a big heavy resonator banjo, not an open back for old time clawhammer flailing) And now I just wish I could pick one up and play it. Alas, I can't afford a $280 splurge. But I'll start saving up for one. I'll need it come winter when the music really fills up the cabin and practice gets serious! What else is there to do when you're snowed in and you read all your books?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

thank you

I want to take a moment to thank the people who have been silently donating to the farm. A few weeks ago I placed that donation button on the right hand side of the blog, and people have been throwing their pennies in my jar. Thanks to the help of the Cold Antler Farm community trains run on time here. Anything that doesn't go to feed and winterizing the farm goes into a small savings fund for that farmhouse I someday pray I will own. So thanks so much, it really really helps.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

a girl and her wethers

I am getting attached to my boys, Sal and Marvin. I didn't expect this, to get to know the sheep as individuals. I suppose this would never happen on a larger scale farm with pasture born lambs, but this isn't a large scale farm. Here at Cold Antler I currently only have three sheep. Since I'm not training a border collie on them yet (and they haven't the fear of god in them) they are happy to be around me. I've actually come to know them pretty well.

Sal's the most gregarious. He will trot right up to the gate and let you grab his ears, scratch his head, pat him. I give him daily updates on the state of the economy, the presidential race, this and that. He always seems genuinely interested (However I'm pretty sure it's because I'm holding second cut hay in my arms when I tell him all this.) Marvin is just as friendly, but much less interested in socializing with me as he is with his flock. He is always always baaing at Sal and Maude. He walks between them and brushes up against them. He's ridiculously trusting of me. When I bend down to tie a boot or open a latch to let them out to pasture he always is right there, his head inches from my face. I scratch his ears. He's a good boy.

Maude's still a jerk.

photo by sara stell

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

the great fall weekend - part 2

After Saturday's adventures, all five of us just wanted to relax. We came back to the cabin worn out. Jazz and Annie immediately collapsed on their respected bed and couch spots, and us people pretty much did the same. When we were recouped we headed into town to a local tavern, The Perfect Wife, for dinner. We came home to a warm fireplace and watched Songcatcher (a must see movie for mountain music lovers.)

Sunday morning I slept in (till 7 AM!) and even had help with morning chores. After the animals were fed, watered, lead to pasture, and given fresh bedding we came inside to bake a quiche for breakfast. Using my garden's stored veggies (save for the broccoli, which we tried but didn't freeze well and tasted like pet dander) fresh farm eggs, and Vermont cheese we made big ol' egg pie and washed it down with lots of coffee. Now that's a meal.

We decided to go for a long walk, and took a three mile stroll along Sandgate's dirt roads. It's peak foliage season here, and I was happy the girls could visit me at this time and see how colorful it is up in the hollow. Walks like these remind me why I returned to the Northeast. There is no fall like a New England Fall. The colors get into your lungs, make you breath differently. The cold crispness of waking up and seeing your breathe, walking past pumpkins and piles of hay when you leave for work. Little things. I need those things. Jazz and Annie seem to glide over the crunchy leaves like corporeal ghosts.

Well, that was the end of our fun for a while. I needed to trim the sheep's hooves. This went badly.

Badly, but not horrible. Every time I have shepherd work to do I realize none of it will be as easy as the books and pictures show. I was only able to trim one sheep's feet because only one sheep would let me get within flipping distance with hoof shears. Soon as I got Marvin down (which was more of a pathetic wrestle than professional shepherd's flip) Sal and Maude scampered away and watched in muted horror from across the pasture. No bribery could get them near me after Marvin was upright again. So I'll need to figure out some stealth tactics for Sal, and a goddamn miracle to get my hands on Maude. But still, one wether has trimmed feet. A modest victory.

The rest of the weekend ended with a trip into Manchester to putz around town and then a pasta dinner with friends of Sara Mack's who happened to be hiking nearby for the holiday weekend. They came in showered, but mountain weary and we spent the night talking and drinking in good company. I think I may have even made a new dulcimer player out of kathleen, who was very taken by the weird instrument in her lap.

And that's the rest of a very good, but very long weekend. I think it set a lot of things in motion. And time will tell how they all play out. But stay tuned, and you'll hear the whole story. Promise.

photos, again, by sara stell

Monday, October 13, 2008

saturday photos

photos by sara stell

the great fall weekend - part 1

The Sara's showed up on a calm Friday night. They had traveled up to my hollow all the way from Suburban Philadelphia. I set a glowing jack-o-lantern out by the oak trees near the driveway to be their initial greeter. When they came inside I had a fire glowing, fresh-from-the-oven pumpkin bread, and hot tea and cider on call. I felt like I would be asking a lot from them this weekend, and wanted to make it as hospitable as possible. We'd be getting up at 5 AM for the trials and after along day on the road, that's not great news for any guest.

