If you'd like to see a bunch of photos from my old life in Idaho, and read an excerpt from my book, Mother Earth News has put the entire feature online! So you can check it out, write a comment, and click around their site. The crew at MEN is a fine bunch of folks, even Maude agrees with me there. I showed her the article when it came out and she stared right at it. Which may sound despondent, but since she didn't try to eat it or instantly defecate upon it's arrival. I consider that a glowing review.
So the farm is jogging into spring. In the next week weekends the garden will have seeds and started plants in the ground. The Angora Doe, Bean Blossom, will be delivering a litter of kits, and new chickens bought at the annual Poultry Swap will be strutting around the yard. Slowly the grass is starting to show up, and my arms are starting to feel the soreness of the rake. Evenings at the farm call to my guitar, fiddle, and banjo. I sit on my porch with the dogs and play and sing, sometimes with a hard cider in my hand, just to spice it up. A small prayer for fall, which I miss more than any of you know.
UConn yesterday was great. The University Bookstore hosted a fine author event, and about thirty people came to hear about the book. I got to meet some blog readers, shake hands, play some nervous fiddle music, and drive around campus (which was all green hills and beautiful). It reminded me of UT back in Knoxville, and a small part of me pined for Market Square and that old scene. Oh, Tennessee. The only ghost I'm haunted by...
My bags of wool are all awaiting processing. The plan is to hand spin some, and send the rest off to be processed at a small mill. The end result will be blankets, yarn, hats, scarves, and hell, maybe even a sweater if I'm feeling brassy. But just having the sheep shorn, and seeing them adjust to their new bodies has been an educational experience. This morning when I went out to check on the flock I couldn't see them. Usually, soon as daylight breaks they are pacing in the pen, yelping for breakfast. But this morning the chilly air and lack of wool changed their habits. They were all asleep in a pile in their shed, which had just been lined with clean straw. I had to yell for them to get up and watch them trot out baahing for hay. They look like goatdogs now, like a white Labrador and a goat were mixed together. Quite the combo, them.
I was in the kitchen writing when I heard the truck pulling into the driveway. I was already on my third cup of coffee, totally amped about the big day. I raced to the window and saw Jim McRae and his business partner Liz unloading gear from the back of their rig. I went out to meet them, slightly self conscious that I was about to help shear sheep in jeans from Banana Republic...
Whenever I am around professionals in the sheep world I get slightly nervous. I feel like a high school football coach about to chat with a guys donning Super Bowl rings. I worry about what I wear and what I say like I'm on some sort of date. I walked up to them, shoved my hands in my pockets, smiled, and tried to play shepherd. I asked how I could help and what could I carry? They handed me a toolbox and we were off for the pen.
The sheep were not excited to see the new company. They turned skittish. They knew this game. Jim and Liz went about the business of setting up their work area. They laid down some plywood to work on, and changed into shearing shoes. (These weird flat, wool shoes so their feet stayed flat and comfortable.) Then Jim grabbed Maude and Liz grabbed Marvin. Side by side they got their haircuts and manicures. To my complete surprise, Maude was an angel. She was limp as a ragdoll kitten in Jim's hands. Marvin however, fought a bit. He shook his butt on the ground and belted out a few complaints. Sal was last, and fought like a champ, but eventually let Jim finish the job. The whole time I tried to help best I could. I packed wool into bags, helped fetch gear from their boxes, plugged and unplugged stuff at their request...I just tried to be of use. I learned today what a big job this really was. I was grateful professionals were doing this instead of me.
I snapped photos as they worked them over, slightly amazed at how much wool was streaming off their bodies. My books say each 150-pound sheep was packing about ten pounds of wool each. I believed it. When the shearing was done, hooves were trimmed, butts were slapped (of sheep, not people), and the three very silly and naked looking sheep were all pacing in the pen. I thanked Jim and Liz, handed them their check ($49!) and let the trio out into their little pasture. I gave the troops a little hay, scratched their heads and necks, and watched them prance around like little does. They seemed happier without all that wool weighting them down. Then I looked over at my three bags full, propped against the fencing. I stood there grinning, my hands all oily from lanolin proudly on my hips. Sometimes things work out. Not always (hell, rarely) but sometimes.
I had a spring shearing of my own sheep under my belt. I felt rich.
Then, I heard a ruckus in the trees above. A pair of crows landed above me and apparently they had a lot to comment on. I waved to them smiling and went inside. Life rolls.
