Tuesday, April 13, 2010

that's one big doe

Sunday, April 11, 2010

buckle up

Today was filled with a bit of debauchery. I spent the bulk of it outside: laying on my back on a wool blanket it in the sun in the sheep pasture. I had only the blanket, a copy of the Encyclopedia of Country Living, and my banjo. I laid out in the sun letting my arms feel warm. It was a brisk 60 degrees but I was sporting a tank-top none the less. I read and soaked up all the vitamin D I could rationalize between farm chores and then came inside to cook up some Boyden Farm beef in a skillet. I made a small steak and cheese pizza: a true rare delicacy here. My lord it was amazing....The savory combination of food and sunlight seemed criminal in the joys it granted me. With a full stomach, a protein high, and a sunny Sunday afternoon I felt rich as any animal ever has. I played clawhammer tunes loud. I bet the whole damn neighborhood heard my C-tuned drum pot. I sang loud. I was sober. Homesteaders need little in the world of intoxicants. We're high on compost.

Things here are intensely busy, which is why weekday posts feel thin. I'm on a writing deadline for a non-blog project that takes the bulk of my computer time at home. But I do have things to update you on. The big news: I should be closing on the Jackson Farm in the next two weeks! If that's the case I have a lot to plan, but will claw out the schedule like always. This move to New York marks my fifth state in five years, so I'm used to packing. BUt with the spring coming into the Northeast like a charging Belgium—I find myself overwhelmed at the start of the new farm, the new garden, moving the livestock, planning movers, putting up fences and trying for a promotion at the office all at the same time. Compound onto that the normal daily drama's of a thinking mammal's life and you have yourself one very excited and emotional woman. I'm in no way unstable, but I am fighting the urge to cheer or cry on a regular basis: mostly because of farm and writing highlights bogged down by work and farm stress. Life's balance, I guess.

We had a bit of bad luck with Jazz lately. His back broke out in pus-filled sores from an allergic reaction to the cabin mold. Annie and I are fine, but Jazz's weak thyroid made him, well, sick as a dog. I needed to run him to the vet recently to be shaved, medicated, and fixed up. He's much better now and healing brilliantly but the poor guy walks around surly and pissed off. [See professional illustration for more details.]

I can not wait to post: I signed the papers. I got the keys. I own a farm.

Soon. Buckle up.

meat and eggs

Since chickens are on our minds I thought I'd update you on the growth of the new birds. As you can see, the Cornish Rocks are monsters compared to the little Golden Comet laying hens. They're easily three times the size. If there was any doubt before that these were 100% meat birds, surely it has faded. But despite the vast difference in size and feed intake; both breeds are doing well. I've had no losses and the birds seem happy in their little brooder. It has made the bathroom louder than usual, but what can I do? The bathroom is the only room in the cabin with a locking door the dogs can't sneak into for nuggets while I'm at the office.

It's odd how my perception has changed since I've started raising meat birds. These small chicks are adorable, yes, but they are completely food in my mind. Taking care of the Cornish Rocks, inspecting them for pasted ends, refilling the food and water containers, and cleaning the brooder feels more like setting a table then farm chores. I do not mean it marginalizes them in any way by that. Just because these animals are destined for the table doesn't mean they are in anyway disregarded or neglected or thought less of. Actually, it's quite the opposite. When I am working with the meat birds (and the egg birds, too) there are intense levels of grace and gratitude towards the little fluff balls. I know the better life I offer them: the better meal (and therefore, quality of life) they'll offer me in return. So I treat the tiny guys with such care and a deeper understanding of the history of my future meals at the new farm. One day this summer I'll be having a BBQ on the deck with friends and as the campfire and guitar sounds rise over the trees I'll bite into a drumstick and think: this is the most wholesome thing I've ever eaten that's come out of my bathroom...

There's a little more to it than that, but you get the idea.

Friday, April 9, 2010

clucking and canning giveaway!

I met Ashley English a few months ago, she emailed me to talk about homesteading and writing. It turned out that she was also a designer, blogger, and small-scale backyard homesteader so we had a lot in common. Over the months we swapped emails and stories, getting to know each other a long the way. She lives in Western, NC and I live up here in New England. Consider us a pair of Highland Girls: north and south. (Districts represent!) You can read her blog here, and follow a farm girl in her southern homestead stories.

Anyway, we became fast friends and I'm here to proudly announce her first pair of books in the Homemade Living Series. She just came out with a guide to chickens and canning—both fully illustrated with beautiful photography and geared towards beginners. (And, ahem, if you flip them over you may see a familiar quote from someone you know...) We'll be giving away a set of these to the winner of a random drawing from the comments section. To enter, all you need to do is leave a comment about you and your stance on chickens. Do you have them? Want them? What breeds and for what purpose? We'll all share our stories and I ask that you end the post with your city and state. I find that a lot of future farmers reading this blog didn't realize someone in the next county over shares the same desires to get back to the land. (Perhaps a few small homesteading community projects or bartering could rise out of this post!)

So add your stories and yarns to the comments and check back to this post Sunday night to see who the winner is. They'll be getting both hardcover copies and a goose feather from CAF. Happy clucking and canning!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

chickencentric giveaway tomorrow!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

why homestead?

If you knew me growing up you’d probably be surprised to find out that after a perfectly normal suburban childhood, I ended up standing in a chicken coop at 5 a.m. ankle-deep in straw and chicken poo.

