Apparently there are a lot of books out there about realistic fiction in Washington County, New York. I recently finished Rose in a Storm, and am now starting a novel called The Witch of Hebron by James Howard Kunstler, which is about something a lot of us Homesteaders and small farmers have thought about from time to time: the end of modern civilization. In Kunstler's book oil is gone, a middle eastern war bankrupted the economy, and farming and homesteading have taken over as the normal way of life in Upstate New York. Cars have been replaced by horses, old high schools have been turned into communes, and school bus stations are now horse stables. (This all takes place in the not-too-distant future.) The book is certainly a post-apocalyptic but it's not dreary by any means. It's full of interesting characters, a faux-Christian Cult, and a society without electricity, laws, or means to live outside of their own communities. It's actually a sequel to a book called World Made by Hand which I have yet to read, but certainly will. It's so weird to read a book about the end of civilization that takes place in my region of Veryork....He writes about Orvis being out of business, walking along the Battenkill, fishing in Lake Cassayuna...it's as if the world I know and live had been flipped on its head and the only way of life left is homesteading in the wake of abandoned Wallmarts and stripmalls. The roads all detroyed by neglect and frost heaves. The wild places of highways between towns have been taken over by land pirates and raiders. It is a wild read!
Worth picking up. I'll tell you what though, if you read this you'll feel a lot better about learning to knit or can...will you ever.
I love coffee, I love wool, and I love knitting. Meet the Mug Sweater: the love child of all three. It's a simple sleeve stitched around the handle of a clay mug. It keeps your hands from being uncomfortably hot and helps hold a little more warmth around the beverage inside. It's a very quick, simple, job (knit a small swatch long enough to wrap around the vessel and use a yarn needle to stitch it closed). I think a set of sweater mugs could be great, inexpensive, handmade gift for the holidays. You can pick up old Firekings or crunchy hand-thrown mugs second-hand at Thrift stores and use some of that great left-over yarn hanging around your home. Fill them with some some simple brown bags tied with string of whole bean or flavored coffees and you just gifted someone an entire experience. I can tell you that on a cold morning at the farm, when the woodstove is out and there's ice on the water buckets—a sweater mug is the only proper way for a shepherd to drink Joe.
It's a night entirely dedicated to comfort here at Cold Antler Farm. There's a smiling Jack-o-lantern outside on the front stoop and a fire in the woodstove is making the entire downstairs toasty. I recently came in from checking on the sheep, chickens, and rabbits. It's really cold out there, too. The weather report is calling for some possible snow here in the 12816, up to a half inch. It was the incentive I needed to really get that fire going in the cast-iron belly of the woodstove. She's doing a swell job on this good night.
Halloween means a lot to me. It's my favorite holiday. I have absolutely no interest in the modern scary stuff. I don't begrudge it, it's just not mine. My Hallows is a night to truly reflect, be calm, and be grateful I are still among the living. Thousands of years ago this was the Celtic New Year. The end of the Harvest and a time of much somber remembrance and gratitude for the food grown, animals harvested, and the people lost over the recent year. So for me: it's a quiet day. Not much fuss.
My morning started with Gibson's weekend herding lesson, something I try to make a couple times a month between two trainers. Today I started getting it, Gibson already knows it. My job is to hone instincts and show him the way I need him to work sheep, but he already understands that they are not like other animals. They are his. We are a team, however new at this old game.
You could call us Team Crow if you like. Around my neck is a small silver crow charm, and one identical to it is on Gibson's collar. I believe crows seen in pairs are good luck, always have. When you seen them alone it's nothing special, but together, oh boy have you got a good sign. So when I found these little charms at a discount jeweler I coughed up the couple of dollars and each of us adorned one around our necks. We wear them for luck. Together we're a pair.
In a few hours a family will be here to adopt Finn. He's going to live with two wethers and some llamas at a small family homestead. It's bittersweet. Part of me feels pangs of guilt, since he's been so well behaved since we got the fencing right. It showed me that with proper planning goats are wonderful homestead animals. Finn found his place here with Sal as his good friend, and his antics have lightened the pasture into quite a scene. But the other part of me is relieved and happy. For all of Finn's goodness, he is still a goat in a sheep farm. He's grown bored, destructive (just ask the apple trees, field fencing, and shed walls) and misses the company of other goats. While it will be a gut punch to see him drive off in that mini van, it's also time he did.
Cold Antler makes visiting my family, just five hours south of me, so hard. Going home for the holidays might be impossible this year, depending on the weather and the farm's needs. What do you do when the lifestyle that makes you so ridiculously happy and fulfilled is hurting the people you love?
I am really enjoying Rose in a Storm, the new novel by Jon Katz. The story is about a sheepdog dealing with a very bad situation: a blizzard in Washington County that all but destroys the farm and farmer she loves. Rose is the focus of the book, a 6-year-old working border collie based on his own by the same name. I'm about halfway into it and secretly enjoying the horror of such a storm on paper. To read about five feet of snow and white-out conditions when it's 67-degrees outside is a contrary decadence, but I think it's one of the underlying thrills of this book. It's a story that absolutely could, and might, happen. It could happen to me.
So I am diving into this hardcover. It's hard not to when you're a small farmer in the region of the story, but I think it transcends proximity. It is one of those books that has such visceral imagery of the weather it makes you want to curl up and read even more. So if you want the kind of book that requires a wool sweater, hot coffee, and a dog asleep at your feet: pick one up.
Jon will be doing public readings at Gardenworks in Salem, and here in Cambridge if you want to check him out live in the neighborhood.