But they were more than graceful. After a light tour of the farm and some unpacking we were all around the fire sipping hot drinks and talking. Sara Stell, as it turns out, isn't just my old college pal's co-worker, she's a violin instructor. She brought her beautiful violin (made in 1894) and played the most beautiful rendition of Ashokan Farewell I've ever heard live. She let me give it a whirl and I played some dirty fiddle music on it. She was kind enough to compliment my homegrown education. Which burst me up with quiet pride. It was a fine evening.

In the morning all five of us headed to the trial. Three humans and two dogs in the hay truck (my Subaru.) I was fairly proud of the fact we were on the road by 6:30, and after a brief stop at Wayside for pumpkin coffee, we hit the road. I'm glad to report we were in Cooperstown before most of the spectators even pulled in. After setting up our folding chairs and scoping out our coffee options - I left the girls to watch the dogs run while I wandered off to meet up with shepherds I knew. I ran into Barb and Denise and soon we were talking about the newsletter (my new job) and Sarah, the sheepdog in need of a shepherd. Barb told me Sarah would be here in a few minutes and I should meet her, look over her papers (ABCA), and walk around with her.

And walk around with her I did. And it was great. Sarah was a petite 30-pound sprite of a Border Collie. For someone who walks a 130 pounds of sled dog with one arm, it felt like I was holding a kitten on a line. She was gentle and quiet with me, but her focus was 100% of the sheep in the field. Barb has been training her on fleece for a few months and when we walked on her thin leather leash around the trial field she trotted with her eyes always on the prize, her tail low, her eyes fixed. She was a beauty. Had I the means, I would've scooped her up and taken her back to Cold Antler to teach Maude a thing or two about R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Alas, not today.

Now let me tell you something dear readers, this truly was a sadistic weekend. I played a fiddle from the 1800's and held the lead of a Border Collie who's grandparents were imported from the UK and who's refined working-dog lineage had won high trials overseas. These two beautiful things I had to relinquish to their proper owners when I left. People commented below and asked if I took Sarah home. I didn't. A dog like Sarah isn't just handed off to people and would cost a small fortune (a small fortune for me anyway, probably equal to the going rate of a fiddle from 1894!) So no, she's not my dog. Sarah is right now in a kennel in a barn in upstate New York, and not playing Parcheesi with Jazz and Annie back at the cabin.

After time spent with Sarah, and the Saras, I was put to work. I jumped into a pickup truck with Warren Mick and we both worked the sheep pens and talked about the trials. I think I have learned more about sheepherding while wrestling with ewes in these pens than I have anywhere or anyhow else! The questions you can ask people are endless, and the whole trial is sprawled out before you to comment on. The advice and answerer are well worth the occasional black and blue mark from a bossy ewe's horns.

I spent the day with good friends. I got to be outside on that amazing fall day talking herding and sheep. I grabbed Scottish Blackface ewes by the horns and touched the black fur of working dog in my own arms. All of this writhing with hope. I'm wrestling with a lot right now. Trying to decide what's next and how I'll get this farm of my own someday. I'm nervous about the book, and how it will do. And I'm worried somehow this will all slip though my fingers and get away from me, like a leash could slip from idle hands on a runaway dog. That I'll end up settling for less because it's safer, or because it gets people off my back. I don't know if I can pull this all off on my own. Everyone keeps telling me I can't. Not without a miracle, an inheritance or pa perfect credit score that is. But I really think I can with a good dog, and some great faith. Or that's what I keep telling myself. When I waiver I just clutch the black fur tighter and say a prayer.

All of it paces in my head when I go to bed at night. I'm just grateful that come morning there is too much to do here at the farm to keep thinking about it. But the uncertainty is exciting, if nothing else. If nothing else, it's that.

p.s. More photos to follow later this evening. Photo of me and Sarah above taken by Sara Mack

Sunday, October 12, 2008

two shepherds

This has been an amazing weekend. I can't wait to write more about it. The weather has been ideal, the roadtrips long and winding, and the Fall Folliage Trial was a great learning experience with breathtaking New England fall news. Sara and Sara have been enjoying the trip as well. (They even helped me with some farm chores!) One of the Sara's is an amazing photographer and I'll post her work from the weekend later tonight. But for now here's a picture of Sarah the sheepdog and I. Barb Armata brought her for me to meet, walk around the trial with, and consider. I'm not going to lie, walking around the trial with a working sheepdog was a hell of a feeling.
photo by Sara Stell

Friday, October 10, 2008

losing my cool

It is a drop dead gorgeous fall day here in Vermont. A sunny warm day in the mid sixties with a cool breeze warning us all to pack a wool sweater in the car if our adventuring keeps us out past dark. Tonight Sara and Sara will arrive at the cabin to a warm fire, a glass of mead or wine, and some fresh bread from the oven. I am hoping to make the night as comfortable as possible for them because tomorrow morning I am getting their butts up early as sin to drive over the sheepdog trials. Jazz and Annie are coming too, and the five of us should make for a heck of a road trip. Results are already posted for some of the runs happening right now, with Warren Mick in the lead with his dog Jinty.

