Monday, July 13, 2009

finn's first hike!

Finn went on his first ever packing trip today. It was just a half mile with a light dog pack. I filled the panniers with raw wool to give them some bulk and had to make some adjustments based on goat-pack designs, but I figures it out and he was able to move freely with the load in place. Finn did wonderfully. He trotted alongside me and loped up the dirt road as we made our way to my neighbor's forest paths. I had been given permission to hike on their trails, and since it's just across the street from my farm it was the perfect training ground. More later on Finn's big day. Can't say the rest of it was as enjoyable for him...

the garden this morning

good morning from cold antler

This morning feels different. I know it's July but had you told me it was an early September morning, I would've believed you. It was cold enough last night that I lit the fireplace and this morning as I zipped up my blue hoodie to feed FInn and the sheep, it felt like I should come into a house with pumpkin bread in the over. Or maybe I'm just projecting? I can't wait for fall.

By the way, my pumpkins are looking amazing! This year may be the bumper crop I've been working for since Idaho.

Yesterday's trials were great. I stayed till the end and spent most of the day scribing again. Got to talking a lot with the judge who gave me the name of a young couple around Troy who have a big operation and working dogs. He said I should see them, make friends, and see if they'll show me around their farm. They also run dogs in the club. It's a start, whoever they are. A field trip may be in order soon.

No fox yet. I've been hunting without luck, but I know he's still around. I put up a baited Havahart trap and the little jerk dug a tunnel below it to eat the bait from below without going into the cage.... I am dealing with a clever predator.

I took off today, as you well know. I'm sitting here with a cup of coffee so strong it would scare my coworkers. The sheep were extra thrilled to be let out into their pasture on a weekday morning. I even gave them a little extra hay to celebrate the stolen time from the office. (Sal seems to enjoy it, as you can see from that photo.) Soon I'll be getting Finn ready for a short hike and then running off to do some farm errands. I have three new laying hens to pick up to replace from the fox losses and Finn needs some shots at the livestock vet. You know, in case any of you nice people wanted a systematic breakdown of my day.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

riding to the fields this morning

hen delivery

When I got home from the trials, I was met right at the cabin door by Jazz and Annie. Their dark eyes and quiet voices (they rarely make a sound). My dogs met me at the door and smelled the dozens of sheepdogs I'd be working with all day. Tails wagging, nuzzling their wolf heads against my waist. They forgave me and I hugged them. I would not trade them in for the best border collie in Scotland. They're family, and the only constant thing I've known since I first left Pennsylvania nearly five years ago. Everything else changes but these dogs are mine. It's written in stone.

After the dogs were walked and the farm taken care of—I called my coworker Noreen. (Noreen was the woman I went on that chicken adventure at the office a few week's ago.) She'd just constructed her henhouse and run, and was ready to have the birds she bought with me delivered. I loaded four hens in the back of the haytruck and we headed down the mountain into Arlington. You just can't know the fun of hand-delivering laying hens to a first-time owner.

I showed up at Noreen's to find her laying in her hammock. (I like hammock people, for I am one of them) and she was as excited a girl waiting for her prom date. We carried the cage to their new home and placed in the two Light Brahmas, an Australorp cross, and a Red Star. The four hens made their home their own quickly. I hope they start laying for her soon. Noreen did not stop grinning the whole time.

There is something empowering about raising chickens. I know that sounds a little silly, maybe a little dramatic, but it is. Chickens up the ante from the basic garden. They bring in the element of protein right to your backyard (without all the messy slaughter work or ethics of killing). I depend on my flock to cover a lot of meals and help with baked goods and entertainment around here (I don't have a TV). And with new chicks chirping away, and some new adult birds on the way as well...I hope to stay in chickens for a long time.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

the society of lamb and wool

I arrived at Merck Forest and Farmland Center early. My car pulled into the dirt parking lot a little after 8AM. My heart was beating faster than usual. If you're new to this blog (and my story) know that being a full-time shepherd is the dream. There is nothing I want more than to own a little land, raise lambs, harvest wool, and herd with my collies by my side. I was about to enter the world of people I idolize: The Society of Lamb and Wool. A scrappy, but thriving subculture of the 21st century: modern shepherds.

I had emailed a few folks in the club letting them know I'd be there and willing to help, but I had no idea what was in store for me. Volunteering a sheepdog trial can mean a lot of things. Sometimes it means running water bottles and bagged lunches to judges across the field, and other times it means wrestling with Scottish Blackface ewes... (I know. I had done both over the past year.) Just in case I was asked to work the pens, I wore my favorite old boots and put a fresh change of clothes in the car. I would do what I was asked, and I'd do it gratefully.

I also brought my banjo. I did not know if there would be a time and place for music, but I feel that acoustic instruments are like guns or condoms—it's better to have one and not use it than really need one and not have it. I threw my 5-sting in the back and considered myself protected.

Anyway, back to this trial.

I walked the quarter mile through the forest into the open fields. As the trees parted and the morning light filtered through the branches—I stopped to take in the whole picture, like a still from a movie set. A team of horses was coming down the path in front of me, pulling a wagon (taxi service from the parking lots). I sighed the sigh of a woman who had found the life she yearned to live. Relief and panic swept over me like falling in love, which I was.