After all, that was never the plan. I grew up in the complacency of small town America. We had a fine house with a beautiful back yard, neighborhood friends, and wonderbread sandwiches. Once a year near Halloween, my parents would take us three kids to a small family farm with a pumpkin patch. I’m fairly certain that annual trip was the closest I ever got to the farmlife.

Now, 26 and on my own in rural Vermont — things have changed. Bread comes from my oven — not plastic bags with twist ties. Eggs come from the chicken coop — not a styrofoam container. And vegetables come from the garden not the produce section (though technically, the garden is the produce section of the property, but you know what I mean.) My life went from an urban design job in the city to the path of an apprentice shepherd. While I still have a 9-5 job, my weekends are spent at sheepdog clinics and lambing seminars. The dream is to raise lambs up here in the gambols of Vermont. And the road to that reality is a lot different than the one I’ve been trained for in college. (They don’t teach you how to pull out an inverted lamb from a stubborn ewe in typography classes, just a heads up for any designers-turning-farmers out there.) Anyway, I’ve been sweating, tilling, and stepping in random feces for a few years now and whenever someone who knew me before all paths lead to sheep runs into me, they always ask me the same question.


Why would a perfectly normal middle class gal, who had a nice city job, and a pleasant apartment pick up her life and shake it till trowels and feed sacks fell out? Why spend a year learning to raise chickens and keep bees and nearly pass out of heat stroke in the garden when eggs, honey, and broccoli are all for sale at the grocery store for less than the cost of that hoe in your blistered hands?

There are a lot of canned answers to this and you know them already. As fellow homesteaders (or friends there of) you get the whole “homegrown-satisfaction-quality-of-life-green-living” bit. All those reasons ring true for me too, but there’s something else writhing below those surface answers. Something deeper that makes me smile in the garden or laugh from my belly in the bird yard.

It’s the honesty of knowing what I do everyday directly helps keep me alive.

It’s that simple.

Gardening, farming, raising animals — these are seen as labor or hobbies to most. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me “Farming isn’t my thing” which is always said with flippant arrogance masquerading as either city-slicker inadequacy or self-effacing ambivalence. Which is fine. If it weren’t for people not wanting to farm, farmers wouldn’t have any business in the first place. But here’s the thing. If you ever ate anything that had to be raised, slaughtered, or planted — farming is definitely your thing. Actually, It’s the only thing.

We can sit on the porch and talk all day about philosophy and religion and what people want. But the conversation about what the human animal needs is pretty short — food, shelter, water, protection. While I love the literature, art, and amazing questions people ask about ‘what we want’. I find true peace and purpose taking control of what I need.

Raising and growing your own is more than a lifestyle — it is life. Contrary to popular belief there is nothing altruistic about it. Homesteading is the most self-involved way to live. But it’s exactly how most animals do live, and there’s no logical reason for any of us to think we have the world figured out better than anything else stumbling around the planet. Animals live a wild life of procuring food and creating life. The shepherd with a lamb in his arms is no different than the wolf with a lamb in his jaws. Two animals with food being the center of their present lives. I love that so much about farming, you just can’t know.

So I suppose that is why I homestead. The correctness of survival. The wildness of understanding basic needs. It all draws me in and keeps the bit between my teeth. It lets me feel more a part of the world in the most basic sense. Thanks to the egg, garden, and lamb — I too can gain all the satisfaction I need from being in charge of my own life. You know, there’s a reason eating a salad you grew yourself tastes so good, and if you don’t believe me, you can ask that wolf.

First published on Motherearthnews.com, 2008.

Monday, April 5, 2010

pretty cocky about my truck

carolina chocolate drops: a must listen

Sunday, April 4, 2010

foundation stock

I'm going to start out by saying Rabbit Tastes Amazing. I mean it. Cooked correctly, it may be the most delicious and satisfying meat I've ever eaten (and I am a butcher's granddaughter). When yesterday's three-hour crash course in running a small rabbitry concluded five of us sat around a kitchen table passing around a cast iron dutch oven of rabbit, covered in a a tomato sauce with black olives. It was my first taste of the white meat and it was kind of like chicken, but moister, denser, and had more flavor. A 4 oz portion made me feel like I had just put aside a prime steak. I noted how full I felt and Bruce, the man of the hour who's farm I was visiting, explained I just experienced the rabbit effect. Less food, more protein, little fat, and good flavor. Simple satisfaction.

I showed up at Wanabea Rabbit Farm mid morning. Two college students were with me to see the set up, Caroline and Connor. They were Green Mountain College students of the homesteading class and future farmers. When we pulled into the farm's lawn, Bruce was talking to one of his growers, who had just delivered a batch of stock to be delivered to a restaurant in Massachusetts later that week. Bruce was happy with the animals and seemed to be in a good mood despite his sore knee. The 60-year-old farmer walked with a cane, and his flannel shirt, beard, and felt hat made me feel instantly comfortable (and made miss Tennessee something awful). I beamed as I shook his hand.

Wanabea is not interested in agritourism. The place is a working production farm, not a still from the Waltons. People who drove by might not like the look of the metal pole/tarp garages that made up the rabbit barns or the collection of wire cages, goat pens, cats and colorful kitchsy decorations. I think a lot of people expect all small farms to look like upstate summer homes with sheep as sporadic lawn ornaments hoofing on mowed green grass. Wanabea was scrappy. I loved the place, it was growing healthy food right in my neighborhood and providing me with my first foundation stock: two bred does to start my own operation.

