"So you're finally here with a dog." was what the smiling Barb Armata said to me under the yellow and white tent hosting our morning bagels and cream cheese. She had good reason to say that with such gusto. Barb was a sheepdog trainer and the woman who will be my mentor for our herding education. I told her I was thrilled to be here today, and I was. For three years I have been attending and volunteering at the Merck Forest Sheepdog Trial. I had been a member of NEBCA (North East Border Collie Association) since that first visit when I had only lived in New England a few months. Last year I kept score and helped where I could. This year I did the same (and spent a few hours releasing sheep from the chutes at the top of the trial field). I had been here for years, at club events time and time again, and now I was finally standing amongst my peers with a respectable pup of my own. I felt rich. Barb knew it when she saw it.
All of the shepherds knew who Gibson's father was, and respected his breeder. When Steve Whetmore (the shepherd I read about in books and the first NEBCA member I ever emailed) said to people under the tent "Hey, this is a Riggs puppy!" my chest swelled. I am still a fly on the wall to many of them. I've never proven myself with a dog (failed one actually, as most know and I am still ashamed of) and never stepped on a trial field. But I haven't disappeared either. I have been around for three years come bad and good, and now I had a prospect. A dog that might very well make it to these fields as a competitor someday. And while rarely did a club member talk to me, they seemed to nod a little more, say good morning. And I took every bone that was thrown to me. I respect them and envy them more than they'll ever know.
Day 1 I woke up to a thunderstorm yesterday. It made me so happy. I was 28, and comfortable in the lull of the box fan in my farmhouse. I was half-awake and listened to the rumbles, smiling like an idiot. I adore thunderstorms so much, you just can't know. It was the best gift a farm girl could have, and even though the day was to be overcast I didn't care: it was a day for a sheepdog trial. The heat wave had been sliced open by the storm. It was milder, and the rain a blessing.
I drove early that morning to the trial with Gibson shotgun beside me. I had been told pets could not come, but Gibson was not just a pet. He was my business partner, a regally-bred registered dog, and a someday herder. He would get in. I'd see to it. (He did. We walked right in like he was High in Trial. Take that, stupid website rules!)
I spent the first day of the two-day contest just watching and walking around with Gibson. It was my birthday, and I wanted to celebrate. There was no greater feeling than to be amongst these shepherds at the site of my first-ever-visited sheepdog trial with my own pup. I watched under the white tents while the rain came and went. The fog played with the tops of the trees and the competitors all hoped it wouldn't hit the fields and block their view of their dogs. I spent most of the day silent, sitting amongst the trialers listening. I watched dogs around me and how they never left their master's side. I looked down at Gibson between my feet, sleeping quietly and understood. I listened to the hot shots talk about their land and trucks. I talked to some folks who just came to watch. I wanted to help them get excited and understand. To them I might look like the real deal, but I identified much more to the fanny-pack-toting spectators from New Jersey than I did with the contestants. I was still green and clueless, I just happened to have come this far. I told them about sheepdog trials as if the World Cup never existed. This was the epitome of competition and sportsmanship: I bet I seemed crazy.
Eventually I worked up the nerve to talk ask Don McCaig if he would sign my copies of his books I stashed in my backpack. (Nops Trials, A Useful Dog, and Eminent Dogs Dangerous Men) Last year I kept his score on the trial field star-struck and nervous. McCaig is a NY Times bestselling novelist who writes about shepherding and lives on a giant farm in the southeast. He's the only person to ever write an approved sequel to Gone With the Wind. He keeps sheep, writes for a living, loves the history of the south and Civil War.... he's one of my heros.
He signed two of his books to me, and my copy of A Useful Dog to Gibson. What a guy.
Before I left for the day I stopped at the visitors' center and bought some lamb—which I took home and pan fried in cast iron with spices. I ate it over whole wheat pasta with marinara and garden basil. It tasted amazing: the rare lamb so moist and flavorful...the spices so rich. I had a Guinness and some chocolate cake to top it off and was grateful for the year. It was a great birthday.
But today I left the house at 7, and was at the post to work by 8. I had permission from the club to drive my truck right up to the main tents, so Gibson could be with me again while I worked and not far away in the parking lots. I parked right by the other NEBCA folks and felt a little more included in the scene. While I watched the trial he lay at my feet, but when I was down on the field keeping score he slept under the tailgate in the shade with a bowl of water. I remember looking at him, snoozing in the sun under the truck as I walked to the fields to keep score by the judge. Three years ago I had no truck, no sheep, no dog. Now I was (in a way) one of them. Most of the shepherds here had 50+ acres, 25+ sheep, and several collies. I had one pup, 6.5 acres (lawn-size to most of them), three sheep and a used truck. I still felt part of. What I had obtained may be meager to those with 25-ft-tall tractor, but it's mine.
Day 2 The second day of the trial was hosted under sunny skies and I was there to help. I kept score all morning, writing down the points removed from the 100-pt perfect score all dogs and handlers start with. I kept time, chatted with the judge, and watched the pros at their paces. I braked for lunch, walked around with Gibson (sweaty and hot) and ran into some blog readers from New Hampshire. Bill and Nancy were gracious, and were kind to Gibson and said wonderful things about the blog. I was glad to meet him. I only wished he commented more so I knew who he was. I love it when folks chime back on here. It reminds me that I am writing to people and not my computer.