And it's hard not to fall hard for this world. It really is beautiful. Open Northeast woods with rolling hills of sheep and cattle. Footpaths going in every direction. A fishing pond with children and poles. Post barns with heavy horses in harness outside, waiting their turns to carry their loads. Under the white tents people sat and watched the trial as an announcer explained the course. Sheep bleated from side pens while border collies trotted everywhere—my future partners in labor and crime.

I wasn't there five minutes when Steve Whetmore walked up to me. Steve's been in the New England Sheepdog scene for years. He's one hell of a breeder and trialer. He smiled, shook my hand welcome, and asked me if I wanted to Scribe today? I told him I would be happy to. I had no idea what he was talking about.

I walked down to the judges area and let myself into the trial field to find out. The gate was nothing more than some bailing twine holding a plastic panel. I smiled warmly as I unraveled it to let myself in. This green twine from haybales has found it's way into every corner of my life now. It was only proper to find it at the gates of heaven as well.

Scribing means you sit next to the judge and write down scores as he calls out points being removed. You also keep time. The man of the hour: David Young (a Quebec shepherd and trialer of twenty years). David judged from the bed of his beautiful Ford 250 and I sat next to his tires in a folding chair with a clipboard and a kitchen timer. I was too shy to ask if I could sit in the truck alongside him. (To me trial judges are a form of royalty and pages don't ask to share the thrown.) I knew my role and set the clock for seven and a half minutes. I watched the dogs. I tried to learn all I could.

Scribing a sheepdog trial means you get a front row seat. It's like being the umpires water boy at a baseball game. You sit right by the post (home plate) and as the handler sends his dog out to gather the sheep you watch it all happening right in front of you. David was a friendly and easy-going guy. He answered all my questions and explained when a dog did something exceptionally well or horrid. I quickly realized how invaluable of a learning experience this was, and shut up as he explained about proper outruns and healthy lifts. I am learning this more every year. I watch the dogs like normal people watch fireworks - calm awe and constant wonder. Every time a dog was finished and the handler patted his hip and said "That'll do" my heart stopped. If they only knew how much the chubby girl in the bandana sitting behind them wanted to say those words to her own sheepdog...

I swear to god, in the field above us a man played the bagpipes. Perfect.

I did this all morning. For hours in full sun, I sat by David's truck and watched the advanced dogs work. When another scribe came to relieve me I took a short walk around the farm. I walked past the shearing demonstrations where Jim McRae was trying to explain to come summer vacationers why it's okay for lambs to be weaned from their mothers. Jim was the man who sheared my sheep this past spring. I said hello and chatted with him for a bit before walking up to the hog and chicken pens. Merck focuses on heritage and sustainability. The animals on the land are all historic livestock breeds of New England. Barred Rock hens, Randall Lineback Cattle, and Tamworth hogs. I walked around their pens and houses under the shadow of the giant windmill that generates much of the farms electricity. Grazing animals, renewable energy, farmers and happy people... If Vermont has any say in the future of this country it is very bright one indeed. I'm a proud patriot of this state.

It's hard to believe that last year, while watching this same trial, I was brand new to this life. I walked onto the fields as a spectator last July. Back then the idea of having sheep was ridiculous. Yet here I was a year later and so much has changed. Somehow I managed to get hoofstock and today I am shepherd. (Yes. I only have a few sheep, but I do indeed have them. And I promise you they are only the beginning...) And now after a year of clinics, and trials, and lessons and the failed-adoption of Sarah, I stood before that whole world mildly competent.

I stayed for the whole trial and ended up scribing the last ten dogs. I was slightly shocked to see Donald McCaig come out into the field with his bitch June. I read Donald's book Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men last winter and loved it. I was so very inspired by it. And here before me was the man who's story about finding a border collie in Scotland had kept me company in my cold winter cabin... (They say people never forgot seeing Elvis live? Well, McCaig's kinda like that for me, but with lanolin on his mustache.) I took down his scores like everyone else's. How the hell did I land here? I could not stop smiling.

Tonight as the thunder rolls outside the cabin I'm just plain happy. All the bad vibes from the past week are washed away and replaced instead with this pounding hope in my fiddle-stringed heart. A hope that I too will be a charter member in the Society of Lamb and Wool. But in the meantime I am here.

In the bathroom the next generation of CAF poultry is chirping away. (I can hear them as I write you.) Outside the garden is soaking up every drop of this summer rain. Another litter of rabbits is on the way soon, and so is the possibility of a new black ram lamb. On Monday Finn and I will hit the trail. On Tuesday I'll go back to work refreshed. Everything is happening slowly, but it is happening. And that isn't to say everything is perfect. (Hell no and far from it) But I see no reason to focus on the poorer half of my heart this weekend. Tonight I'll fall asleep tired and happy with kind dogs and a novel by my side.

