I recently got a feature article printed in Paste Magazine, about my one true love, the Gibson J-45. If you want to read something totally unrelated to farming, but still 100% jenna. Check it out at the digital issue below. Skip to page 44.
I am a 8-5 corporate employee, so weekends like this are when I get the bulk of my farm work done. When the combination of beautiful weather, a project list, and an event like the annual Poultry Swap all collide in 48 hours—I'm in my own personal bubble of agricultural ecstasy. So when Saturday morning arrived, sunny and full of promise, I was in rare form. I wanted to celebrate the day, my first real full day of work on my own farm. No errands, no plans, just me and this land. As I pulled on my rubber boots I felt as excited as a first date.
It all started with the chicken tractor. I walked outside and eyed up my pile of scrap wood and chicken wire. All I needed to build was a small open-air pen without a bottom. It's only purpose is to let the meat birds eat and fertilize the grass, while feeling sun and fresh air. Hopefully it's something predators can't get into easily and ends up being light enough for one person to drag easily. The poultry-moving device doesn't have to look pretty, it just needs to keep my thirteen cornish rocks in one confined grassy spot until I see fit to move them to another. Hammer in hand, away I went.
In a few minutes i whipped up a sorry looking pen. Aesthetics aside, it worked just fine. As I was moving the five-week-old chickens from their coop pen into their brave new world I could not help be be impressed at their size. In just over a month those cute fluffy yellow chicks were beasts! Time, care, and two fifty pound backs of feed gave me these white giants. Maybe it's the small farmer coming out in me, but as I moved them to pen to tractor I thought...I wonder how they'll taste?
So I decided to find out. I could harvest one bird and prepare it for my evening meal. After all I had all day, didn't I? It would be good practice too. If I planned on selling my chickens to friends and coworkers, or even giving them as gifts I would need to get decent at the nuts and bolts. So I put a canning pot on the stove to heat up 145 degrees, and went back to the tractor to pick out dinner. I was going to slaughter, cook, and eat my first farm-raised chicken.
For those of you who think this may be morbid, or sad, please don't. Cornish rocks are 100% food animals, unable to survive a few weeks past their 8-10 week harvest time due to their giant frames. If they aren't killed swiftly for dinner they'll usually die of heart attacks, organ failure, or broken legs. Now at about 3 pounds each, and all white feathers and bright eyes, my birds looked nothing like victims. They were happy, clean, birds. Instead of growing up in a dark factory with 10,000 other birds—these guys were living with 12, under my careful watch. They were living exactly the life I felt farm animals should live: outdoors, on green grass, seeing sunlight, and chasing flies. I picked up the fattest bird, held it by its feet (which lulls them instantly into submission), and walked it over to the chopping block. Here we go.
I thanked the bird, almost at a whisper, then with one swift hatchet move and all was done. No squawk, no pain, just over. I tied it upside down to a tree limb and let it bleed out. The boiling water had been moved from the stove, to right next to the stump, so as soon as the bird was empty I dumped the whole thing in the water and counted to sixty. When I pulled it out, the feathers came off like velcro, peeling off with just the slightest friction left to hold them to the skin. Just five short minutes ago this bird was blinking its eyes—now it looked exactly like what you'd see hanging on the streets of an Asian market.
Wow. How fast the animal turns into the recipe.
After the bird was cleaned of all feathers, I took a boning knife and removed the feet like Steve (my friend and Chuck Klosterman assassin) showed me. I followed his lessons and had an open Butchering Basics book by my side as well. Within a few moments the bird was eviscerated and ready for my kitchen. It looked exactly like what comes out of shrink wrap at the grocery store. I placed it in a big pyrex bowl of ice water in the sink and let it chill down to 40 degrees.
While it soaked I went outside and got to work on the garden. I expanded it a little, making room for the heirloom veggies I had ordered and was excited to finally taste. La Ratte potatoes, Dragon Tongue Beans, and pickling cucumbers were just some of the new additions I was planting this year. Seed Savers' Exchange offered these packets of heritage farm favorites and lettuces so I bought them. I had the seeds and the potatoes shipped to the office a few weeks ago. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of the fact I had a pound of rat spuds delivered to my desk. Yup. I had veggies, meat, eggs, and flour back at the new farm house. I was learning the fine are of really eating in.
