Monday, June 14, 2010

it all starts

Some days small things happen that create the whole that is a farm, and some other days very big things happen. Yesterday was a big day. I stood in a fog-soaked field with a flock of Scottish sheep and their lambs. The only thing stopping them from charging away was a 35-pound Border Collie named Jess. There I stood and selected the breeding animals that would be delivered later this fall, right before the snow fall. I made a deposit on the future lambs of Cold Antler Farm.

I had loaded up the truck that morning. Just Gibson and I were braving the three-hour round-trip. While we rolled southwest of Washington County, I was listening to a cd I recently picked up. It was Bushes and Briars by Susan McKeown. It's dark, semi-traditional, Irish music. A damn fitting soundtrack. Yesterday's rain left a blanket of fog so thick over upstate New York that it was hard to see cars a hundred yards ahead of the Ford on the thruway. As I left the civility of the highway system for the back roads of Esperance, the fog grew thicker still. McKeown's Irish bagpipes matched the entire weather pattern. Gibson's head rested on my lap, his body sprawled on the passenger seat. We were about to step onto an 85-acre sheep farm and pick out our future charges. Scottish Blackface ewes which would be delivered bred. A slight panic filled me. Buying sheep meant I would be in need of fences and a small pole barn shelter by Halloween. Feeling like a girl who jumped without knowing what was below her, my stomach clinched up a bit. But this wasn’t the feeling of stress or panic like the fox, dead rabbits, and food poisoning gave me. This was roller-coaster panic. The good kind. Gibson, sleeping quietly, had no idea what was in store for him.

I haven't been to Barb's farm since I returned Sarah two years ago. We've chatted over email now and then, and spoke at trials, but having no dog to train I simply fell out of touch with the trainer. When I emailed her out of the blue to ask if she'd sell me any of her breeding ewes now that I had the space for them at my own farm—I was thrilled with her response. She said sure, just later in the year. She wasn't going to sell any breeding stock till after the trial in August they hosted was over. However I could come down and select my animals anytime and make a deposit. Here I was.

When I arrived at Taravale Farm I was directed by Bernie (Barb's husband) to head up through the pastures to where Barb and Joyce were. They were finishing up a lesson and I was told I could walk right up.

Gibson was on a leash. The last thing either of us needed was to have a renegade pup tearing after sheep with no training, and then getting rammed to the point of such force he'd grow up fearful of the wool. So as we padded across the dewy pasture and into the fog I kept Gibson close. He looked at them like they were giant pieces of rawhide, puling towards them as we speed-walked across the grass. The sheep stayed 20 yards away from us near a fence. Occasionally one would stamp her hoof and we quickened pace. I felt protective. I felt glad. We made it through the first pasture without incident.

We walked into the lesson field. By now my jeans and waterproof boots were soaked. Everyone else had the sense to wear wellies, and looked like proper shepherds. I was in Hi-techs, ripped jeans, and a cotton dress with a leather jacket. I felt poorly dressed, and over-dressed. This was quickly forgotten in a minute of chaos. Gibson jumped in the air and barked. There a small flock of four sheep being herded right toward us by a dog named Molly.

Barb was coaching the owner Joyce on when to speak up and correct her, to make her circles wider and not crowd the sheep. I stood my ground. trusting Barb and her valiant dog, Jill. Gibson barked and lunged at his leash. When they were about thirty feet away Molly cut them off and turned them back towards her handler. I let out a quiet sigh of relief and told Gibson to lie down. So far the only animal he's show any intense interest of force is sheep. For me, that's a subtle joy. I told him “that'll do” and had him sit beside me for the lesson.

When the lesson was over Barb came over and gave Gibson a scratch on the head. “How old is he?” She asked. “12 weeks!” I exclaimed. Barb smiled and shook her head, “He’s going to be huge…” In the North East Club most sheepdogs were around 40 pounds. Gibson’s west coast girth was rare. A fifty pound rough-coated shepherd was big for New England. Compared to my 70-pound huskies, he felt petite to me.

The ewes with lambs I would be choosing from were over half a mile away, in a pasture Barb had just recently fenced. It was so foggy that the animals in the distance looked less like sheep and more like ghosts, almost transparent. That moment standing in dense fog, on a sheep farm, surrounded by high grass and trained sheepdogs felt like I had shifted into a past life of sorts. Barb spoke (not yelled) “Away to me, Jill” and sent her tiny dog around a hedgerow to the stray sheep. We didn’t see her for five minutes. Then the flock burst like a landmine erupted below them and came towards us. My heart beat faster. Moments like this make the whole world feel like October.

Jill Held them for us against a fence and Barb asked me to tell her which ones I liked. I pointed and she read off the information that matched the number on the tag. Gibson sat beside me while we looked on at the sheep that would teach him to herd, teach us both. There was respect there, even if it was in my head. Gibson was silent and sat as we talked. He watched the flock the whole time, like a statue.

