I'd follow Geoff on his shepherding rounds. In our green rubber wellies we'd splash through the burns, checking each newborn lamb. Geoff'd pick it up to pat its full belly, "That's all right, old girl, I'll not harm him," and when mother and lamb had got separated )some of the burns were too deep for the lambs to swim), he'd join them back together. Brilliant mosses swirled in the stream-beds, oyster catcher and curlews called from the banks. The mist hung above us like theatre scrims and the light shimmered. Geoff's young dog, Cap, swirled in and out of the fog. The decision to become a shepherd is an aesthetic decision.
-Donald McCaig Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men Searching through Scotland for a Border Collie
I have held fast to my self promise of jogging. Since my birthday I have dedicated nearly every day to at least one mile on the treadmill at the office gym or out here on the sparse roads of Jackson. Yesterday I was outside jogging and the urge to keep going started to overcome me. I ran past my normal turn-around point and kept a steady pace towards route 22. If I ran there and back to the farm it would be a little over two miles, the farthest my recovering body had taken me since my reincarnation as a runner.
It was hot. Probably in the mid eighties and humid. There was a chance for storms, and if any weather could bring them, this was it. The going to hit 22 was all downhill and easy, I barely huffed even in the heat and sun, but soon as I turned back the grade started to change and every step gained ground.
Suddenly, I broke out into a sweat and the simple mile turned into quite the obstacle course. The hilly climb was brutal for me, an out-of-shape runner. My only goal was to not stop. I could slow down to a mockable crawl but I had to not walk and just keep jogging. So much of jogging is mental. If you let yourself stop, if you allow it, you always will. So I kept on. Only when I hit the driveway did I lurch into a slow walk. I collapsed into the shady open bed of my pickup and looked up at the sky. Blue.
My heart sank a little. Weather reports had been calling for storms for weeks and they rarely came. I would get excited, gloat to my coworkers about the weather, check my zip code every hour online hoping the chance for precipitation would crawl up 10%. I adore storms. They make me feel more like me. Yet the sky remained blue and clear as a still pond. I cursed it.
I am a girl who does not care for calm weather. It makes me lazy.
I came inside, panting. Something about running outside really whips me. I can run twice as far on a treadmill and just need some water and a shower, but really moving my body over distance slams me into a forced submission of anxiety and fear. When I run I am too focused on just completing it to start worrying about money, or relationships, or deadlines, or letting people down. I can only think about going home. And when I get there, when it's over, I instantly forget the suffering and just revel in the selfish satisfaction of completing a task. The proof is in every sucked in breath, the cramps in my side. I love it.
I walked into the farmhouse and headed straight for the dark, cold, kitchen where I grabbed a quart mason jar from the fridge and then sat on the floor, my back against the cold frame. I don't know much about physiology, but it seems that when I stop and drink sweat pours out of me. My hot hands around the cold jar force instant condensation outside the glass. I drink and feel my arms, back, and legs burst into a shine of new sweat. It sounds gross but feels purifying. It feels like bad things are leaving me.
Cold showers are welcomed at times like these.
I had friends over last night for a cookout and movie; three couples. One couple brought their year-old daughter, and the other brought their puppy. The third brought a batch of chocolate mint pudding. We barbecued, laughed, drank and watched JAWS (one of my favorite movies, fitting for summer). I loved hosting my friends and filling up my hungry self with good food. Later when things calmed down and we were all watching the movie, I could hear the thunder outside and feel my skin prickle with excitement. Finally, a storm was rolling in. Blessed event. I almost wanted to sigh with relief, having waited so long. I couldn't sit still. I left the camaraderie for a bit to step outside alone (certainly with three couples no one notices when I scurry away).
Outside the storm was windy, dry, and beautiful. Thunder came and the sky lit up but no true rain came. I retired to the bed of my pickup truck again, it was right there. Once again I was on my back, watching the sky. Just hours had passed and so much had changed. I hoped I could conjure the same changes in me: to be healthier, make better decisions, be more protective of myself and smarter about how I lived. Summer is a confusing time for me. So much effort and hope and planning but it all gets lost in the decadence of the weather. And rattles against the lushness of everything around me. The green maples, the warm wind, the tired body, the taste of chocolate still in my mouth.... I watched the clouds swirl and wished I understood things better than I did. I wished I had the certainty of weather like that, and could change so fast.
The last of the flashing fireflies glowed near the honeysuckle bush, a few drops hit my face, and I just watched. I ignored time, and he ignored me.
I had slated tonight as the day to buy hay. It was the first non-rainy afternoon of the work week and my supply was growing low. I'm already starting to plan for winter, so when I have the time and the weather is good—I drive north to Hebron to get whatever I can afford and bring it had to Cold Antler. Hay Day: I have been looking forward to it all week.