Bruce showed us around his barns and explained his hutches and watering system. He showed me all his animals without hesitation. From kits to older girls on their way out—all the animals were out in the open fresh air and seemed bright eyed and healthy. Well, save too who had to be culled due to age and wasting away. He offered to show up how to kill and clean the rabbits right there. All of us were keen on seeing a demonstration.

Bruce killed the rabbit by slipping it's head through a small noose attached the the door-frame abattoir, and in one quick jerk the animal's head popped off the neck with a crack. It was instant, painless, and the now dead rabbit's head hung to one side, still attached and bloodless, but clearly broken. Then Bruce hung it upside down by it's back feet and showed me how to skin and dress the animal. He explained what to remove, and what to keep inside, and the whole time all of his students had questions and stories. It may all sound grotesque but this wasn't the mood at all. It felt as normal as talking over coffee or as benign as four people baking bread at once. We were all excited about our future farms, hungry to learn. Chatting over food comes in many forms.

The demonstration was priceless, and while I felt I had a knack for it he offered to help me process my first animals at my own site. What a gift. With the confidence that I would have a mentor I felt even more excited about filling the back of the truck with used cages and my own does. We walked around the rabbitry trying to figure out which animals suited me. I told him I was leaning towards Californians (he called them Calis) and we found a 9 pound doe with thick loins who was already bred and due around the 16th to kindle. Then I saw a giant Papillon/New Zealand cross I couldn't take my eyes off and when I picked her up to inspect her eyes, ears, and frame I was taken back by the density. Nearly 13 pounds!

When all was done outside, the rabbits loaded in the back of the pickup, we went inside to talk and eat. Bruce handed me a copy of Storey's Guide to Raising Rabbits and showed me my speckled doe was a cover girl: her mug was right there on the cover of my publisher's rabbit book! Storey had just released a new edition, and without having any idea I did it: I had just bought the icon on the cover for 1.50 a pound. It's a small world after all started to chime in my head. I was a farm writer who just bought her first meat breeding rabbits from a man who's animals posed for the cover of the book she was reading to prepare for her own farm.

So it's Easter. I just realized my rabbit report falls on today, but bad form was not my intention. I have a feeling people who read this blog and have come to know me aren't phased in the slightest. They may even consider the timing delightful.

No offense EB, but you are delicious.

Friday, April 2, 2010

we're back

Cold Antler is thriving. Even as we're down to the final weeks here at the cabin (and still anxiously waiting for a closing date on the Jackson farm...) the place is bursting with life and plans. There are 13 Cornish Rocks and 8 Golden Comets in the bathroom right now, soaking up the rays of the heat lamp and chowing down on starter ration and tiny flecks of red grit. The birds will lead to four or five laying pullets of fresh brown eggs and nearly 70 pounds of free-range chicken meat. You can't beat the investment either: 1.99 a bird. I don't think you can buy natural farm chicken for 1.99 a pound?!

The other residents of the farm are doing capital. Jazz and Annie are spending a lot of time out on long walks or on the screen porch watching farm TV. The four angora rabbit kits are all doing well in their own hutches. The big birds outside are more active than ever before. The warm weather (it's been near 80 degrees the past few days) and the new bugs and soft topsoil have turned them into roaming scavengers. They hunt for worms and flies around the farm like packs of tiny dinosaurs. Seeing a pack of scampering Rhode Island Reds run past a bunny hutch through the sheep fields makes my sore heart swell. A healthy small farm is proof positive a mood can turn around.

So the trees are budding, the animals are active, hell, even Maude seems to have perked up a little over the past few days. I came home early from work yesterday to find her laying in a patch of sunlight with Joseph, not even minding the chicken on her back also taking in some vitamin D. It's a good place, this. We're all optimistic about what's ahead.

In a few hours I'll be at Wannabea Rabbit Farm, learning about the care, breeding, kindling and butchering of meat rabbits. I'll also be taking home my own starter stock: a pair of does and a buck, hopefully Californians. Some students from GMC will be coming along to watch and learn, so it'll be a somewhat educational/community event. I can't wait. I was telling some friends at work about this and one coworker grimaced, Really, Easter Weekend you're going to learn how to raise, kill, and eat rabbits?

Yup! This gals come a long way since design school.

photos from the hogget event

The Greenhorns just posted photos and video from the Hogget event on their website. You can click here to see the slideshow and get a taste of hot young agrarians in action. Whoever took the shots is a far better photographer than I am!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

john and his gang

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

new chicks in the bathroom = spring

Some new life is pumping into this small farm: a few laying hen chicks were picked up on my lunch break at Tractor Supply. Just eight—all scrappy and healthy—are currently taking residence in my bathroom. The sign at the store just said "Pullets: Laying" but I think they're production reds and whites (meaning Rhode Island Red and Leghorn hybrids) sold to small operations like mine. They waited for me in the front seat of the truck with a hand warmer shake packet under them while I designed web sites. I was in a cubicle workspace while eight chickens waiting in my truck. My life is a constant combination of office life and farming. I enjoy the dichotomy.