I ended up with five ewes. All of them full-blood Scotts. They would live here till they were bred and then be delivered to Cold Antler when I was ready for them. A major step was made and I bought some time as well. I sucked in the wet air and let out a happy sigh.

I will always keep a few chickens. I will always plant a garden. I will always can, and raise a few turkeys, and maybe keep the rabbitry alive. But there is no doubt that the focus of Cold Antler will be Lamb and Wool. And this spring, the first lambs will drop in Jackson

P.S. Folks have asked if Jazz and Annie are being ignored with the new pup around. My answer is: of course not. I write about Gibson because he's a sheep dog, and this is a sheep farm. He's my partner in crime, peer in sheep 101, and friggin' adorable. So his stories and photos are posted often. But J & A are —like all family members—still a huge and well loved part of my life even if they don't appear on the blog as often. My dad rarely appears on here either, and I would trade in all the sheep farms in the world for him! Plus, huskies eat sheep. So you know, they don't hang out on shearing day.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

what a day...

come out to the fields!

I'd like to invite anyone interested in a CAF meetup, to join me and Gibson at the Merck Forest Sheepdog Trial in Vermont the weekend of July 10th. It's my birthday, and high summer in New England, and a fine excuse for a weekend away.

The sheepdog trial is wonderful. It's a two day festival put on by Merck, complete with food, shearing demos, farm tours, hikes, and maple syrup, wool, and other farm goods will be on sale. Merck Forest raises sheep, heritage pork, chickens, and creates some of its own energy with windmills and solar panels. It's a hell of a place to steep yourself in modern, diversified, grass-based agriculture. I never miss this weekend. You show up early and feel like you're in Scotland for a few hours. Last year (I swear) a bagpiper played while the dogs ran. There are heavy horse cart rides from the parking lots to the trial fields (shuttle service!) and everyone's happy to be there. There are tents with shade and seating. You can buy border collie t-shirts and listen to club members gossip and cheer. Come be a part of my world for a weekend.

I'll be there to watch and probably volunteer somewhere. But I thought we could all sit together, picnic, gab, knit, watch the trial, talk farm stuff, etc. It's informal, but should be fun and if enough people want to get together we can hit a local restaurant for a Cold Antler dinner. (Nothing fancy.)

RSVP if you can. Details can be found at www.merckforest.com

Saturday, June 12, 2010

lyons and lambs

It rained all day. I heard some rumblings of thunder in Saratoga this morning, but generally the day was just a constant, steady, quiet rain. Weather for tea and sleeping dogs, guitars and books. It was one of those days where the farm work is based entirely around comfort of the animals, true creature comforts. Things like lining the sheep shed with fresh straw so they had a dry place to chew their cud. I can sit inside and sip some tea knowing my small flock is dry and out of the weather, eating their lunch a second time on warm bedding while the wind howls. I like seeing them from the kitchen, all of us watching the weather from our homes. It is easier to enjoy your Lyons when you know your lambs are content.

Friday, June 11, 2010

as i get older

It's been unseasonably chilly here in Veryork. Nights dip into the low 40's and sometimes days are barely sixty degrees. Jackson is cold and wet. I love it. I am a huge fan of humidity and precipitation. Overcast days, green hills, rain, wind, sheep—I adore them all. I should marry a Scott with a black hill dog. He'd get me.

The Bourbon Reds are doing amazingly well. Hands down the healthiest poultry I ever raised. Loud as church bells, bright eyed and alert, they are going to be fine table birds. And they're some of the first heritage livestock being raised for the table here, and that's exciting in itself. The Scottish Blackface sheep are next. I'll be loading up the truck this weekend for a road trip to Barb Armata's farm down in Esperance to meet my future flock. I'm really excited about this breed. They're very hearty hill sheep, and something about them suits me. I'm the same way about the highland cattle (I met three highland steers tonight in Cambridge by the way, another story for another time). Between them, the blackface, and the border collies I feel like Cold Antler is going to need its own tartan...

There's still trouble in paradise. The fox is still here, taking lives. The meat rabbit kits fell ill with something (bloat, I think) and are recovering on hay and spring water. I'm not sure how, but the young meat stock became sickly and got diarrhea. The angoras are all well, but I've separated them and am monitoring their feed and care extra closely. They seem fine but thinner than I'd like. I'm waiting to sell them until they are bright and I'm 100% sure they aren't suspect. I'll keep you posted but I think it was a simple intestinal issue that some of the younger rabbits simply couldn't fight it off. I lost two. My rabbitry is around 20 animals now, and on the mend.