Tomorrow I'll return to help again. Every day at a sheepdog trial is another step down the right road to life I can't wait to turn around three times on and lay down in. Which I will walk down past trotting horses and their carts in my comfortable boots. I'll find my farm, and when I do I'll meet you there.

i'll tell you all about it

Friday, July 10, 2009

a new year, a fresh start

As a birthday present to myself I brought home a small pile of chicks from the feed store. I went into the store planning to just pick up straw and scratch grains but saw that sign posted by the register: Extra Laying Hens: 2.80 each and ended up driving home with a small box of day-old poultry in the front seat. Since I lost so many birds from this fox it felt like a proper present, the thing to do. As I write you five chicks (four Rhode Island Red pullets and one Golden-Laced Wyandotte Rooster) and a Turkey poult (an heirloom breed called the Narragansett, also from Rhode Island) are chirping from the safety of their bathroom brooder box. The chickens are for Cold Antler, but the turkey is for my friend Phil's Thanksgiving (or Christmas, since it is already July) Table. I'd offer the bird to my own family, but that was a disaster last year. (Not everyone wants to meet their meat...)

Tonight I farmed with a rifle by my side and a loaded clip in my pocket. As I mulched and weeded the garden I let the birds out of their confinement for some armed supervision. No sign of the fox in days, but I am ready when he comes. I have a baited Havahart trap set near the coop (which I rented from my neighbor's gas station for a dollar a day) and have been hunting every morning. I go outside at dawn with hot coffee and my .22 and wait. I have no pity for the fool. I'll hang his pelt on my wall.

There was this moment when I was walking out to the garden with a rifle over my right shoulder and two tomato plants in my left hand and I thought to myself: this perfectly sums me up as a woman.

I propped the gun by the garden fence and let Finn out to romp on his tie-out. I watched the birds scratch and hunt worms and salamanders all around me while I cleaned out their coop. It was a back-breaking few hours of pitchforking old crap-lined straw, but the hard work felt good. I've been stressed out all week, and tired as hell. Not getting enough sleep and over-thinking too much. It was good to just dive into grunt work. I am covered in chicken poo and sweat as I check in with you. I am the picture of disgusting. Happy Birthday to me.

This weekend will be packed with things I love. My farm will be front and center, (there is so much to do here) but I have taken off from work Monday for my own mental health and as another small gift to myself. Instead of the office, Finn and I are heading on a local trail for his first-ever pack hike. It'll be short, and his pack empty, but a beginning none the less. (He's already walking on lead up to a mile every day by my side, and has been borrowing Jazz's dog pack as draft-animal training wheels.) I think It'll be fun. I might make him carry a sandwich for me. We'll do lunch. Clearly, I am a very exciting young person. Lunch dates with ruminants...

Tomorrow morning I am getting up early and driving over the mountain to Merck Forest for the Annual NEBCA Open Sheepdog Trials. I am hoping to either help in the pen or by learning to keep score. (In case I end up in the shoot, loading four sheep at a time onto the trial fields...I'll wear my boots) That day will be wonderful, and probably stir up all sorts of longings for my own lamb and wool farm, a dream that keeps me up at night and makes my stomach turn when I think it might not happen... But maybe someday I'll get my farm, and a good border collie or two by my side. That is the hope. I am big on hope. You have no idea.

Anyway, I'm sure you'll hear all about that tomorrow.

Tonight however, I turn 27. I'm covered in mud, sweat, chicken shit and smell like death—but I am happy. Not blissful. It's been a crap week, but happy. Now, I am going to shower like I have never showered before, slice into the watermellon sitting on my counter, tune my fiddle and guitar and light up the porch with as many candles as I can manage. Tonight I will throw myself a birthday concert. The theme: a new year, a fresh start.

merck trials this weekend!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

gardener's corn

I'm not a great gardener. Truth be told, I'm still a beginner. This year's garden is only my third, but naivete and mistakes aren't keeping my fingernails clean—I keep planting and learning as I go. I discovered when it comes to some veggies I'm hell at raising them. I can grow a fine mess of peas, beans, salads and broccoli no problem. Other types leave me guessing...For some reason I can not grow a heathy heirloom tomato in Vermont. My peppers seem to be stuck in their adolescent stages. And my watermelons and pumpkins never seen to grow beyond softball sizes....

But even with all the failures,. I find some foods are just plain rewarding in their simplicity. Some veggies you can just dig a hole, drop in a seed, and pass the summer watching it turn into something satisfying and delicious. For example: corn.

Corn has become a nearly dirty word in modern food talk. Since it's force fed in feeding lots, pumped into fructose syrups, and filling up puppy chow bags—people don't seem to appreciate it much. I get that. I understand all it's downsizes and know how annoyed it gets Michael Pollan...but I love growing my own. It's one of those foods I seem to have a knack for. Maybe because it already grows like a weed (since technically - it is a tall grass) but even if it has nothing to do with my own skills—I love seeing those stalks rise up taller than I am. It makes this place feel more like a farm to me. Come October I tie the brown stalks to my porch and everytime I walk by the big bushels I am amazed it started with a pile of seeds in my palm Memorial Day weekend.

Sweet corn is an honest trade. You put in a weekend of hard labor, swing that hoe, plant those kernels, and come late summer you have these delicious white cobs that sizzle on the grill or pop between your teeth dripping with butter. The taste of just-pulled-off-the-stalk sweet corn is hard to beat.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

it's on

Four more laying hens were taken today. That's it. The birds will remain locked in the coop all day tomorrow, and stay locked up till I stop this animal. Come dawn I will be up extra early with my rifle. If I have no luck taking the todd that way, I'll set a Havahart trap and call the game warden to remove him. Either way, I need to stop this. That's eight animals under my care dead. It's on.

someone save temptation

This is my favorite song. Ever.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

growing up

Monday, July 6, 2009

the fox and the fall

Yes, the marauder in question is a red fox. I got a call from my neighbor Katie, telling me our neighbor Ed witnessed a fox carrying a duck in its jaws and running down the hill and over the creek. This happened around dawn. As I write you, the chicken coop is latched and locked and I am glad to report no other animals were lost today. I now know what to look for, and hopefully I can stop this fox in its tracks or do something to better fence and pen my birds. I am already taking the dogs out at night to relieve themselves at the poultry house—hoping the scent of wolves will make the red one turn tail. I do what I can.