My afternoon was spent high above the trial field at the chutes. That photo at the top of this post shows you how high above the action I was. The white tent is where the spectators were. The smaller white tent is the judge's station I had been keeping score at earlier. And all that distance between them and the photographer was the trial field. A very large, hilly, and rough place to run a dog.
The chutes are the pens that hold the 60+ sheep (this trial ran Katahdins) which are released three at a time for the trial dogs. It was hot as hell. I spent a few hours wrestling ewes into pens and then letting them out onto the field. (Lanolin mixed with sun block to make a smell few can relate to, but I kinda enjoyed.) Then something kinda great happened amongst the sweat and angry sheep. A really attractive guy (a Merck staffer, 28, and tanned and built as a 1960's surf movie extra) was driving a red truck filled with water for the sheep. At first he mostly ignored me through polite conversation. But as the trial went on we got to talking about my farm, Gibson, sheep, border collies, and his role as the main farm worker at Merck. He seemed to think Cold Antler was cool and was impressed I was doing it alone. He too was managing Merck alone, so could relate (even if the scale was far greater). He said he wanted to rescue a border collie from a local organization and have it work the farm with him. He seemed interested in what I was saying, even though I looked like a horror. (I was covered in sweat, flushed, in a ripped shirt and blotchy from the sun). It was far from movie fireworks, and I have no idea if this guy is A) single, B) even remembers my name, or C) I'd even like him once I got to know him more. But I realized just a few days after asking for a man to come into my life I was leaning against the tailgate of my pickup watching a pastoral scene of heartbreaking beauty with a local man who was my age, loved sheep, and was dedicated to agriculture. I might never see him again, but the fact I was enjoying the trial around such amicable company did not go unnoticed. I smiled. And my blood is as red as any woman's.... (something about really tan farm guys with sandy blond hair and a love of sheepdogs kinda gets me.) I told him to google Cold Antler if he was ever online. He said it was a name he could remember.
By the by: I have gotten a few emails referring to my dating post, for those slightly interested. My scheme worked in getting a response, and who knows, maybe there will be a date or two?
On the way home from the trial I turned the wrong way and headed into Sandgate. It was the instinctual way to go since those backroads were the same ones I drove for two years buying hay for my sheep in Hebron while I lived in the cabin. It had been a few months since I really drove through Sandgate, and little things called out to me. I noticed farms with new animals I didn't recognize> I saw what had once been the raw frame of a barn's cupola was now being sided with red boards. Little changes, but enough to remind me it was no longer mine. I drove through the notch and it felt different than before, harder. It hurt a little.
But I do not miss Sandgate (or living Vermont) like I thought I would. Jackson and Cambridge are starting to feel like my own. People know my names in the bookstore and the in some town shops like Common Ground Cafe. I was asked to do a talk at Hubbard Hall in the fall, a place where authors like Jon Katz talk. And the farmers at Common Sense Farm wave to me when I drive by. It's still new, and I'm still a stranger with Vermont plates to most, but it is starting to feel like home.
And with all that, I'm saying goodnight. I'm sore and sunburned and tired. It's back to the office tomorrow, with its own stresses and such, and while I don't look forward to it I am glad for it. I must remember I am not a McCaig. I'm a girl with a day job, a used truck, a puppy, one mildly-sucessful book, and a very small farm. But I am happy. I like where I am. It's enough.
If you're a single man who isn't scared of livestock, I'd like to have a word with you. This will just take a minute.
I've been alone for a long time. I choose to be. I don't date for sport and get nothing out of bars, clubs, or online dating. But I am getting to a point in life where I'm starting to accomplish things I want to share with someone. It's a great feeling—buying your own farm and following a dream—but it feels less real without someone to lean against. By choosing to follow my goals like a workhorse with blinders on—I've learned how to do a lot of amazing things—but in all honestly, I've had a little trouble cultivating a social life.
However, I have managed to keep this blog and it's become a home base for my goals, plans, and dreams. So it only seems natural that I'd post a PSA asking one of you who fits this description to take this farm girl out on a date.
Yes. I'm serious.
I'm not tall, thin, or particularly attractive. I'm over-educated, under-paid, and my savings account currently rivals a fast-food paycheck. I have a lot of faults and I make a lot of mistakes. But despite all that: I really do have good intentions and try to lead a healthy life. I can jog a few miles at a good clip. I've read some swell books. I can keep up in a conversation about analytical continental philosophy but I'd rather be herding sheep. I capable of crawling uphill when something matters. I take crisis in a panicked stride, but a stride none the less. I'm good at resolving conflict, I subscribe to logic over emotion, and I'm serious about composting table scraps. I can grow you breakfast and a sweater.
I want to know a man who only says my name when he exhales.