I called local suppliers about poultry today. Looking to raise turkeys and chickens this year on the new farm for some side income. Cornish Rocks and Bourbon Reds should be the star players. Right now, however, it's just these young ones. 22 dozen an eggs a year each is the possibility in each of those little peepers. It never stops amazing me.


he's one of these!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

an announcement

The dog pictured above is Patrick Shannahan's Riggs. Riggs is an Idaho stock dog and International Trialing Superstar. He's the grandson of a dog imported from Wales and was on the US team at the World Trial in Ireland. He's gorgeous, gentle, friendly, and a fine working dog. Riggs is exactly the type of rough-coated border collie I have always dreamed of owning. It just so happens that on March 16th Riggs fathered a litter of four puppies. One of those pups, a little boy, is mine.

Gibson, my partner in starting my sheep farm, will be coming home to Cold Antler in May. I'll pick him up at 8-weeks-old at the Albany Airport. Together, we will become shepherds, and bring lambs into this world.

Finally. It is really starting.


Monday, March 29, 2010

paying attention

Walking around the farm on this wet, dark night in Southern New England I realized—despite the heavy clouds—that tonight was the full moon. The rain clouds were thick and the sky was dark, but it felt like the full moon and that is the only way I can really explain that. I suppose the best way to describe it is if you walked into a black tent in the middle of a pro football Stadium at night. Sure, inside the heavy tarps it's pitch but you know, you feel, the stadium lights outside even if you can't see your palm in front of your face. I came inside and checked my Washington County Farm calendar and saw that tonight was in fact the full moon.

I can't remember what it was like to not be aware of these things. For most of my professional adult life now I have been outside nearly every night, in all weather, watching the cycles of the moon go from bright to dull alongside my livestock or with the padding trots of my dogs. I don't pay attention to it in any serious way, but tonight I realized I missed the glow, and was expecting it even though it was absent. Make a wish, I thought...Tonight might be special.

Moon talk aside, on the way back to the cabin I tripped over the metal spike in the field that ground the electric current for the electric fences. I fell flat on my butt, getting it soaked as if I dipped it in a creek. Let's her it for me. I cursed under my breath as I went back indoors. I can sense the cycles of the moon on spec but I can't see dangerous lawn obstacles that have been in the same place for nearly two years? Pocahontas, I am not.

Folks have been asking for a Jackson update, and I am nervous to report there are none. I am still waiting for a closing date, but the USDA mortgage was underwritten and signed off on by all parties lawyers. Now it's just twiddling thumbs and hoping nothing falls through before the big day I finally sign those papers, hand over that giant check, and get handed the key. I won't really exhale until that day comes, so keep your fingers crossed and carry a bit of wood in your pocket to knock on from time to time. This girl in Vermont is still livin' on a prayer.

I have other news though, do I ever. Some of it I am waiting to share, but tonight I'll fill you in on Saturday's plans to visit a local rabbitry and learn about meat rabbits and composting red worms. Bruce, A local farmer I know through the Shushan feed store (who caters to all the local restaurants) has invited me to see his operation and, if I am so inclined, take home a few animals to breed on the farm and sell back into the local menu scene. I'm excited to learn about meat rabbits, and to see how his giant operation (over 200 does) functions as a lucrative, neighborhood farm. A student from Green Mountain College may join me. She cold called me this week because her homesteading class brought me up in some college lecture. This blew my mind, but also had me swelling with pride that local schools have homesteading curriculums. Talk about knowledge being power: a class that gets students to learn how to literally feed themselves, and not just get a degree that pays for groceries, has all my respect. I tell you, sometimes this nook of the world just makes me smile like an idiot.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

pods and strings

In my short years of experience with country living I have learned to pay attention to how experiences affect me. Before I even start the season I can tell you how much breaking sod that first weekend out of winter hurts my shoulder—or the amazing feeling of a two-day-old chick's heartbeat in my palm. I understand the economy of gardening, how the patience of growing things wears off and yet that intense joy still comes when that first spring salad hits your fork. I also know what combinations of activities or items can cure loneliness, or anxiety, or fear. A snap pea sprout and a banjo are one such combination.

It is impossible for me to not smile when I look at a spunky spring pea shoot and an openback banjo. The two are strong medicine, and no matter where I am or what's going on—if I close my eyes and picture white pea blossoms and vibrant green vines curling around a banjo neck—I forget whatever has been troublesome to me. The image reminds me why I got into homesteading in the first place: to let the simplicity change me. To allow basic human needs to start and end here, and fill emptiness wherever it growls.

I see a pea sprout and a banjo and I know without a doubt in my mind that tomorrow holds the possibility of good food and good music. The evolve from pods and strings into hope. They are food and music I grow and play myself, which makes them not only hope, but hope I cultivated my my own volition. Meaning the human animal has the ability to not only feed and entertain herself but to understand the perspective and value of waiting for future happiness. I get that from snap peas and banjos. I really believe if more people could tap into their own combinations of basic things they can control themselves, they might find happiness there too.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

meet some of the new kids

Friday, March 26, 2010

a new rabbitry starts tonight

Tonight I'll be driving into the town of Shaftsbury to pick up the four young rabbits Bean gave birth to this winter. I'm not sure if I shared this with you guys, but when I had to get rid of my Angora rabbits this past December, they were in the throes of their own drama. Bean was carrying kits, and while away from Cold Antler, gave birth to six bunnies (four survived). Now the young ones are coming home. For the meantime (possibly indefinitely) Bean Blossom and Benjamin are staying with the folks they are currently with, but the new kids are going to help me start a brand new breeding program at the new farm. The two does will become the new den mothers for my future rabbitry, and the pair of bucks will be given to my homesteading friend Shellee (she's just getting started on raising fiber animals in her urban homestead). I'll be on the look out for a new buck as well, hopefully up at the Long Trail Rabbit show in Rutland in May. I'm happy with the fact that rabbits are back on the farm again. I've missed them.