On a lighter note: The garden is thriving. What a glorious sight! Corn is shooting up towards my waist. The pumpkins vines are thick and dark. Squashes are starting to rise and peas snap into my mouth like sugar water candies. Tonight I dine on a dinner of skillet-steamed broccoli over an egg and couscous stir fry. Homesteaders work like dogs but eat like kings.

And I was able to share some of the bounty this weekend too. Before I drove south to Pennsylvania I loaded the car with my contributions to the family feasting. I brought a giant bag of vegetables and a dozen farm eggs. I baked all weekend. I made pizza and apple pies and a fine quiche with a buttery crust. It's a good feeling, taking care of people's hunger. Giving them something to eat and enjoy you are directly responsible for. I know that's an old song. It doesn't mean it's not true.

This morning when I woke up there was a slight chill in the air. Just enough to cause me to see my breath at 5:30 AM. I watched it rise up into the oaks and watched it come out of the honking geese's bills like smoke. With the solstice behind us each day gets just a little colder, a little shorter... Soon it will be October again and I will be so very happy. A season comes to replace another. My breath is always baited for the falls.

P.S. My camera is fixed. More new photos soon.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

back from vacation

Just in from a three-day vacation in Pennsylvania with the dogs. I was visiting my folks, and away from the farm since Friday morning. Thanks to the help of my amazing neighbors I was able to leave knowing the animals would be taken care of in my absence. It takes a village. It really does.

I had a wonderful time in Palmerton, but when I returned to Cold Antler I discovered my duck and another rooster (Sussex, my favorite, pictured above) had been swiped by the predator. This has me rather concerned since the animal taking my flock seems to come while I'm at work (not in the dead of the night). I am researching my options, but does anyone have any advice for a free-range flock? Is there something I can buy and spray, like a deterrent?

I've never had this sort of problem with birds before. Certainly not in broad daylight. And while I have no qualms shooting a fox or fisher if I catch one around the place—catching such an animal seems nearly impossible since it's happening while I'm earning my paycheck...

Thursday, July 2, 2009

some things i learned so far...

A 40% chance of rain means there's a 100% chance you're still watering the garden.

No day is too hot for a cold creek, iced lemonade, and a westinghouse fan by an open window. (And I lived in Tennessee)

Hoeing never gets easer.
But your body gets harder.

Better to try and fail then not try at all.
I'll take heartbreak over apathy any day.
Heartbrake means you tried.

On winter mornings, a freshly laid egg makes a perfect hand warmer in your pockets.

Pancakes from scratch, fresh egg omelets, and homemade bread are unbeatable. But some days you just want diet coke and fruitloops, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Gardening: worth it.

Old stuff is better.

Some second-cut hay looks good enough to eat.

Patches make favorite jeans last forever. Do not be afraid to sew.

Chickens: worth it.

You haven't met winter till you met Sandpoint, Idaho.

Now, share some of your own.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

broken camera and one man down

I came home from work to the sounds of thunder. Not too far south of the farm the sky was lighting up. I had to move fast if I wanted all the animals taken care of and stay dry in the process. I did my best and was able to feed, water, collect eggs, move out to pasture and stake out my kingdom of the animals. When the night's chores were done I chose to meet the rain on the porch with my guitar. I sat there strumming my Sunburst Epiphone AJ (an affordable knock off of my dream guitar: the lovely Gibson J-45) and sang. I had a rough day at work, and singing in the rain did just the trick. If I was playing a J-45 I'd still play to the storm. Just louder. She'll deserve louder.

I do not baby my instruments. They're draft animals too.

I also broke my camera. New photos are on hiatus till I get another Kodak.

Sad news: Lost a few birds, including the original CAF-VT rooster, Rufus Wainwright. (That's him on the YouTube video graphic on the right hand side of this blog.) No trace of him, just feathers in the yard. I don't know if it's a hawk, yote, fox or dog that took the ol' boy...but he will be missed. He did a good job taking care of the ladies before the young guns took over from last springs (supposedly all-pullet) chick order. I also lost a few hens from the pick-up last Friday. A little bit of entropy as all this rain takes over. You'll have this.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

wet hens

There are moments when you realize your life has changed and you are never going back—couldn't if you wanted to. Friday's lunch break contained one of such moments. Walking back to the car in the rain, with two hens under each arm, soaking wet and covered in sweat was just beautiful to me. I stole a smile when no one was looking. I like how the story is going so far.

It all started because my coworker Noreen wanted laying hens. Her husband and her have been talking about it for a while and the decision had been made. The only problem was it was too late in the season to order chicks that would lay before fall and the only mail-order birds available were production reds and leghorns. She wasn't that thrilled with the production gals and New England winters aren't very kind to leghorns.... What she really wanted were some heavy birds: Brahmas, Orpingtons, or hardy Northeast natives of similiar ilk. The hunt was on for healthy, local, laying gals for sale in our hood.