A package arrived yesterday. Inside was a collection of items I understood and would certainly need, but have never used. Things like brass ear tags and rubberband-ammunitioned tail dockers. Supplies like lamb jackets, iodine, rubber gloves, buckets, sprays, and a flock management guide that will force me into record keeping (a habit I need to get into if I plan on making any sort of business out of this farm), and other odds and ends. Unpacking that box was what made the idea of lambing very, very, real to me. More real than it's been so far. There is something damn substantial about the doing of a thing, when you are holding the tools in your hands to do it. If you could follow that last sentence and understand this, you've been reading this blog a while. Thank you.
Farming is bringing back to my life the excitement I felt as a child and the passion that forced me through college. I realized when I was out in the working world; a place of utility bills, rent, health-insurance claims and used-car salesmen—that all the old ritual was gone. The magic of childhood had vanished, and the rights of passage were over. No more waiting up for Santa or Graduation ceremonies. My cookie and cap-and-gown days were behind me. But farming! Farming takes our hands and shows us new holidays, new rituals, new and exciting rights of passage. Or rather, old ones that we are reclaiming. Rights as old as civilization, as genuine as any human experience can be. The work of hay, lambs, gardens, and geese: this is the original work of people. It is a lifestyle that sustains us, perhaps the only lifestyle that actually keeps you alive. Perhaps when society lost much of this work is when we started making up ceremonies to fill in all the white space. People with loaded hay trucks can see their effort and know their worth. They don't need sheet cakes with their names in cursive.
This winter will be Shepherding School at my farm. I am collecting all the literature I can to learn as much as I can retain for this flock, for this farm. I am going to subscribe to SHEEP! magazine, and keep piles of how-to and husbandry manuals stocked everywhere from the foot of my bed to the bathroom. Between the literature, sheep herding lessons, and surrounding myself with shepherds: this could be a crash course education. I'm also reaching out to some local farms here, hoping that early lambing operations might let me help or watch. Any and all experiences are welcome.
It seems like a long road from opening that package to the day I'll be using the supplies inside it. When I ordered the box from the livestock supply company, I forgot to mention what numbers I wanted on the tags. Shortly after I hit send on the order my cell phone rang and I was asked what sequence I wanted the tags to be numbered. Apparently, if you've been doing this a long time, or have a lot of stock, you can go from 1 to 1,000 on the lamb tags.
My advanced copy of Chick Days came in, and what a rush to hold in your hands the finished product of many months of work! Chick Days is a beginner's guide to raising birds, filled with stories, music, and photographs of Cold Antler as well as three special chicks in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The real hero of this book is Mars, the photographer, his work is enchanting and made this how-to book something else. It comes out in late December/January and you can pre-order it from your local indie store, just ask the people at the front desk. They know what is up.
When I was growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, my parents brought me to church every Sunday. As a little girl, I couldn't really comprehend the complications or beauty of the Mass, but I did listen to the stories and remember going to summer Bible camps and CCD classes. One thing that always stuck with me, even at such a young age, was the concept of guardian angels. At home, at church, and even on television and movies this idea of a benevolent spirit watching over me, keeping me safe, was a big deal to me. I just didn't buy the whole dude-with-wings concept. They didn't seem all that tough when it came to protection. The angels in the church literature looked like George Stephanolopous in drag with a harp fetish. I did not want to be caught lost in the woods or in a dark alley with that guy watching my back. Since I didn't care much for literal interpretations: I went with my gut on this one.
So as a little girl when I got scared, or worried, or felt bullied at school I would just close my eyes and ask for my angels. In my 6-year-old brain I didn't see people with wings and harps but a pair of large wolves at my side. They were the size of lions, talked like people, and when they growled the earth shook. If I was scared walking home in the dark I'd imagine one walking on each side of me, padding along with their heads low, scanning the streets of Palmerton for danger. If a ghost, monster, or mean kid was out there they would scare them off. I remember imagining my hands on their thick coats, feeling the fur of their manes under my fingers. As I grew older I never really lost this mental image. I think I trained myself into it actually. When I learned to drive a car they were loping along outside as I drove. They weren't as clear as they were as a child, more like milky shadows or afterthoughts, but still there. When I moved out of my parents house and into college dorms and apartments I'd have dreams of two giant wolves outside the door, sleeping like golden retrievers, keeping watch.
Now I'm all grown up. I rarely think about lupine guardian angels anymore, but I did realize something last night. As I sat on my couch watching a scary movie, I instinctually reached down to hug Jazz, who was asleep on my lap. His giant head resting, breathing on my thighs. Annie was curled up at my feet, like a fat little fox with her tail over her nose. The two large dogs had thick coats, prick ears, sharp teeth, and wolfish figures. (Jazz especially looks like a wolf, with yellow eyes and huge canine teeth.) Together these two gentle beasts have been by my side in every state, every farm, every adventure. I had held their necks shaking and crying when I was terrified or heartbroken. I had held their paws and danced in happy bliss to the kitchen radio. I had ran beside them, slept beside them, and I miss them when they are not by my side. I can not imagine a day without them...
Had my guardian angels finally found me after all these years?
Go on Facebook and search for the Cold Antler Farm group page. There you can join in all the homesteading and sheepy glory. I hope to make it a place where a lot of conversations, photos, recipes, and advice can be shared as well as bonus photos and stories from the farm!
Here is how I feel about yelling at people on the internet: unless know them personally: don't. It's like giving the stranger in the check out line at the grocery store a lecture on healthy eating. Just because you're both out in public, and his purchases are in plain site for all to see, doesn't mean you should comment on them. You can't possibly know the context. There are a lot of reasons why someone might be buying ice cream.