I want to play music with you. I want to brew homemade beer and wine in August and then get drunk with you on it during a Halloween bonfire kept stoked by stories and a string band. If you are drawn to fireflies, mountain streams, stringed instruments and are more excited to watch a Thunderstorm roll in than the series finale of LOST, please consider me. And if you're not 100% country, that's even better. I want to find someone who will go with me to concerts and art galleries, listen to authors read to us, listen to 70's punk on my record player, and ride rollercoasters all over the east coast just for the hell of it. Someone who demands the occasional guilty pleasure like Pizza Hut during a Buffy marathon on a Tuesday afternoon we both called in sick. Someone who drinks coffee. A lot of coffee. Demetri Martin, Jon Stewart, and Joshua Jackson may move to the front of the line, but I'm pretty sure they're all with girls who don't ever have to worry about pulling lambs out of ewe orifices...
I'm not particular about looks, age, hair, eye color, or any of that impermanent garbage. I am interested in someone who likes to think as much as he likes to laugh. Someone with sharp wit, clever observations, who drinks dark beer and displays darker humor. Someone who feels most content when he's accomplished something he set out to do. It could be as simple as mowing the lawn or as grandiose as building a barn, but someone who shares that sense of satisfaction in shared work and can revel in the simple relaxation of hard cider and stringed instruments when that work is done. Someone who feels more alive on the back of a tractor or quarter horse. Someone who can grab heavy oxen by the reins without shaking. Someone who doesn't think teaching a goat to backpack is mildly insane. Someone who considered making cheese, reads books, and loves swimming holes (yet hates swimming pools). Beards are not necessary, but encouraged. Civil War buffs make me weak in the knees.
Selfishly, I want to know someone is keeping an eye on me, making sure I don't get hurt or do too much. I want someone to be out there with me when the lambs are born, his arm around me because I ran outside with Gibson in a fever, forgetting to grab a jacket. I want him to realize I'm cold before I do. And I want him put his hand on my shoulder when those same lambs are taken to market. (I want him to eat the lamb chops too.) I want a partner. I want him to love October more than anything.
For what that's worth. I make a damn good pie.
So if you love dogs, like dirt, can't help but make music, and think you could tolerate me: send me an email. It's a long shot, but most things are.
I am aware that this is mildly pathetic. Maybe it's the whole birthday thing causing this, but I have learned you only get things in this world when you ask for them. I know putting myself out there like this is just asking for ridicule. Please don't judge too harshly. I may or may not respond to any emails (if I get any, that is) based on how foolish/lame I feel in the morning. But if you are reading this and aren't the guy in the post, maybe you know someone who could be, feel free to share it.
Not as long as I live a life where fresh garden potatoes and scrambled eggs from my own hens are on the menu. Cover up that beautiful gold starch and protein with some smoked maple cheddar...heaven
I enjoyed my breakfast this morning since I had time to cook. I am taking the morning off from work while a technician cleans and services the oil furnace downstairs. Turns out my hot water, heat, and everything else that causes warmth comes from that little box and it needs some TLC. When I ran out of hot water this weekend I realized it was because I ran out of heating oil (not something you think of buying during a heat wave). When the oil guy came to put 100 gallons in the tank and restart the furnace, flames shot out of it. He looked at the inferno, then looked at me, and said calmly. "You should get this cleaned. Soon."
So here I am, 500 bucks in the hole because one day I ran out of hot water. Welcome to home owning folks. All of a sudden one little thing happens and you realize all these expensive parts need to come together to fix it. It's going to be a frugal July. That's for sure.
So there's amazing things about my own farm. Like backyard breakfasts of this caliber. And there's also the money pit of home upkeep and repairs. Not a new song, but one I'm happy to sing.
My la rattes have been unearthed! My small french potatoes started as six little seed taters and have exploded into a saucepan of future meals. It's a good haul, and a small success after such a rough garden year. It's been a bad one for the lettuce and beans, but the onions and potatoes are strong. Hash browns will know me as well as I know them.
I decided to sell the rabbitry. I will just keep Bean and Ben, the rest of the rabbits and cages are going to go. It may seem sudden, but the rabbits are the most time consuming animal on the farm. And while I love and appreciate rabbit meat: I also know that I can get it from farmers twenty minutes away. I'll have meat rabbits again, I'm sure but right now I need to scale down and focus on my farm passion: sheep. I'll keep my pet angoras and continue to breed them. But going from two to over twenty rabbits is too much, too soon. I learned my lesson. I'll eat crow.
I need to scale back, slow down, and realize one woman does not a superman make. Right now I'm all about the uphill that is beginning a wool and lamb operation. After this weekend at the trials I'll be pounding more fence posts and looking at barn plans with drool coming out of my mouth. I am a shepherd. I am not a rabbitry with sheep. This is simply how things are.
If anyone is interested in two healthy does (one with two kits) and a few young adult french angoras, let me know. I have some that need new homes for bargain prices, and cages to boot.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't part of the joy of farming the mix of low points and high points you achieve along the way" That was my friend Kevin, talking to me over the phone from his air-conditioned apartment in Philadelphia. I, however, was dripping buckets of sweat by a pasture in Washington County. I was trying to assemble an electric fence kit I picked up from Tractor Supply to save what was left of the deer, groundhog, and rabbit eaten dried up pumpkins. I wouldn't put up this kind of fight for anything else in the garden, but pumpkins mean October. You fight for the things you love.