photo by t. bronson

Thursday, March 25, 2010

hurtin' for a haircut

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

good grief

I woke up to a farm covered in snow. What a slap in the face. See, this is exactly why I hate spring: it's a fickle bitch. I like the miserable predicability of a humid summer, the graceful decline of autumn, and the comfort of a long winter... But spring is all about torture. As April gets closer I find myself getting lost in thought, all the time. I spend the ride into and home from work trying to figure out my life, and fill all the empty spots. This post no longer has anything to do with snow. See what I mean?

They want real snow tomorrow night. A few inches and back in the 20s. Good thing I am moving, 'cause if I was living here I'd already have three raised beds in the ground and be scrambling to save them. Every year I know better, and yet every year I am out there in March planting like a moron with an addiction to top soil. I suppose there are worse addictions.

I'm all anxiety tonight. I wish it was May.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

night farming

Night farming happens by accident, and often in the spring. The warmer weather and extra sunlight trick me into staying out way past sunset. Early in the season I'm just outside because I can be, and later as planting time rolls around I'm out because I need to be. Tonight I was raking the lawn and stacking firewood and I didn't realize how dark it was getting. On days like this I let the hours fade into events. Starting with stopping at Wayside on the way home from work.

I stopped in after the office to return a rented movie. (New Moon, don't judge, I adore werewolf films...) Nancy and Nicole were at the front desk and handed me a big white envelope. "Here, this came for you today." was all the explanation Nicole gave me. It is not often I get mail at Wayside, usually only when delivery guys feel the notch is too scary for their trucks in the winter. (They just assume all locals end up at Wayside every day or one of their neighbors will drop it off. Which is true.) I was somewhat puzzled as I took the package. "No return address. Intrigue..." I mumbled. Inside was a large green handmade card with a deer, photos of the Jackson Farm, and "Congratulations!" written across small flags. It was darling but without a note or name? I think the postmark was Germany? Regardless, I was flattered. Somewhere on the other side of the world some one is following this life, and thinking about me enough to mail a card that took them some time to glue and mail. Shucks. I was a celebrity for thirty seconds, but then I had to move aside so the people behind me could buy milk.

Thank you, random sender of cards.

After that the evening fell into the usual routine. I walk the dogs a mile or two, then return home to feed them a big meal and hit the backyard. I let the sheep out into their small pasture of movable fence and throw down a flake of hay (most of the grass is still dead). While they eat I run back into the cabin, grab the egg basket from the kitchen lined with hay and raw wool, and grab the day's eggs. There were only eight today. I blame the rain. For some reason wet days mean less eggs than sunnier ones. I think because everyone is stuck inside and the stress level isn't conducive to creating life. It's hard to give pre-birth with a goose up your ass.

With sheep fed, eggs collected, scratch grains scattered, and dogs chomping away—I get to other work. I chop wood and stack it. I get water boiling on the stove for rice and plan dinner as I head back outdoors. I started raking up the leaves to make the place look a little less like a windstorm just nailed it. I get lost in the chores, and do all this with audiobooks or music on the iPhone in my pocket. I didn't realize how dark it was getting. Before I knew it I was night farming.

I grabbed the lantern and my 60" shepherd's crook and headed to the sheep across the farm. They need to be back in the safety of their pen come black, so I walked a football field's distance to get them settled in. The crook's purpose is to gather lambs and direct sheep, but I was using it to feel a little safer as I walked through the dark. I knew my crook wouldn't actually do much harm against a bear or rabid coyote (forgive my imagination) but just holding a big stick in the dark is a placebo I'll gladly accept. I held the lantern in front of me, and soon met my flock. I caught Maude off guard. (She stared at me long enough to let me snap a picture.) And before long got them inside with a bribery of fresh broccoli. With the wools safe and the world dark, I was going in to eat, write, and play some music.

Just a few hours since the office, and certainly nothing of consequence, but a fine day. My animals are well, my stomach is full, and my fiddle is lonely. I hope all of your day's were kind to you as well.

do you have a favorite post?

I'm working on a section for the sidebar of reader's favorite posts. If you liked a particular post and think it should be listed on the top ten, please let me know?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

the vernal equinox—greenhorn style

From the moment I pulled the truck into the farm's driveway I knew this was It was going to be a Saturday to remember—a perfect way to spend the holiday. The forecast wanted the sun near 70 degrees, and even in the morning wind I was comfortable in a light jacket and plaid shirt. The crowd was growing as more and more cars with New York plates piled behind me. By 10Am there were nearly thirty people, all farmers, food producers, or professionals in attendance. The secret worry I had of protesters was unfounded. Instead of an angry poster, the chef's boyfriend pulled out a 150-year-old banjo and started playing clawhammer tunes. A local organic nursery filled the folding tables with flowers, vegetables, and greens. The Greenhorns banner flapped in the wind and the lamb was on ice. This was going to be an amazing day.