I've decided to slow down a bit, be a little more realistic about my abilities. The garden isn't being expanded anymore. No corn this year (boo), but there will still be pumpkins (I demand pumpkins) and plenty of lettuce, onions, broc, and tomatoes. I discovered a USDA butcher one town over that will process my poultry (from clucking chicken to shrink-wrap) for three dollars a bird. It's not that I can't do it here, but after the food poisoning (which I think came from careless chicken processing at home) I think I will let the pros have at it. The fox has eaten half of my current meat bird crop but I am keeping them locked up best I can and building a pen. I am doing my best.

This year, I have to chalk up so much as experience and lessons.

I know a lot of folks read about things like the fox, or bloat in the rabbits, and shake their heads at me. But please understand that I only share the stories of dogs eating chickens, or sick animals, or bear-eaten hives, or any of the messy stuff to show that this life (and lifestyle) isn't perfect. I get hurt and sick. Animals die. Crops wither from blight. Sometimes it's lonely. As wonderful as a small farm is it's a morality play 78% of the time. Sick rabbits, predators, ramming sheep, electric fencing hives, all of it is part of the play and it's never simple....

I am learning to farm and sometimes it's not pretty. Mistakes are part of that education. I need to accept that and appreciate what I gain in understanding what not to do. I only ask you refrain from judging the new kid for a few years.

I'll get better as I get older. I hope.

photo from wikipedia

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

click it to preorder!

shake shake shake

photo by tim bronson

Monday, June 7, 2010

midnight mass

Regardless of our different religions, all shepherds celebrate the same holidays. There's Lambing, and Barn Building, Hogget's First Snow (I added that one), and of course...Shearing Day. These are the high holy days of the sheep calendar. Shared events understood by everyone in the Society of Lamb and Wool. It doesn't matter where you live, or what spices were stored in your family cupboard—all wool shepherds are brethren when it comes to spring rituals. Anyone who thinks ritual is dead is secular society doesn't have ruminants.

Today the flock at Cold Antler got a visit from the barber. It was perfect weather for haircuts. A mild, sunny, evening with the occasional crisp wind. For early summer it sure felt like early fall. The shearers were running late and I was thrilled. I expected to come home to three naked sheep and a thank you pinned to the door. The shearers, Jim and Liz, explained they'd be here around 3 in the afternoon and I sighed the sigh of all shepherds with day jobs and explained I'd have to leave the check on the door and extension chords by the gate. They understood, and have sheared when the flock's owners were away before. But when I pulled into the driveway and saw my check still there, my heart fluttered a little. It was only my second sheep shearing of my own flock and I wanted to be around for the big show. In the small-farm sheepworld, this was Midnight Mass.

When the white truck pulled in the drive I shook hands and helped carry gear up to the sheep pen. Within minutes the shearers were in their felt boots and set up with their extension chords and blades loaded in their giant shears. Joseph was first to be flipped and shorn. For a first time he did well. I couldn't believe how pitch black the wool was under his brown locks. When all the wool was off his body, Jim told me I could bag it while he trimmed the wether's hooves. My little hogget was a hogget no more. The term refers to any young sheep that's never been shorn, usually between 6-15 months. Shaved, he looked like a little black doe, a fluke, a sheep. I scratched his ears and told him he did good.

Gibson watched the whole event go down from a tie-out on an apple tree. I couldn't bring him into the fray, but from outside the pen he watched he flock being worked by people and all the goings on. I want him to be a part of every sheep holiday at the farm. Some day soon I'll be depending on him to work beside me, not just watch while chewing on a stick. But we'll cut the 12-week-old some slack. Right now we're just working on basic obedience and not pissing in the kitchen. A perfect pear-shaped outrun on the trial fields a ways off. Baby steps. Today he watches buzz cuts.

Jim saw the pup and told me of an event going on just an hour north of here the weekend of June 20th. A gathering of sheepdog people will be getting together with their new pups to work on herding basics and have a pot luck. It wasn't any sort of sanctioned club event, just shepherds and their dogs watching the new kids show off their talent. He said I could come along and watch with Gibson, meet some locals, see some young dogs work at their beginning training. My heart was beating like a first kiss. I no longer felt sick at all. I was filled with the excitement this place, this weird sheeplife, grants me. I told him we'd be there, and I was bringing pie.

Sal and Maude were troopers, and after they too were shorn all three looked like paper dolls with their outfits torn off, awkward and naked but still oddly innocent. Sal, being Sal, came up to me and leaned his big 200-pound frame into my thighs. My lion had turned into...well, a mountain lion. Same thick dope of a sheep, but with less mane. I scratched him and he craned his neck back into my waist as I helped him with his new itchy bald self. He nipped at my shirt a little. I adore that ruddy sheep.

Maude just stood on the hill and glared.