"Yeah...but when the low points drastically outnumber the high points, you realize you might be doing something wrong..." I was frustrated. I made up some excuse about getting electrocuted and got off the phone. Between the heat wave, falling behind on etsy orders and writing projects, the loss of half my turkeys and new laying hen pullets, the garden's decline, the dead rabbits, and the fact I wasn't seeing straight due to having spent the last two hours after work in a dramatic heat wave: things felt bad. I was exhausted. I was coated in sweat, hay, and smelled as bad as the invisible fence I just sprayed around the edge of the pumpkin patch. I instantly felt bad for having snapped at Kevin, and guilty for having the audacity to not be grateful I was having these problems in the first place. It's just that sometimes, you feel beat.
And when you're exhausted you seem to only know how to pile the negative things into a rucksack and carry it around with you. I could have easily told Kevin I was outside on a beautiful day. That I had a healthy pair of breeding turkeys, a newly fenced sheep pasture, a freshly mowed lawn, a 4th of July spent with good friends from Boston, and sheepdog trials this weekend. I could have told him how healthy the remaining free-range rabbits were, and the geese were getting pretty new feathers, and that the new hens I bought the weekend before were settling in fine. But something about a heat wave and dying pumpkins makes me grumpy. I don't know why exactly but I've been in a bit of a funk lately. I blame the heat with lack of thunderstorms. I couldn't get the fence to work either. Ugh.
I also don't mean to make it sound like I'm some sort of prisoner in my own prison. I adore this place, this work, and this life. But when I click back to this blog last July, I can only see an amazing garden, a laughing goat, healthy rabbits, no broken sales or looming deadlines, and less stress. Or at least the illusion of less stress.
I'll snap out of it, I'm sure. A poor mood does nothing to benefit me and certainly nothing to benefit anyone else. I just have to focus on what's ahead that I'm excited about, and slowly work towards those things. I realized that this morning when I was about to step out of the shower. On the hook just outside the curtain was a wool hat I knit, and a rusted orange towel. Together the colors and wool made me think about how all this tension ends with the pleasures of Autumn. I actually got a little jolt of excitement when I saw them together, and it reminded me that no matter how moody or distracted I might be in the fog of July: in a few months fall will be here. And when it comes, I'll be ready.
Hopefully, with at least one farm-grown pumpkin.
I turn 28 on Saturday. It's been a hell of a year.
The first thing I did when I walked into Wayside was head straight for the walk-in cooler. Wayside, like many small general stores, has a wall freezer stacked with soda and beer, but if you read the signs in the store you learn that is also where they keep the iced coffee. We're in the throes of a heat wave here that has temperatures in the high 90's and humidly near 100%. It's causing the sheep to sprawl in the shade, almost dead. The birds are spending all their time in the creek, letting their tiny raptor feet search for salamanders instead of slugs. The garden (now almost gone to deer and woodchucks, another sad story for another time) is barely getting by. I soak it with water everyday but the heat sucks the life out of it.
I am certainly meeting my challenges as a small scale producer this season. Between predators, garden pests, heat waves, groundhogs and deer I have lost half of my poultry and half of my garden crop. Right now I am with the pumpkins for the fight of their lives. I can take buying my salad greens and tomatoes at the market. But buying pumpkins, the heart vegetatble of cold Antler, breaks my young heart.
The dogs are okay. Jazz and Annie, were born and raised in Tennessee and didn't leave the Volunteer state till they were five years old. Both were outside dogs before I had them, meaning they grew up in the swelter and seem to take it in stride. At night the dogs lay in front of the fan and pant. I put ice cubes in the dog bowl. Gibson spends the day with me in the shade, taking many breaks for swimming in the pond and drinking lots of water. The whole pack is fine, me included.
Mornings with a mission are good for the spirit of a small freeholder. Tiny errands and adventures that add to a common goal fill me up with a certain kind of happiness. Satisfaction I don't know where else to find. It doesn't have to be complicated, and it certainly wasn't today. I got up early, loaded the truck with a wire cage and some fleece, and drive the 45 minutes west to Saratoga. I was off to buy chickens.
I had found a backyard chicken keeper with an excess of barred rocks and black sex-links. I bought four new young hens to replace what was taken by the fox. When I handed over the money, shook hands, and drove off the back of the pickup was alive with the sounds of clucks and squawks. They were padded in from the wind and sun by the fleece on two sides and my little orange truck drove off with a bed of wool and eggs.
Since we were in Saratoga, we decided to hit their big market. What a grand thing that was....I bought lamb burger and sunflowers, fresh lettuce (mine was all eaten by a deer in one night...) and got the number of a sheep farmer near Jackson who also worked with border collies and said I could come by to pick her brain about starting my own lamb and wool operation. Networking is becoming the number one reason I go to markets now. The foods great, don't get me wrong, but the people are even better.