I am falling hard for this shepherding life. I am starting to match faces with names and some of the breeders and trainers at these events even know my name. I took on duties as the newsletter designer and my first edition comes out in the winter, which I'm excited about. I'm just pumped to participate in anyway I can. Which might be lame to a lot of my peers. I am well aware the average 26-year-old isn't thriled to raise sheep and stay up late watching the entire Ken Burn's Civil War series on DVD (by the way, every October I watch the whole thing and love the hell out of it). But I am, and I'm perfectly fine with losing the cool my designer life once slung at me. But hey, I sleep better.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

rams, lambs, and collies

If I can find a willing shepherd, I want to borrow a ram and have him shack up here for a few weeks. The hope is he and Maude will get it on and come April there will be a lambs born for the first time ever at Cold Antler Farm. So far I've only been able to find people with rams for sale, but I'm not looking for any long-term loving here. I'm hoping a local sheep person will want to make an extra fifty bucks. Now, as I am writing you this, I am looking at a little yellow book the UVM Extension teacher gave us after out first sheep class. It says Lambing Guide, and has a Suffolk Lamb on the cover. There is an empty area to write the year of lambing, and the instant I was handing the book I remember almost instinctfully wanting to write "2009" since it seemed realistic to me. I didn't realize that was now a gestation period away... So maybe these future lamb(s) will be fate? We'll see.

If I can't arrange for those "services" I might just wait till spring and buy one of my herding instructors Scottish Blackface lambs. Which is a breed I really like and am leaning towards for my future operations. They are a great duel purpose breed and small enough to manage in larger numbers. So options are out there, just really hoping to try my hand at a small lambing project come spring. If any of you out there know of a third option that a normal person could afford (artificial insemination is out folks, crikey. Let me know.)

Besides sheep pimping, there are other big things happening this weekend and oddly enough it includes three Saras. My friend Sara and her co-worker friend (also named Sara) are driving up from Philadelphia for a weekend on the farm. I told them Saturday morning we'll be getting up crazy early to drive to the Fall Foliage Sheepdog Championships in NY, but they just insisted on coffee (Now those are women I can deal with.) So up they will come, and they even offered to help trim hooves Sunday. At said trial, the border collie Sara, whom I blogged about a few weeks ago, might be there to meet me. She's a started sheepdog up for sale from the same kennel that hosted the Wooly Winds Novice Trials. Now, don't worry skeptics, I am not coming home with a border collie. But getting a chance to see a possibility, be outside in peak fall color at a sheepdog trial with friends, and drink lots of coffee has me so excited for this weekend it's ridiculous. It's good to know at 26 you can still sometimes feel like you're still six the day before your birthday party. Real good.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

a good way to spend a rainy weekend

Frontier House

I’m going to make a recommendation, and if you have a library card you can make it happen this weekend. Now, I’m not a huge fan of Reality Television but PBS did something above and beyond.

In 2001, 5,000 families applied to go back in time to 1863. Three were chosen. A young couple from Boston, a rich family from Malibu, and a scrappy family from outside Nashville. For five months of their lives they would live as the original pioneers and homesteaders in the wilderness of Montana. PBS called it “The Frontier House Project” and the rules were simple:Give up everything from the 21st century and live as authentically as possible for five months to prepare for a Montana Winter.

They would have access to a small general store ten miles away to buy supplies. But besides that they would have to live off of their gardens, animals, and short order supplies. The project wanted to see if modern day families could deal with it. It’s an amazing summer to witness. The entire project is only six hour-long episodes. Starting with their lives in their respected modern cities and following them to a pioneer training school. With historians and experts on site they learn everything from making furniture to cast iron cooking to basic horsemanship. It’s kinda cute watching a Southern California debutant bake her first ever loaf of woodstove bread with a smile, but then start crying when they tell her she can’t wear eyeliner.

Soon they take off on a small wagon train that will lead them to an Indian reservation removed from any modern roads or power lines. Only one family has a cabin to move into, the others have to build them from what they can find around. So imagine being dropped in the wilderness, and living in a tent until you cut down enough trees to build a house only to move into the house to try to feed yourself for four more months. But they do, and they learn more about themeslves, their values, and their families than you could imagine.

Anyway, go pick it up from your library and watch it. I promise by the end of the first episode you'll be hooked.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

graceful decline

Last night was a killing frost. When I went out this morning to feed the sheep and let the birds out of there coop there was a coating of ice on the water troughs, and the sunflowers seemed caked in white ice. The chilly night put the final nail in the garden's coffin. Which is fine. The garden has long since been chalked up as a loss. By mid August whatever wasn't eaten was froze or put up. I don't have enough food stored to last me a winter (but I doubt my stir-fry skillet will ever want for anything.) When the last sweet corn had been picked and the only things left to grow out were the green pumpkins sunning themselves in afternoon light, I propped up my hoe, slapped my hands together, and let the garden fall into a graceful decline. No more weeding. No more fuss. That's how we roll.

