Tuesday, January 11, 2011

good news and bad news

My day started with an exciting trip into Manchester, Vermont for a visit to a local NPR studio. Lynne Rosseto Kasper of the Splendid Table was calling into the station to interview me about keeping backyard chickens and how to deal with tough roosters. I had never been in a real radio booth before, and just sitting there with my headphones and the giant poofy microphone made me feel all sorts of special. It was a quick half hour, and I think it went well! The segment will air in two weeks, and hopefully spread the gospel of backyard chickens to the foodie masses. Before I said goodbye I gushed at Lynne about how much I loved her show. I really do. I've been listening for years. Falling in love with cooking is a side-product of growing and raising your own food. Cooking is a celebration. I am damn Mummer.

My day ended however, in a transmission shop. The Subaru is dead. The transmission is at a point where replacing it would cost about $3,500 and I don't even think the old girl is worth that much anymore, certainly not after what I put her through. Even if I wanted to replace her for sentimental reasons, I can't afford to. It was a hard blow to this small farm. It's the only four-wheel drive vehicle I have—and while I am damn lucky to have the pickup here to remain the lone workhorse—it's not a snow car. The Ranger just can't handle ice or any road covering beyond a dusting. Hell, I got it stuck in wet grass. To really frost the cake, they are calling for up to ten inches by tomorrow afternoon, starting late tonight. Most of it dumping in hard storm surges that make driving up a narrow, winding, mountain road in a light, 4 cylinder, 2WD pickup near impossible. All I can do is put weight in the back and hope the studded snow tires do their very best after the roads are cleared. Ugh. The sad reality is I need to sell the Subaru and find a replacement 4WD something. If anyone has a lead on an F-150, let me know.

I can't even really think about it tonight. It's too much. I know it's certainly not the end of the world, but It is times like this when I really wish I had a partner. When you're a team you simply figure things out. When you're alone you have to stress through it, become a burden to your coworkers, and lose sleep tossing and turning over the solution. There's no one to decompress with, or talk through it, or tell you things are going to be okay. On a new farm: 99% of the daily effort is based on convincing yourself that is true.

Monday, January 10, 2011

goose bread

I made the sweetest, flakiest, sugar-coated bread this weekend and wanted to share the recipe. It came out perfectly, and it was one of those happy miracles amateur cooks come across among the many flops of an educational kitchen: but this, this bread was heavenly. I made some flourishes and variations on a basic farm loaf recipe and added a secret ingredient...goose.

Well, a goose egg that is.

Goose Bread

You'll need:
Good Flour
Room Temperature Butter
Goose Egg (can substitute one and a half chicken eggs)
cake pan (or cast-iron skillet)
large baking bowl
large saucepan of water

Start your bread by placing a teaspoon of dry active yeast into a bowl, and cover it with about a tablespoon of good honey. Then add about a cup of hot water (like as hot as your tap will go) and using a whisk—quickly mix together the honey, hot water, and yeast into a dirty, frothy, water that looks cloudy and useless. Then set it aside and come back in about 5 or 10 minutes to see what's come of it. If you have a frothy head of yeast foam; then your yeast was fresh enough and your water was hot enough. If you just have the same exact dirty water your bread probably won't rise and be hard as a brick. (Try again with hotter (non boiling) water and fresher yeast.)

But if you got the frothy goodness...
Crack your goose egg and whisk that in as well. (I add about a 1/4 cup of sugar at this point too) and about a 1/2 cup of flour. This is my starter. What you should get is a wet porridge of yellowy goodness. Add half a cup of flour at a time and mix/knead it in to thicken it up to the point where you can start kneading on a table top. You want a firm dough that still remains a little sticky. (You can sprinkle flour on your counter while you knead to keep it from messing up your table and to keep it intact.)

When your dough has been well kneaded (about 5 minutes of good arm working out), take some soft butter into your clean hands and literally rub your hands together like it came with a Jergens label on it. Then use that soft butter and massage it into and around your dough, really give it a coating like you're repairing cracked skin. Cover the thing in a film of real butter and let it set to rise in a clean bow with a damp cloth covering it. It needs at least two hours (egg breads rise slower, the dough has to work more) in a comfortable, undisturbed place.