Gibson was with me the whole time, as he is on all farm errands. As my business partner and gangly teenager he was fairly well behaved. Friendly as hell, but growled at a petit basset griffon vendeen that walked by at the market. It was the first time he's growled at anything that wasn't a sheep. I shooshed him up but the market staff walked over in a huff about how dogs shouldn't even be here and can't unless they are practically invisible. I get it. I didn't complain or fuss. Gibson went back to normal instantly. I think he just doesn't care for the French.
I got back to Cold Antler around mid-morning and unloaded the day's haul. I was able to find an antique washing table for my guest room for ten bucks (score). And I set it up with a bowl of fresh sunflowers to boot. My college roommate Erin is coming for the weekend with her boyfriend and I want to show some sort of hospitality(considering my backyard is a pasture and there's no air conditioning). Not everyone is into fans and chicken poo on their shoes. But Erin's never been much for high maintenance. I think she'll be fine.
This morning I loaded up the back of the pickup with two season's of wool from my sheep: six fleeces total. Loading that pickup bed while the sheep watched from their new pen, my border collie pup in the front seat, damn it felt good.
I'll be boxing it and mailing it to Connecticut today to a processor who will turn it into yarn. The yard will be mailed back in a few weeks. I don't know how many skeins I'll get, but it'll be a lot. (That's almost fifty pounds of raw wool back there!) Enough to stock up my cabinets and keep me knitting all winter. Also, I hope to save some to sell at markets and wool festivals. I can't wait to get that package back from the mill. And it's a big step for the farm as well. I've been eating veggies and meat off the farm for a while, but now I'll be able to produce a bit of clothing from the backyard to boot.
Today, with the help of my friends Christina and John, I was able to enlarge the sheep pen ten fold. I had been pounding t-posts and running old field fence every night this week, but today I was able to encircle and build on the old pen structure. Now the sheep have an entire hillside to enjoy with their home shed up high in the pasture. I'll post photos in the morning, but tonight I feel wealthy from the work. When I pulled into the driveway after the office my sheep had a hundred square feet to call their own when they weren't grazing. Now they have a quarter acre. Thanks to the selflessness of new friends, I was able to turn a petting zoo into a pasture farm.
The flock was still eating grass when I returned from Christina's place in town. (Just three sheep. No lambs to speak of. I dont know if Maude is pregnant or not. I lack the eye.) When I got out of the truck all three were Sstaring at me through their fence right by the driveway. They aren't used to being that close to the house at night. I'm not sure if they expected me to walk them up the hill to their pen or if they wanted grain. I let them enjoy their confusion.
The turkeys know nothing of going home to roost. When I came home from the celebratory ice cream at Stewart's in Cambridge—all four were huddled together in a circle on the lawn, their heads meeting in the middle. They looked like a dead rabbit, all hunched and over each other to stay warm. I thought to myself how funny that they didn't understand home, yet understood night. They knew when to be still, and warm, and stop, but not where to belong. I know a lot of people who remind me of young turkeys. I'm one of said people.
I picked them all up in two hands. I was instantly nostalgic for the moment, knowing in a few months they'll be so large it will take two hands to barely hold one. But tonight they are small and four heartbeats quietly hummed in my hands in the dark. I placed them on the clean straw of the chicken coop and shut the door from danger.
Fence lines and poults. It's not a romantic dinner, a plane ticket, or even a night in a bar with friends: but I'm happy. I'll sleep well.
I just finished another twenty feet of fencing, maybe more. I realized a few weeks ago that I would never have the hunk of cash needed to fence in three acres anytime soon. But I did have some spare t-posts and left over Red Brand field fence in a few rolls. Instead of looking at all that land in trepidation—I started pounding posts and running fence just twenty feet at a time. Slowly I've run enough to almost quadruple the sheep's current pen. Day by day, Cold Antler is becoming a sheep farm.
I want to start a series of essays here on buying land or finding your own farm. I want people who are in the same position I was in a few months ago—to see how easy it is. I had bad credit. I had no savings. I had nothing but a paycheck and a decent rental history and yet I bought this farm in April. It took a little homework, savings, frugal months and luck: but I got it. And now with a recession still in recovery, a weak housing market, and land prices lower than they have been in a long time....it can't hurt to look.
And that's really how it starts. Get on realtor.com or drive around looking for sale signs where you want to live. Knock on doors, call neighbors, ask questions. If you see something that would be perfect for you (even if you can't afford it now) ask to be shown the house. Just getting your foot in the door and shaking people's hands sets off a firestorm of events in the process. Walking around property and having realtors know you're looking keeps them looking for you. Soon you'll be getting emails and advice about other properties.
When you start looking—actually knocking on walls and asking about well water—find a mortgage broker that is savvy about alternative loans and rural programs. If it wasn't for my broker Jim's knowledge of the USDA's Rural Development loan program - I would have never bought a home. The USDA program let me walk onto my own farm with no money down. That left me with closing costs, inspectors, and moving costs to cover. Since the sellers really wanted out, they agreed to a deal called a seller's concession. That means they agree to put a few thousand dollars (in my case, six) towards my closing on the house. It still cost a chunk of money to get in the door, but compared to what it could have cost conventionally, it was nothing.
