Tuesday, April 20, 2010

photos of the new farm!

Monday, April 19, 2010

slowly bringing them home

You're looking at the new/old chicken coop at Cold Antler. I call it Trappers Cabin (after a reader's band) since it's got a bunch of rusty traps hanging by the outside window and an ancient dead mink nailed above the door. It's a little creepy, but damn charming. (Certainly nothing a girl with first editions of Edward Gorey comics would balk at.) Both the coop and barn are covered in old rusty tools, traps, and old farm wares. I imagine they were pulled out of the fallen barn/dump on the property. What was once a regal barn is now a pile of scrap hidden behind the house. It's the one downside of the place, and has a lot of trash under the old barn boards, but also some antiques and great, usable, tools. Ugly, but worth the hassle. Old junk piles are rich with cool finds. I saw some old windows in there I can turn into cold frames.There's enough scrap around here to start another farm.

Yesterday my friend Steve came over early in the morning to help transport the rabbits and the bee hives. Having a second pair of hands (and a second truck) allowed us to do it all in one trip. When all was set up with the rabbitry in the barn, we decided to tackle the coop. After cleaning out the garbage and analyzing the structure we figured out how to best predator-proof it. I spent the afternoon setting the coop up in the rain and when the sky broke and the sun came out: I went to buy and load hay.

It's been a hell of weekend. Since closing Friday afternoon I've been scrambling to get Cold Antler from Sandgate to Jackson. So far the movers have managed to transfer most of my stuff and haul off two F150's full of trash. I started some unpacking, but the house seems to be the least important thing. Right now I just want the old cabin empty, clean, and ready to hand back to the landlord and all my sheep and fences back in New York. I am hoping to move the shed there, but not sure it's possible. I can't pick it up and lack a trailer. I'm not sure what to do exactly, about that...

I did move all the poultry last night. I wrangled, loaded, and drove all the chickens, roosters, and geese (by the way, geese do not like riding shotgun...) and they are now safe inside their new digs. The rabbits are in the barn, cozy and out of harms way. Slowly, the place is turning into home again. I feel so lucky. It was great to wake up to roosters this morning.

I also placed a spring poultry order for a few ducks (magpies for training Gibson to herd), turkeys, and more meat birds. I got my package of seeds and potatoes from Seed Savers Exchnage in as well. It's a little overwhelming, but it will all get done. It has to.

It's going to be one hell of an October folks.

Friday, April 16, 2010


The first thing I thought of as I woke up was crows. I hold a personal superstition that spotting crows in pairs is an auspicious sign. Two birds side-by-side in flight, perched in a tree, or hopping along the side of the road is an omen of hope for me. I have no logical explanation for this. It simply feels correct. When I tried to figure it out, I found in my research that crows are only seen in groups when they're young. So what I had been smiling at was actually a codependence I didn't understand but deeply appreciated. A pair of crows is a sign of necessity, teamwork, survival and hope. It's how the young animals find their footing in the world. The gypsy in me needed to see those birds before closing on the Jackson Farm—a mandatory blessing. As I rolled deeper into the quilts to try and gain a few more minutes of sleep—I silently prayed a pair would find me before pen touched paper. I took a deep breath and got up.

I got the coffee ready on the stove and placed the remaining 3/4ths of the quiche I made for dinner last night into the oven. As the percolator rocked and the cabin filled with the smells of the warming breakfast—I invited Jazz to join me on the couch. He leapt up and buried his head into my chest. His tail thumped as I held his face and kissed his forehead. It was far too early and dark to see the farm outside for chores. So while we waited for daylight to catch up with us, I pet my dog, grabbed my old guitar, and played a song with breakfast.

By the time the dogs and I had our fill (I ate like a bird; too nervous to really enjoy the food) and I had enough coffee to scare normal people into caffeine celibacy—it was time to get outside. The last day of chores as a Vermonter.

This is the swan song for this incarnation of Cold Antler. In a few weeks the cabin will be empty, the yard quiet, and not a single rooster will break into morning yodels here. I don't know if the neighbors will be heartsick or relieved at the change. Truthfully, I try not to think about it. While I went about the morning rounds of sheep, chicken, and rabbit care I listened to soft music in my headphones and let myself lack any specific focus. Then I discovered just how hard it is to meditate when you realize you just acquired 13 new animals overnight...