When the work day is over I go home and change out of the clothes I've grown so uncomfortable in. I slip into a tee shirt and wellies. I throw my hair up into a knit cap (yes, it's 89 degrees, but nothing keeps the bugs off and the sweat off my face like the natural wicking power of wool) and braid my hair into pig tails. I grab Annie (the best ride along dog at Cold Antler) and together a girl and her husky roll up 22 towards Nelson Greene's farm. Just past Tiplady road you can hang a right and weave uphill to Nelsons. I couldn't wait to be in that loft.
I only planned on buying half a dozen bales. Well, "buying" is a euphemism considering Nelson is rarely there when I arrive. I'm on a 9-5 part-time farmer schedule and on the late evenings when I show up he's either out or inside with supper. So I go through my normal routine. I open the loft and crawl up into the cathedral of hay and start throwing bales of his second cut down to my truck. I love that hay loft. I love the way it smells, what it means. It's an entire pasture in a rubik's cube of stacks. I can climb 30-feet high and feel safe. There is soft hay everywhere so if you slip (and I often do) you're fine. You land on the soft bedding and get up again. Today I stopped to take some pictures to share with you. I want you to see how my workday ends.
When the truck was loaded I drove us to Nelson's mailbox. I dropped off the check for the hay and then Annie and I headed south to Jackson. The wind felt good after the hot day. I drove with the windows open, my arm hanging off the edge. Annie hung the front half of her body out the window like she always does. Two girls and the open road. I smile a lot when hay is involved. I smile more in the company of dogs.
July is halfway over, and August is stalking us in tall grass. Before you know it September will be here and I will be barking for fall. I can not wait.
I'm on a mission to get in better shape: for me, for the farm, and for my future. Contrary to what you might assume about me I could stand to lose about twenty pounds and they're holding me back from feeling more comfortable with myself, and more fit for the work of everyday farm life. It's a lot easier to buck bales of hay into a truck when you're not wheezing or panting. And it's a lot more fun pounding fence posts when your arms aren't ready to give out as you slam down the 30-pound weight driving them into the ground. I don't want to grow tired based on the fact I'm lugging around an extra twenty pounds; it's not sustainable or efficient.
So I started running again, just a mile a day. I balance this with yoga and even though it's only been five days I feel better. Even if starting a personal fitness program is just a placebo in itself: it's working. I sleep better, I eat better, and I hope that come October I have reached my goal weight while still enjoying the occasional slice of apple pie and bottle of hard cider. I could try and lose thirty pounds and cut out all the foods that I enjoy, but I won't. Life is too short to miss out on all that amazing, homegrown, and homemade food. So I'll check in every week and let you know how it's going. I started on my birthday and I'll share my loss or gains as I plod along once every two weeks or so. Feel free to join me if you too want to feel a little tawnier under your flannel come fall.
Once upon a time a girl bought a house in Washington County, NY—land of farms, sheep, tractors, and fly fishing.
Then one day she didn't have hot water. So she called the oil company to deliver more fuel for the boiler.
The oil delivery guy came, filled up the tank with a hundred new gallons (273 American dollars), and then watched flames shoot out into the basement. We jumped back.
He looked at the furnace, then at me, then at the furnace and said after three beats:
"You're going to need to get this cleaned."
So the girl called the service people, who came to clean the dirty furnace (119 American dollars) so to not blow up the little white farmhouse. Alas, he discovered a broken ventilation system. I could have hot water again, but would not be alive to use it since the house would fill up with carbon monoxide.
He looked at the vents, then at me, then at the vents and said after three beats:
"You're going to need to get this vent repaired."
So the girl called the service center, and another man came to test the fan motor. He discovered the broken circuit board (175 American dollars) but said he could not repair it. The house's ventilation system was not up to code. The house would need to have that replaced and up to federal standards before they could fix the vents.
So the girl called the service people once again, and they showed her the system she would need to take hot showers as a living human being, and it required a brand new ventilation system that rose 2 feet above ground level! (2,000 American dollars) or a new masoned natural draft chimney (3,000 - 4,500 American dollars).
At this point God laughed, and the home owner cried. She just wanted hot water. She did not realize she was breaking the law. She does not have 2,000 dollars.
So the girl called the home inspector, who should have seen this issue and arrangements could have been made to get the vents up to code before she and Chase bank bought the farmhouse.
The inspector offered to pay for the new ventilation system, because if people found out there was a body count in his home inspection process, it would be bad for business.
At this point the home owner smiled. Small victories get her through the day.
The hot water will be back in a week and the house will refrain from being an outlaw.
"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.
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