When it's doubled in size you're ready to punch it down and knead it back into its original shape. When you got all the air out, break it into three balls, coat them with some fresh flour (as to make them less sticky) and roll them into long snakes of dough with your hands. (You want them fairly skinny, like as thick as your thumb.) Take all three snakes and braid them now. Make them into a long, beautiful, horse-tail braid and then coil that braid around itself so you have a gorgeous knotted circle. Make sure you really seal the ends and bottom by pinching the dough together so it is really connected and won't break apart while it bakes.) Now place your pretty dough into a buttered cake pan (or better yet, cast-iron skillet). Set it aside for another two hours to rise again. You want the skin to get a little hard to the touch, almost stale. that's when you know you're ready to make magic happen.

Next you'll get some water to boil over your stove. When it's bubbling, take your small circle loaf and carefully place it into the boiling water (like you would with a bagel) for about half a minute, and then flip it back over. Set it on a clean dish towel to air dry and then brush it with melted butter. Before the butter gets a chance to dry too, gently sprinkled sugar on top. (If you sprinkle from about ten inches above it your sugar will fall over your crust more evenly). Place it back into your greased up skillet and bake for about 25 minutes at 360. When it is a healthy brown take it right out of the oven, free it from its pan, and set it to air on a rack or towel. Eat with real butter. Smile like the happy beast you are and take a bite.

Goose Bread. Hot damn, it's the next big thing.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

is there anything more beautiful?

Friday, January 7, 2011

updates from the stormfront

It's snowing pretty steady out there, the farm is gently buckling under the new weight. I came home from work thrilled at the forecast and my plans, which tonight meant firing up the wood stove, feeding everything that clucks, honks, barks oinks, and bleats and then retiring in for an evening the way only people in the middle of nowhere with Hoof-n-Heel in their cabinets can. I am telling you there is a different kind of peace of mind for the people who tend animals in a winter storm. You come inside from the cold and shed your layers, get a hot cup of tea, and sit down with movie or book knowing that the ones under your care are sheltered, fed, and calm. It infuses you, takes a regular snow squall and turns it into a nostalgia you drink in the present.

The peas in the kitchen are shooting up a good inch, and the goose is now sitting on seven eggs. The hens however have stopped laying save for one Rhode Island Red and one Leghorn, and I am lucky if I can find their egg in the dark barn at night. No signs of bunnies yet, but the Palomino doe is making a fur nest. I'll add more fresh hay tonight just in case. Pig is getting fat in new ways, growing even bigger jowls on her head, which is now the size of a basketball. In preparation for the big day I bought a chest freezer off Craigslist (used but in great shape) and look forward to filling all 6.9 cubic feet up in a few weeks. It gets delivered tomorrow from the guy who plows snow in Cambridge.

I ordered 84 chickens tonight off Murray McMurray. Just a few layers and ten meat birds for myself and the rest are for the Chicken 101 workshops (only four spots left, three in meat birds) and coworkers who added their orders onto mine. I decided to get Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, and Ameraucanas for the workshop since those are the birds featured in Chick Days and I thought it would be a fine treat to have a perfect comparison for the new hen mothers (and fathers).

And I have a bit of news for you, The Splendid Table will be interviewing me about backyard chickens for their weekly radio show, and I am thrilled. This is one of the three radio shows I can't miss on the weekends: and to be on it is almost surreal. I need to drive to a radio station in Manchester Vermont to record the half-hour conversation but how fantastic to get the word out about homegrown backyard eggs. Who knows, it might even inspire a random weekend listener to check out the blog or start looking up coop plans online. All the power to them. Chickens are a pleasant addiction.

the story of a stick

When I came home to the farm yesterday I discovered a tall, skinny, box propped up against the red door. I knew exactly what it was and (to my recent memory) had not been that excited to rip through cardboard in a very long time. What lay under all that paper and tape was something I had wanted since I saw my first sheepdog trial years ago: a proper shepherd's crook. I have a simulacrum of sorts: a very cheap wooden livestock staff I bought for twelve dollars online, and it does the job of helping me sort through animals and guide gibson in training....but it's a clunky. heavy, ugly thing. It's nothing like the beautiful crooks you see at big trials, the horn and wood artifacts held like scepters among the serious competitors aside their mythical dogs. A good crook is a piece of art, and after three years of living with sheep I was about to have one my very own, Cold Antler style.