The big speckled doe gave birth to a giant litter of kits! Inside the nest box were 13 wriggling little babes—some pink, some spotted, some near black. They were all alive and well and the mother was doing fine. This marks the first litter of meat rabbits at the farm, and the fact it was on the day I closed on my new home seemed almost written for a script. I reached into the furry nest box and pulled out a tiny kit. I held the newborn in my palm, warm and close. I watched the rays of steam come off its fragile, chubby body in my hand. I melted at the poetry but quickly returned it to its family. I smiled at the small success. If crows didn't come; kits had.

With the blessing of the new litter I headed inside to prepare for the big day. I had originally planned to bring Jazz with me, but when I realized how much driving was involved, and how long the day might be for a healing animal—I decided to let him and Annie rest at the cabin. Yet the idea of closing alone was depressing. I wanted someone with me to share in the sublime moment. So I grabbed my beat up Gibson guitar and set it by the front door. That'll do.

A little backstory: I bought this 1957 black guitar on eBay, thinking it might be a J-45. It was bidding at a steal, and when I won it a few weeks ago, I was thrilled that my dream guitar was finally coming into my life.

I was wrong. When I opened the shipping box I realized I didn't see the instrument for what she really was. The assumed J-45 was actually an old LG. A smaller bodied, curvier, and lighter instrument than my original crush. At first I was upset. Had I known it was an LG and not my 45 I would have let her go to someone else. But time heals all wounds, and now that she's here (and what I play every night) I have grown to adore her. The old guitar had become a good friend. If a dog could not join me on this fine day, this scrappy guitar would be a fine second choice. I loaded her in the truck, turned on the music, and we drove down the mountain towards the rest of the day.

It was all starting now.

On my way I pulled into Wayside to grab a cup of coffee. I also wanted to pick up something small to walk into the new house with. The store had been my home away from home since I moved from Idaho and wanted a piece of it to join me. I found a glass case near the magazines with a pile of tiny jade-like Buddhas in every shape and size. I found a small Japanese Buddha (not the fat, happy one holding coins) and bought it for a few dollars. As I climbed back into the truck, I set the little green statue on the passenger seat. Together me, Buddha, and the Gibson drove to the bank. We had not see a single crow the whole time since leaving the cabin half an hour ago. I gripped the steering wheel tighter.

After the cashier's check was made, and my obligations met, I headed over to Chem Clean to service the truck. I pulled up next to the air and Chris, a neighbor an attendant, noticed the case in the front seat. Chris is a fine guitarist and helped himself to a few tunes on the Gibson while I checked tire pressure. As I pressed air I could hear Black Bird playing from the other side of the Ford. It was beautiful. I stuck around for a while to talk with Alan and Suzanne (who run the shop) and got to meet their two new Siberian Husky puppies. I held the little girl in my arms while her brother ran around in circles on his blue lead. Not many gas station in America offer concerts and puppies. Chem clean gets a lot of my business.

I drove faster than I should have. The music was loud and emotional. I was listening to a new passion of mine, Gregory Alan Isakov. I was drumming with my thumbs on the wheel while the violins started to shudder in The Empty Northern Hemisphere. As I crossed the state line into New York I felt the rush of quiet panic stirred with the excitement of something new. A few miles up the road, as the song galloped into the bridge, a pair of crows flew over the truck. I let out a long exhale. Everything would be okay.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur. A pile of meetings, lawyers' offices, paper work and hand shakes. The whole time I was signing the documents I could not believe this was actually happening. The idea of owning my own farm just a few months ago was unheard of. My credit score was horrible. I didn't have a savings account. I had no real plan to find or buy land...and yet here I was, four short months later, being asked if I wanted extra title insurance and being handed a set of keys. When all was said and done I stood up from the heavy wooden desk and realized I was shaking, like I was in love.

I think I was.

I drove back to the house, my house, as it started to rain. I had a thick packet of papers and a smile that would not hide. I kept checking my phone to hear word from friends and family. Two coworkers would be coming over with pizza and beer later to celebrate. My parents showered congratulations. I thanked them all over and over. But despite their kindness, I could not wait to hang up and go home. I wanted to walk around the property like an addict: planning housing, running extension cords, making the place come back to life. That dead farm was about to get a few hits of Jenna. It would resuscitate, and thrive, and feed people again. I was drunk on the dream turning into reality. I wanted more. I wanted to be in the house. I drove like it.

Then I almost hit Stumpy.