There's a quart jar in the fridge. It's packed tight with chicken stock and all the meat that melted off the bones while it cooked down in the pot. Today for lunch Taylor and I feasted on one of my spring chickens, a little four-pounder I raised right here on the farm and harvested in May. Following the advice of The River Cottage Meat Book, I gave it a thirty-minute 400 degree sizzle and then let it roast at a comfortable 350 degrees while we took care of work outside. We dispatched one of the big boys to take the place of the one we had removed from the freezer. I kid you not this chicken weighed in at fifteen pounds, possibly more. He is almost as big as my family's Thanksgiving Turkey. So I would just like to refute the rumors that all Cornish Rock's hearts explode or legs collapse at 15 weeks of age. All my meat birds who are still alive are pretty much Emus, and happy as clams.
Well, until I eat them.
The roasted chicken turned out to be perfect. We ate in celebration of a weekend spent working to get this farm a little closer to its goals. Gibson had a good herding lesson, and while still a pup out there in his training pens—he is starting to let the instinct shine through. I can see it in his eyes, in how he puts down his head and walks fast by keeping his back level and low to the ground and reaching as far as he can with each long arm to move around the sheep. When he gets tired I say "Lie Down" and hope he does. He doesn't. But he does stop, which is a start, so to speak. In that photo I walked up to him and set him into a lie down before walking back to the other side of the sheep to talk with Denise about lambing questions. He was too tired at this point to get up, but too interested in the sheep to stop watching them.
We kept busy this weekend. The sheep shed got a coat of paint, and picked up 15 bales of new hay. I unloaded 350-pounds of various feed and stored it for winter. This puts me at about 25 bales. I plan on 35-45 to get eight sheep through to spring. I have been warned so many times not to overfeed the bred ewes or every one of those lambs will be huge and need help being born. So I am following the breeder's advice to the letter. To. The. Letter. How much to feed, how often, and what to buy. I was told the ewes were experienced and my plan was okay. I worry all the time something will go wrong. Everyone tells me that first lambing season is the hardest. There are sheep care books in every room of the house. I don' expect things to go perfect. But I hope with the help of books, mentors, other shepherds and common sense: there's more sheep here in the spring than in the winter. The ram lambs will go to other farms or the freezer. The ewes lambs will stay.
Good news though: thanks to the great success of the CAF CSA: I was able to get most of my lambing supplies. Soon a box with everything from ear tags to elastic tail-docking bands will be in my closet, hibernating till late April when the first little Scotts will drop.
I'm going to head downstairs and eat some leftover potato cheese soup, watch Sweetgrass, and call it a night. No one has to tell me to lie down. When I get the chance, I savor it.
I walked outside this morning and without meaning to, walked in on a very private moment between Sal and Maude. Not that it was all that private—since they were standing in middle of field—but clearly some oats were sewn.
I'm not worried about it. Every fall Sal gets frisky but nothing has come of it. He's been castrated. Twice. I was told this from the homesteading family I got him from. Apparently the first time didn't take, so the vet came back and clamped down a second time. Sal is supposedly a wether, but for a weather he is still packing heat, as his manhood is still pretty substantial. I suspected earlier in the year that Maude might be pregnant, but I was wrong. So perhaps he really isn't fertile? Sal's possible fathering ability is a mystery. Let's just say if there's an extra white lamb this spring: he's the baby daddy.
I'm off work today and spending the morning getting ready for company. My friend Taylor is coming up for a cold weekend in New York from the sunny south. She works in Nashville, and is hankering for seeing her breath in the morning. I told her we'd be getting up around 4:45 to pack the truck for a roadtrip Saturday morning to herd with Gibson at a sheep farm in Massachusetts. Then we have to also find time to buy a trailer full of hay, paint the new sheep barn, bottle the beer if it's ready, and other some such. She seemed excited about it all of it, which says to me she's exactly the kind of guest a small farm likes! So here's to our weekend and yours. I'll make sure to post photos of Gibson's lesson, painting, and any other trouble I get into.
I have decided to start a Fiber CSA here at Cold Antler Farm. Inspired by the article my pal Ashley sent me, it seems like a great way to get Cold Antler Farm up and running. Here is how it works:
When you sign up for any Community Supported Agriculture Program you pay up front for products you reap throughout the year. In the world of fiber, this means you'd pay your subscription and then the farmer uses that money to run the joint and raise the wool. When the harvest is reaped (in this case sheared) you will be mailed the completed skeins you paid for in advance with your subscription. This first year I am limiting the membership to twelve people. I am fairly sure with five sheep I could take on more, but in this case I think it's better to start small. I'd rather have ten thrilled customers then twenty satisfied customers.
People who buy a share will receive a welcome packet that comes with a Thank you letter, the year's plan and projection, a list of future products, and a skein of this year's Cold Antler Farm yarn which is due to come in any day now. Then next spring When the Scottish Blackface sheep are shorn the wool will be sent off to a mill to be processed and you will receive that as well. I am expecting about 4-6 skeins of their yarn for each subscriber, as well as raw wool if so desired for your own processing and other little CAF treats I whip up.
This blog lets you watch your wool go from the first day its hooves hit the farm till the day they are sheared. I expect to have the first year's wool harvest back by August based on my partnership with Still River Mill in Connecticut. If you are seriously interested please email me at: email@example.com. First come, first subscribe!
When we decided to get into home brewing my friend James and I were talking about how exciting and fun the process was. I was really wound about the cider pressing and could not wait to bottle our own. So I told him I wanted to try some simple kit beers too. The pressing inspired my long-put-off home brewing itch. I explained this and he just shook his head at me, "Let's just stick with the cider, Jenna" he said, "a jack of all trades is a master of none." And I was instantly hit with this shot of odd guilt because my entire lifestyle is based around trying to be Jack.
Then I realized how ridiculous it was to feel guilty about not living up to an aphorism, specially when it feels so damn wrong.