Now those green pumpkins are bright orange and stacked on the hay bales on the porch. I won't bother with them till closer to Hallows' when they'll be carved for the Holiday. The fact that I am carving pumpkins I planted from seed is a big deal to me. October is my favorite month, and pumpkins are one of it's best avatars. Last year my pumpkins in Idaho failed miserably and it crushed me, but this year we're back with vengeance!

I was only able to grow two carving pumpkins (on the smaller side, but gamely clinging to acceptable size) and an armful of smaller pie pumpkins. So it's not like the cards are stacked, but I am hoping to empty out three or so this weekend and make a pie or pumpkin bread for my guests. And if they are unfit as carvers, the sheep will be beside themselves with joy if they get a snack of gourds out in the north field.

Monday, October 6, 2008

sore arms = warm nights

My right arm is killing me. I woke up with a stinging ache, and now know what two hours of constant sawing can do to a girl. Yesterday I used a small bowsaw (a gift from my father, thank you) to start hacking up the hundreds of fallen birches and sugar maples all over the woods on the farm. I wanted them for firewood to help warm up the cabin on chilly nights. With cheap quick-burning pine costing seven dollars an armful at the local gas station. I think the two hours of hard work was worth it. Outside on the porch is four giant armloads of heavy, long burning logs from the downed trees. The fireplace will be happy till next weekend when I stock up again.

So sore arms aside, the weekend went well. Yesterday I spent the whole day at the farm. From waking up to a breakfast of potatoes and eggs with Vermont cheddar cheese (and coffee), to ending it with a long well earned fire and my weekly Sunday night fiddle Lessons. To start a day eating food you grew yourself, and end it with old music is a perfect combination.

I spent the long day doing nothing in particular. I took the dogs on a lazy three-mile walk along our winding Sandgatian roads and then came home to bake and do livestock chores. I made a small round loaf for lunch and washed it down with cold cider. When I wasn't sawing I spent the majority of the afternoon reading a book of New England ghost stories in the hammock, bundled up in blankets. It's not really cold here, but in the shade up in our hollow it's about 45 degrees at the warmest part of the day. So yes, blankets make all the difference.

Having a day to work, care for animals, read, bake, and play music with fiddle students is bliss. If I could someday manage it, I would love to open a center for Appalachian arts. A place where you can apprentice in everything from dulcimer 101 to hand dying wool. It would be an open farm for intro weekends to livestock care (How amazing would it be to take a weekend farm vacation focused on learning to raise chickens and going home with some pullets and and a coop in your back seat!) Writing about this stuff is one thing, but helping other people do it themselves is by far the more rewarding part. I bet with the help of some border collies and luck, it could happen. I need to calm down with all these big plans huh?

Here at Cold Antler, the sheep, poultry, and rabbits (including the four new bunnies) all seem to be doing well. I have already decided that this coming weekend Sara and her friend are going to help me flip the sheep and trim hooves. And Saturday is the big Fall Foliage Sheepdog Trial in Cooperstown New York (who cares about baseball when there's a sheepdog trial going down!) If any of you are in the area, stop in and watch those dogs work and say hi to the girl running around volunteering in the floppy hat.

P.S. I recently found out i can not, under any circumstances give anyone an ARC for a donation. If you sent a donation, email me back and I will work something out with you or refund you shortly. I am sorry, I didn't know.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

annie's tv

the best pancakes ever

I love pancakes. I figured out this recipe from adapting a few and it creates the fluffiest, sweetest, pancakes ever. Feel free to add blueberries, chocolate chips, fresh fruit and powdered sugar to top it off. I only use cast iron greased with real butter when I make mine (If you're falling, dive) Enjoy!

Cold Antler Pancakes
1 1/2 cups organic flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanila
1/2 cup sugar
1 farm egg
1 1/3 cups milk

Tun on the range and heat up the skillet at a medium high heat, make sure a good spoonful of butter is melting in the pan and coating it with a good layer. Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl, then add the egg and milk. Mix fast and quick and then give it about 4 minutes to set and get fluffy (from the bakiing powder) in the bowl. When "risen" pour into skillet to the size you like your cakes. You know a pancakse is ready to flip over when the middle bubbles. Serve hot with real maple syrup (Grade B, son. Grade B is dark, rich, and get this tastes like maple.none of that flatlander grade A sugar water they sell in gift shops okay?)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

rain before morning

A few moments ago I was happily rolled up in a warm bed, surrounded by warm dogs. I was perfectly comfortable in that magical way your body regulates the perfect conditions for laziness right before you absolutely have to get up. Outside in the dark of 5AM, a blustery rain was whipping through the changing maples. This made my bed seem ten times better than sheep. Something I will totally change my mind about after a cup of coffee, or four.

Well, I'm up. The dogs however are still curled up among the quilts and blankets. I'm out here getting geared up to lug water and pour feed and they are curling their spines deeper into an arch and getting ready for round two of extreme napping. If I don't down a cup of coffee soon, I might crawl right back into that bed with the wolves, call off work, and not emerge from the bi-species sleeping aparatus until starvation or the urgent need to pee makes me.