Within an hour of pulling into the drive Jim and Liz were packed up. I handed them the check (always tip your shearer) and thanked them. I also handed Jim a wrapped set of blades from my own shears (mailed as a gift from a shepherd reader in California) and he said he'd have them sharpened and ready for me by the 20th. Jim not only trains herding dogs and shear's sheeps: he sharpens blades! Fresh, sharp, shears and a date with the Border Collie set. Not a bad way to end a work day.

test results came in...

It was Campylobacter.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

it tastes better in jadeite

I was in the pasture with the sheep when the storm came in. My arms were full of fencelines, my body shining in a light sweat as I moved the portable electric pasture to new ground. On the hill I could see the whole farm below. Every animal seemed to understand what was ahead. The chickens were all under the porch roof, sitting on hay bales, watching. The wind rushed up to meet me from the valley and I was shocked at the speed. My dress ripped in the wind like a sail over my jeans and rubber boots. Within seconds my arms were dry and covered in goosebumps. Weather excites me.

Thunder sidled up to us, and when its volume grew the sheep lifted their heads, still chewing. Sheep never panic about weather. They will scatter at a dog, and bleat at a strange bucket, but they do not so much as blink at a storm. So like four rocks, we stood there as the storm came in. All of us looking up at the swirl of black clouds. When it came, it rained so hard the house seemed to buckle. Old houses need such allowances. I sat inside with my first cup of coffee in over a week. My weak stomach did not welcome it. Today, in the storm I sipped the creamy cup and it was like falling in love again. Christ, I missed coffee.

Gibson was beside in the kitchen, asleep under the table of a relative he'll never meet. He's learning to live in the world now. I used to worry that when Gibson was off leash in a field he'd run away from me. But that is silly. I am the warm place he falls asleep when it is dark.

good boy

photo by tim bronson

angora kits for sale!

Come to Cold Antler Farm and pick up your own fiber animal! I have seven kits ready for their new homes. Out of Bean, sired by Ben, all these purebred French Angora kits are fluffy, strong, and active. All CAF rabbits come tattooed and pedigreed with the ARBA, in which the farm is a member. Benjamin and Bean come from show lines, but their kits don't have to be in the pageant scene. Angoras also make great pets, livestock, or 4-H projects. They do well indoors and out. If interested please sent me a note at jenna@itsafarwalk.com

a letter from a reader

Emails come every now and again, and I am ashamed how behind I am on replying to them. Sometimes I simply can't. Yet any note someone sends me is appreciated and if I can help with a question or problem, I try. When I wrote a few posts ago that I was in a low place and needed some encouragement, this came to my inbox. I never post reader mail, but this one made me wake up and realize CAF isn't just my farm. It's also the Gold's, and David Shearer's, and Fin's, and the Snyder's, and Tara's, and Amy's, and Paula's, and Melanie's and many others I have never heard from but still click here everyday to see if Finns back or if the fences are up, or what the heck a Scottish Blackface looks like. This email made a very long day end with happy tears.

I'd blog if no one read a single word, but I am so grateful that they do.

(And Amelie, Joseph says to enjoy your yogurt! But can I have the raisins?)


Dear Jenna,

There are some mornings that shine brighter than others. Yet, even with the clouds there is always sun. It’s just so damn hard to see what has always been there. In our home we called it temporary blindness — not unsightedness — but temporary blindness. It’s a condition that is self-created and self-multiplying. Simply put, it is the inability to see, take in and digest, and appreciate, when the muse turns ugly and leaves the building.

Jenna, my family and I are daily Cold Antler Farm readers. We do not visit any other blog, nor have any connection to homesteaders than you. It’s not that we turn to your blog for advice HOW to do it, we turn to your blog every morning to relish in the fact that someone we vicariously know IS doing it. Your dream, your farm, your vision, your experiences have been mutuality felt by a family of four striving for the homestead dream.

Your youngest fan, among our four, is only 3 years old. Her name is Amelie and her morning routine consists of yogurt, raisins, milk and Jenna. The sheep are always a big hit with her - the pics and the stories - they are her homestead motivation. Our 7 year old, Eliah, wakes to ask, “What’s happening with Jenna this morning? Did she get a horse yet?” Can you tell that she has equines on the mind?

I remember the moment that we first met. It was at the library. Julia, my pretty half, and I were gathering information on homesteads and the brave people that forge the way. for others like us. We found many resources with great ideas, spectacular photos, harrowing stories, and canned laughs. Yet, there was no one who captured the essence of the experience in words quite like you. Made From Scratch started as a library rental and became a family necessity. And, just like a good movie or a great book you don’t want it to end - yet every movie has end credits and every book has a back cover, except yours!