For those of you concerned about carnage, know that no animals were shot or bled out in front of us. While most of the people and in attendance (including me) thought the event centered around the death and processing of one animal, that wasn't the case. The two lambs that were being butchered that day in front of a captivated, question-hungry, audience had been slaughtered Tuesday (the meat properly aged for butchering time). So no writhing death was witnessed and no one needed to bring a change of clothes.

There was no question though, this was the main event. The master of ceremonies was the young, Brooklyn-based, butcher Adam, who took our questions with eloquence and humor. For over an hour he explained each cut and what it takes to get a skinned animal to our civil plates. It was fascinating, educational, and even the kids seemed to want to ask questions as they ran behind him to get scones and jam off the workbench. I liked that children were here, unphased, seeing where the supermarket starts. I wanted to give their parents a high five.

The demonstration was two parts: on the table and on the rack. The first lamb was cut on a steel and the second was hund from a chain on a big green tractor. The butcher would be slicing through the hind leg flaps and say something like "See how easy it gets here, you can really just ride the membrane...." I turned to the designer from New York City next to me and asked, half jokingly "Does your usual Saturday morning have phrases like "ride the membrane" in it?" She smiled back at me and laughed. This was my scene. If there was ever any doubt before, it was shattered as I looked around the barn at my peers, the tables of fresh vegetables and herbs, and the giant map of the United States that stated SERVE YOUR COUNTRY FOOD. Yup, I was a Greenhorn.

As it should, the event completely centered around food. Everyone had a task to help prepare the meal. Some people held the rib cage while the butcher sawed it open and others started making sausage. A few ladies sat out on the sun and cut greens and herbs and others mashed potatoes or sliced bread. I stirred the localy-grown butternut squash soup for lunch, which we ate outside while listening to a lecture on local marketting of farm goods. People without tasks wandered around the wool or tanning demonstrations, giving hand carding or scraping a try. Some paged through farm books or merchandise on display. Others walked around the barns, coops, and stalls. It was a scene out of Currier and Ives if Currier and Ives condoned iPods.

It is not often I am surrounded by so many like-minded people my age. That was the real feast of the day. To be able to lean back against a fence and talk to my peers about compost, greenhouses, or the livestock they'd be raising this spring was a joy I didn't take for granted. Tee shirts with phrases like talk soil to me or illustrating butcher cuts on an old pig illustration were the scrappy/hip clothing. Others wore less snappy, but correct farm clothes (I was one of these cats). Lots of wool, denim, and rubber boots. Our similarities didn't stop at farming and attire either, and this is what made me swoon. There were banjos and guitars all over the place, musicians randomly jamming whenever a free moment struck them. There were dogs running around, smiling and barking. I was silently thrilled at all the young guys everywhere, happy and excited to be around women who share their love of the land. Farming, bluegrass, dogs, coffee, men in beards, chickens clucking in the background....dear lord in heaven what had I done to deserve such a day?

The new lambs of Kinderhook were just born that week, and so every once in a while one made an appearance in the arms of a Greenhorn. I got to hold one of these Dorper/Texel crosses in my arms and bury my nose in it's new wool. Every one of us holding the babe in our arms knew its fate, but were beyond okay with it. Animals at Kinderhook had nearly a year of lush pasture and fields ahead of them. This lamb would know what sunshine and rain felt like, would lay under elm trees and chase ladybugs with the other lambs. It would live as farm animals should and die as they should. The contrarian sequence of watching a lamb being butchered and then holding one in my arms was not at all disturbing. In fact, it was vindicating, and gave me hope for a better future for farm animals in general. This was how things should be done.

We planned to feast that night in a large pole barn. The same place the animal was butchered earlier that morning, but was now transforming from a work station into a dining hall. Long tables were set out with glowing votives as the main light, with centerpieces of eggs and expertly carved onions and turnips dividing the table. The place wafted of spit-grilled lamb, cooking herbs, and hard cider. Outside the barn the bonfire blazed and local beer was on tap at a keg. As the sun went down a game of capture the flag broke out and these twenty and thirty-somethings ran around like children, smiling in ways I'm not used to seeing parents and lawyers smile. All of us had chosen to take a day off from the city, or work, or our usual chores to come together to share the work of a big meal. There was no movies, computer, or video games—just new friends and lots of sunlight. No wonder a random childhood game broke out, we all felt amazing. We felt alive.

As the sun hid I found myself near the bonfire and the band. Red Rooster was there, a folk fusion band from the city. The banjo player saw my fiddle case and asked if I wanted to play a few tunes? Did I!? We played Cripple Creek and State of Arkansas, and other old time songs. I loved that he knew them. I loved even more that the guy stoking the bonfire who owned an orchard close by and the dude from Brooklyn tuning his guitar knew them too, and we all hummed along as the spit turned. The band broke out into songs and played everything from Sitting on top of the World to their originals. I was a pig in shit.

Then someone came down from the farmhouse kitchen with appetizers, small reddish brown balls of lambburger seasoned with herbs and spring veggies. Without hesitation I popped one in my mouth and sweet jeeesus nearly fainted at the taste. It was remarkable how good it was. I had never eaten meat so succulent. It literally dissolved in my mouth, a dance of herbs and juices and pure energy. No part of me felt weird, or bad, or nauseated like I worried I might. It was the first taste of meat in nearly nine years and it was lamb I helped prepare myself at the farm it was born on. I loved it. I was in love with the whole damn day. The food tasted like I felt and I was glad.