Thought I'd check in while I'm waiting for the sheep shearer to arrive. I am beside myself with excitement. Here's a shot of Maude (in front) and Sal taken moments ago. Say goodbye to that fleece kids. I can't wait to see them without their wool. They'll look ridiculous.
In a few hours I'll have three comfortably shorn sheep and enough wool to keep the people of West Sandgate in all the knit hats they can handle. I'm looking forward to hand processing a chunk of it, and also planning to mail off a bunch to professionals at a small mill who will send me back blankets and yarn. This summer I'll be knitting at campfires and on the porch, stocking up the pantry with next years Christmas presents. Friends and family will be wearing Maude, Marvin, and Sals' spring line.
This day: is a dream come true. For so long I have pined for sheep. I am so far away from the big dream, a full-time working lamb and wool farm. But today is the first time I ever helped clip my own hoofstock. I know it's only three sheep. I know Cold Antler isn't a big operation. But this is how things start. While no friends or family will be here this year to help, as the years go by more and more people will be a part of this. And someday it will end with bonfires and guitars and wine.
Yes, yes. This is the beginning of many good years with lanolin on my fingers.
The UConn Co-op, which is the University Bookstore, is hosting a Sustainability Fair this weekend. I'll be there Sunday at 2pm to talk about homesteading and living green. If you're in the area, stop by and say hi. I may even have Jazz and Annie with me (which would be appropriate, being huskies and all), but even if I'm sans dogs, it should be a nice discussion regardless. And the fair itself should be an educational event, full of interesting characters and helpful information. It's a green scene out there, for certain.
Also, sheep shearing tomorrow morning! Hoo! It'll be an exciting morning getting up early to prepare, get extension chords ready, find some plywood to work on. The shearer, a fella named Jim, is stopping by early. I promise to take lots of pictures, for certain.
After a few years of homesteading, I now know exactly what the sound of fugitive sheep hooves on a wooden porch sounds like. When a breakout occurs, the flock always make a run for the porch. It makes sense. That's where the hay is stored. And this morning, as a light snowfall covered the farm, I was shaken out of bed by a "clop clup Cluppy BANG!"- which is what clumsy hooves knocking over a water pail sound like. Very cumbersome antics, those.
As this happened, Jazz and Annie whipped their heads out of sleep. Jazz showed every tooth in his wolfy mouth. This is also, something I am accustomed. Waking up to fangs doesn't phase me in the slightest. I pet his head, half awake, and told him "That'll do.." He lowered his lips over his canines and placed his head back on a pillow, then curled his back for another round of sleep. My dogs are all talk and no consequence. I however, needed to wrangle some ovine...
I smiled, stretched, and went outside with the camera to get photographic evidence of the convict. There by the porch was Sal. (The only one who jumped the fence. The others were watching from the pen.) He was chewing on his pilfered breakfast, glaring at me. I laughed. Then I grabbed an armful of hay and asked him to follow me back to the pen. He heeled beside me like a golden retriever. The snow fell like cold ash around us as we walked back to the flock.
Every night I do the same thing. Around 10pm, the final rounds go on around Cold Antler and I put the farm to bed. It's just me, the stars, a small lantern, and my ipod. While listening to some slower, end-of-day music I go about the night chores I now consider as common as washing my face and brushing my teeth.
I feed the sheep some grain, and check on every bird in the hen house. I walk in the garden, planning my big plans. I carry out all the animal's water. I turn out lights. I scratch under the chins of Marvin and Sal. Sometimes I sing. I do these things and let the music swallow me, and I let myself get lost in whatever is on my mind at the time. Tonight I was grateful for the temperance of the music, and the full moon. Good company, them.
Tonight I was listening to a live concert Iron and Wine recorded for NPR's All Songs Considered. When He Lays in the Reins came on, I was particularly pensive. That song, even in all it's intensity, has the ability to consistently haunt me.
I was singing along tonight, checking on the flock when something fairly magical happened. From between the two wethers Maude walked right up to the gate. She was inspecting me, considering me. I kept singing along. "One more tired thing. A gray moon on the rise..." I carefully, slowly, put my hand out, still singing to the leery sheep. "When you’re all tuckered out and tame..." I stood there softly singing, my hand extended.
She touched it with her nose.