I am a master of nothing. I despise perfection, hate details, and roll my eyes when someone complains about a finger print on their car's new paint job. I have no desire to be "Jenna the Knitter" or "Jenna the Fiddler" or "Jenna the Baker." I want to be Jenna. And being me means a messy life full of animals, music, experiments, mistakes, victories, and a wide variety of utilitarian skills and interests. I want to do well at the things I am involved in, but my measure of "well" does not have to match anyone else's. If I grow food I can eat: I consider this a successful garden. If my sheepdog herds sheep: I consider this a successful partnership. I do not need three-pound tomatoes or trial ribbons.
I think that was the spirit of the original homesteaders. Back then being a master of a craft meant one of two things: it was either a luxury or your trade. You either had the money and time to do one thing well, or doing that one thing was what paid for you to everything else not nearly as well! I bet the best farriers and blacksmiths made skunk beer from time to time. They had to become Jack too, because in the spirit of self-sufficiency they needed to learn many skills across the board just to survive. So even if they made a sweet wagon wheel they still had to be okay at butchering hogs or sewing new shirts. It never crossed their minds to have another master do these things simply because they were better at it.
I'd much rather play a mediocre tune on the fiddle, while drinking passing home-brewed beer, while wearing a scrappy homespun hat in a house that needs vacuuming than be an artist at one thing. Frankly, that seems boring as hell. I like knowing I can set up a chicken coop, tack up a horse, raise geese, spin wool, and bake a pizza in the same day and know none of these things are artisanal, but utilitarian, which is what their purpose was in the first place.
Some of us have the perception that we should strive to perfect one discipline. That's great if you want to get into Julliard or earn a football scholarship to Yale. I want to run a small, diversified, farm. I honestly believe if I keep doing all the things I am doing I will get better at them. I believe I will naturally gravitate to fewer and fewer till it appears that I have settled on "mastering" one or two things. Truth is, those will be the things I liked the most and simply did the most. Maybe one day Cold Antler Farm will just be sheep, border collies, and pumpkins. Right now it's a beautiful frenzy.
After the shed was built and everyone who had helped had gone home I remained to let the sheep and Finn back into the main pen and reset the electric fence. It was dark by this point—and my stomach was gurgling from too much celebratory pizza—but my flashlight scurried around the wire lines, and one insulator at a time I got the wires ready for juice. Finally, through clouds of my warm breath I kneeled down to unlatch the main gate and let the sheep and goat back in to see their new digs. I watched like a new novelist opening up her first NY Times review...
Their review wasn't that intense. All the sheep looked at it, and then promptly walked around it. It was as if I spent my day doing nothing of interest at all. Finn however, stared at it with intense wonder. He looked it up and down. He tried to solve problems, cocked his head to the left and reached out a long neck to lick it. Then, deciding the only plan left was action: he headbutted the wall about fifteen times in a row. BAM THAWWAACK BAM! Once his faith was restored, he relaxed and joined the sheep for some hay and slumber in the front yard of the new barn. How funny that two species had an entirely different reaction to the structure? The woolies ignored it with a mld acceptance. The goat had a fiery passion to get his deepest questions answered.
The barn raising yesterday did more than build a structure: it lifted my spirits. I am feeling a renewed an energetic excitement towards homesteading I had not felt in months. Being outside with friends and farmers and throwing that work party was a blessing in so many ways. I loved getting up at the crack of dawn to back breads, muffins, and cakes for my helpers. I loved hoisting the 4x4s over my shoulder as I trudged up the hill to help build. I loved the measuring, handing over hammers and screws to the guys up in the rafters. All of it was watching a beginning. And when this barn is weather-beaten and broken in a few months later another beginning starts: lambs.
Perhaps it's the fact that it's fall again and I'm back into my month? Or maybe I'm just trilled about Halloween a few days away...But I know that tonight I have so much to plan for winter and instead of feeling scared or anxious: I'm downright excited. Excited to watch those new sheep in their new barn. Excited to bottle and share my bubbling beer. Excited to stack hay, pile wood, and hunker into the holidays. I'm still working on a farm sitter for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I'll figure it out and I'll keep up with it all online along the way.
P.S. The last winner never emailed me or checked in, so the new winner of the Maude Roving is Rosa from Alberta! If you are interested in getting a drop spindle with a bit of roving, email me, as I have about four or five more.
P.P.S. I am so behind on emails. If you emailed me and I didn't reply it's not for any social or mean reason! I simply am horribly behind!
I have received a few emails and comments recently about why I do not turn this blog into a pay-to-read site. They've asked this because folks who know my dream is to someday support the farm with my writing (and do the bulk of my writing here) wonder why I am not setting up a subscription system? You know, making the blog help pay the mortgage in a more efficient way. It is an interesting idea. it certainly would help.
But I just don't like the idea of making this site something you have to pay for. It's more or less a story, not a service. Some folks have been following me a long time on here, offering advice, sending gifts, or even coming over to hammer a few nails or trim sheep hooves. It's become a community in a sense and I don't like the idea of asking for any sort of payment to see what I am up to. It's like having to bring a check to a potluck. While I appreciate the suggestion, and hope to someday meet my goals of making a living writing about farming: this blog will remain a free site to the public.
I know they look ridiculous. But a few weeks ago when my coworker Phil walked into the office with a leather pair of these Virbram Five Fingers, I was instantly intrigued. As someone who goes barefoot as often as possible, who hates the feeling of bound up feet and only wears wellies because of the amount of chicken and sheep poo in her life...these slip on shoes were a godsend for the house and walking the dogs along the road. It's like having your foot dipped in cloth and rubber, everything moves perfectly. It's like having sticky paw pads and the traction on wet rocks and such is fantastic.