When the Cold Antler Farm blog was discovered so was the never-ending adventure. Unbeknownst to you, you became one of our family. Family talk consists of speaking about “Jenna” adventures or arcanely using your name in the presence of others as if they know you - as if we know you. It became habit to visit the site daily and to digest the words that so magically, so eloquently capture what we are trying to do. We laugh with you. We smell the fresh herbs through you. We watch “Farm TV” with you. We make mistakes along side you. We carry the excitement of life from you. You are major inspiration thoughtfully packaged in great prose. Inspiring enough to give us the courage to change our lives NOW while we transition toward a handmade life.

While glory of the correct action is good, even blissful in its encouragement, mistakes seem to carry a tone detrimental and stifling. Yet, once I clear my mind, chalk up my mistakes as part of the education, and shed that non-utilitarian condition of temporary blindness, I once again feel useful. And, as Jenna says, “Be of use, I say. Be of use and everything else falls into place.”

Amelie, Eliah, Julia & Jason Gold
Proud Suburban Homesteaders

Saturday, June 5, 2010

red bourbon poults are here!

I canceled all my plans in town for the night. I mowed just a section of the lawn, cleaned up just one room, scrubbed just the shower instead of the whole bathroom. I am doing less and letting myself breath more. I decided to stay here tonight and focus on my writing and let the coming storm roll in. When the wordcount is where I want it, I'll take a cool shower and change into comfortable clothes and watch a movie with the dogs. I'm taking it easy. I'm letting myself accept what I can't do. I'm feeling a little better. Thank you so much for your comments, which helped me so very much. Knowing people are listening helps very much when you're down. I'm grateful.

Ironically, the turkeys I ordered in April arrived on the day I exclaimed I could take no more. But four turkeys barely make a dent in my farm day. I'm glad there here, and already have sold two. They are in the laundry room now beeping how poults beep. I'm cooking dinner. The sun is getting heavy. The day's nearly over. Like I said, I'm feeling a little better.

banjo + porch + fireflies + storm + birds safe in coop + sleeping dogs = happy farm girl.

photo by tim bronson

Friday, June 4, 2010

i need some encouragement

I think what had me so wretched over the holiday weekend was Salmonella. All the symptoms match to a T, and I went to the hospital this morning to hand in my test kit to see if my predictions were correct. It's been almost a week since I first fell ill and my stomach still gnaws with internal pain and cramps and other colorful intestinal problems. It's given me quite the lesson, but it's also made me gun shy about the farm. I worry CAF gave me food poisoning. And now I'm skittish around her, worried that rushing to do too much Thursday left my poultry processing in the kitchen get sloppy. I must have got distracted from the chicken I was dressing, and had to take out the puppy or answer the phone or something and forgot to wash my hands.

The bout of illness has made me weak. I am so tired. Three flights of stairs is a mountain, a watering can a 50-pound weight. I no longer look forward to feeding the sheep or chickens but do so with a heavy head and heart. It feels wrong to not look forward to the farm when I pull into the driveway after work. I hope it's just the poison. This feels like a real low point.

The sick weekend let the place get dirty. The grass needs to be mowed. The house cleaned. The dog poo in the yard pitched into the woods. But the energy to do these things is gone right now and just looking at all that is ahead of me is exhausting. I am on maintenance mode: keeping everyone fed, sheltered, watered, and kept but extra chores are being saved till I feel better.

The fox has taken my ducks, more of my chickens, and seems to have my work schedule down because he now comes in broad daylight when I am at work. So I need to build them a pen or keep them locked up in the coop at all times. It's too hot for the latter. I'm too tired for the former. I feel beat. In so many ways, I feel beat.

So what I need is some encouragement. I rarely ask for it, never really, but tonight I need it. I really do.

I don't feel like myself. I don't like it.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

i'll take a bucket of chicken

back on my feet

I'm feeling better, but not back to 100%. There is still some residual yuckiness going on in the pipes. Remarkably, I was out last night moving fences, rabbit cages, and hauling water like I was never bent over with the flu. It amazes me how the body can take hits like that and right itself again.

I am in the final countdown of a seriously stressful writing deadline that's been hovering for months. (A wonderful thing to have hovering, but none the less stressful.) Soon as I hand that in I will be updating this blog like a crazy person. Updating with things like this special report: in a few weekends I will be driving Gibson and I to Esperance NY to pick out his future flock of Scottish Blackface! More son!

Monday, May 31, 2010

sick as a dog

When a farm depends on you and you have the flu, your paradise turns into a prison. Simple things like changing out water fonts, pouring grains, moving hay bales, and feeding rabbits turn into labor instead of acts of love. When all you want to do, need to do, is sleep: the idea of walking out in the dark to secure the hen house seems plain awful. But you do it because you have to. Because there's a fox and raccoons and animals depend on me.