I also started to see the Deer Tongue, Red Velvet and Arrowhead lettuces seeds I had ordered starting to sprout. The onions and Amish Snap Peas were also coming along well. As I sling my hoe it hit me that I could throw a dinner party here, featuring my own salad, veggies, roasted bird and warm bread... As sweat literally stung the corners of my eyes, I stopped planting, leaned on my hoe and took that notion in. I just stood there and satiated a bit. The garden rests on the flat bit of land above the farm house and below the sheep field. I closed my eyes and let some wind hit me. I heard the bees roaring in the apple trees above me. Joseph bleated for grain. Down by the well spring the geese were eating lush grass. The surviving chickens in the tractor were fat and now dust bathing in their shade. The place was thriving. I was thriving.
This little farm will feed me. It'll hurt, and burn, and cause sore muscles and sleepless nights but it will continue to feed me. That simple truth, is everything to me. Because darling, don't you realize that everything that any human being ever accomplished: from symphonies to atomic bombs was done because someone else was growing their food? Because someone else was doing the work that kept them alive? I prefer to cut out my middlemen. I want to be responsible for me, whatever that happens to be.
Between gardening breaks I brined the bird. I was following the step-by-step instructions in the newest issue of Cook's Country. I mixed a half cup of sugar and a half cup of salt into water and let the bird soak in the fridge for an hour. While the bird took in all that moisture and flavor: I went back to the garden to work. I knew I was getting a sunburn but didn't care. It's not good, I know, but after this winter it was a sadistic thrill to feel hot skin. I buried the chicken head, feet, and offal into the dirt below the garden soil. It would continue to feed me, and the soil, as compost.
When I couldn't take the heat, I went into the kitchen. It was in the mid-eighties outside but inside was a cool 68. I'd swill water, clean up, and go about more prep work. I took the bird out of it's brine bath and toweled it dry. (The dogs were very interested in this part.) Then I got out a honey mustard herb rub and some olive oil and massaged it into the meat. The magazine said to poke holes in the skin when doing this, so I did, and then placed the chunky little bird in a roasting pan, breast side down at 375 degrees. I would flip it and crank it up to 450 in about 45 minutes.
I went back to my work day. I finished up in the garden, fed the rabbits, collected eggs, and started preparing for the Poultry Swap in the morning. I had to clean out the back of the truck and get cages out of the barn for the Guinea fowl and meat rabbit buck I hoped to buy. When all was set for a day of bartering and haggling— I returned to the kitchen for more water, forgetting what was in the oven. I was blown away by the smell. My. Dear. Lord.
It was amazing! The place smelled of smells I never knew but always wanted, was starving for actually. Maybe it was the heat, or the work outside but that chicken roasting in the oven was tantric. I peaked in the oven and heard the crackling and smelled the herbs and fat. It was browning and bubbling. This was going to be amazing. Any yuck factor from the first phases of the meal was forgotten. All was excitement now. And after all that sun and work, I was famished.
When the day was done I took a long shower and changed into a sun dress instead of my usual farm clothes. I sat down outside on the deck to, as expected, a marvelous dinner. It was hands down the best chicken I had ever tasted. Sweet white meat and crispy skin and just a hint of herbs. On a bed of greens with some honey mustard dressing, it looked almost fake. I was impressed with myself for pulling it off, but also shocked that what had yellow feet and clucked a few hours earlier now was on the end of my fork. I felt the same way I did when knitting my first hat, or eating my first tomato. I had made this meal, really made it. I ate a third of the bird that night. I savored it, every single bite. I looked out over the farm around me sighed deeply.
I felt damn lucky. Yes, I had worked hard for the meal, and hard for the farm, but I felt lucky to have been able to reign in my wit and resources at the same time this place was available at the price it was. A perfect storm of timing, and recession, and evictions and now even births and deaths had all lead up to this chicken dinner on this deck. I felt it all the way into my bones. They shook.