Dinner was amazing. You just can't know.

We all stood and joined hands (probably 60 people) and started with a grace thanking (insert your god here) for the lambs, vegetables, weather and community. We were proud to be celebrating such an important agragrian event in such a traditional way. Before us lay the most beautiful spread, all food from local farms inseason here in the Northeast. We ate lamb, of course (crowned and French-boned), mashed potatoes, spring salad greens, and freshly baked bread with homemade butter. Focaicca, scones, jams and apples lined the end tables. As I stood in the banquet line to fill my plate, I noticed it was our hero, Adam the butcher in front of me, now dressed in normal clothes and looking totally different. I told him his lamb was my first non-vegetarian meal in almost a decade. He set down his plate and hugged me like an old college friend.

We sat near each other at the table and I learned we shared similar backgrounds. Adam used to run a successful advertising agency in New York, but found it emotionally draining and pointless. So he gave up that life and went to butchering school at SUNY where he learned humane slaughter, anatomy, and chef-level cuts. Now he works at Marlow and Daughters in Williamsburg, hoping that by choosing to learn the trade he can now help local farmers process their animals outside of CAFOs and in their community instead. He explained he became involved in meat production to improve America's food culture and to help animals live better lives, sharing how the real bottleneck in healthy local meat is there aren't enough people trained in humane slaughter and processing reaching out to small farms, helping them do it right. He wanted to avail himself to those farms and fix what he saw as a dangerous problem. We were two ends of the meal's spectrum, a farmer and a butcher, yet had the same goal in our hearts and minds. I was floored. If he didn't have a wedding ring on his finger I would've stuck around that bonfire a lot longer, let me tell you...

It was the perfect Vernal Equinox. I spent the day with people who share my passion and appreciated their dinner in a whole new way. It was also the end of my life as a vegetarian, brought back into carnivory by the very animal I'm dedicating my life to. And don't worry, you won't see me running to any drive-thrus anytime soon. I vow to only eat meat I raised myself, or was raised the same way I would in my own community. So what does that make me? A Mortgagetarian? A nextdooravore? Anyway, this food choice may make dinners like Saturday's few and far between, but perfect and soooo appreciated when they do. Which is how people probably ate meat in the first place, before the assembly line was accepted as a way to end a life. I refuse to be a part of that. I also refuse to not be a part of what I think is the solution. I ate my lamb dinner happily. It felt right. It felt earned. I felt at home with my table.

Before I headed out the door, I stopped at Severine's table (Director of the Greenhorn movement) and said thanks. She thanked me for coming and waved goodbye. I then grabbed an apple from the bowl next to her for dessert on the drive home. She stopped her conversation with her neighbor, grabbed my hand, and serious as a heart attack said "Wash that. It's Conventional." I nearly teared up leaving the loud, happy, candlelit room as I walked out to the truck. Her words perfectly summarizing the entire day, our entire lives.

I found my tribe.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

it was amazing

Friday, March 19, 2010

almost a dozen a day

join the fray

Lots of scrappy talk going on here about the Hogget Cook Off!

just start

I found this photo from my first spring at the cabin. It was a weekend my friend Nisaa from Brooklyn came up to help me get the new chickens and first gardens ready. This photo is nothing special, a cardboard box with some started plants (mint and lettuce) and an empty carton of eggs. Yet what it lead up to was nearly three seasons of a working backyard farm. In the few years I lived here I grew gardens, raised sheep, bred rabbits, tended bees, lived with dogs, played my fiddle and banjo on the porch and fell in love with my guitar again.

Most of the time I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I learned as I went, picking up books and haunting web forums. I joined clubs, made new friends, learned to eat out of the dirt and farmer's markets. I cook at home now. Eating in is glorious. I can knit my hats, sew my bags, and bake my own bread and I still write about it all here. But the point is I made that first small effort, and it trotted me home.

Now, a few years later I'm nearly closing on my own 6.5 acre homestead and trying to figure out how to move sheep, a goat, chickens, and start a farmer's market garden. I get a dozen eggs a day. I know how to plant pole beans. I'm learning to shear wool and make lamb cuts. Every year I grow, thanks to the land I made mine.

A lot happens if you make it. And it all starts somewhere. Case and point: two plants and an empty egg carton on a cardboard box. Make this spring yours. Just start.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

jackson farm update

For those of you interested in how the new home of Cold Antler is coming along, all I can share is the mortgage was approved and is being underwritten. All the paperwork is filed and I am waiting to hear from the lawyers when the closing date is. Right now all I can really do is clean, pack, carry loads of stuff to the dump and start planning the move. My Sister and my friends the Snyders (homesteaders and future farmers) are coming up from PA to help me get the flocks settled and build shelters and fences. I'll let local folks know when that is and we'll have a work party at the farm.

sheep shearing 101

I signed up for the Sheep Shearing School and I'm more excited than any reasonable person should be. In a few weekends I'll be sitting in the barns at Shelburne Farms with a ewe's back against my stomach learning how to not clip nipples as I give her a haircut. I'll be one of many students, all new shepherds (or new to shearing) wanting a hands-on experience before trying it out on their own flocks. If I get good at it, it could be a skill I could build on and provide it as a service for other small farms around my area. It's hard getting a sheep shearer to come out for just a few animals, a lot of smaller and hobby farms have to wait until the popular shearers can fit them into their schedule. Perhaps I could make a little extra farm income shearing sheep in the spring? Anyway, it's something to think about.