The price is a little steep, all seem to hang around the Benjamin mark, but I found these on eBay drop shipped from the factory for 29 bucks. So if you do a little snooping, you can find a better deal.
VIbram is not a sponsor of the blog. I just plain old like 'em.
This place is feeling more and more like home, especially on nights like this. There is a driving rain with flakes of ice in it. I now need gloves and a waterproof jacket to get work done. I currently have a plasticish cheap raincoat, the kind that's heavy and feels like it's made of a more flexible version of rubber boots. But with a wool sweater below it I am insulated and waterproof and the work can get done. It needs to get done. Someday I will find a used waxed cotton jacket like the great dogmen in Scotland wear when they work their sheepdogs in this weather. But you need to start somewhere. A Barbour Jacket is out of my budget right now.
I came home from work and did my evening chores in a cold rain. By the time everyone was fed (including me - leftover pasta) the world was wetter, colder, and darker. Yet inside this small house are thick walls and warm blankets. I haven't raised the thermostat above 58 yet, but with the tight home a simple night of laundry in the dryer and a cooked meal heat the place up so warm I am peeling off layers when I sleep. Right now there are three fluffy dogs and candlelight. Jazz and Annie look like wolves by a campfire when it hits them. Tonight I am sharing the dark with a cup of coffee and a scary movie (the Village) and I am so comfortable I am ready to call it at night after 8pm. It's Friday. Like I said, I'm a homebody.
You know you're going to become a farmer when you find out a coworker has to leave an upstate New York October for the Bahamas on business and you're gut reaction was. That sounds terrible...
I came in tonight from my final night rounds and saw that the livestock were all in their sheds and roosts. The rabbits were on their hay in the barn. I called for June Carter into the wind but nothing came of it. She's still gone.
They are calling for a few inches of snow tonight, up to six in elevations above 2,000 feet. I think this is special, but I've already been told there was snow in the Smokies a few weeks ago, that LeConte had a cap on her. Tennessee is always first, at least in my mind. That state is the reason you are reading this blog because Cold Antler Farm started at the bottom of a waterfall in the Smoky Mountains. That's another story though.
Tomorrow I am sleeping in. Without herding lessons to race off too—and not plans till I go buy barn-building supplies later in the afternoon—I see no reason not to revel in this warm house while the wind picks and howls outside.
Hey everyone! Tonight I am brewing my first ever two gallons of beer, a pale ale I plan on fermenting with some Cold Antler Farm honey. I'm using a Mr. Beer kit (it's in my budget at 39.95) and in a few weeks it will be ready to bottle and rack. I'm already saving old beer bottles, and bought a bag of new caps (a whopping 3.75 for 150!). I'm excited to start this simple kit beer, and will eventually move into more refined types of homebrewing, but for this first adventure let's think up a good name for this honey pale ale I'll be making right here on the farm.
So after the eigth guy on Match.com has recently explained I'm sorry, but I no longer have any romantic interest in you after seeing your blog...I think it's time to move to another dating site. Somewhere where men don't equate livestock to shock treatment. I guess I should have figured that out when every single guy on that site lists "travel" as their favorite things to do.
I’m new to this, painfully new. I just completed my Hunters’ Safety course this past summer and had only aimed a shotgun at clays. I had no plans of coming home with a ringneck, but the possibility had me excited on the dark drive to our meeting spot before dawn. When I pulled my truck to the parking area on the side of the road, I was greeted by what I would learn would be the classic pre-hunt scene. My friends Steve, Tim, and Tim’s son Holden were outside their trucks, talking with coffee in their hands and Steve’s dog, Cayenne, lunging at the end of her leash. I was an emotional concoction of excited and nervous. I kept it to myself that I hadn’t felt this way since Prom Night. This was a whole different dance though, and the borrowed 20 gauge would’ve looked awkward with my teal dress from high school.
At dawn we were on the move. Cay exploded into the thick undergrowth as if letting go of her leash was a trigger in itself. We moved in pairs along the pathways and then grew bolder, walking right through the tall weeds and burdock. (I instantly learned to appreciate my borrowed chaps.) Within ten minutes of frantic, high tailed pacing the dog flushed a bird up in the air. It was the perfect shot right in front of me, but in the chaos of the moment I was too nervous to concentrate and missed by feet. My left thumb was bleeding like crazy from being caught in the safety latch in the frenzy. Not only did the bird escape, but I was wounded. Let’s hear it for me.
I kept my eyes and ears open. As the hunt wound down, we started moving back towards the parking area, and it was here we came across a veritable nest of pheasants. Within twenty minutes we took four birds, one seemed to come down every few minutes. When slightly off to my left a bird presented himself I took my shot and watched him drop. The thrill was remarkable. The excitement indescribable. I had taken a bird on my first hunt.
Now there’s a smoked pheasant with my name on it in the company fridge, literally. Tucked in behind the Tupperware salads and soggy sandwiches is a zip lock back with a little brown bird, and “Jenna” is written across it with yesterday’s date. Tim smoked it last night with the other four birds we took Saturday morning at dawn. What a delicious affirmation of a morning spent with friends, and a new tradition started in high grass. I doubt I’ll ever forget it, but If I need a reminder, the smoked pheasant ravioli I’ll have for dinner tonight should do it. And if I remember correctly, it’ll be a far better meal than what was served on Prom Night.
There will be an old-fashioned work party here at Cold Antler Farm this weekend. I'll be putting up the frame of the new sheep shelter. My friend James and I planned out all the materials and costs and Saturday after Gibson's herding lesson in Western Mass, I'm going to Home Depot to buy what I need. Sunday morning from 10-2pm folks will be coming over with their powedrills and saws to help raise what will be the home of the Scottish Blackface ewes that are the foundation stock of my future lamb and wool enterprise. If you live nearby and know how to use a hammer and are friendly: then come on by. There will be refreshments and cute dogs and three leering sheep.