I don't know why anyone needs to go across the globe on vacation. You want to really change your life? You want to be forced to slow down, think, and question the meaning of your existence? You want to better know how you fit into the story? Then buy a chick for 1.75 at Tractor Supply and follow a recipe. The whole world begins and ends there.
The new farm is starting to fall into old routines. The dust is settling. The place is starting to feel like home. There are some moving pangs, and old ghosts haunting the place, but I'm not worried. I see no point in getting worked up about what is behind me.
And while the place is falling into a slow waltz; we've certainly had our ups and downs. Recently Jazz and Annie broke into the brooder and killed five of the chicks. It was my fault. I was running around cleaning for company, feeding the sheep, and left the laundry room door cracked a little. The dogs snuck in and had a grand time being pro-bono butchers. The other sixteen were spared. (Either they were meat birds living outside, or ran away to safety behind the washing machine.) Never a dull moment.
I can't blame Siberians for being Siberians. I can blame me for being careless. Five birds is a sad loss.
Besides that small massacre every other animal is thriving. The bunnies (seven total) are healthy, and at two weeks old, all have open eyes and new coats. That photo is one of the babes with his poultry cousins on the lawn. In six weeks the bunnies will be ready for harvest, and between them and the chickens... I'll have a heck of a meat supply put up for everything from BBQs to fancy dinner parties. Feels good to cater your own shindigs, I bet.
Food is certainly the name of the game. The chickens are laying nearly 8-12 eggs a day, and the garden survived the cold snap. Thanks to some well placed tarps: there will be salad! and this weekend the potatoes go in, as does my hoe. I'll be out in the sunny weather slinging that beast to make room for more veggies. I already bought a pint of cookie dough ice cream as a Saturday night treat, post sod breaking. It sure will be earned. No doubt about that.
I'm most proud of the meat birds, who have all grown into fat, happy, nuggets and are just a few weeks away from harvest. I think they will be hitting my freezer (and friends' freezers) just in time for the new crop of roasters to come in from the feed store. The pastured poultry is a new thing for me, but so far has been going swimmingly. I hope to finally build them their tractor this weekend. While I don't mind sitting outside and shepherding their grass time, it would be nice to let them in their own pen for a few hours while I painted inside or worked on something else. It'll all happen in time. It always does.
PSA: This Sunday is the Poultry Swap! (Where Finn came from last year.) I'm looking forward to it. I'll take photos and probably come home with something, but wanted to give a heads up for anyone in the area looking for a hell of a farming tailgate party. It's a great event, and a great place to find stock. (Just get there before 7:30. All the good stuff is gone by eight.)
This weekend I was outside in a tank top heaving a hoe into the sod and have sunburn on my back to prove it. Tonight they are calling for up to three inches of snow. I hate April.
I spent the bulk of sunlight after work pulling plastic sheeting over the young beds and weighing it down with rocks. This freak storm may bring snow, but it won't re-freeze the soft ground. Not when it was 76 Sunday and they want it 67 again on Friday. It will be a fluke. Long live plastic insurance policies.
All that said. I'm waiting till the weekend to put my potatoes in.
I'm all moved in now, and the boxes are waiting to be unpacked. Right now the animals come before personal move-in indulgences like hanging up clothes. Housing, fences, feeding and new night rounds are being learned. But hell, I did buy a can of paint for the kitchen, and got one wall painted already. I did it late last night while it rained. I had to use all my self-preservation skills to not blue-tape up another wall tonight. But I didn't pack away dinner till nearly 9, and I do need some sleep before my 4:45 wake up call. Painting will have to wait till the weekend.
You'll have to forgive my scattered writing. Right now all the change, the new farm, and the projects involved have me reeling. The sheep still need to be shorn (though they will appreciate their late-spring coats if we do get those three inches tonight) and the meat birds need their chicken tractor. The new puppy arrives within a week or so and I haven't even bought a bag of puppy chow yet. It will all come together: the shaved sheep, the new addition, the snowy salad greens—but tonight I find myself feeling a little overwhelmed. A positive satiating, but drowning none the less. It'll be okay. In fact, it will be amazing. But these first few days have been exhausting. July has never looked better.
