Sunday, August 9, 2009

this farmer's day

I spent the last 24 hours doing exactly what I want to do with the rest of my life: farming, writing, and ending my days with friends and music. The day was long and busy, but I'll tell you how I managed to fit in all three while fighting a woodpile and petting a scruffy Texas Dall ram lamb along the way.

I started with a hot cup of coffee. (This is the only proper way to start a day at this farm.) Then went outside to let every animal free-range on their lots. The chickens ran out of the coop and vacuumed up the scratch grains I offered for breakfast. The sheep were out next, happy to see recess started at 7AM instead of the usual post-office hours. Next I walked Finn on his leash over to where he could fill up on grass and brush and then lay down in the shade to chew his cud. My animals seen content with me, and I with them.

Memories from tomatoes
I came back inside and made my refrigerator sweet pickles. A simple recipe of slicing cucumbers and covering them in a bath of white vinegar for 5-8 hours (you can do this all night if you like tarter bread and butter pickles). I covered the slices with a lid and set them aside. I had other kitchen adventures going on at the same time, you see. I moved over to the saucepan on the stove bubbling with a thin layer of olive oil. I sliced up garlic and threw the cloves to their destiny. The smell instantly overtook my memories and I thought of making sauce my first time—in Idaho at the Carlin's farmhouse. I soon added the tomatoes, onions, spices and mixed them with my wooden spoon as I let the heat boil off the excess water. The kitchen smelled wonderful. Had I some warm garlic bread to dip in the bubbling sauce....I would have had nothing left to can. This, I am sure.

While the sauce bubbled on the stove—I started getting ready for company. Four friends were coming that night for homemade pizza, beer, and a big campfire. A practice run for Antlerstock (which may happen as a day event in October) I have no problem at all laying a quilt by a fire, or even sitting on the grass, but I realized my guests might not be so (forgive the pun) grounded. So I needed to seat five of us and I wasn't buying lawn chairs. I decided to use bales instead. I'd use the hay I'd buy for the livestock for benches, covered in quilts to scratchy bare legs. Problem solved.

After my sauce was cooling in just-canned jars on the kitchen table, I left the farm to pick up the hay at Nelson Green's place over in New York. The drive on the back roads from Sandgate, over into Hebron is a beautiful, secret, hidden way. When I emerged from the woods into the breathtaking openness of upstate New York, Nelsons farm wasn't far off. Soon I was crawling up into a hay trailer, throwing down bales of green first cut down to the station wagon. I chatted with a woman named Wanda who was also there buying hay. She had a pony, and we talked horses for a bit. Just as I was about to leave a familiar trucked pulled up. It was Dave.

Two Shepherds
Dave and his wife Nadine have a flock of Texas Dall sheep three miles up the road. He told me to stop up and visit his wife 'cause she's home and would love to show me around. Within moments I was walking around Nadine's 75 acres and meeting her spunky ram lamb, Thomas. The name was perfect and I can't explain why. He stood there no larger than a labrador, but with those ovine eyes that seem ancient as sin (and a smile too smart to take himself seriously) he looked like a smug grad student named Thomas. He reminded me of Finn with his darker coat and large horns. (I bet our boys would love to run around the field together.) I very much liked the idea of a sheep and goat being best friends. The world needs more beautiful contraries.

We walked along her beautiful property. Two shepherds, talking about our small flocks. Nadine's farther than I am, of course. She owns this land and had a herd of 35 this past winter. Her fences, barn, and home out do my own in spades. It would be laughable to see my little sheep shed by her giant barn, her 15 Dalls by my two (soon three!) wool sheep, my 6 mountain acres I don't even own by her rolling fields of green that seem endless. A girl gets jealous. sick with hope, seeing all this. But I'll someday find my own spot on the world and dig in, as Gary Snyder says.

Before I left, she generously gave me a small shopping bag of cucumbers from her garden and some purple basil for the road. (Are you thinking about pickles and pizza too?) It was a nice unexpected field trip. I drove home with my gifts and sang with the radio. I am slowly learning how many farms and faces around my part of New England I am learning. I want to join the club.

Pickles, wood, and pizza dough
I drove home and filled the fridge with food, drained out the pickles of their vinegar bath and then coated them with sugar and pickling spices. While the sugar soaked up I stacked as much wood as I could, making three piles: Dry birch for tonight's campfire, more birch for the porch for cold pre-autumn nights, and stacked all the green wood under the overhang for winter. My arms have black and blue marks from carrying. My back is sore. I am happy about both these things.

I came inside sweaty and disgusting, but before I hopped in the shower I tasted one of the pickles. IT WAS AMAZING! I ate five more and then put them in a jar in my fridge. Since I am rich in cucumbers there will be a hell of a lot more where these came from. I have this new skill down. Goodbye supermarket jars. Now I really do need a pressure canner...

My night ended with five laughing adults, a light buzz from the local beer they brought with them, and really good pizza. No one complained about the cage of chirping five-week-old chickens near the campfire or the goat tied out four feet from where we were about to dine. These were my kind of people. We sat outside for hours just laughing, drinking, and talking. My perfect evening. The purple basil from Nadine graced our pies and was well received.

The quilted hay worked fine as benches and they looked almost pretty in the light of oil lanterns and campfire. My friend Mike sat beside me, strumming my 5-string banjo which I brought out to pluck by the fire. I think he fell in love because it never left his hands. I told him I'm still new to the banjo but I could help him get started. He liked that idea, or at least the idea of getting his won. I would not be surprised if he has one by fall. And his fervor inspired my own. Today I'll dig up old instruction books and try to learn some more, get a little better. I feel like I will have my whole life to learn the banjo. There isn't the rush of passion I have for the fiddle, but every now and then the spark returns and I want more out of my drum on a stick. Today I'll watch my Janet Davis DVD. Wish me luck.