Thanks to Craigslist we came across a backyard chicken keeper who was thinning out her flock. She had an array of such birds for the unbeatable price of a sawbuck a piece. I had lost five birds this winter and Noreen needed a starter set.: So we struck up a deal and pick up time online and I filled the back of my station wagon with wire cages. Come noon we were driving to North Bennington to meet our new livestock. We'd be returning to the office with a car full of hens.

It was pouring all morning. We did not waiver.

Thanks to the directions of some friends who lived in that neighborhood we found our way around backwoods Bennington and drove over the red covered bridge that led us to our destination. I pulled into the driveway and saw two border collies in the window barking a suspicious welcome. Shortly after they started a four-year-old girl with curly long hair popper her head up alongside the dogs in the windows and joined it. "BARK! BARK!" she exclaimed between giggles. I smiled. This was my kind of kid. Surrounded my wolves with a shitfaced grin on her face. Her mom came out from their white farmhouse in wellies and a raincoat to help us. The little girl came out in the rain as well; smiling like a sprite with no umbrella. I liked them instantly.

Her set up was nice. A big fenced-in run and a big walk-in coop with walls of nesting boxes. She explained which birds could go and which would stay, and as the rain picked up outside the coop, I knew we'd have to catch these hens fast or I'd be returning to the office looking like a refugee. (Which was fine by me, but can cause some raised eyebrows from managers...)Noreen was by my side the whole time, but since she wasn't dressed for chicken wrangling (and I had a clean change of clothes in the backseat), I took the responsibility of catching and loading up the birds. It was a riot.

Noreen watched from the front row seat of my car, laughing the whole time as I scurried around the yard in the rain, hunting and trapping our new acquisitions. I must've looked ridiculous. I was soaking wet by now. My hair stuck in my thick black glasses as I scooped up the chickens, cradling one or two in my arms and walking them back to the car. They carried on something fierce while doing this and I kept assuring them my place and Noreen's was a long call from the Purdue factory and they should lighten up.

We handed over the money, shook hands, and drove back to the office. By backseat was a melody of clucking and a harmony of heavy feed sacks and rattling mason jars. This is my life now, and I could not help but smile as I rolled back into the Orvis parking lot. A girl from Pennsylvania who fell in love with homesteading in Tennessee pulling into her Vermont office's driveway aided by an Idaho poultry education... Like I said, I like the story so far.

The birds are all at Cold Antler now. All eight are strutting around the creeks and woods and soon four will find their way to Noreen's and provide her family with a fresh healthy source of eggs. She'll end up with Light Brahmas and Jersey Giants and they'll be great. She seemed excited the whole time, and I could relate. Getting your first chickens is a big step. It's the leap between backyard gardening to homesteader in my eyes. Such simple, easy, animals and such a sense of accomplishment and good food to boot. I hope they do well. I know they will.

Friday, June 26, 2009

a car full of hens

There are eight laying hens in dog crates in the back of my car. They are parked outside the office, near the back door. More later on the lunch break, rain storm, soaking-wet, chicken caper.

Stay tuned.

still going strong

The farm is trotting into summer. It's starting to feel like summer too. The days are in the 80s, humid, and long. Yesterday I turned on the ol' Westinghouse to cool the dogs and I off after our walk up the mountain. Still going strong and made in th 40's. God bless 'em.

All the kits are sold, so we're back to two rabbits. It's always a little sad to be suddenly bunnyless around here. Those little guys always lighten the mood. However all four members of the snappea litter are in good pet and fiber homes and the sunflower litter will be on it's way mid July. Or so I hope.

The garden is breathing deep. Growing steady and handing me all the salad I can eat. The peas are nearly here, and the onions, potatoes, broccoli, brussel sprouts and such are all nearly knee high and thriving. The corn I planted Memorial Day weekend is already foot tall, and the pumpkins and other squashes are turning into vines. I weed and water like an obsessive compulsive. So far so good.

Now that Finn's off the bottle, and on grains and grass, the morning chores seem to go smoother. I wake up and grab his leash on the way to dump some hay off to the sheep (who are in their pen till I come home from work and then graze from 6-10) and Finn gets tied out to lounge and chew on the grass while the birds debate his worth all around him. So far the chickens seem bored by the new kid and the waterfowl think these new field buckets of fresh water showing up around him are top shelf service. Few complaints around here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

hey all you city kids!

There's a new magazine hitting the racks this August. It's for everyone who wants a farm, but still has streetlights. It's called Urban Farm. I'm excited about this, not so much because I want to flip through the magazine—but because there must be such a demand for sustainable living the publishers know they can make a business out of it. That means more and more people are looking at their lawns and thinking about gardens, or looking at their ovens and realizing they can bake in them again. That thirst for scaling down and simplifying is a great comfort to me, and a quiet thrill as I'm about to head into the office. And hey, the book does look pretty cool. I'll certainly be picking up a copy when it arrives at Northshire.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

on my mountain

I wish you could see the fireflies tonight.

a weekend's haul

I love junking. Going out on the weekend and finding old things. This photo is from a while ago, but I did find all those items on the same day. A day of driving past a garden center, some yard sales, antique shack and the such like. I found my fireking mug, a Tom Waits record, and a kickass suitcase. I also scored that fiddle for thirty bucks (and it came with paperwork from the turn of the last century). It needs some serious work from a luthier, but I'll fix her up down the road.