P.S. No sign of June Carter yet. I do hope she returns.
P.P.S. Chelle, you were the winner of the spinning contest. If I don't hear from you in a week, another reader gets the goods.
Yesterday was spent outside in the sunshine pressing thirty gallons of cider with good friends. It was the start of a new tradition here in the wilds of Veryork. Myself, and my guy friends James and Tyler dedicated some of our weekend to a very old-school way of copping a buzz: learning to make alcohol from pressed apple mash. This is my initiating into the cult of home brewing—my sponsor is hard cider.
We started Saturday morning, collecting apples off the scrub orchard I inherited with the farm. After pheasant hunting and before herding lessons we gathered all we could around Cold Antler. Between the trees on the side of the road and what was left of the apples in my pasture (so many went to feed the sheep and goat. Which will not be happening next year!) we were able to collect about two bushels. But two bushels does not a pressing-work-party make, so James hit up the back roads of Peru and Londonderry and was able to nearly fill the back of his dad's truck with several varieties of feral apples. Through some slick foraging we were able to collect enough fruit to keep us busy for hours, and we didn't spend a dime. Not a bad deal.
We arrived with our apples (and dogs) at our friend Dave's house. Dave is a modern backwoods MacGyver. He can figure out how to make or fix anything, and often does. Back in the eighties he bought a giant apple grinder/cider press for $200 from an old NY state orchard. The giant machine was built in 1865, and with some work on his part it was now looking brand new and working like a song. He rebuilt the wood frame, painted it, and had mineral-based oil moving around the fly wheel and gears. The beast had a big hungry bucket on top: the maw for our road kill.
For two hours we created a mini factory right there in his backyard. We ground, pressed, poured, strained, and bottled the sweet cider. We filled the keg that Dave tricked out with a spigot and strainer, and when it got too full, we emptied it into plastic and glass car boys. I couldn't take the temptation and filled some quart jars and drank right there on the job in-between cranking the press and grinding apples. Then Dave cracked open a bottle of 1987 vintage, and MAN did it have a kick to it. We nipped the hard cider as we worked, making us a little more limber and silly. I could not believe how fast and fruitful the day's labors were: so much cider sitting in the October sunlight.
I brought my fiddle, since Dave is also a string sawer. Together we'd take brakes to play alone or together, the twangy sounds of our strings under the trees. It was nice to practice when the work grew slower. Gibson and his setter friend Ellie played and ran about. Bill (Dave's friend and fellow ciderteer) told stories and we learned each other's histories. We made plans to add more apples and potluck foods to next year's pressing. I'm already making plans for it! Before I headed home Dave gifted me a bottle of his 2008 homebrew, and I thanked him with a big smile. Now that I understood how much effort and science went into that gift, it meant the world to me.
Our cider will be ready around New Years. A long time to wait, but well worth it. Between then and now it will bubble with the five pounds of honey we're putting in each fermentor. We'll transport it to growlers and bottles and then it will be ready to serve. Homemade hard cider to ring in the new, and new lambs!
Now I have the home-brewing itch. I'm looking into some easy 2-3 week kit beers. I can't believe how easy and inexpensive it is, and how satisfying it is making your own libations. Even without taking a sip, I am hooked. This winter will not be boring, not by a long shot. Cold Antler Brewery is in the works! Cheers!
He just can't sit still in a car. He's well behaved enough, but the entire ride to anywhere Gibson will stand, pace, stare out the window, bark at motorcycles and paw the dashboard. He has this bit where he puts both front paws on the dash and uses the passenger seat for his back feet, suspending himself in mid-air above the truck's bench, using it as leverage to make his teenage body as long as possible. his yoga for when he really wants to get outside. Sometimes he moves over to me and sits aside me, my arm around him, and I feel like a character in a Norman Rockwell oils. But usually he just scatters about. He summons enough static electricity to shock me when his nose touches my cheek. His body is literally a live wire, excited to be let out for the next adventure.
That's how my little pup was the entire drive down to Taravle Farm. I was tense too, because my Googlemaps directions had taken us on a ridiculous scenic route, making us nearly an hour late. I called, but was worried another handler and dog had an appointment after us and we'd simply be out of luck. I kept driving south though, through Amsterdam, Florida, and other upstate towns I never saw before save for names on maps. One thing was for certain though, it was a beautiful drive.
I was in the low 60s and sunny. The perfect blend of crisp and sun struck. Peak foliage had the leaves cascading around us as we drove over countless county roads. I had on the local country station out of Albany and was singing to Gibson to keep my tardy-conscious light. "We're all about John Wayne, Johnny Cash, and John Deere....Way out here." I crooned to still-distracted border collie. He wasn't about any of the Johns. He was about sheep.
Or so I hoped. Truth is you never know what any sheepdog will do with livestock until he is actually in a pen with them. In my reading and conversations with other shepherds I had heard stories of many a pup who was scared of the sheep, or too violent and made them bleed from bites. I heard of pups who simply did not care and just sat there, staring at them like wooly office furniture. Part of me was nervous that Gibson wouldn't even bother with them. He rarely raises an eyebrow to my flock and has never been in a stock pen. Since my bruiser sheep aren't dog broke (meaning used to working with collies) they aren't allowed to be alone together. Someone would get hurt if I did. Really hurt. So Gibson won't be working sheep at Cold Antler until his flock arrives later this fall: five pregnant Scottish Blackface Ewes from Taravale.