A lot of folks who read this blog aren't homesteaders, gardeners, or even bread bakers (yet). They seem to have concerns about time restraints. People ask me often how much time goes into caring for the farm and animals. I thought this morning I would time each task, at my normal speed, in hopes it gives you an idea of the energy I have to set aside. So here's a timed example of morning chores.
Taking care of the new laying hen chicks: 2 minutes.
I refill water font and feeder jar from a bag of feed right next to the brooder and the laundry room has a sink in it. Easy. later that day I'll have to refill the brooder with new pine shavings. (I do this every 3 days.) That will take about 5 minutes.
Preparing the laying flock/meat birds for the day: 8 minutes.
Open coop door, feed birds from metal bin and scoop next to the chicken coop. Refill gallon metal water font at the well. Catch egg-eating chicken and place in spare rabbit hutch in barn. Refill meat birds' (too young to free-range unsupervised) feed dish and smaller plastic water font. Later today I will build a meat bird chicken tractor for the sheep pasture. It'll be a simple portable pen of scrap wood and chicken wire. Some nails and a staple gun are all it will take. I look forward to the project, which might last fifteen minutes?
Rabbit work: 3 minutes
Refill all feed trays with pellets, give small ration of second cut hay. Refill any low or empty water bottles at the well. Check on adorable kits. 7 made it and are doing fine. (The others were destroyed by the doe.) Besides repeating this later before bed, that is all the effort they require today.
Sheep work: 5 minutes
Walk up hill. Open gate. Let Sheep graze on hillside surrounded my portable fence. Place hands on hips. Take a deep breathe. Take in the view and smile. Later today I will refill their water, and move the portable fencing to a new area of grass. Because of the hill, wait time for the buckets to fill, and all - this may take fifteen minutes total.
Now, that's a quick morning of clock-winding to keep the animals going for the day. But don't think it's always that simple. If it's pouring rain: things slow down. If something breaks, or you run out of feed it takes longer to mend it or run to the feed store. I imagine if I had children this would take longer and require a second person, possibly. And of course I didn't include the time it took to build the fences, re-fix the chicken coop, build the meat bird pen inside the coop, or transport sheep. However, it was all done in the last eight days with a thirty-two hour work week, a few friends, some hard work, and a trusty post pounder. Far from impossible. And for all it gives me in satisfaction, good food, and sore arms: totally worth it.
This morning's dawn was met by me riding a 200-pound sheep into the sunrise. Well, "riding" isn't really the correct term—I was being dragged. It was not yet 6 AM and as my favorite wether pulled my not-so-small frame across the hillside—it occurred to me that most normal people were still in bed. Little did they know us crazy small farmers were out having amateur rodeo hour. My friend Zach and I had loaded the sheep into the Subaru the day before. Had I known then they were planning to teach me some lessons about gravity and hoof-speed: I might have left them there.
Bruises aside, I was happy to have all of my animals (save Finn, who I am waiting till I have electric fencing to call home) back in my care. And that bit about leaving them in Vermont, that's a little dramatic. Truth is I have grown far too fond of my first three sheep to do anything but shear and feed them. There will be lamb and wool on this farm, but these guys aren't food stock. They are the training wheels I fell in love with. Even the mean one.
Zach, his wife Shellee, and their daughter Madeline were visiting from my hometown. They were here to help tear down the old farm and set up the new one. Not many folks jump at the chance to wrangle livestock, so I not only welcomed their visit, I bought new towels.
The family arrived Thursday night, and was helping feed chickens and filling rabbit fonts by 5:30 Am the next morning. After farm chores were done Friday morning, we drove over to Sandgate for the flock. I backed the car right up to the gate. hoping the loading would go smoothly. I opened the hatch to the tarp-lined back seat and threw some grain in. Sal thought this was marvelous and tried to jump in but was too heavy. I lifted his front end up, and then squatted on my knees to boost him into the back seat. It worked. Joe followed with little effort and Maude...well, was Maude. She balked, tried to run away, was caught, and then had to be lifted a foot at a time into the back seat. But we got them all loaded in a matter of minutes. As the hatch slammed I felt the weight of the world lift off my chest. All of Cold Antler was now heading home.