I like filling my life with these things. There isn't a lot of new stuff in my home. I have a computer, and a cordless phone, but everything else has switches and dials and tubes and cloth cords. They're just better. At least for me.

P.S. Thanks to the reader who sent me the link to that Wolfing Tag. I'm wearing it right now!

raisin' bread

This is my own recipe, adapted from a basic white bread recipe and some practice runs. But I have it down and, by god, it’s delicious. The whole process takes about 3-4 hours of time. But you’re only doing stuff for about 20 minutes, the rest is just waiting around. So it’s a great Saturday or Sunday errand-time thing to do. I decided to bake all my bread for the week on Sunday evenings. It’s a nice way to end the week.

White unbleached Flour
Butter (or margarine, or whatever)
2 eggs
Warm water
Light vegetable oil
Yeast packet

Step One: Yeast Party

Yeast comes in little packages for around 50 cents at the grocery store. If you’re new to baking bread (which I was) buying yeast is kinda novel. When you make bread you need to put two cups of warm water in a big bowl. The water has to be bath water warm, not scalding hot. When you accomplished this, dump in the yeast packet. Stir it up till it dissolves and then let the yeast set in there until it bubbles (about 5-15 minutes), which means it’s ready.

Step Two: Dough Party

Now that you have a pool of live cultures, add a teaspoon of salt and 2 big old tablespoons of honey and mix it up. Then add 2 cups of flour and your eggs and really beat it together into a sticky batter. It takes about 200 strokes or 2 minutes with a real blender. When that’s all mixed up add a 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of cinnamon (I like cinnamon, you can use less) and 3/4 cup of raisins. Spend some time on this and use your shoulders. Then add 3 more cups of flour one cup at a time. Mixing and mixing and making the dough more and more soft and not sticky.

Now take a half cup of flour or so and cover a clean table top or kitchen space with a fine layer of the flour. Dump your dough onto it and really knead it. Punch it with your hands, throw it in the air and catch it. Toss it on the table and then slap it. Press into it while you talk to your dogs about why Prince didn’t get electrocuted at the super bowl, whatever. Then when it’s all perky and in a nice weighty ball. Set it aside on your flour strewn table space.

Take either the first bowl you were using, or a brand new one and clean it out. (Wash and Dry it it if it’s the same bowl). Line the inside of the big bowl with butter or cooking spray and place your dough in there to rise. Make sure it can get twice it’s size. Cover it with a cloth and go do something else for an hour and a half.

Step Three: Dough After Party

Now this is my favorite part. You take the cloth off your bowl and see this giant glob of junk. You need to really punch it down and pop out all the air. I’m serious, just back up on that guy. Take out the dough and put it back on your table area. Hand knead it again and press out all the air pockets. Now you have this weird animal to work with. You need to cut the dough in half with a sharp knife. And these guys will be your two loaves.

Now here is where you can get creative. I like to take my one loaf and put it in a bread pan so it rises in that classic bread shape and it’s easy to slice for sandwiches and toast. But I like to take my other half and cut it into thirds. Then like play dough snakes I roll those buddies into long tubes and braid them together. I tuck the ends under and kinda twist them so they don’t unravel while baking. This really looks pretty.

Then you place your panned or braided dough on the counter, make sure you’re dogs can’t snatch them, and go do something else for an hour and a half. Weed that garden.

Step Four: Glazing and Baking

Preheat the over at 375 and then get some butter, sugar and cinnamon and melt and mix them together into a glass. Brush or hand wipe (that sounds dirty?) your glaze onto the second-risen bread dough. Filling in all the nooks and crannies with diabetes-inducing goodness.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until tops are slightly browned and hardened and a sharp knife comes out of the dough clean without any residual on it. Then, chompsville.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

jazz the pack dog

a dirty day

I write a lot about the things that make this small farm beautiful. I share stories that are important to me, or show me a better way to live thanks to these 6 borrowed acres and a cast of farm animals. This morning, however, I am not going to write about any of that. I am going to write about sheep shit.

It's been raining for days. The ground can only take so much. The soft, often-trampled dirt and straw that makes up the sheeps' pen had become a bog. I didn't realize how bad it was until I saw Maude and Sal laying under a tree in a rainstorm. I couldn't understand why they'd opt for a tree when they had a perfectly wonderful custom-built structure across the pen? Then I noticed the 6 inches of mud inside. And not just mud, but mud and rain water in a stew of sheep feces and rotting straw. I walked in there and it smelled like nothing I had ever smelled before. It was putrid. No wonder the sheep had been avoiding it. It smelled like the way a perm smells out of the bottle, but mixed with burning hair and rotting shit-soaked straw. Not a delightful way to spend your Saturday afternoon.

How did this decline so fast? Three days ago this shed was dry, the straw compacted and solid. But the rain and the slight grade downhill sent all the water into their bedding. This would not do. I had to roll up my sleeves, pick up a pitchfork, and get that stuff out of there.