Inside the box was a handmade stick of hazel with a curved antler top and ram's horn inlay. And It wasn't just any antler either....this was a special item of my own with a story just like mine—and now the story was completed in the form of an avatar for my own manifarmdestiny. or to put it plainly: I held a dream in the shape of a stick.

See, that antler on the top was bought nearly a decade ago at a festival in Pennsylvania. It decorated my college dorms, and traveled with me on the dash when I moved to Tennessee. It held no real purpose other than I liked it. And that gut attraction to it's curve and strength kept it around. I tied it to some straps of leather and it hung from the rear-view window of my Subaru for a while in Idaho, and when I moved to vermont it had a spot on my bookshelf. Like me, it found itself in places unexpected, always a part of a larger story it had yet to understand. And when a crook-crafting shepherd in Virginia asked me if I had any antlers lying around I'd like to turn into a stick....I knew this was the one I'd send.

I had been sending emails back-and-forth with a shepherd in the Shenandoah Valley I had met online. His name was Daniel King, a dog and sheep man in Virginia. (We shared acquaintances of members in my local working border collie club.) He works his staff of border collies to manage a large flock of hair sheep onQuiet Acres Farm. Together with his wife Sylvia they produce quality grass-fed lamb for their community. So the Kings are a couple living my dream.

Somehow in the transaction of stories and dog talk we struck a barter. I'd send him some signed books and he'd fashion me a proper herding stick, something that matched my farm and personality. The staff in the picture above was his gift to Cold Antler. It is so beautiful, rich and vivid as a prop on a movie set. The natural curve of the antler makes a nearly perfect crook-shape. It will know lambs, and woods, and long walks with my dogs. There is Gibson with it. Over the years he'll learn that when I grab this stick, it's time to get to work. After a while of such association he'll love it as much as I do.

The antler was mailed to Daniel a few weeks ago. There he bleached, filed, cut, carved and stained this beautiful staff. You can see a photographic essay of its creation here. (He said he'd add captions to explain the process eventually), maybe this is something some of you craftier gents and ladies out there might be able to make yourself?

I'll someday walk out onto the Novice Trial field with this stick, Gibson by my side. I'll stand at the post and look down at my silly dog and send him away to the flock. He'll dart up that hill and leave me standing with my hazel and horn in old faded jeans, high rubber boots, and a waxed cotton jacket. A statue from another slice of history. I look forward to the time travel.

a proper stick

Thursday, January 6, 2011

godspeed the plow

Though the wealthy and great
Live in splendor and state
I envy them not, I declare it
For I grow my own hams
My own ewes, my own lambs
And I shear my own fleece and I wear it

By plowing and sowing
By reaping and mowing
All nature provides me with plenty
With a cellar well stored
And a bountiful board
And my garden affords every dainty

For here I am king
I can dance, drink and sing
Let no one approach as a stranger
I'll hunt when it's quiet
Come on, let us try it
Dull thinking drives anyone crazy

I have lawns, I have bowers
I have fruits, I have flowers
And the lark is my morning alarmer
So all farmers now
Here's Godspeed the plow
Long life and success to the farmer

-Agrarian Folk Song

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

warm and dry

I think Muck's Muckmaster boots are the greatest thing to happen to agriculture since the steel plow.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

much ahead

A calm night here at the farm. Highlights after work included such fantasies of wonder as mending a pair of jeans and washing the swine's water bucket... But don't be fooled, because everything is in an underground state of transition. Animal farms slow down a bit come winter, but comas don't mean death, son. No no, this place is just at a resting heart rate. The days are slowly creeping into light and the farm is lazily writhing back to life along with it at a steady clump.

Life and death are square dancing here. The one remaining doe in the rabbitry is preparing a nest for possible kindling any night. The goose is sitting on five eggs now, and if all goes as planned by the time the folks arrive here for the Chicken 101 workshops there will be goslings and bunnies to meet as well and discuss. Along with all this new life that will shake up this farm in just a few week—I am calling local groceries and kitchen supply stores to get the right wrapping paper, bags, and marking pens Vicki requires for her work here on Pig's harvest day. I'm also flipping through the hatchery and seed catalogs to plan a modest harvest of meat and eggs, along with the stack of sheep books by my bedside to study up on lambing. Good god, there will be a lot of noise around here come May...