I am in my own farm house right now because I asked how I could get here. Sure, I was somewhat forced into asking those questions when the cabin deal fell apart—but I'm glad it did. The Jackson farm (which I am just starting to call Cold Antler) is starting to feel more like a home than a new house. Fences are rising, slowly the inside is getting unpacked and decorated...It'll take time.
But today: look. Even if you don't plan on moving for three years, look. Start clicking around online and see what homes cost in your area, and then what they cost a county over. This farm would be double just over the state line in Vermont, and not even qualify for the USDA program. So don't be scared to crane your neck a little. Your perfect place doesn't have to be a pipe dream. It just may be in Delaware instead of Maryland.
But the point is I had no idea I could get here. I had no idea about those programs or tricks. I think I was too intimidated to even ask. I thought needed 20k in the bank and a second income to share the payments, but because I just started looking I was able to start actualizing the possibility. It's the first step: look. The second step is ask. And the third step I'll write about next time: save.
Oh my god. Fresh broccoli from the garden. My hen's rich eggs. Battenkill Valley whole milk. Grafton smoked maple cheddar... I just ate the best slice of quiche of my life. Eating it with a side of ridiculously dark coffee and I'm in an edible paradise. The dogs agree, too. If you've never made quiche, it is so easy darling. You just need a pie crust, some eggs and milk, and whatever cheese or toppings you desire. I'm a big fan of cheddar and broc: but when my folks come it's sausage, bacon, and pepper. And men: a man who can make a quiche, well that's mighty fine.
No lambs to speak of yet. I spent a bit of time last night repairing a hole in the fence. It's unnerving to be falling asleep watching episodes of Buffy on DVD to be shocked back into full consciousness by a black sheep, 6 feet away, bleating at the back hatch of your Subaru for grain (which is where I hide it). (The car is parked right outside the living room wall.) Joseph, is the escape expert of the trio. I can come home from worrk and see ol' Sal and Maude munching in the pasture and Joseph is down in the barn eating rabbit pellets. Alas, he cares more about Blue Seal Coarse 14 than he does about freedom, so he'll follow me right back into the pen if I have a handful of grain. I brought him back in his pen, nailed the fence back to the side of the sheep shed, and then went back to the Scooby Gang.
Today I start pounding some fence posts and running some new fences. I have a few used rolls we transfered from old fencing at the farm. It's not good enough for pen fence but fine for field fence. If I can do twenty feet today will be a victory. I need to just focus on small chunks done well.
Gibson is growing into a gangly little man. His fur is growing longer, his legs are too. He and Annie have become good playmates and spend most of their time rolling around the house together and exploring the upstairs. Right now they are playing keep-away with Annie's favorite stuffed animal (Annie is the one keeping it away) and Jazz is guarding his slice of quiche in the other room. He knows he can eat it in a few gulps, or he can sit with it and mock the other dogs who ate theirs to fast. Jazz can be a jerk sometimes; mocking us with his egg pies.
So that's my Sunday in the country. A morning of decadent food stuffs, an afternoon of sweat and midwifery, and hopefully an evening with my old friend, my fiddle. I think it's time I finally memorize Sally Goodin.
P.S. I've never read this blog in whole, but I did look at entries from the first September today. Wow.
I have no idea if Maude is pregnant or not. Yesterday she seemed languid, dripping, heavy, and slow. Everything she did looked and acted like the labor descriptions in my sheep books. This afternoon she was back to her old, crotchety, self. Right now I wouldn't be surprised if she dropped a set of twins or bit me. Maude is a mystery, always will be.
I would like to have a lamb around though. It would be good practice for next spring. We'll have to wait and see.
I moved the turkeys outside this week. They're all doing well. I've kept them inside the small pen for their own protection from the big hens and geese. When all the birds in the coop are used to them, they can join the fuss. Though I plan on making them sleep in the barn in a few weeks since that many turkeys don't jive with chickens. One turkey with a handful of chickens: no problem. Four turkeys and it's the Jets and Sharks.
So I know my sheep are on the chubby side, but Maude...she's huge. Not only is she huge, her teats have dropped, and her end is looking very very raw and red. I don't want to cry wolf, but when I got these sheep I was told that Sal's castration didn't go as planned....
There might just be a lamb at Cold Antler this spring.
When's the last time you ran around your yard in the dark with a jar with holes poked in the top? Tonight I was outside in the humidity, catching fireflies for an hour. My skills have slipped. At a certain age you stop catching and start watching and it's enough. But tonight I wanted to remember what a glowing jar felt like in hot hands.
I can't help but believe the farm is teaching me how to become the person I hope to be. I want to find some sort of very rusted old grace and obtain it, hold its reins, and know it. A way to understand things without having to comment, or to react to things without a reaction. I'm tired of filling up silence and space. I want to be so comfortable with myself and my life I would grow roots if I sat still too long.
It took a weekend in pure misery of bacterial poisoning to teach me the intense lesson of careful work around animal processing and raw meat. It forced me to make the place cleaner, more orderly, and to take better care of myself and what I consume. It drove me to get my well water tested (the test came out fine) and to slow down. I take more care in preparation of not only food, but in my own day. I wake up early enough to have time to sit, drink coffee, and stretch. And understand the luxury of a life that has time to sit, drink coffee, and stretch. I am grateful for it.