Of course, that's not happening. I'm up. I'm in flannel. I can hear Rufus Wainwright crowing through the rain. I'm about to go out into the belly of the beast. Mornings like these are not examples of the perks of having a small farm.

NOTE: The ARCS are not available for donations. They are not for sale. If you sent a donation and are expecting one, email me and we will work something out or refund you.

a great day. Time to get soaked.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

jurassic park - vermont edition

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

it's electric!

That's a picture of King Sal, inside a fence. Which is a new thing for my sheep, to be all contained and proper. Yup, after weeks of floundering on the subject, I finally electrified the fences. I wasn't avoiding it because I thought shocking sheep for a nano-second was mean, or because I wanted to save on my electric bill. Nah, the reason for balking at the set up was because it was a big fat logistical nightmare. I had to figure out where I would ground the charge, how long the extension cords had to reach, where I'd plug the bloody thing in - all those technical specs... And all of it had to be a movable vehicle. It was just a lot. You know what I mean. After ten hours at the office, the last thing you want to do is absorb a couple thousand watts to round out the day. So I've been putting it off.

And because of my procrastination, once or twice a week when the grass got short, the sheep (always egged on by Marvin) would break out, and me, being new to this business, would freak out and run outside in towels (why this always happened when I was showering, I don't know) and then desperately try to lure them home to their pen with bribes of grain. And that worked fine. I swear those sheep could be two miles away and hear the grain bucket and come loping my way like herion addicts hearing a junkie slappin' an arm. But I was tired of constantly looking out the window for them, or coming back from walks with the dogs to see them landscaping the driveway. So I finaly caved and set up the electric netting. I'm glad I did. The sheep have been staying in their pasture and I know if I leave for a short 2-mile walk with the dogs they'll be there when I get back. Grant it, it hasn't been perfect. I learned that Marvin still escapes if the charge is low but we'll figure it out.

In other news, I saw Jon Katz twice last week at two local book readings. I went to his book tour opening at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge NY, and then again Saturday night in a Manchester bookstore I love more than nonfat creamer (Northshire Books!) when our hayride plans were rained out. Both readings were interesting and insightful. I got to pet the famous Izzy and Lenore, and hear about his life as a hospice volunteer/writer/hobby farmer. All of which was engaging and interesting.

I like Jon Katz. I like his writing, his stories, his unapologetic and kind view about dogs and their roles in our lives. He honestly admits the holes they fill up emotionally and the surprising things he learns living with them. His writing says what many dog lovers feel and for that I'm grateful he shares his life with us. I actually haven't read any of his stuff until recently. My friend Heather suggested him to me this spring and I read his books while I was getting used to Vermont. So it was a fun shock to realize I wasn't just reading about a person with a similar lifestyle - but he lived a few towns over. Neat. (I also just read Kingsolver's book this summer too... something I should've read a long time ago! That' another blog post.)

Since I'm both involved in border collies and writing - the subject of Jon Katz has come up many times. It seems border collie people either love him or hate him, and I've heard the whole gamut. I even emailed him a couple times, hoping to get a sliver of advice. I usually would never bother a writer, but how could I not give Katz a shot? I mean come on, he's a local writer that works at home, runs a small farm, and lives with herding dogs. Pretty close to what I aspire to be. So I emailed him, introduced myself, and asked if he had any advice for a new young farmer getting involved in sheep and border collies.

Katz did reply, which pleased me. He was cordial, but distant. Which is exactly what he had to be. Being a best-selling author he must get thousands of emails a year from people telling their own small farm stories. Out of the few emails we did share he wanted to stress that he was a writer with some sheep and farm animals, not a farmer. Which was a polite way to say "I'm not your farm messiah, kid." And that's fine. My long term goal is the opposite of Mr. Katz. To be a farmer first, and a writer second. I'm certain I'll be better at managing sheep than I am at managing sentences. (Which is best observed by the opening of the second paragraph of this post. All those commas could pile their assets together and take out a home equity loan) So while I doubt myself and Mr Katz will ever be chums or sharing a beer at a sheepdog trial, seeing him read and meeting his dogs was a downright treat. And I strongly suggest you pick up some of his stuff and give it a whirl.

Monday, September 29, 2008

on bees

Kathleen, who hails from Lancaster, PA commented in an earlier post with a question about bees. She asked about my philosophy on why I have them and my relationship to them. She said she went to a local beekeepers' meeting and the other members seemed to be more interested in beewatching then keeping, and she wasn't thrilled with the idea of spending an inordinate amount of time with bees but still wanted to have them for honey and wax.

Well, Kathleen, my sentiments are exactly like your own. I am not a bee-coddler. I set them up, give them what they need to be healthy, and then let them do their thing. I come from the Gene Logsdon school of beekeeping (which is basically the "leave them alone because they know what they are doing and you're a schmuck in a white clown suit" school.) While they constantly amaze me with their world and society - I observe them from a distance. My only interaction with them is the occasional check-in to make sure they aren't dead or infested and when I am either adding layers to their hive or collecting honey. We keep a distance. It's working out.