I can not wait to look out my office window and see a pack of lambs running up and down the hillside. In my head Blackface lambs look more like muppet monsters: all shag and tiny horns and weird splotchy faces. What a sight that will be after this heavy winter! And they want more soon, too. A storm is in the works, perhaps this weekend. Let it snow I say, I have hives and hens to think about. And a happy little memoir about love on a farm that makes it seem almost possible, and I giggle like a 14-year-old when I read it.

And yet, amongst the kingdom of the animals is a little container in my kitchen of sprouting snap peas. A tiny triumph in a Cabot yogurt container. I was so happy to see the first peaking green that I learned a new fiddle tune (Rye Whiskey) to welcome them into the world. I set them down in front of the music book and played to a pot of sprouts. I held a benefit concert for a future day spent shelling peas barefoot by a banjo. Damn, it felt good to learn a new song. I play that devil box nearly every day but always the same favorites. It felt good to be a student again, try something new. Or new to me rather: since all my songs are old time tunes from ages ago. Which is what I prefer. It's how I know it's a good old one—cured by generations of other fools in their planting kitchens.

Much ahead. Much more already here.

Monday, January 3, 2011

january 22nd

Just got off the phone with the butcher. A woman by the name of Vicki Frost, who lives in Northern Vermont will be coming to Cold Antler to not only slaughter the pig, but teach me every step of the process and wrap and prepare the meat on site. This will happen on January 22nd, just a few weeks from now.

Choosing a traveling butcher was important to me. It meant that Pig didn't have to go through the stress of being loaded in a trailer, held in a holding pen, confused and worried about how her world changed. While I understand the importance of a good slaughterhouse and the services they render, for just one pig it seemed like a big fuss. Instead the pig will die here in the place she has lived since she fit in a dog crate. Mrs. Frost will kill the pig with a single bullet from a rifle the animal will never see, and then together we'll hang and prepare the animal for the freezer. A station will be set outside with a santized table for the butcher work and another for wrapping. I was given a list of supplies and preparations, all very professional on Vicki's behalf. She's been doing this for over forty years and wants things to be as painless, respectful, and pleasant for all involved as possible. She's also excited I think to spend a day teaching. I'm happy to be her student.

So a big day isn't too far ahead.
A lot to prepare for, in more ways than one.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

the most peculiar thing

So I'm at my kitchen sink. I'm doing dishes from my evening meal and listening to a Michael Pollan lecture at Google on Youtube. The leftovers have been packed up into the fridge for lunch. The coffee pot is loaded for 4:45 AM, and resting on the burner that just moments before held a pot of brown rice. The dogs are mumbling and shuffling about in the living room, going about dog business of the highest order. And I, I am scrubbing a small cast iron skillet I had scrambled a single Tamari-soaked egg in. There's a freshly baked pie aside me while I'm doing this, all this dishwashing and Michael Pollan listening, and it smells amazing. I made it that afternoon in case some guests stopped by that told me they'd try and show up. For some reason they didn't. So my tomorrow my coworkers will get some charitable pie to start their week with. Everything is perfectly mundane, could not be a more normal Sunday night.

And then I am hit with this wave of happiness. That is the only way I can describe it. I have to stop racking the rinsed dishes, put down my scrubber, and just kinda hold on to the edge of the sink. It's not like it was some mental orgasm or epileptic fit, just a simple lack of complaint. I couldn't stop myself from smiling. From feeling warm. And a few moments into it I realized it wasn't happiness exactly I was feeling, but gratitude. I was washing dishes and for whatever reason this bright fog of gratitude scooped me up. The weird part was it wasn't a feeling of thankfulness for tonight, but for the nights ahead. What I was experiencing was this deep, earth-shaking thankfulness for my big dreams. For lambs, for the farm life, for the books I haven't written, the man I haven't met, the meals I hadn't shared, the family I had yet to start. I was, for some reason, grateful for a life I didn't even know yet. It was the most peculiar thing.

I don't know what brought it on, but it was an amazing feeling. I wish I had better adjectives to describe it. It taught me this much though: I don't think it is possible to be truly happy unless you are deeply grateful. You need to meet every day on your knees in thanks for what you already have, and when you start a day feeling that way you can't possibly not find more things to be thankful for. Some how, this practice found a way to mutate inside me on it's own. It welled out of me, at this banal moment, as something so profound I can only call it grace.