I nearly fainted. Then, recovering mid-stride, smiled like an idiot. What a win. What a perfect ending to a beautiful day. And the big lesson learned: Farming is infinitely more beautiful with a soundtrack. Burn the Louvre to the ground. Throw every book in the goddamn sea. But please, please leave me music. It's always everything.
I made an appointment with a sheep shearer to trim down the flock in the next few weeks. Calling about getting your sheep shorn on your lunch break at the office is kind of a surreal experience. Or maybe not surreal—more of a conflict of whimsical interests. Like watching TV in a lawn chair outside or sticking a couch in an elevator to hang out. But call I did, and soon Maude, Marvin, and Sal will hand over their three bags of wool. I think they'll be grateful too—as the days grow slowly warmer I can tell their lapping up a lot more water and spending their time in the shade. You'll have this.
P.S. Does that sheep engraving look like the rabbit in Donnie Darko to anyone else?
This is why I hate April. This fickle bitch of a month always keeps you guessing... Last night, Cold Antler got an inch of snow and just a few days ago I was outside in my garden, tilling the soil in a t-shirt!. You'll have this with April—but that doesn't mean I have to like it. She's ruthless, and keeps me so far away from October, my favorite month of the year.
As for the rabbit in the photo; that's Bean Blossom, my little angora doe. I had her bred recently but it didn't take, so I'll (well, I won't try. My Angora buck Ben will..) to breed her again this week. Hopefully there will be some spring bunnies here soon.
When I pulled into the farm after work last night, I saw a terrible thing.
Marvin and Sal, my two trusty wethers, were standing by the fence line baaing for hay. But behind them, a pile of limp wool lay in the shade. Oh my god...Maude.
Without even turning off the ignition, I bolted out of the car and raced to the sheep pen. Marvin and Sal watched me like a pair of golden retrievers behind chain link, sordid, quiet. Their mood made me worry more. I mean, they aren't usually wagging their tales and jumping at the fence, but they generally have some spark to them. Were they concerned too? Under the pine tree, Maude laid limp, her legs out, her head on the ground with her back to me.
"Maude?" I called, terrified. I was shocked at my own concern. Shocked that I ran to her like a toddler in front of a bus. Shocked that my heart was racing at the idea that something may have happened to her. Shocked I cared this much about this horrible animal. She still wasn't moving. Oh no...
"MAUDE!" I got louder.
Then, her ear flicked, and slowly she turned her angry face towards me. She stood up on her hooves, looked at me like I led the fourth reich, and baaed a low, pissed-off belch. Then turned around and laid down again in her shade, her rump facing my stance. She wasn't dead, she was napping.
I was never happier to be dissed by a sheep in my life.
The days are getting warmer and all of us are spending a lot more time outside. Regardless if you're enjoying an outdoor concert or toiling in the vegetable garden--it's high time for some good old fashioned refreshments.
I'm a big fan of fresh, natural, lemonade and brewed ice tea. But since I'm usually the only one drinking it, it's silly to make a giant pitcher for one. I found a way to make my own single-serving sized version in portable containers. Which is great when you're running into town and want a cold drink for the road, or have been outside raking and need something instantly cold and sweet to boost up your blood sugar. Enter Masonades:
Masonades are soda-can sized servings of hand-squeezed lemonade or iced tea. You can make enough for a whole weekend in about five minutes, which makes me wonder how powdered mix ever even made it in the public market?
Ingredients Box of pint mason jars (with lids) Fresh organic lemons Water Ice cubes Natural sugar Natural lemon juice Organic black tea bags Fresh mint or lemon verbena from the garden
Take your jars and fill them up halfway with cold water. Cut half a lemon and squeeze its juice into the jar, and then plop the whole half into the jar as well, making the water tart and filled with little bits of pulp and flavor. If you really want to kick the tartness up - add some fresh lemon juice (about a teaspoon) to the mix. Then add as much sugar as you feel appropriate (depending on mood and heat it could be as little as a teaspoon or as much as 2 tablespoons) and then top it off with ice till it's nearly overflowing. Seal the lid and shake the hell out of it untill it's one big, frothy, delight. There you have it. Farm fresh, all natural, and ready for travel.
