Saturday, June 19, 2010

wool drying in the bed

Friday, June 18, 2010

family at the farm

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.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

he's growing up

photo by tim bronson

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

happy birthday ford!

the goodness of grass

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.

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