Don't get me wrong. I like bees and enjoy beekeeping. Putting on those giant canvas gloves and walking out with a loaded smoker has evolved from an effort of tempered anxiety to one of rural nobility. But even as someone without allergies and used to them - I don't think I'll ever be relaxed in a swarm of bees. They just aren't animals I feel comfortable with. Put me in a pen with teeth, hooves, horns, and paws and I'm fine - elated even. I'd take a barn full of angry Shetland Rams over a barn full of bees any day.

With that said, I still would never go without a hive. Bees are wonderful to have around. They help the garden, they entertain the chickens, and they seem weirdly exotic compared to the sheep and poultry. The most work they entail is just assembling the hive and installing the colony. Something I used to dread but this year I did this with not only my own hive, but a friends as well, and it went fine. I only average one sting a year, and usually when I get too lazy to bring a smoker along (actually, it's always when I'm too lazy to bring the smoker along...)

So would I encourage beekeeping? Hell yeah. It's the cheapest, easiest livestock you can have. They are ridiculously simple to keep and the rewards for having them far outweigh my annual sting. If you have two spare hours next spring and enough cash to buy an iphone - you have all it takes to get started on the path to becoming a fine beekeeper. Beekeeping suppliers like Dadant sell beginner hobby kits for under 150 that supply all you need (minus the bees and queen - which you order overnight via UPS for around 60.00) Just find a club in your area to help you get started and hopefully, if enough of us keep it up, we'll help out the declining populations and reverse some of this scary business we've all been reading about.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

the pumpkin litter has arrived!

So big news. Friday when I got home from work and was checking on the animals, I noticed Bean Blossom, my Angora doe, was looking like someone shaved her wool. I know that sounds crazy paranoid, like I think people are roaming rural New England and shaving people's fiber rabbits, but she was less definitely less hairy. But it was her own doing. She pulled out over half of her wool to make a nest. So... (drumroll noises please) It looks like we have four new members of Cold Anter Farm! A new litter of French Angora bunnies are here and just in time for the holidays. I am a little worried, four is half of what her last litter was. But everyone seems to be doing fine. I think I'll keep a female from this litter to add to my little herd here.

The new bunnies came just in time. I just sold the last two males from my first litter (which I called the Lettuce Litter, since that's what was in the garden when they were born.) This new litter is adding fresh life to the farm for Fall. A time when generally all the animals are either well into their spring-born lives or getting ready for processing (gulp, turkey.) Anyway, I'm calling the new kids the Pumpkin Litter, and if anyone in the area is looking for a gorgeous new farm animal - I don't mean to brag but my rabbits are beautiful and gentle guys. So consider a wool bunny for your homestead. Okay, that's all for now. Hope your weekends are going well. When I write again I'll talk about my Jon Katz weekend (saw him read twice, only once on purpose) and his new book as well as updates on mine.

Friday, September 26, 2008

a rainy weekend

It's going to pour all weekend. Usually, that's a good thing. I am a big fan of rainy Saturday mornings. I get to get up and face the wet and cold and then after all the animals are fed and I'm back inside and all is right in the world, I don't have to rush to work. I can relax. I can cook a breakfast of champions, light a fire in the living room, and curl up with the dogs to read or watch a movie. It's the best.

But this weekend, rainy Saturday mornings aren't a good thing because my parents are driving up from Pennsylvania to visit for an official Vermont Fall Weekend. We had all these plans to go to a hayride and bonfire at Adam's Farm, see the countryside foliage, walk downtown Manchester, you know the works. My mom was even excited to meet the sheep and get pulled around the woods at night by a tractor (if you knew my mom, that's a big deal.) But it's going to pour like the dickens. And I'm scrambling to figure out what to do with them besides feed them in restaurants.

This morning, before the rain came, I let the sheep out into their pasture to chomp on the sweet green stuff a little. They have my routine and body language down now. They know what walking certain ways means, or what "home for grains!" means. They answer when I yell out from the porch "Hey Sheps! You Still livin!" and I hear back a chorus of "BAAAAss BAAA baaa BBAAA!" Which kills me every time and I crack up. We're easily amused around here. You guys have a good weekend, stay dry.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

the long view

The road to Vermont was a long one. And none of it happened on purpose. A lot of my addresses and jobs have all fallen into place by luck, or chance, or a random job search online with resumes emailed on whims. But for those of you interested, here is the abridged version of the last few years. And how a Pennsylvanian college grad ended up on six rented acres in Vermont with her current menagerie.

I went to college for design, and that's what I still do today as my day job. I don't think it's a secret that I'm not exactly rich. Like most Americans, I live paycheck to paycheck and try to budget a life around bills and college loans. I save what I can, but I'm not about to buy a house or a new car anytime soon. So I am (and probably will be for quite some time) a 9-5 working middle class American. Which I assume most of you are too. We definitely have that in common.