We arrived and I let Gibson out of the truck. He circled around smelling like crazy off leash while I went to find Barb Armata, one of my main mentors in this club. She greeted me and explained she appreciated the lateness, gave her time for lunch. I shot back a sheepish smile. Gibson was darting his head everywhere. So many smells and sounds. Taravale is 80 acres and hundreds of sheep. Quite the culture shock.
Barb asked me permission to go into the pen with him alone for the first meeting. I handed her the lead, no questions asked. Handing Barb a border collie is like a carpenter asking for a hammer. It makes sense, and the receiver is instantly comfortable with the acquisition. She took Gibson inside a small, 50x50 ft pen on a long line and I stood on the fence to watch. She had the dog, and a big plastic paddle to shoo him away from gripping (biting wool) and keeping his distance. I held my breath and camera. This was it.
She let him go and he ran right to them! He chased, barked, his tail in the air like a little buck. Tails up aren't a great sign, it means he's chasing and playing: not herding. He was having a great, albeit frenzied, time. Barb explained everything that was happening and told me not too worry about the high tail. "He's a seven month old pup! of course his tail is up!" she told me. And later in his lesson, when he was a little worn out, he trotted across the pen to the sheep with his tail down she praised him. "Good boy Gibson!" and my heart became three-sizes too large for my own body.
As the lesson went on his tail dropped, his eyes focused, and he started to tire a bit from that manic first chase. We praised him and removed him from the pen for a while and I took him back to his crate in the truck with some water. Barb was going to work her new pup, a ten-month old named Kate. Kate came out of the kennel smiling like a little fox, she was maybe thirty-five pounds of mischief and smiles. Her fine features, pointy face, and merle spotting made her look a breed apart from Gibson: who was what Barb called "big and blocky" but she was still a rookie too. This would be her fifth time on sheep.
Little Kate was all business out there, a real pro. Her tail down and her head focused. You could tell she was the dog of a Nationals competitor and herding instructor. She was a dog with a job, and solved some problems out there. Kate was something to aspire to. Right now I just hoped my dog would circle without barking. Small steps.
After Kate's lesson was done, Gibson was going back into the pen with me instead of Barb. She handed me the light plastic paddle (imagine a boat paddle if it was created for wiffle ball) and told me to circle the pen with him till he was looking interested and would be able to go around them. Within moments I was spinning in circles, dizzy as hell, trying to not trip over the two ewes and keep Gibson from biting wool as he herded all three of us. As his teeth got a little closer to nipping, I whacked him on the head with the plastic paddle and then hollered an instant apology to Barb and Gibson. "I'm sooo sorry! I just wanted him to stop biting!" and Barb told me to chill out because Gibson didn't even notice it (which was true, the light plastic barely put a dent in his herding). But to bonk a dog on the head was not the Armata way, and I didn't want it to be mine either. Feeling like a damn fool, I went back to trying not to throw up.
In a few minutes things got much better. I was learning to walk more, and not fall into that small nauseating circle of panic. GIbson started putting his tail down, watching me, changing directions and keeping a bit more distance. I was able to take him off the long line ( a tripping hazard for a klutz like me) and work with him as a team for a moment. When he slowed down a bit Barb asked me to have him stop and lie down. I praised him like he brought me a superbowl ring.
Barb's assessment was he'd make a fine farm dog and if so inclined, a trial dog too. He was, in her eyes, a good dog for me. He wasn't too timid or too bold, controllable and interested in pleasing me above all. He certainly was driven to work and his attitude would change from panic to business in a few lessons. I was thrilled, relieved, and covered in sweat. Gibson was panting like a greyhound off the track. Two shepherds in a huff, us.
I was happy. So happy. We came this far. Years of trials and clinics on my end, a plane ride from Idaho and seven months of living on his. We were both glowing, yet he seemed changed now. He was calmer in spirit, as if after all this living he finally found the one thing he was supposed to do in the world.
Or maybe, that was my projection on the smiling, sprawled-out pup in the truck cab next to me. I sighed. I hardly think it matters, really. Gibson let out a long sigh too, and then curled up into the final leg of our road trip. He had never been so tired in his young life.
My day started at dawn with a pheasant hunt and ended with a campfire. There was apple picking, sheep herding, bird cleaning, seven hours in the truck and venison on the stove. I'm too tired to write much now, but would just like to share that Gibson did well on his first sheep herding lesson. His tail was up for most of it (a sign of play and chase, not work) but the interest was there and he had a blast. By the end of our hour he was starting to circle, change directions, and watching me with his tail down. It's in there, that's for sure. My trainer said he'd make a fine working dog and could be a trial dog. He wasn't too bold or timid, listened to me and her, and seemed to want to please me. I was so proud I talked about it at a dinner party tonight like he just made honor roll in his Waldorf class.
I'm giving away a handmade drop spindle—handcrafted in Vermont—already wound up with my hand-spun yarn from Maude (as well as extra roving). It's everything you need to learn to drop spin! My friend and fellow spinner, Andrea, made a couple of these spindles for the Wool 101 Workshop for me, and hand-stained them as well with a vintage barn-red color. They are wonderful, and they are sturdy buggers with hook attachments on both ends. With the help of Youtube, books, and spinning clubs you'll be making yarn in no time, from the mother of all miserable, old, ewes herself. I'll throw in a signed book too!
Here is how the Giveaway works: All you need to do to enter is tell a friend, coworker, stranger, anyone about Cold Antler Farm and then post who you told here in the comments section of this post. Just write who you shared CAF with and leave some sort of name I can holler at you with. You can send an email to the new guy at work who think chickens are cool, or you can write www.barnheart.com on the bathroom wall of your local Watering Hole*. A comment is randomly selected and the winner gets a mailed gift and a signed paperback of Made From Scratch. Neat!