Chores that usually take an hour have to be spread throughout the whole day. I did things slowly, achingly slowly, between naps. Sleep two hours and water the garden, a cold shower and then bring the sheep hay. I did this while shaking, chills, and harboring an upset stomach that can't keep anything down... it makes walking two buckets of water up a short hill an epic journey of panting and cold sweat. I spent most of the past 48 hours in bed, either shaking under the covers or drenching the bed in sweat. I love this farm. I wouldn't trade in my life for anyone's but sometimes being alone is horrid.

When I was sick as a little girl my mother would wrap me up in blankets and take me out on her veranda outside her bedroom. I have such wonderful memories of feeling so weak, but so loved and safe. Last night I went out onto the rocking chair on the porch around 3AM and covered myself in blankets. I missed my mother so much it hurt. I'm 27 and miss my mom.

I am feeling slightly better. Yellow Gatorade, ice water, lots of sleep. I hope to be more of myself tomorrow. I did take off half a day for the long weekend so I hope that I can sleep in and take my time going into work. If I still feel like this I'll stay home. No point in getting coworkers sick.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

i. am. so. sick....

three weeks from harvest

Saturday, May 29, 2010

a real farm?

I mailed my first mortgage payment yesterday. I sat at my desk, wrote the check, and put a stamp on it. I have never been happier to hand out that much money. I actually woke up worrying I forgot to mail my rent check the other day, still not used to owning a home. When I realized I didn't ever have to mail my old landlord rent again, I stretched out in bed grinning like a moron. This morning I know the place is mine, at least for the next month!

Gibson's snout is still covered in marshmallow. Last night my friend Steve hosted a bonfire with some music and fish tacos. By the time it grew late and we were all out with smores and drinks, Gibson decided his taste of the iconic treat would be more fun to roll in then devour. I'm not here to judge. I'll wash it off with a warm dishcloth when he's more tired than he is now.

People have emailed me asking if the blog will continue now that I bought the farm (that never sounds good, does it?) and the answer is a resounding yes. While I may have reached a goal, the work is just getting started. Cold Antler is in its infancy right now, we're just barely breaking sod on our first year. There are fences to raise, barns to build, and livestock to acquire. I am in the first stages of getting Gibson his own flock of Scottish Blackface ewes from (who I hope will be) our sheep herding instructor. I have a small flock of heritage turkey poults coming for coworker's holiday tables. The season has barely began folks and I have so much I want to write about. I want to write about getting my first production flock, learning to shear, lambing, marketing and building a business. I want to chronicle all of this turning into something bigger than anything I could imagine now. The blog won't end until people stop reading it. (Please keep reading. I like writing.) I want to make this into so much more. It's so much to me; the wool, dirt, and words.

Every once in a while someone will say to me something like "I know you have sheep, but I was at a real farm this weekend looking at wool and..." or something to that effect. They don't mean it in a demeaning way. They know I work hard at my small freehold. Yet hearing that phrase "real farm" can't help but make me cringe a little inside. What makes a farm real? The fact that the people who own it, work on it full time? Having business cards and a sign on the back of your pickup? I'm not sure what validates reality for them. But to me, Cold Antler is definitely a real farm. I grow food for myself and customers, and this weekend several coworkers will be cracking CAF eggs into their pans and have ordered turkeys and chickens. It may be bartering and handshakes deals right now, but where else can a gal start but at the beginning?

As far as I'm concerned, if you have a backyard with veggies and a few hens, and you not only consume it yourself but others do as well (friends, neighbors, your community) you are a real farm. You are a producer. You are feeding people. You are real. Stickers on the side of your truck are optional.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

four raccoons. no foxes.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

shower during thunderstorms

I am disgusting right now. Covered in the dirt, sweat, and grime that comes with planting pumpkins on a 90-degree afternoon. Planting pumpkins was the cool-down really. Before the simple task of putting ten started pumpkins into their mounds in the newly expanded section of the gardep—I had moved all the sheep's fencing onto new pasture, cleaned out the meat bird pen, and watered the screaming lettuce heads. I put new fence posts in the ground and ran fresh wire around the new pumpkins so the chickens and woodchucks would let them alone. Traps were set for the fox. Weeds were pulled from the straw mulch. Eggs were collected from the hay pile in the barn. I got lost in the effort.

It was one of those long evenings. I just kept working until it became dark. When the light was gone I locked the birds up in their coop, shut the door on the rabbit barn, and grabbed my banjo and set it by the glass doors. We had a date on the porch later.

The farm has no air conditioning. Just cold showers, ice cream, and a Westinghouse Fan from the 40s. It was a hot one, this day. By the time I came inside to make a coke float to cool off I realized it was probably going to be my dinner, so I didn't mind the extra scoop of Wilcox ice cream. It tasted amazing after all that. I drank it like I had never been thirstier. I will be eating much healthier when the garden is in full bloom and my freezer is full of chickens and rabbits, but today, I lack perfection. Lacking perfection is the rule around here.

