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

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