Which I did. And it was exhausting. For everyone out there thinking about taking on livestock, know that while the lambs and wool are heavenly...there are days where you do nothing but exist in shit. For hours I pitchforked and shoveled their pen. he weight of the wet straw and mud was ridiculous. My back and arms screamed for me to stop, but I knew if I did I couldn't pick up that fork again. So I kept going till the entire shed was empty. I created a three-foot pile of the waste outside their pen. I looked down at my hands and new blisters were already opened and bleeding.

It was still better than any task at the office. Which is how I am certain I'm cut out to be a shepherd someday. You get me my land and some good fences and a border collie and I will be a force to be reckoned with.

When the ground was clear I laid down fresh, clean, straw. I will go back in tomorrow if the rain stops and do more, but at least I was able to get their shelter back in order. And I know my work was well worth it because Sal went right back in and curled up in his spot. And when the rain came that night, and was hitting the tin roof on the porch, I knew two sheep had a clean, dry place to wait it out. So that's something.

It's Sunday morning. I woke up feeling like I'd been hit by a truck. I covered myself in sore muscle badger balm and went outside to let the sheep into their little pasture and feed the chickens. Right now I'm going to take Finn for a drive down to Wayside to pick up the Sunday paper. He sticks his head out the window sometimes, which is a riot.

You folks have a nice day. Check back later for garden photos and a veggie update.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

i'll meet you there

The weekend of July 11th is the Merck Forest Sheepdog Trials. I'll be there volunteering with the club, running around to help however I can. But if you're in the area and want to see some of the finest herding in New England at a working farm center, please do come. It's a big time.

The Merck trials are beautiful. Two days of working dogs, sheep, and good people. The farm center is full of heritage livestock, local foods, and demonstrations. Last year there were sheep shearers, maple syrups, yarns, draft horse demos and more. There is even a "shuttle" from the parking lot to the trial fields (a pair of percherons pulling a wagon). It is lovely.

Someday I'll have my collie, and we'll be out there on that field. Mark my words good friends. I will get there. We may not win, we may not even compete, but someday this girl and a clever black dog will walk side by side among the lambs and tents. And I will kiss the ground to have made it so far.

Goodnight. I am so tired. I'll explain why in the morning.

Friday, June 19, 2009

finn's on mother earth news!

Here's a small excerpt from a new piece I wrote on Mother Earth News Online. You can click the link below to read the whole story and see Finn's lovable mug.

...A few weekends ago, I found myself at the equivalent of a livestock tailgate party. I was in the thick of the Schaghticoke Poultry Swap — a shindig that happens every spring. It's quite an event. What started as a small gathering to trade and sell chickens has evolved over the years into a parking lot festival of sales and bartering. Since the swap’s inception, the stock has expanded well beyond chickens. This year, there were ducks, geese, quails, rabbits, lambs, kids and more (I swear I walked past a box of puppies). And while it wasn't on the roster — had someone walked through the fairgrounds parking lot with a horse — I wouldn't have blinked an eye.

I was there with a short list. I needed some new laying hens to replace birds that passed away over the winter, nothing drastic. But I was also there hoping to find a very specific animal. I wanted to drive home with a young goat kid, hopefully a spunky buckling. I had been researching pack goats (goats trained to help carry gear on hiking trips via panniers or saddlebags), and if the stars aligned I planned to take home my own backcountry prodigy that same day....

Read the rest of the story here!
Photo by Tim Bronson

a little offense

So much rain as of late. It seems like every day when I wake up I hear it, and I know the morning chores will leave me soaked, sweaty, and barking for coffee by the time I stumble back inside. This sounds like a complaint, but it really isn't. I don't mind the rain, actually, I think I favor precipitation. I like a little offense in my day.

Snow, rain hail, sleet, wet winds—I like them all. When it's blustery outside on a crisp fall morning, and I get to return to a warm cabin and a hot shower I feel like I won something. Today was damp as hell, but barely drizzling. I went about the morning chores in my big brown boots and kept a running tab in my head of all the things that should happen this weekend. The sheep need their shed cleaned and the sopping mud removed. The birds need fresh straw. Finn's pen needs some dusting up as well. It'll all get done. It always does.

Right now as my pre-office coffee perks—I'm looking out the window at Finn chewing on the lawn and the two (now sold) remaining Angora bunnies in their pen on the grass. By wednesday the last kit will be picked up, and another litter will be on the way by the end of July. But today it feels good to have that job done.

I realize that the Cafe Press price might be too steep for those fiddlers shirts. If no one objects, I can replace some of the Snap Pea merch with the Fiddler's Summer logo? A 9.99 shirt seems more reasonable.

Okay. Time for coffee.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

fiddlers' summer organic shirts available!

fiddlers' summer update

Hello fiddlers! I'm checking in to see how your lessons are going and to announce an extension. We're going to move the final day of the challenge to July 31st. This gives people who signed up a little later a chance to catch up (and for all of you working shuffling on Ida Red, a little more time to practice). I also wanted to share a picture of my girl. That photo shows my fiddle—an early 20th-Century Czechoslovakian Shop violin that now resides at Cold Antler. I have been looking for an older instrument for a while (she's from the 20's) in my price range. I found her on Ebay, sitting in a small musical antique shop in Arkansas. Well, she's a Vermonter now!