Stumpy was an aging Golden Retriever, walking down the middle of Route 22 (a busy, rural highway) and not at all swerving to miss cars. People who noticed him cut him a wide berth, and others slammed on the brakes. I knew his name was stumpy because I pulled over, and hollered "Hey! Dog!" and he trotted towards me and I read his tags. A line of cars was slowing down to watch this dumb girl try to flag down the senile dog, but I ignored them. (If that was my dog I'd want someone to call the name on the collar.) So Stumpy sat with me on the side of the highway, and we got acquainted. I called his owners and they said they'd be down to pick him up. While we waited I told him about my day. I was grateful to have met him, he got me to slow the hell down and just sit. His pedestrian ways, lacking what they lacked, let me take in what was actually happening. And I was secretly happy to have an arm around a dog. Dogs are my people. We talked like old friends. I was somewhat sad to see him hop into his owners car.

Keys in hand, dog rescued, and just a mile from my new house I drove down the road a little slower. I pulled into the driveway and grabbed Buddha and the guitar. I opened the door and stepped into the warm house, which was filled with rays of afternoon light. It was so much brighter then the cabin was; even on her best days. I set down my keys and the tweed case and walked around, trying to catch my breath. I felt the staircase like it was slightly electric. I walked the rooms like the walls were lined with impressionists. Everything was drank in. Everything made me feel brand new.

I sat down on the floor, opened the guitar case, and played a song. Upward Over the Mountain rang through the old farm house and echoed upstairs. I played it like it was the last song I'd ever get to play. I sang to no one, and that made it even stronger.

Mother don't worry I've got a coat and some friends on the corner.
Mother don't worry, he'll have a garden. We'll plant it together.
Mother remember the night that the dog had her pups in the pantry?
Blood on the floor and fleas on their paws and you cried till the morning?

So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten.
Sons are like birds flying always over the mountain.

...sitting there, sweaty and excited, daunted and alone, I sang. I was overwhelmed and happy. Really happy. But understanding and feeling those things all at once, I started to cry. It wasn't a cry that belonged to any particular emotion. It was a homily and a eulogy; hope and fear; desire and despair. I just cried. I held a black guitar against my chest, shook, and cried. Some things can't be helped.

So much of my story is about wanting. To finally have it is a relief so complicated and beautiful it breaks me to understand it.

Crows fly. Buddha sits. I farm.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

it's official

I close on the farm tomorrow!

finn's on my mind

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

so much going on

There is so much going on right now in this small life, I feel that if I were to properly share it I'd be writing 4,000 words a day. Truthfully, I would love it if that was my main gig, but right now I have so many changes happening it's giving me whiplash. And between the office, the farm, and other adventures I have a plate so full some would call it a compost pile.

Farm update first. I think I close on the Jackson Farm this Friday! We finally got the Clear to Close from the USDA and I am 48 hours away from signing the papers and getting the keys. I still don't actually believe it is happening. It was just this past November when the sky fell down, and now here I am a few days from owning my own little piece of the world. I already know that when I walk into that house for the first time, as the owner, I will have a tweed guitar case in one hand and a dog leash in the other. I want Jazz to walk inside with me, the dog who's been by my side since I was alone in the world. Even with his age and scars he is beautiful and the most affectionate animal I will ever have. I came home tonight and he leapt into my arms, wanting nothing more than to bury his furry head into my chest and scootch up into my collarbone.

Anyway, I am almost home.

In other farm news: the sheep shearer comes Saturday morning, and so does the moving crew. That will be quite the site, seeing a moving truck and a pair of shearers all working alongside the cabin to make this place tick. And I think the speckled brown doe is ready to kindle. She is cutting her feed, acting like she's building a nest. I put a nets box in her cage hoping to encourage a birth. The first littler of edible rabbits will be quite the cause for celebration.

And on the dog front, I got an update photo of Gibson today. My Idaho-born Border Collie is on his way, now four weeks old and covered in a fuzzy coat. He'll be flown in from the west in mid May. What a world that farm dog is stepping into....

And I haven't lost a single laying or meat chick. All are healthy and growing like June weeds. I see them and smile. I even clean the brooder with moxie. Making food is a fine way to spend a week night.

So I hope to update you all soon with news of a final closing date, kits, puppies and more but right now my life is a waiting and planning game. But come May, it's on. I'll be working harder than I ever have in my life to get this farm started. I can't wait.

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.