The fox too, has helped me. As angry as I was when the deaths were occurring, today I realized that five eggs a day, one rooster, a half dozen new layers and meat birds—is what I can reasonably handle. It also got me in touch with new people and friends: trappers and trackers who know how to deal with and prevent fox attacks. Because of that blasted animal I now have a more manageable home and the farm has met new faces. He's also made me walk the entire property line, looking for dens and signs. Being outside on a June sunrise and staring across my land, seeing the sheep just specks in the distance: is a gift from a fox I hate. Sometimes a farm takes the world and tilts it. Same place, just slightly different and with new things to understand.
When the weather report says there's no chance of thunderstorms. I still hope for one. Slim chances never did a damn thing o stop chumps from hoping. It's impossible to become jaded, because every now and then one still surprises you. And you can't help but get excited when clouds come and the wind picks up. It's hardwired like that in some of us, hope I mean.
When I was a kid, holding the flashing jar in my hands was the best part. Now it's letting them go.
The farm has returned to peacful equilibrium, or maybe I have. The panic and stress that racked me a few weeks ago is starting to melt off and the farm. All its residents (including me) are existing as one unit again. Chores have fallen into a longer-evening-shorter-morning-routine that really suits me. After sitting in a desk chair all day I come home to the farm, turn up the ipod, and take care of all the feeding, water hauling, mucking and fence moving. In the morning it's a simple feed-n-leave.
Three meat rabbits were lost, but the other three have fully recovered and last week another three were born to take their place. The fox hasn't been seen in quite some time, and (crossing fingers) he's had his fill amd moved on. The three surviving angora kits are also doing well, also on grass. The sheep are shorn and light on the hoof, and I think I stopped all the escape holes in the fence that Joseph has wiggled through and made a bee-line for the grain on the covered porch. And the bees are thriving too. They're about ready to have another super added to give them all the space they need to expand their hive.
The poults are growing fast and fat, and all healthy. Turkeys are supposed to be as fragile as glass lambs but I've never had a problem with them. I feel if you can get a poult through the first two weeks you're home free long as they have proper protection from the elements and predators.
The garden is in high production and while the salad greens are starting to bolt, the pumpkins are flowering and beans are too. So much good food on the way: onions, potatoes, peppers, cucs and more...
And I'm on a mission to slowly start expanding the pasture fencing. The idea of money falling into my lap to hire a professional is out of the question, and with a flock on the way carrying lambs—I need to start acting now. So every night I run just a few t-posts and fencing to do a new section. At the rate I'm going I'll make much of the work and expense spread out thin enough to be realistic. And that's pretty much the pace of the entire enterpise. Do what I can with what I have, and pray for rain.
The puppy day in Wallingford started around 10AM, but Gibson and I showed up fashionably late. Since my guests were leaving that morning, and we were only going to watch, I didn't mind pulling in the host farm's driveway at 11. A handmade sign in the shape of a sheep said 'Puppy Day!" was posted, it had to be the right place. Just beyond the gray farmhouse I could see the small gathering of folding chairs and black and white dogs. "Puppy" in today's context meant sheepdogs just starting to work sheep, under a year old. Gibson was a bit too literal of a definition to take part in the shenanigans.
We arrived and my shearer, Jim, waved hello. I didn't know anyone but I did have a border collie on the end of my leash, so it was as good as any backstage pass. Folks waved and pulled me a chair. I sat among the pack of folks in ball caps and leashes and watched a handler in the field send her young dog in circles around the three sheep Jim had brought along. I had so many questions. Was the dog taught to circle that wide, or was it instinct? How do you get a snappy lie down like that when such a young pup is three feet from a ewe? Where did they find a plastic training crook? Can Gibson and I really do this? What gets us from the sidelines to the twenty yard line?
Gibson sat and watched for a while. His eyes locked on the sheep every now and again, and for a three-month-old his attention span was impressive. Mine was less so. I kept bouncing between conversations, questions, text messages on my phone, and the constant flow of panting, smiling dogs at my side. What I love about border collies is the controlled chaos of so many off leash dogs. They just want to be by their owners sides so even a pile off leash at play snap to recalls when they hear, "HERE!"
I had a fine time. I learned much, was invited to future trials, and filled in who's got the top dogs. People were interested in where Gibson came from, his breeding and such. Jim raised his eyes when I mentioned his father, Riggs. "Oh, I know Riggs... You've got some good breeding in that dog.." and I puffed up like a mother hen.
There was a moment in the early afternoon when the clouds got dark, the wind picked up, and the birds all flew into the brush. Clouds burst and it started to rain. I walked with Gibson to the truck and watched the fields from the dry cab. By this point he was exhausted from the stimulus and all the puppy play. He slowly breathed in the passenger seat and I watched the dog in the field, a red collie. The red collies are rare, but work just as true. I saw the handler and his dog in the rain and I swelled with the excitement and envy of any rookie. I wanted to stand in the rain with my dog, and a flock, and feel the purpose and the power and know my place in the world. I sighed.