I am not writing this as a girl living out a dream life, trying to tell a bunch of strangers about how happy she was doing her housework in her kitchen. My life is far from ideal, despite all the things you see on the web here, it is still a human life. There are things I would never share, or write about, or want to repeat and like all people tasked with a certain level of self-awareness—I am also haunted by mistakes and regrets, pain and heartbreak, sorrow and anxiety.

But why the hell should I focus on that?

What happened tonight, what just happened, what made me run and type here like this at my desk: it was a need to share this idea of gratefulness. I think it's the best feeling in the world. It's why I miss you is so much stronger than I love you. Gratitude is old and forever. It's the constant soil from which anything and everything we desire to make us happy comes from. Without it, all those things we pray for: money, relationships, farms, chicken coops: are fleeting highs of adrenal. But if you see the world with eyes with that soil in your crow's feet, the simplest things make you buckle from drive by grace. Sometimes when you least expect it.

Life is messy. So is farming. And I think the combination is the world's perfect fertilizer to grow a Jenna in.

Thank you for reading this.

what are you reading?

I'm reading The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball. It was a recommendation from a reader here, and very appreciated. So far it's been funny, bright, and warm. It's about two people living a life that I'm fairly certain is my exact definition of heaven: love on a draft-horse powered northern farm. Their impressive full-service, all-year, CSA ($2,900 a share!) feeds a hundred people everything from apples to bacon. Together this is their whole life, and while I am just a few chapters in I find myself relating so much to Kristin. She starts out the book in New York City but she gives in to her barnheart hard. She meets this knight in hay-strewn armor and so begins what I think is a true fairy tale. This is the story of the writer-turned-farmer, her man, and their land. Can't wait to get back to it...

In the comments section I'll add some other reading picks for winter, but I am more interested in what you guys have on your night stands and what books (farming related or not) are inspiring, warm, entertaining, and think others here would enjoy? Murder mysteries to how-to pamphlets know welcome here.

a january spring lesson

I could not pass yesterday up. The combination of mild weather (nearly 50 degrees!), melting snow, safe roads, and a Border Collie in training meant I would make the drive to Denise Leonard's Farm for a mid-wnter herding jaunt. For practical reasons I have slowed down Gibson's schooling (mostly to save money). But hell, sometimes you need to break your own rules when the logic of reality steps in. It was the perfect day for a lesson, the kind of day that won't show up again until April. A gift horse combination of circumstances that was worth dipping into the savings for. And anyone who trains animals knows you need to keep the dogs (and sheep) in the practice of work. Keep minds thinking, legs moving, and my heart rate up. So I packed up the Subaru and before dawn on the first day of the new yea—my pup and I were off to learn how to be shepherds.

In this video you can see how the lesson started. Gibson chases in circles, and Denise asks if this is how he acted when I let him herd at my own farm. Yup. At the end of the video she walks up to him smacking a training stick on the ground at him, but don't fret. The stick isn't used to hit dogs. It's used to smack on the ground next to them, or guide them, or block them, or pretty much make it clear that in this team the handler is the one holding the big stick. I love her admonishment "get out of it" which means "knock it off, jerk" and I now say it all the time. Usually when I am in a rut, bad mood, or acting foolish.

What a difference a few months make! The break from the sheep let him grow up a bit, calm down. He did so well at 10 months compared to his frantic first encounters as a seen-month-old. He was still a little wound to start (he always is), but his frenzy died so much sooner than last time. Within minutes his tail was down, his head low..and while he wasn't perfect, he was starting to look and act like a proper sheepdog.

And I was starting to look like a proper handler. I too need to learn how to move with ovines and canines in this crazy dance. I need to know what Gibson is doing and if it's right or wrong. You learn as much as you can from book charts and videos...but when it comes to the ordered chaos of the training pen most of that leaves my head and it's the voice of Denise, the training staff, and the lambs that I have to teach me.