I make a few of these and stash them in the fridge for later. Instead of grabbing a can of soda, I grab a cold jar of real lemonade in a reusable container. Which not only tastes amazing, but feels a little more authentic than most beverages. Masonades can also be made into iced tea - which is a healthier alternative. I just pour hot water from a kettle into room-temperature jars with an organic black tea-bag and let it cool on the kitchen counter. Then I add in a little lemon slice and a pinch of sugar, some ice, and a sprig of lemon verbena or mint and let it sit in the fridge alongside the jars of lemonade. When it's cold enough to condense water off the sides, it's manna from the still.
I posted this last summer, but felt it deserved the spotlight again.
Sundays are when I bake my weekly bread. It's a ritual I started in Idaho, and here in Vermont the faith survives. It's cold and rainy out there, a striking difference from yesterday's gardening-inducing sun. I'm inside enjoying music, and the feeling of a wooden spoon moving batter. Right now Sodom, South Georgia is playing on the record player, and it is indeed a grand way to pass an afternoon. Heat up the morning coffee, take off your shoes, scratch a dog behind the ears and breathe a little slower. Everyone has their own definition church. Mine is here. A place where time can slow down for songs and softer voices and good food and strong coffee puts the soul on the mend. Have a beautiful day, all.
A few weeks ago I came home from work and found a package on my mailbox. It was from a company called Rosies, who make coveralls specifically for woman. Inside the package was a teal pair of overalls, which fit me perfectly. Sliding them on was the clothing equivalent of sitting in a tractor. We're talking gardener super-hero garb: padded knees, cargo pockets, hidden zippers inside (so the ipod doesn't get destroyed), and a big chest pocket perfect for seed packets and utility knives. I had no idea the fine people over at Rosie's were going to send this to me, they even put a note in saying they were going to carry my book on their site. Shucks, thanks guys. I wanted to wait till I had a day outside to try them out before I reported on them here, but they are top shelf. If any of you farm girls out there pick up a pair, you will not be disappointed.
So I'm telling you about these overalls because this weekend, my dear friends, I beat the crap out of them. They are now a dirty pile of crumpled-workhorse on the cabin floor (as overalls damn well should be). I was outside all day Saturday. I worked till my hands blistered and my back ached. It was amazing. It was 60 degrees outside, and my day was one of those perfect farm afternoons of work and love. Get some coffee, get comfortable, and I'll tell you all about it.
It stared with the sheep. I went outside with hay and knife in hand. I set down their pile of fresh greens and then walked to their back gate to let them out into their pasture for the whole day. They came tearing out, and they raced to their buffet. With their wool on thick (and in need of shearing). It has a half-second delay bounce to their gait. So when a sheep runs all full of fleece their hair has to catch up with them. These silly little observations make my morning. While the sheep dined on their breakfast, my eyes glanced over just a few yards to where my real work lay...
I spent most of my afternoon with a hoe. I turned, tilled, and cleaned-up three of my raised beds—a small dent in the big picture, but it felt so good to get my fingernails dirty again. I was listening to a live concert of Bon Iver, which was amazing. As the chorus of Skinny Love broke out I'd sing along, slamming my hoe to the punctuation of each line.
And I told you to be patient! THHHWWAPP! And I told you to be fine! THHHWWAD! I told you to be balanced! THHHWWAPP! I told you to be kind! SHHWWAPPP!
...Musical hoeing: it's the only way to go. Everyone go buy For Emma, Forever Ago.
When my arms and back hurt from the sod, I'd switch over to the pitchfork. The plan was to move out some of the chickens' old winter straw bedding and use it as mulch in-between the beds. It would help the soil, and stop the weeds. So my whole day was dedicated to dirt and punctuated by the occasional chicken/goose garden break in. Every once in a while the geese or a rooster would step past the garden fence when my back was turned and start scratching up the mounds and rows I'd been working on. Then I'd try to chase them out, which was just feathers, squawking, and confusion - but hilarious. You haven't lived till you cursed out a French goose.
And so my effort ended with three food-ready beds, a few hundred pounds of mulch down, and phone numbers of shearers lined up. I even (and I'm almost scared to admit this to you...) but I even planted some seeds. I put peas and lettuce varieties in the ground in one bed. So what if it's too early? Then I'll plant more. It just felt like the right thing to do. To crouch down and place those peas in the dark earth, and look up from my garden fence to see the sheep all fat and happy, laying there in the pastures, chewing their cud in the sun. Beautiful, that.
The birds however, were not as passive. They all lined up against the garden fence, wondering why they couldn't come inside and eat all the earthworms writhing about the beds' edges. You can't please everyone.