Before my shower and after the farm was tucked in for the night, I went out on the deck to pluck a little with Gibson. Gibson sat beside me while I rocked in the plastic rocking chair and played the banjo. We both watched the sky light up with heat lightening. Then clouds swirled over the nearly full moon and we watched the wind move the grass. Thunder started to growl, somewhere far off. I played a waltz, slow like. "Lie Down," I asked Gibson and he obliged. Probably more out of weariness then obedience. I played lazy music and together we watched the storm come; a gift and respite.

I love thunderstorms. I think anyone who makes dramatic changes in their life does. For what is a thunderstorm than a loud change -all force and circumstance? It's scary and chaotic but most of us find such peace and beauty in that angry dance. I think that's because we know It's impermanent. We savor it while we can, knowing the whole time the danger will pass. Why can't we sit back and do that with all of life's changes? Aren't they all scary and fleeting? Aren't they all collateral damage in a better life? I'd like to think so. I'd like to think that even when life runs feral it has redemption in the aftermath.

My friend Paul once said, "Shower during thunderstorms. Makes you feel rich."

I love that.

my pup shines


photo by tim bronson

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

good morning from cold antler!

Monday, May 24, 2010

three dead

I woke up around quarter to five to the sound of John crowing. Little did I know, that was the last time I'd ever hear him. Soon after his crow there was a squawking and screaming of birds and I raced to the window to see feathers flying and a flash of red fur. A fox had come. Again.

At 2 AM I heard the screams from the coop, and ran out into the night to see two ducks running madly and three chickens loose. Everyone was running for cover and I was only able to catch one duckling. All I could do was save what was inside and hope the fox wouldn't return till the following day. I placed the one duck back inside, reinforced the door with wire, and went to bed...dazed, heart beating, and sweating.

In the morning I ran outside with my rifle, hoping for a lucky shot. I fired it twice in his direction but no luck. I was aiming down at the ground anyway. I wanted to scare him off, knowing a kill was impossible at this point that morning. My beautiful young rooster John had been taken, so had a fat orpington. A brave fox for sure to take a duckling and two giant birds. I looked around for survivors, saw the story of the struggle everywhere in feathers. The yard was littered with the cape and tail of John, and the golden plumage of my laying hen. The other birds who escaped ran to the safety of the sheep pasture, fenced and among giant ovines. I hope they are interested in self preservation enough to stay there.

I'm buying a trap at lunch. Three dead birds, at least.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

a fine long day

It was a long day in Jackson. My morning started around 6 AM (I slept in) unloading bales of mulching straw and preparing a big quiche for my folks, who were coming for a bon voyage brunch before heading back to Pennsylvania. I was deep into my morning routine; headphones on, water buckets in each hand, walking up to the garden to check on yesterday's new transplants of basil and mentally planning-out the pumpkin patch. Because I'm so behind in the garden this spring, I bought eighteen started pumpkins from Gardenworks. I hope to plant some heirlooms I got as well, but I wanted the insurance of time lost. A few hours of hoeing, some fences, mounds and compost and I'll be ready for October.

My folks showed up around 10 and we ate out on the deck, enjoying the farm below us. Winthrop already learned that the deck means free lunch, so he ran right to us while we dined and just stared silently. My dad through some bread and the geese honked and hollered and before you knew it it was bedlam. Away from the fray were the six meat bunnies now weaned from their mother, and the ducklings who have moved outside and are always together. Gibson started rounding them up, nonchalantly. I really think he'll be a fine working dog. If he knows to run around flocking stock and not to run at it, it's a good sign.

We went down to the Cambridge Farmer's Market after brunch. Sunday in Cambridge was sunny and beautiful. When I got out of the truck with Gibson a horse and buggy drove by. Not Mennonites, just locals in a cowboy hat and Harley Davidson Tee Shirt. I scooped Gibson up in my arms and walked him over to the market.

We met some local farmers, and snacked on some homemade gelato. The market was small but had everything from bedding plants to dried herbs, local free-range meats, and live music. I got to meet some neighbors who raise angus and they fed Gibson some liver brownies. (Which made them instantly his new favorite people.) I want to talk to them more next weekend. Livestock neighbors already on the market scene are people worth getting to know. I would have stayed there all day. It was hot though, and my folks were ready to head home. We said our goodbyes and the visit was over. I hope they had an okay time.

AFter the socializing was over Gibson and I drove up to Hebron to get hay. It was a perfect, warm afternoon. The sun high, sky blue, truck singing the Carolina Chocolate Drops (which I'll be seeing live next weekend!) and by the time the truck was loaded and I had my regular chat with Nelson Greene: I was ready to relax a little. It was Sunday, after all.