As the lesson went on he was calmer, balancing the sheep with me, and laying down and stopping on command. By the end of the lesson we were working on a fence line, far outside the pen in Denise's upper field—and while it was a long way from the trial ribbons—our trainer was confident that if both of us stick with our training and goals Gibson could be a fully trained working dog by the ripe old age of three. It takes a while for the new kids to catch up, but we've almost hit his firth birthday (March 16th)

The annual NEBCA (North East Border Collie Association) meeting is in Albany on the 15th. I'll be there, and possibly the youngest person attending. The fact is there just aren't a lot of people in their twenties herding sheep in New England. I wonder why that is? There are certainly a lot of sheep farms, and plenty of younger people involved in other dog sports like conformation shows, obedience, agility and tracking? You don't need a farm or sheep of your own to start, just that weird desire to wear high boots, a warm sweater, and stand by your dog with the same goal in mind.

Or maybe they think the crooks look funny?

Friday, December 31, 2010

the sheep of cold antler

the year's oldest sunrise

What a luxury to have today off, a weekday morning, here at the farm. Simple tasks like lighting the woodstove first thing, and setting about the weekend morning routine seem scandalous. Usually at this time on a Friday I am frantically swilling coffee from a travel mug as I zoom down 313 into Vermont. Right now, well, I haven't even showered yet.

I have plans to go up to the Agway in Salem later and buy some feed and warm socks—possibly start pricing materials for a modest hoop house. My midwinter mind has turned to growing things, as it tends to for all gardeners dealing with snowdrifts and seed catalogs at the same time. Hell, I planted snap peas in a yogurt container in my kitchen yesterday just to look forward to something green. The anticipation of just a few pea sprouts lights my mood and makes me miss having a banjo around here. For some reason pea sprouts and a banjos always go together for me.

This year's over. I have a lot of goals but most of them are personal. I've put so much energy into the farm this first year that my own needs have fallen to the wayside. So I started a morning and evening yoga and meditation practice again. Nothing drastic, just fifteen minutes of Zazen and a good stretch twice a day . I want to start every day able to clear my head and touch my toes. From these disciplines will come better fitness, less anxiety, and a calmer attitude towards myself: which I am sad to admit is usually discontent. My 2011 will be dedicated 100% to this farm and 110% to the farmer. She needs to heal up a bit.

All my best wishes for a grand new year.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

just pig

winter rangers

pumpkin hulseys and winter gosling

There's much going on with the feather set around here... Starting with the fancy new additions to the chicken coop. Five Pumpkin Hulseys are now in holding cages in the trapper's coop here at the farm. They were sent up from Greenfire Farms in Florida, a barter for ad space here, and I can not wait to add this heritage breed to my flock. Pumpkin Hulseys are exactly what they sound like: bright orange firecrackers of chickens. Oddly enough, scrappy birds have a history at CAF. Shortly after I moved in Sheriff Tucker from across the street informed me that the famous Jackson Cockfights were held in my barn, a raucous affair, with plenty of shady folks and flowing booze. The hillside to the stream is littered with old glass bottles from decades ago under the piles of leaves and compost. While I have no interest in watching (or hosting/condoning) rooster fights, having some birds who were once bred for that purpose is a nod to the weird and tangled history of one little farm. Here's what the Greenfire Site says about these guys:
Pumpkin Hulseys emerged over a half-century ago when a famous ‘cocker’ from Texas named E.H Hulsey was losing cockfights because his birds lacked the size and hitting power necessary to win these brutal contests. But, from a friend in Memphis he heard the story of a single, pumpkin-colored rooster that was said to possess all the traits of a perfect gamecock, housed in a large and powerful body. (Memphis—the city that gave us barbecue, Elvis, and the blues— seems forever capable of supplying things that are beautiful and at least slightly dangerous.) Mr. Hulsey traveled from the dry plains of Texas to the humid streets of Memphis, and there he secured the seed stock that would make him one of the most successful cockfighters in America for the next two decades. The pedigree of that single bird remains a mystery, but its superior genetics were to spread through thousands of birds over the next half century. As Mr. Hulsey soon learned, the offspring of this mysterious rooster grew to be skilled and aggressive fighters, and pumpkin Hulseys gained the reputation as the favored breed to use when creating powerful hybrids that were smart and fearless in the pit.

While bred for the fighting pit, perhaps ironically pumpkin Hulseys also seem better suited than any breed for true free-range farm living. They have the flying capabilities of wild birds and are strong and fearless enough to fight predators, including hawks and owls. At night they roost in the tops of tall trees, and during the day they forage while the rooster maintains a protective vigil over his flock of hens. They are gentle to humans, and if integrated into a flock at an early age, will also tolerate other roosters.