If you're interested in taking the class, it's offered twice in April here in Vermont. Get in touch with the University of Vermont Extension. Classes are April 10th and 24th.

It is in the 60s here now and the weather is driving this gardener crazy. With the move in a few weeks though, my hands are tied. It would be foolish to start hoeing a place I plan on leaving so soon. I want to reserve my energy for the Jackson Farm and all the effort that will go into starting the year new. But hot damn, all I wanted to do this weekend was get out there with a shovel and prepare the ground for lettuce, peas, broc, and potatoes. To temper the anxiety, I started planting seedlings inside. I have a windowsill of tiny greenhouses of future greens, peas, carrots and broccoli. They started to sprout yesterday. Sometimes you just need to make things happen. I'm all for positive thinking, visualization, and all that. But I really think if you want an organic garden don't think about spring greens, plant them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

almost that time again...

Monday, March 15, 2010

the whole hogget

This weekend I'll be attending a Greenhorns event in upstate New York called the Hogget Cook Off. It's the first of a two-day event that centers around basic butchering education, but the buck doesn't stop there. Every aspect of processing the animal will come into play. The fleece will be shorn and cleaned for spinning. The fat will be turned into soap. The hide will be tanned and the meat will be eaten. All of these sheep adventures will be presented to a hands-on audience of scrappy young farmers who will be attending the event. Some will have land, others will rent—a brave few will have just started entertaining the idea of a grass-fed career and are following their gut to Kinderhook Farm on the official first day of Spring. I'll be showing up as a young shepherd chomping at the bit to learn.

To some it may seem odd, or even revolting, to spend a day centered around an animal's death. But this Animal Welfare Approved event isn't about slaughter—it's about community. The pasture-raised lamb (a hogget is a sheep under a year old that has never been shorn) will be treated with the utmost respect and gratitude from the lot. The crowd will be current and future sustainable farmers, people who strongly desire to opt out of the illusion that meat comes from the land of Styrofoam trays and shrink wrap. These are people (like myself) who are hoping to raise meat on their own farms. The point being to be part of the solution that ends the demand for factory farm meat. More farmers raising free-range animals means less assembly line lamb chops. Events like this area a wake up call to a culture becoming more and more suspicious of industrial food.

I was talking to a friend in the office about this earlier this morning, and his response was pretty common. He said being a part of something like that would surely turn him into a vegetarian—just the thought turned his stomach. I can see his point, it won't be pretty, but it will be important. What may turn one man into a vegetarian is probably what's going to turn me into a meat eater again. I mean that in the most best way possible. I'm a vegetarian that will return to local carnivory only when I am assured the animals on my plate lived the best life possible, on my own farm or at the farms of friends. The Hogget Cook Off is a practice of that life choice. When it comes to my food, I want to look it in the face before I sit down to dinner. I want to know how it lived, see how it was treated, and make sure other animals are given the same dignity before their own demise. It takes all kinds to make this world turn on a slightly kinder rotation, some of us just have sharper teeth.

It's a celebration of the Vernal Equinox, but it's also a celebration of a lifestyle. If not the life the greenhorns have, then the life they desperately want. Whether the attendants live in Brooklyn or the farm next door they're coming to Kinderhook, yes, to learn how to cut up a sheep, but also to meet other people who want to spend their Saturday learning how to cut up a sheep. It's not exactly a check-off option on e-harmony.

I'll be going to learn about processing animals. I myself raise sheep and hope to start breeding lambs for the table next spring. I'm looking forward to the hands-on aspect of the work. But more so I'm looking forward to the conversations and company I'll keep for those hours. A chance to stand outside in the dead grass among people who share your love of rotational grazing and heirloom beef cattle is a recipe for a very specific kind of happiness. It proves that even among twenty-something's Networking doesn't always require a Facebook page meet up and a drink at a bar. For some of the feral ones, it just requires a dead sheep. I'll take it.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

goat at the door

tired and hoggets

Boy oh boy, do I have a lot to update you on.

In the past week I've found out I secured the mortgage for the Jackson Farm, signed up for a sheep shearing school, moved Finn into another foster home, and spent a long, wonderful, day at a farm film festival. Soon as I recoup from the weekend's non-stop pace, I'll fill you in on all of that... but tonight I am barely standing up. I got home from Williamstown around 1AM, and if it wasn't for the fine people at Subaru for making cars that handle snow so very well—I might not be writing you at all. I have never driven through such horrifying weather in New England; 70 mile per hour winds and driving sleet. It was a horror. When I got home to the farm I was so rattled from the drive (and excited about the people from the festival) I couldn't sleep. So I didn't. Insult to injury: today I loaded a calf hutch in a trailer, planted seeds in mini-greenhouses, re-homed my kid, and still managed to hit the grocery store and Laundromat. Time to sleep. I am a beat scene.

Before I do... This is happening next weekend and it is going to be awesome. I hope to be there, and if you're an up-and-coming shepherd, farmer, or into really local foods, you should check it out. It's a spring equinox festival where a lamb will be shorn, slaughtered, tanned, cooked, and then eaten! Casual lessons in basic lamb cooking and sheep stuff will be going on, as will (I hope) music, beer, and conversation with young farmers. Sponsored by the Greenhorns!