This morning was the first in a while that I didn't have to start my day in a rain slicker. I could see the stars, bright above, as I fed the animals. There's a small cluster of stars off to the righ of Orion, Taurus I think. I'm not much for astrology, I know nothing of it really. But I have always been drawn to those stars. They really pull me in, stick out to me among all the rest.
But yes, the dry morning! It was a nice, calm, change for the better. I love rain, I do, but was growing tired of the dampness. Time for some cool, crisp, days ahead this weekend.
The chickens are eating their eggs again, this happens from time to time. Usually because something sets them off into the habit. Either an egg cracks or is forgotten about and the fugitive hen pecks it, or food outside is growing slim as it gets colder and they need more to forage for. Today I'll set out a sacrificial pie pumpkin and let them eat it to pieces below their favorite nest. I hope it works. Few things are as gross as reaching for fresh eggs and coming back with slimy yellow hands.
While the rain started to fall, the Daughton Family and I struggled to lift the 200+ pound calf into the back of their blue-tarp-lined Suburban. Myself, Tim, and their sons got a good deal of mud on our shirts and shoes loading that big boy into his taxi. I waved them goodbye as I re-latched the paddock fence and let out a rainy sigh. My life as a cattle rancher is temporarily suspended. Maybe some day down the road I'll raise a steer or two for the freezer but right now my mind's on the mutton. Tasty is on the road home to their farm in White Creek, and I am back in the ovine business.
Eat Lamb. Wear Wool. That's my slogan.
Soon I'll be back to three sheep again, and they will be joined my five more ewes in a few weeks after that. This weekend Gibson and I will be able to see them again, down at Taravale Farm in Esperance. That's where his lesson will be, and I am personally satisfied knowing his first ever time working with sheep will be Scottish Blackface: the future breed of Cold Antler. These hardy hill sheep from the highlands are great meat and wool animals and easy lambers . They forage well, and are used to climbing hillsides very much like the slopes of my small farm. Gibson will be set loose on a lead and we'll see what he does once he's alone with his charges. I hope he does some sort of round-circling, but he might chase them, bite wool, or just sit next to me bored. There's always a chance your collie won't work, though I have a hunch he'll do just fine. His breeding is true. His eyes and stalking like something out of CSI reruns.
Saturday night there's a bonfire at a friends Chrissy and Tyler's house. We'll be celebrating a day of apple picking and talking about Sunday's big adventure: my first ever cider pressing. Tyler, James, and myself will be joining our friend Dave (fiddle and antique press owner/operator) to make some hard cider down near White Creek. Talk about a fine fall weekend. I'm beside myself!
Though not all is pristine around here. I had to drop a ridiculous amount of money on the truck today (well, ridiculous to me) to repair a ball joint, axle, and get a pair of snow tires on the back incase we get caught in poor weather. While it stunk dropping hundreds of dollars on the Ford, I am very happy to report it's no longer dangerous to drive it (there was a chance of a wheel falling off...). We'll be ready for the road trip to Esperance, and maybe even stop at Sharon Springs if the weather is nice and we have the time. I'd like to see the town I've been watching on the Beekman Boys and buy a bar of soap.
And, speaking of Sharon Springs. If you'd like to see photos from the weekend my friend Sara was up here: you can click here. She stopped by the farm, Beekman 1802, and Cooperstown and there are photos galore of everything from my kitchen counter book piles, to throwing bales of hay to the truck at Nelson's Farm. Also some shots from our picnic at Riding Right Farm in South Cambridge, where I take my riding lessons. (I adore that place.) Enjoy!
Someone recently pointed out in the comments that ten months ago I was in such a scary place. I was anxious and confused—unsure of where my life would lead me and what the fate of Cold Antler would become. When I came home after last Thanksgiving vacation to a note on the cabin door warning me that my days were numbered...my life changed forever. I can still feel that empty spot in the corner of my gut. A few weeks later I received my official Notice to Quit and the countdown to find a new home was ticking like a bomb.
Today I look around the Jackson Farm and am so grateful for that note. I am happy I saved it. Hell, I plan on framing it. It's the reason these six and a half acres are mine. It's the reason I forced myself to buy. It's why lambs will be born on this ground for the first time in generations. It's how I was able to grow up. It's a puppy and riding lesson. It's a garden and a truck. It's home.
Now the only one posting notes on the door is me.
Looking back, it is unbelievable the circumstances and luck that had to happen to make me a freeholder. An eviction, a random USDA program, a desperate/retired couple who wanted to skip down and were willing to drop the price. The luck of a friendly and willing mortgage broker, a kind and loyal realtor, a new state, a fresh start. It all happened less than a year ago and that time as flown by so fast I am barely keeping up at my own clip. Today I was going over plans for the sheep's new pole barn we'll be raising in the next few weekends before the weather starts to turn. I know exactly what I need to buy, build, and with the help of some friends and power tools: we'll raise that shelter. I have a little red barn full of hay and getting fuller. If my posts this month seem shorter, or far-between, it is because I am preparing this new farm for its first winter and for the new soon-to-be mothers arriving later this year. Five Scottish Blackface ewes will be delivered, pregnant, to CAF's new fenced pasture and hillside. Gibson will have a few months of training under his belt and possibly even help gather them in from winter snows and for grain feeding and hoof-trimming.
I'm taking a break from the blueprints, lists, and lessons to say thank you for coming along with me. Thank you for helping with advice, phone calls, donations, and support. Thank you for building these fences, coming to visit, or writing me emails and comments. Even if I can't write back, know it's not about anything more than a wild life in a tame world and farm that wins over email 99% of the time.
A lot more to come. Tonight, just some tea. Thank you again for checking in and keeping up. photo by sara stell
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