Here's a video of Wayne Erbsen and some of his students (all ages on stage!) playing Wild Bill Jones at the Shindig on the Green. If you live in an area that has bluegrass festivals, please make it a Saturday afternoon project to go see one. And if any of you fiddlers live around New England, see if you can come visit Grey Fox. I hope to go, and maybe we can all meet there and have lunch, swap tips and play a little? It is a little pricey, but a day pass is cheaper and you get to meet thousands of musicians, see top of the line mountain musicians, and jam at campsites with new friends and fabulous people. It's a must-see (or so I'm told) this is my first year going.

a quick request

VPR is taking submissions for their summer reading show! If you want to help a farm girl out, visit and suggest Made From Scratch!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Autumn is on my mind. I'm not sure why. Usually this type of longing doesn't kick in until late July, but I am ahead of myself, and pining. I found this photograph Sara Stell took when she visited last year. That's the road you take over the small creek that leads up to my farm. Right now all those leaves are green as June will allow, but in a few months they'll start to burst, and I will be glad.

You may never know a person who loves October as much as I do. Halloween will always be my favorite day, a big happy celebration of memories and a chance to get wild and remind yourself you're still among the living. I look forward to it more every year too. To temper my thirst—I bought some baby bear pumpkin starts on my lunch break. I'll plant them tonight. In a few months we'll see photos of them inside the cabin or on the porch and know we made it. I can't wait.

On an unrelated note: I think it's time I sucked it up and got involved in the world of sheepdogs and trials again. After the sadness of having a Border and then having to give her up, I have been distant from the club. But it's time to get back into the fields, and start learning again.

Monday, June 15, 2009

a stolen monday

I feel like I stole this morning. I took a vacation day from the office, and so instead of the usual commute I really took my time with the farm chores this morning. Nothing crazy—just a little extra time to glance over all the animals, sweep the porch, and brew some fresh coffee. Which, Incidently, I just pulled off the stove as it gurgled and pumped from its percolating. Oh, the decadent verve of an office farmer with a day off.

Just a few moments ago I walked outside and the grass was damp from last night's rain. Despite its sogginess, the sky was blue and the sun was out and everything was saturated, like memories. So I just breathed in deep, trying to savor it. But it's hard to feel Zen when thirty animals are baaing, squawking, and howling for breakfast. You can imagine the moment wasn't that serene. But hell, it was to me.

I started the morning chores like I always do, on the porch. There I fed and checked on Benjamin (my breeding rabbit) and moved the pen with the two remaining Angora kits off the wooden planks and under the big oak by the hammock. There they could feel grass under their paws and enjoy the shade.

I carried a small armful of hay out to my two sheep, walking past Finn's pen (who bleated at me to let him out). Sal and Maude seem despondent. I know Marvin's back where he should be, back to a big farm that misses him and will treat him to a barn and pastures I could never offer here—but I miss him. I can't believe I miss a sheep. Two sheep seem incorrect. They are not animals that should live in small numbers. I hope Finn grows up fast so he can join them and even the score.

Every morning I let the goat kid out of his pen, and give him a spot in the pasture to chomp away at via a chain tie out. He's too clever to stay in a fence and too curious to stay out of the garden, so the tie out seems like a fair trade. He gets sun and green grass and I get some peace of mind knowing my lettuce is safe.

I came inside refreshed, and now I'm writing to you.

My weekend mostly involved rabbit trafficking (sold two buck kits) and June gardening. I have learned that "June gardening" is just a romantic way to say weeding. This year's garden is the largest I ever attempted, and the weeds seem just as verdent and thriving as the veggies. I was out there for hours in the sun pulling between the rows. Vermont's a good place to be in this situation. I have never lived and worked with so many people who also grow their own food. Nearly every neighbor, co-worker, and acquaintance I have sows their own. I tele-garden as well. Last night on the phone with my parents, we were talking about the new live trap they bought to catch the rabbits their manic-depressive cat won't scare away from their garden. Seems like everyone's working for their salads this year.

Right now as I type things are quiet outside; a rare occurrence. Everyone's silent because their mouths are busy eating. From the kitchen window I can see Finn on his tie-out landscaping the edge of the garden fence. I can see Tthe sheep are eating hay in their pen. I know the rabbits, birds, and dogs all had their morning meals as well. And I—the magistrate of this scrappy empire—am enjoying a cup of coffee strong enough to varnish a coffin.

Not a bad way to start a stolen Monday. Not bad at all.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

cyrus & saro

quite the weekend

I do apologize for the thin updates this week. Annie has been a main focus and her extra care has gently lead me away from any writing while we're at home together. I know you guys understand, and she's recovering beautifully. We just got back from visiting a neighbor's sleddog kennel where she ran around a giant dog-run with Jazz and five other dogs. She's back. I can not thank you enough for all the kindness, emails, and comments.

So much went down this weekend. Marvin went back to his old farm (I'll fill you all in on the details soon, but trust me when I say I've loaded my fair share of sheep into the back seats of cars in my day...). I'm down to just one Angora kit. All the boys have been picked up or paid-for in advance, leaving just one little doe who may stay. Life keeps on going, everything is changing so fast around here.

Big news: tomorrow I have a meeting with Storey Publsihing to talk about some possible future projects, which I'm both nervous and excited about (wish me luck!) and I'll be updating soon with Fiddler's Summer news and that bread recipe you fine people have been asking on. I'll catch up. I always do.