Instead however, I gardened and started that pumpkin patch. I took Jazz and Annie for a walk while Gibson napped, enjoying their stately and level company. I never realized how calm and dependable my dogs were till a puppy came into my life. Jazz is as warm and affectionate as ever before, and as peaceful as a zen monk. Annie is a goofball, but still my girl. We sat outside to play some banjo tunes. I'm not great, and play the same waltzes all the time, but they never complain. I was quite happy there. My old dogs by my feet.

I called it quits after that. I roasted a chicken I harvested two days earlier, and had a fine dinner with plenty of leftovers to pack for lunch for the week. It was a usual Sunday, but felt longer, perhaps because the days themselves have more light? It may also be the way I fill them: outside with constant lists and chores. I make time to soak it all in, eat some ice cream, watch the fireflies... but I am happiest busy and useful. Be of use, I say. Be of use and everything else falls into place.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

i am a farm dog

I am a farm dog. I chase chickens, herd ducks, and growl at sheep. I roll in the grass, guard chicks, and dig holes. I am not scared of geese (I don't care what you heard) and I laugh in the face of danger. I don't care for leashes, but I'll tolerate them when we're in town. I am a farm dog. I ride shotgun in the truck. I like the way wind feels from a dashboard cockpit. I am so helpful. I am the lynchpin of morning chores (I don't care what you heard) and I think the geese may be evil. I run so fast. I run fast uphill, and downhill, and over streams and past the barn. I am a farm dog. I eat with joy. I play without apologies. I bark like the whole world listens. I sleep like I own gravity.

I am a farm dog.

There are other things to be. They are all rubbish.

my great grandfather's table

tables and pumpkins

My parents brought my great grandfather's kitchen table to the farm. It's one of those great 1940's metal tops and it's in divine shape for it's age. They also brought an old steamer truck that was sitting in their house when they moved in, so lord knows how old that is. Slowly through acquisition and attrition this place is turning into a home. In a few hours they'll drive over the to farm from their hotel in Cambridge (I don't have television or air conditioning) and we'll sit out on the deck to a breakfast of farm eggs and pancakes and then head over to Gardenworks to look at the dried flowers, food, farm animals, and groceries there. It's a local foods cornucopia, that.

Life here in Jackson is starting to fall into it's own rhythms. Morning chores are becoming the familiar dance steps I always knew. I am losing that puppy paranoia where you need to know where your new dog is every second and worry everything is going to kill him. Gibson is growing up healthy, spunky, and quick. I found out that the Merck Forest Sheepdog Trials are being held on my birthday this year. What a way to celebrate. Now, just three years after sitting on the sidelines I'll be there as a club member with my own up-and-comer. I can't wait.

I need to get pumpkins in the ground. I may not have a giant garden yet but the idea of not having my own pumpkins is sacrilege. This year's garden is small compared to last, but is thriving. My heirloom lettuces are looking wonderful, my la rattes are up, and my Amish snap peas are starting to climb. I put tomatoes in yesterday. I'd say the space I'm growing here is about 5'x18' and if it was up to me I's triple it to start. I just don't have a rototiller or much time till June 1 hits and all my manuscripts and edits are in. After that, watch out.

Friday, May 21, 2010

remembering elkmont

the fireflies are everywhere tonight.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

keeping watch

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

shepherd

I have been drawn to sheep ever since farming became a reality in my life. I was pulled to them for the same reason most of us form relationships: affinity, tangibility, and proximity.

I liked sheep, always have. As a spinner and a knitter I find the fact that I can make hats and scarves out of what eats grass in the backyard nifty. And it’s not just the fiber fix either—sheep have always brought out a stillness in me. Their presence is stoic, but warm, like your Norwegian grandfather after Thanksgiving Dinner. So the pull to be around sheep was always there, but what made me actually acquire some was the ease in their care. Out of all the animals at Cold Antler, the sheep are the lowest maintenance. They need little more than grass, water, and the option of shelter. They are hearty and health care is basic and cheap. They aren't big like cows or horses, so for livestock they can make a backyard or a small pasture home if you're willing to buy hay. They don't eat much.

Their wool feels like October. Sometimes I touch them to remember when I am lonely.

When out in a field with my sheep I feel as if I am sharing some moment with the ages. A bond between two animals so ancient it’s engraved on pottery and stone walls. We have been living side by side for a long time, and they have been keeping us fed and warm since long before our great great grandparents rose for work. Sheep have been watching over us just as much as we have been watching over them. It’s a partnership I mean to honor and continue as a shepherd in the 21st century. We may have electric fences and ride out to the field on ATVS, but we still hold that crook in our white-knuckled fists and holler “Away to me!” to our fine black dogs. And the moment of tension and electricity when a border collie bursts away from his handler to gather is beyond me or them. It's everything. When a sheepdog runs from you, time gasps.

We are a part of a tradition and an oath. I will keep it long as I breath.

little man, big truck