In 2005, I graduated from Kutztown University, a small state school in southeastern Pennsylvania. I spent four years studying graphic design, antiquing with close friends, taking trips to New York to putz around Chelsea galleries, and spent too many late nights in diners talking about our 'big plans'. I loved college. And it was a bittersweet time for me, full of saturated memories and friends I am still in touch with today. However, when graduation came I knew everything would change. My friends were splattered all over the country in random design jobs. I thought I'd end up where many of them did, in Philadelphia, DC, New York, or possibly even around my homeland of Carbon County (my favorite town in America, Jim Thorpe, is in said county) But what happened instead was I got an email from They wanted to hire me as a web designer for them down in Knoxville.

Holy crap. Tennessee.

I knew nothing about Tennessee. I had never been to the South. I only had the worst Yankee-imposed stereotypes about it. But what did I have to lose? I didn't have a boyfriend. My family was supportive. The job was great. So I did it. I moved 800 miles south to the smoky mountains. It was the greatest decision I ever made.

Tennessee was nearly two years of falling in love. I scrambled over wet mossy streams and smashed mountains. I learned to play the dulcimer. I adopted my two beautiful dogs from Tennessee Sleddog Rescue. I made amazing friends who worked in letterpress shops or hiked barefoot through the hills. I drove on beaten old southern roads to amazing places like Hot Springs NC, Asheville, and the like. I learned to love my city neighborhood, and escaped every weekend to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I loved, loved that I resided in a place where you could by a plasma tv screen and be eaten by a bear in the same hour. I fell hard for the food, the music, the whole damn romatic state. Tennessee has become a magical place in my heart. A place I miss horribly. I blogged about Tennessee fervently, on a site much like this called Dogcoffin (named after a little wooden box I found on the side of the road in PA that I took with me to Tennessee). That blog is now a private blog for friends and family. But sometimes long-time readers will mention Dogcoffin here, and that's what they are referring too. Mystery solved.

But by my second Autumn in Knoxville I was barking for a real fall. I loved the southern mountains so much, but missed crisp hooded sweatshirt mornings and 30-degree October nights of PA. When I went home for my sisters wedding in the fall of 2007, I visited a small family farm I grew up going to every Halloween. Being on a hayride in the personal correctness of a North East got my restless self stirring again. So when a job was posted online for a web designer in Sandpoint Idaho, my mind bugged me till I applied. Within days of clicking 'send' on my resume, I was setting up an interview in the small mountain town in Northern Idaho. I got the job. Packed up my Urban life and moved into a retired cattle farm off Highway 95. And that, is how all this farm business got started.

In Sandpoint, at that new job (designing emails for Coldwater Creek) I came to meet a women named Diana who was a part time farmer. She had a day job but also had a small herd of cattle, laying hens up the wazoo, and her husband made his own homebrewed wines. They became mentors and friends, and with Diana's help I was able to get my own chickens, rabbits, hive of bees and so on. My year in Idaho learning to farm is what the book is about. Basically a year of learning about the good (and bad) things the simple life teaches. It mentions Tennessee and Kutztown in some respects, but largely Made From Scratch is about that magical year in the Rocky Mountains. I miss Idaho often. Mostly because of the people. I didn't fall in love with the wilderness of the west like I did with the mountains of the south, but the people and friends I made in that little town on a big lake are so sorely missed it could crack a rib. I bet if you x-rayed me you'd see a little Gem-State-Shaped scar.

So one state left me jonesing for it's landscape, another one left me pining for it's people. Life is mean like that. Sometimes happiness is dissected around the whole world, in people or memories thousands of miles away all at the same time. A beautiful horrible thing to know.

I left Idaho because of job security. There was none. The company I worked for had downsized, a lot, and in a scared and worried attempt to find stability I found a new job in Southern Vermont. I still do the same thing, design for the web. I aslo still do everything I did on the Idaho farmstead (and more!) I've grown more confident in my abilities in gardening and animal husbandry and expanded my chicken-and-kitchen farm to a full blown poultry and shepherd-in-training life here in the Green Mountains. And That pretty much catches you up to this blog.

The story from here will hopefully include the struggle to change careers, to learn to herd with a working dog, to somehow buy my own land and start my own farm business. The long view is to be self-employed and work my ass off to become a full-time shepherd (here in VT or back in Carbon County with my family.) If I'm lucky a man and some kids will trickle into my life in the decade ahead. If I'm really lucky, a man, some kids, and some open trialing border collies. I don't want to be rich. I don't want to be famous. I don't want to want anything all that fancy. I just want to wake up, feed the sheep, send my dog away to them, and come inside and write to you. The one thing I really want to accomplish besides my farm is publish a novel I've been woriking on for over three years, and if the world lets me do this, I will be beside myself with gratitude.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

come in, sit down

So I've been writing about my farm for quite some time. And since I started this site I've come to meet a lot of fine people along the way. People from all over the world who take part in all the little triumphs (and troubles) at Cold Antler. I want you to know I really appreciate that. To say something on my little electronic soapbox and get a reply from the ether is a good feeling. Readers are what turn this blog into a community, and not a self-absorbed newspaper. Thank you. I think you're neat.