"That'll be us, kid." I said calmly to the pup by my side, patting his side. "That'll be us."
Yesterday was Gibson's first herding clinic. The first of many, I'm sure. We were only there to watch, not participate (at 14 weeks, my pup isn't ready to tackle an angry trio of ewes) but just sitting among shepherds is a lesson in itself. The conversations about dogs, training, and sheep abound. My osmosis you pick up little tricks and tips. You listen to the observations on the the stock in the field, the dogs at work, and the farmers explain their methods. There's also rumors, jokes, gossip and potluck spreads, pretty much what you get with any gathering of people. But the humid summer morning, and the curling black clouds calling a storm, made the day a little storied. A little surreal. I spent all of it on a cooler talking and watching while Gibson play and tackle the other collies. It was nice to see him tussle with his future like that. Here you can see him crashed by lunchtime. While the older dogs were pacing and raring to go, Gibson needed a nap. He fell asleep right in the middle of the circle of chairs.
More on his day tomorrow, I'm in the middle of final edits on this chicken book and that's why posts are thin these days. I'm also just over some company (my sister and her husband) who were amazing guests and helped cook, clean, and taught me how to light and use my new/used charcoal grill Steve rescued from a tag sale fate for me. So much was done with family, and my sister loved the farm. It's hard not to love, even if it's covered in chicken poo and stinging nettle.
And my big idea: I want to help some of you find your own farms. I got here, and now I want to show those who are just as eager how. Buying rural property wasn't hard, I could do it by trial and error—but I learned some things I'd like to share to help anyone out there who is seriously considering buying land by October. And if you're renting right now and think I'm talking crazy... I bet we could find you your own farm by fall. I was able to move into my home with a no down-payment USDA loan, something I didn't even knew existed this time last year. Because of that, a recession, dumb luck, sellers concessions, and annoying the hell out of my realtor and mortgage broker I got a house. You can too. I promise. It's all faith, sweat, and realtors baby. CAF wants to help you find home.
My sister and her husband are coming up to visiting from Pennsylvania for the weekend. I can't wait to see them, and show them the farm. Katie's my older sister, at 30 she's just three years older. My brother John is 26, only 361 days younger than me. Growing up so close in age, we were all pretty tight. But there is always something a little screwy about that middle kid, and I was no exception to the rule. I never played with dolls, just stuffed animals. I never stayed put, I was always wandering off and getting lost. When Santa came to the Palmerton elementary with a reindeer I reached for its harness and almost got my hand bit off. I was a handful. Girl scout leaders complained about me running into the woods...
My sister, however, was always more grounded and level. I looked up to her, and I've missed being a part of her life. Ever since college I've lived all over America, but in my wandering around never was able to hang out for much couch time. No BBQ's and lazy afternoons with her two cats and their golden retriever, Lindsay. So this weekend we'll be doing a lot of relaxing and hanging around the farm. Maybe some light gardening but most of the time will be R & R.
I'll be in touch though. I have some ideas I want to share... big ones.
When the meat and angora kits started dying, I was s confused. I knew what was hurting them (a weakening intestinal disease that caused them weight loss and dehydration) but not why only a select group was affected? I moved them all off pellets and onto spring water and hay, but still... I lost three of each breed. While removing a dead spotted rabbit from one of the hutches, its tan flat mate jumped out of the hutch and onto the barn floor hay. Thinking it had hours to live, I let it rest on the hay and didn't put it back in the cage.
To my surprise, when I came home from work the little guy was out on the grass. He had ventured from the barn and was chomping away at the green stuff. I had never seen him eat so well! I let it in nature's hands and kept my distance. He was so weak. I knew he would be dead in the safe cage, so I let him be feral. Let him take his chances. Then another day passed, and another, and every day the little brown rabbit was growing stronger and faster. Yet he was still tame. I could walk right up to him and pick him up. He was no longer the weak animal in the cage. He was a free-range rabbit. I named him Brutus. He seemed so tough.
Brutus has recovered fully, and I did the same with the other four weak rabbits. The remaining four kits (well, seven, three angoras are living in the laundry room) are now all free-range beasts on the grass. If they continue to thrive I'll let them there till harvest time. I am amazed at how such sick animals were able to turn around based on fresh air and green grass. I'm also suspect of the used cages they were in. The only animals that were sick were young animals in second-hand cages. Maybe there was a bacteria on them the older animals could fight off they could not? I'm not taking any chances and no longer using those particular cages if I can help it. And hopefully my free-range rabbits will do well.
As for predators? So far not one rabbit, only poultry, has been bothered by the fox. I think the rabbits are fine outside due to their wicked speed and being so hidden away at night. If the fox wanted Brutus, or could catch him, he would have. But to be on the safe side I am setting up an electric fence around the coop and rabbit range.
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.
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.)
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 writer, homesteader, archer, falconer, equestrian, martial artist, hunter, spinner, brewer, geek, and real-life Game of Thrones Extra. She loves movies, pop culture, running far, and eating animals. On twitter @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