Zach seemed unfazed sitting shotgun in the beat Forester while Maude stuck her head in the space between the two front seats. (People who ride in cars with sheep are my kind of people.) After the drive back to the new farm, we moved them into the small holding pen cobbled together two nights earlier with the help of some coworkers. It was a simple affair: just field fence and some t-posts. Thanks to my friends Phil and Steve—who had come up for beer, pizza, and fence-building Wednesday night— I had the joint ready for some sheep. We had prepared knowing it would be a few days before the sheep shed was dismantled and delivered, but the forecast called for sunny days and they had the shade of a few apples trees. I thought they'd like their new pen and spend some happy time inside it come the weekend.
As I walked up the hill to the sheep pen, hay under one arm and somewhat groggy (I was still waiting for the coffee to perk)—I realized Sal had escaped. He had boldly shimmied under the fence in search of greener pastures. The trio had mowed the pen's grass to nothing in a few hours and the endless field around him was too tempting to stay put. I walked right up to him and pat him on the head. Morning Sal, I nodded. He kept eating, in love with the high, lush grass. I dumped the hay into the pen for Maude and Joseph (who had remained in the pen) and walked down to the car to grab some of the grains we used yesterday morning to bribe them into the station wagon. When I returned to the rogue with the grains, he ignored me some more. Wow...This had to be some seriously good grass... So I went with plan B, which was to grab him and push him back under the fence.
This was a mistake.
Sal was not interested in being man handled and started to trot away. I held on tighter. I stepped over him, straddling the 200 pound sheep between my legs, crab walking him towards the break in the fence. To steady him, I leaned the bulk of my weight over his upper back and foolishly thought this would lull him into submission and he would trudge back into the pen. He did not. He took off. I was just along for the ride.
For a few moments I was half riding/half being dragged across my new pasture by a grass-crazed fiend. I bounced as he cantered, holding onto his long wool like a chump. Finally I yelled for him to stop, and out of shock at the noise, he did. Both of us panting, my back covered in sweat, I was then able to follow the original plan of shoving him back under the lame fence. I placed a roll of spare Red Brand in front of the hole and walked back down the hill to the house. I had no idea if he'd mind the improvement or roll it out of the way again. Honestly, I didn't care. I hadn't had any coffee yet and I was panting like a sheepdog. My guests were still fast asleep. I hoped the neighbors weren't up to see the hootenanny. I hadn't even shook hands with them yet...
It was the beginning of a very long (but grand) day. A day that started with rodeo and would end with a toddler dancing barefoot in the grass around a small flock of meat birds, soaking up the sun together. How it should be.
More tomorrow. I'm so tired right now I could sleep a horse.
There's so much to update you on, and I will shortly. The past week has been a flurry of activity but the end result is nearly here. I'm almost completely moved in. All the animals are here now. (Including the sheep! Who were transported this morning in the Subaru. More on that later.) The Cornish Rocks are outside in their own pen in the coop, and the big birds have made themselves at home. I'm currently hosting some friends from out of town and their four-year-old daughter, who shared this little story with her parents:
During her lessons about John 10:11 in Sunday school, she learned that Jesus is the shepherd and we are his sheep. A few days later, when her father asked her if she was excited about going to the farm, he asked her "Madeline, who has sheep?" Her response: "God! ....and Jenna!"
(That was in no way meant to be a comparison, but still, hilarious.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
The blog of author Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm. Here she writes about her adventures following her crazy dream life as a self-employed homesteader, archer, falconer, equestrian, martial artist, hunter, spinner, brewer, geek, and real-life Game of Thrones Extra. @coldantlerfarm
And when the children are safe in bed, at one of the great holidays like the Fourth of July, New Years, or Halloween, we can bring out some spirits and turn on the music, and the men and the women who are still among the living can get loose and really wild. So that's the final meaning of "wild"- the esoteric meaning, the deepest and most scary. Those who are ready for it will come to it. Please do not repeat this to the uninitiated. -gs