Now I want to ask you a favor. If you read my blog regularly, please respond to this post with a comment about yourself. Tell me where you're from, what you do, and what your favorite book is. Let me know if farming is also a future dream of yours? What would you like me to write more about? Is there anything I can explain better? The more I know about the people reading up on me, the better I can write stuff you'll be interested in taking time out of your busy lives to read.

But beyond content and criticism, I'd just really appreciate getting to know more of you, as you've all come to know me. So please come in, sit down, and say hello.

Monday, September 22, 2008

vermont's got mad culture

the big city, the bigger picnic table

Boston was great. It was a 24-hour breakneck tour of downtown. I was in the city for a book signing with the New England Independent Booksellers annual trade show. But I used the event as an excuse to tour the bay state's finest town. I got to walk around Harvard yard, enjoy a Guinness in a smarty-pants bar, and take part in the joys of mass transit.

I was with my friend Erin, who I was my college roommate just a few years ago, and now designs for Reebok, and therefore walks around the city in fancy sneakers. And I was grateful for those fancy sneakers because my much slower chacos followed her around in an awestruck daze. I had forgotten how much I can love cities. The people, and the food, the buildings and sidewalk culture, the fact there was someone playing a Chinese Erhu in the subway – all testament to the joys of an urban life. Part of me was jealous. But it was smaller than the part of me wondering how the sheep were fairing under their maple tree at the cabin. It was a weird feeling to have as a single 26-year-old in a place she should want to be.

Erin showed me around her whole town, from the reflecting pool at the Christian Science Center to Grendel’s Den in Cambridge. She also helped me drive through the city, and paid for my subway pass. She was a vision. I was really proud of her too, because just a few years ago she was sitting with my in a college diner, neither of us with big plans or clear direction. Now she’s working in that fancy city, traveling the world, designing logos for people I watch on DVDs. She’s done well. Thank you Erin.

The NEIBA book signing was a classy event in the Prudential building. There was great food, dark beers, and loads of people I should probably know and don't.(It was a heck of a show to someone who schlepped out of bed that same day to feed chickens.) It was also kinda exciting to go to sleep 23 floors above the back bay. You know, I don’t think a 23rd floor exists anywhere in the state of Vermont? So yeah, fancy.

After Boston was through and Erin helped me find my way back to route 90, I had to take a small detour. I always wanted to go to Salem, and the autumnal equinox seemed to be the perfect time to take a tour. So I visited the Witch Museum, and walked through the town green and perused classy shops. All around me were dogs and trees. Two things I love that Boston severely lacked. If you adore concrete and volume, you can’t beat that city. But if you need to hear someone bark, and know it’s okay to take off your shoes and walk around - Boston is not for you. I wondered how many people commuted to the city from Salem every day? It only took me about 45 minutes to pull up to the museum parking lot from downtown. If I worked in Boston, I think I’d have to. How could anyone live so close to a place with such history and magic about it and not live there? It was a problem I was glad not to have.

After two days on the road, navigating a metropolis, visiting museums, listening to audio dioramas and all that – I was grateful to drive home to Vermont. I did it with the music turned up, excited to be going home in the mountains. The ocean is a beautiful thing, but I am not an ocean person. I belong on cliffs and rivers, driving through swirling fog, rolling past loping deer behind birches, and my tires kicking up piles of yellow leaves. I wanted my dogs back, which I had dropped off in a kennel and would pick up on the way home.

When I was a kid, we’d drive to the Jersey shore for vacation and my parents told me when you saw sand along the side of the road you could get excited because we were close. Well, as I rolled through the Berkshires towards the green mountains and the license plates started to turn from white to green. I had that same feeling. I just wanted to return to my regular life.

And so I did. And I did it with a true Fall Equinox celebration much subtler than anything on the cobble streets of Salem. It happened on a red picnic table off route 9. At the southern end of Bennington there is a small restaurant called the Cider Mill House. I pulled in too late to enjoy a meal, but I bought some pumpkin coffee and a gallon of cider and then sat outside to watch the Saturday Sun set over the green mountains. The air was warm, even for late September. I kicked off my sandals and sat on the table, sipping the coffee, watching the farm across the street. I smelled dairy cows, not gasoline. I looked at mountains, not skyscrapers. With my world back in order, I happily drank the best thing in the free world and sighed a happy tired sigh. Since I was alone, and wouldn’t bother anyone, I got my fiddle out of the car and played a small concert for the view. To sit with pumpkin coffee, know my dogs were minutes away from my arms, and play old tunes to trees that will still be tapped for sugar long after I’m dead and gone is a very very good feeling.

I do not think I’ll be moving to Salem anytime soon.