Although there are many beautiful breeds of chickens, pumpkin Hulseys may stand at the pinnacle of aesthetics in the entire poultry hierarchy. They are simply stunning. The roosters may have hackles of a golden orange color that shimmers with light, and their taut, powerful bodies are tightly encased in feathers colored the many shades of the red and yellow spectrum. They possess an unblinking confidence, and in the aggressive caste of their eyes and erect posture you are reminded of a bird of prey rather than a chicken.

So there you have it. The roots of a breed, named after my favorite squash, from my favorite state, matching my favorite season, and oddly connected to the history of this scrappy farm. Let's hope they fair well. If they do I might even try hatching a few out in a small incubator.

I had a dream last night that there were four goslings in the snow by the well. They were peeping behind their mother, Saro as Cyrus kept watch from the small rise above the well's spout. I'm sure the dream came from the nest of eggs she is currently sitting on, which I discovered in the coop last night. I had been taking stray eggs from her to bake and sell since before Thanksgiving, but decided to let her keep the rest to sit on if she chooses. It was an act of pure independence.

The last time she had a brood was on rented land, and the landlord's caretaker told me that no animals were allowed to be bred or added to the property, so the goslings had to go. They were carted off to a friend's farm in Shaftsbury, then sold to other farms. If Saro does manage to hatch another set of goslings, then I will bring them in from the snow into warm brooder boxes, keep one or two, and sell the others to nearby farms. Toulouse Geese are regal beings, and I have learned since acquiring my original two how entertaining and useful they truly are. They keep watch and alert of you any strange goings on instantly, they create down and meat (though I could never eat these guys at this point), and they are great foragers, weeders, and slapstick comedians when they aren't acting like they're better than me. Fine animals all around. I highly recommend them if you want to laugh and feel judged at the same time.

photo from backyardchickens.com

just start


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

a modest profession

There's a viable career path out there that just isn't getting the attention it deserves. It's not for everyone, of course, but for people with the right amount of drive and wit: it's the only way to go. It's got all the perks of the best corporate offices: amazing window views, a dependable workforce, a great gym, marketing and sales opportunities galore and the best part: you can eat your coworkers' children. You just can pull that shit off at the Googleplex.

It's shepherding, darling, and contrary to popular belief there's still a paycheck to be made with a dog at your side and crook in your hand. While some might think this has been a dead vocation since, I don't know, the Bronze Age—there's actually a living to be made raising sheep. You can take your pick how. You want to raise lamb chops? Go ahead. Prefer to raise sweaters? You can do that too. Maybe you want to sell authentic Ricotta, lanolin skin products, or shearling boots and coats? Well, you can do those all in spades, son. And if none of this suits you, well, then raise lambs for other farmers so they can. There's no glass ceiling when the walls are electric netting.

A sheep is a noble animal, probably the perfect small-farm livestock. I always say this, but that's because I really mean it folks. Sheep give us wool, yes, but they also manage to give us meat, milk, lanolin, landscaping, lambs, rugs, cheese, leather, fleeces, horns, buttons, entertainment, ambiance and Border Collies. They are better behaved than goats, and less dangerous than cattle and hogs. One person with a good dog can manage a whole flock with a few commands or whistle blows. I ask you, with all these products and processes how could one not succeed if they truly gave it their all?

So that's what I'm doing here. Cold Antler Farm is a mix of many different species and projects: but the keystone of the whole arc (ark?) is 100% ovine. I raise sheep because my region, my personality, and my desire to be outside can all marry with the aid of these beasts. And I want to be outside with them, so much.

I want to knit their yarn, deliver their lambs, host farm dinners, and shear their raw wool. I want to learn how to train and work with my business partner, the Border Collie, so someday long from now I can breed and train my own dog on my own land and raise him up under the supervision of wiser dogs. I want to know what it's like to feed a pregnant ewe in winter, help her raise her lambs all spring, watch them gambol and grow all the long summer, and learn to say goodbye in the fall. I want to thank them with October bonfires warmed by thick wool sweaters and hard cider from the trees they shared with me. I want them to show me how to be a proper person. One who knows how to be quiet, and still, and not make a fuss or need to escape all the time. There is so much to learn from the Zen that is shepherding with a hungry mind. Call it a pipedream if you must. No offense taken here. I find both pipes and dreams useful objects in a life worth reclining back into.