Birch beer Sunday
This morning I had more coffee and am writing to you. Between sections of this blog post I cooked a batch of birch beer over the stove. My simple introduction to home brewing. You just mix a 1/8 tsp of yeast with sugar water and concentrated syrup over the stove, then seal it in jars to rack and ferment. Under the kitchen table are 4 qt. of birch beer. In three weeks they'll be carbonated and ready to drink. Which means by the time they're bubbly and cold I'll be seeing leaves change and starting a fire nearly every night on this small farm. I'll raise a glass to the hopes of mid-September. My big plans press on.

Now if you will kindly excuse me, I need to bring in those benches before the rain makes them too wet to eat.
Dall sheep image from


Blogger Carolyn said...

Hello! I've only been reading your blog for a couple of months, and I find it delightful and inspirational. Sometimes it feels like I'm alone in the world of spinning, knitting, sewing, baking bread, using a wood fire for heat, and no t.v., but when I read your blog, I remember there are lots of folks out there who love what I do. I have yet to garden, but you have inspired me to start. And boy, do I want chickens! By the way, what does birch beer taste like?

August 9, 2009 at 10:27 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Carolyn, there are many, many, of us.

Birch beer is big in PA, where I grew up. It's like root beer but tastes like birch, just like the way birch smells. Which sounds nasty, but it is amazing. I ordered the flavoring, yeast, and jars from Lehmans.

August 9, 2009 at 10:41 AM  
Blogger Rachel B. said...

Carolyn, once you've had birch berr you'll turn your nose up at root beer. Mmmm, there's nothing like real birch beer from Amish country. Yummy!

August 9, 2009 at 10:45 AM  
Blogger finsandfeathers said...

Once again your writing painted quite a picture for us to enjoy.

We heat our home with wood and cut our own fire wood too. It seems every year I notice a few pieces of wood with special coloring, a unique looking knot or pattern on it. But then I run across those same pieces again when I stack them in our wood shed and stack them again in the garage and then bring them in the house for the stove. It still amazes me that out of 3-4 chords of fire wood we cut every year there’s 3-4 pieces I distinctly remember.

Any chance on getting the pickle recipe? My wife’s Aunt Dorthy preaches you can’t make good bread ‘n butter pickles unless you use glass for the pickles to sit in while they are in the brine. Do you agree? Big glass jars are hard to find in this world of plastics.

August 9, 2009 at 11:44 AM  
Anonymous Cary Bradley said...

Hi Jenna!

We are excited to make our own beloved birch beer, visited Lehman's on your suggestion. They offer birch root beer flavoring. Is that the one I need to make birch beer?
Thanks alot!, Cary

August 9, 2009 at 12:58 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...


You don't need a pressure canner for pickles, you can do them in a boiling water bath due to the vinegar. Grab a copy of "Putting food by" It explains everything.

My wife and I do about 50-60 pints a year, and I have some good recipes if you need some.

Email me

August 9, 2009 at 1:01 PM  
Blogger djp said...

Your jars look beautiful! I can't wait to start canning again....

August 9, 2009 at 4:08 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Cary, yup, that's what i used today.

and jeremy, thank you but i missed your comment. i did two more batches today before checking blog comments. But thank you!

August 9, 2009 at 8:40 PM  
Blogger Karen Sue said...

fins & feathers-
BALL jars is celebrating 125 years this year with a special gallon jug. I think you may still be able to get them at Target or Or perhaps at your local hardware.
I've never done pickles..perhaps I could give them a try.. are they pretty idiot-proof??

August 9, 2009 at 10:00 PM  
Blogger finsandfeathers said...

Thanks Karen Sue! I'll check it out :>)

August 10, 2009 at 12:46 AM  
Blogger Rachel B. said...

Karen, I beleive pickles are idiot proof. All you do is boil vinegar and spices (if using a packaged mix), cut the cucumbers, pack the cucumber, pour liquid over them, process. Jam must be idiot proof too because I had no problems, it set, sealed and tastes great.

August 10, 2009 at 8:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Been enjoying your post for a couple weeks now, found you from Down to Earth blog - Anyway, I made some pickled beets this spring in my pressure canner and they got blistered. When I called the pressure canner company for advice, they told me not to can pickled produce in the pressure canner because it gets too hot - just to do the water bath method. Just thought I'd pass this on...I seem to be learning everything the hard way too :) Keep up the good work!

(former PA res. living in VA)

August 10, 2009 at 9:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jenna,

Hope your Birch Beer doesn't do what happened to my Mom's Root Beer. We had 14 large gallon jars stored in the cool dry basement. Each one of them, EXPLODED. Not all at once mind you, but about 1 every other day or so. To a 10 year old, this is extremely funny, but to my Mom? She was pretty peeved!

August 10, 2009 at 10:11 AM  
Blogger Jody M said...

I'm a Kutztown Soda Works Sarsaparilla fan myself. I don't think I've ever had birch beer. Do you swear by the white or dark?

I love Lehmans.

August 10, 2009 at 11:13 AM  
Blogger Rhonda Jean said...

Hi again Jenna

If you go here:

you'll find a list of heirloom tomatoes suitable for canning.

August 10, 2009 at 3:45 PM  
Blogger Sarah Rachelle said...

What a beautiful, lovely long post! I love reading you describe the simple pleasures of life. It helps remind me how much I love simple and I have really let my life get complicated. I've got some work to do!

Could you share your canned tomato sauce recipe? I am in love with homemade tomato sauce. I never ever buy it. It's just too satisfying to hear the lips smacking when you've made it yourself!

August 11, 2009 at 10:11 PM  
Blogger dovecoco said...

And please share your jam recipe too! Yummmmmm

August 15, 2009 at 2:55 PM  

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