The epic day ended with a potluck and campfire over in Cambridge, NY. My friend Dave hosted the shindig, and it was lovely. To end a long day of hard work with your feet propped up on a fire pit, and a slight buzz from a cold beer, well that's just perfection. Perfection in a very tangible source for us all.
I'm back guys. No more proposal to push through, no more long, cold, winter nights with nothing to report. I'll be updating every day on the farm, my big plans, and all the up-and-coming adventures here at Cold Antler. In the coming weeks I think there will be shearing, sheep-swapping, new chicks, the annual chicken swap, and bees bees bees... So much... so much of it back in my life again. You know, I'm not a fan of spring, but this year gratitude may bring me to my knees.
Stay tuned. Right now, I am off to buy hay. Welcome to my world.
There is a cold spring rain outside cabin as I type. Compared to just a few short weeks ago, the days seem long. Tonight after work today I took Jazz and Annie out for a muddy-road jog and by the time we came home, did the farm chores, plucked the banjo on the porch, and then came in to finally cook dinner...there was still a hunt of daylight. Summer is not far off, my friends. Not far off at all.
Sometimes, for kicks, I look back at the July archives of this blog and I am amazed I live in the same place. Cold Antler right now is a hideous mudpit of chicken poo, melting snow, dirty baling wire and old hay. But to think, in just a few months the garden, chicks, bees, and I will all be living under lush green leaves, and treading barefoot over soft grass... seems impossible. But every year the impossible happens, and I spend it sweating in the garden and swaying in the hammock. It's a fair trade.
My snap peas are growing just fine, about two feet tall. I have an office team and a cabin team, and the cabin team seems to be winning the race. But both plants are doing well. It's really great to look over from my design work and see those two seedlings become what they'll become. In a few weeks my desk will be awash in white blossoms. I can not wait. I get excited about such things.
I want to welcome all the folks who have stumbled here thanks to the fancy article in Mother Earth News. If you're new to this blog, you'll find a few years worth of blog entries (from three different states) and one gal's ongoing story about becoming a modern homesteader and future farmer. Now, welcomes aside, I have some photos for you.
This past fall two friends of mine, Sara Mack and Sara Stell, came up north from their suburban Philly home to visit Cold Antler. Stell is a hell of a photographer and in this link below you can see an intense slideshow of the farm, animals, cabin, and our trip to the Cooperstown NY sheepdog trials. Enjoy the photos, and your own personal farm tour!
A spring snow is falling outside, and the usual crew of birds is avoiding the weather by making a jungle gym out of the hay stacked on the porch. The roosters and some of their lady friends are perched in a Jenga-like fashion on the tottering bales. The poultry here is in rare form. Now that the snow is nearly gone they are back to ganging around the neighborhood, crashing crow and dove parties in the neighbors' yards and hootin' and hollering around the hollow like they own it.
But there are just too many roosters... I lost two more biddies yesterday. Two fat red hens closed their eyes for the last time and having lost three layers (over 600 eggs between them in a year) It'll be time to replace them soon. Since I don't want to add to the flock (14-16 is a good number of chickens for me) I would like to also add more layers and replace all these boys running around. With only ten hens left, and four roosters between them, the girls are flushed. They need less sexual congress in their lives, and more time on their nest boxes. I think the neighborhood could use a quieter morning too.
So if you want a beautiful, hand raised, friendly, muscial rooster. Come pick one up. I'm keeping just one.
P.S. Saro's egg is a bust. I removed it today. However, she is sitting on one of Sam's eggs right now instead, which the hen ever so slyly laid while Saro was out getting feed. Kind of a deadbeat mom thing to do, but hell, it's a chicken. So maybe Saro will hatch a chick instead of a gosling?! Stay tuned!
The blog of author Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm. Here she writes about her adventures following her crazy dream life as a self-employed homesteader, archer, falconer, equestrian, martial artist, hunter, spinner, brewer, geek, and real-life Game of Thrones Extra. @coldantlerfarm
And when the children are safe in bed, at one of the great holidays like the Fourth of July, New Years, or Halloween, we can bring out some spirits and turn on the music, and the men and the women who are still among the living can get loose and really wild. So that's the final meaning of "wild"- the esoteric meaning, the deepest and most scary. Those who are ready for it will come to it. Please do not repeat this to the uninitiated. -gs