So on 6 and a half hilly, rough, acres in Washington County I will learn how to do all this, slowly, with many mistakes and lessons. I'll repair soil and pasture. I'll learn to breed and train. I'll figure out the fences and outbuildings, socks and sweaters: all of it. This is my work and my dream and how blessed it is to have those two nouns together form the beautiful verb FARM. Whatever sacrifices or struggles arise I'll meet them the way a proper sheepdog does, with a steady glare, ears back, and head low. (I am learning how to be a better person by watching superior animals work with all their heart.)

I want to do this for the rest of my life. I know won't get wealthy. I know won't travel far. I know might do it alone indefinitely. I know I might fail. I know I'll get hurt. I know it's all an emotional and social gamble. That's all okay.

Not taking up this line of work, isn't.

her name is...


Just, Pig.

And Kathleen, you are the winner for offering that suggestion first and simplest. Though I did love (and consider) Hazel, Petunia, Natalie Porkman, Portia, and Sue). Email me Kathleen so I can send you a signed copy of Chick Days! And thank you to all who entered!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

chickens 101 workshops on the farm! *DATE CHANGES*

I plan on hosting Chickens 101 Workshops here at the farm in March and June. Two will be dedicated to raising chicks for eggs, and one will be about small-scale meat production.

Breakfast in the Backyard
Sunday March 6th and Saturday 12th 2011

This is crash course in how to raise backyard chickens for beginners, and get this, it comes with chickens All people who sign up for the all-day workshop will go home with three heirloom laying chicks and a copy of my beginner's book: Chick Days. You'll go home with your new birds and everything you need to know to raise them right. This is a great opportunity for people who just need that friendly push to take the plunge into the poultry world. No experience with chickens needed to attend, and I am confident anyone leaving CAF that day will go home with confidence that they can raise their peeps to laying hens come fall.

The workshop will start at 10AM and include a brunch spread, coffee, and juice and start with group intros and lecture on how I came into birds and how they changed me into the farmer I am starting to become. There will be a tour of the coop and farm and more discussions on housing, healthcare, and a Q&A period as well. I would also like to host a group discussion about the importance of self-reliance and the first steps of adding animal husbandry to our modern backyards: both for food security and local production. It will be a day of like minds, baby chickens, farm animals, and probably a fiddle tune or two.

BBQ in the Backyard
June 4th 2011

I will also do a workshop on small-scale meat bird production if there is an interest (which will not include a Chick Days book, but will include 5 meat birds to take home and raise for your table.) This all day events (also 10-4 with food and refreshments) will include lecture, and instruction in home processing with a live demonstation. You'll go home knowing exactly which boning knife to buy at the kitchen store and my secret leg loop trick for hanging fowl by their feet without a fuss. All the basics of raising backyard meat will be covered, but the bulk of the day will be on how to safely and humanely turn animals into food. (Trust me, I am an expert on the SAFE part after last summer's lesson). This will take place on the farm in on June 4th.

All workshops are limited to ten people, and slots are filled when the workshop is paid for to secure your space. If you are interested, please email me at jenna@itsafarwalk.com

Monday, December 27, 2010

follow that farm

So if you enjoy the blog (and are a member of Google) you can follow Cold Antler Farm fairly easily. Just sign into your google account and then you'll see that fancy "Follow" sign up by the search bar. Click that and you can keep track of the goings-on here as either your online self or anonymously. Since I use the old html version of this site, I can't just plop one of those cute widgets that say "Follow Me!" and shows your pretty faces. If you aren't a Google/Blogger member you won't even see the option of follow in that top bar, so just sign in and then visit CAF. Here's to old-fashioned instructions.

name that pig

Yup. I decided to do it after all. Now several weeks into the piglife: I feel comfortable naming my bacon. This little girl needs a name and I'm asking you to make some suggestions. My favorite will become the little yorkie's new handle, and I'll mail you a signed copy of Chick Days as a thank you. To be fair, just one post per reader please.

Suggest away!

snow on the farm

the storm

I woke up with a mission. It was still dark outside, but from the lamppost light I could see that two feet of snow had drifted up against the glass doors in the living room. Just a pane of glass between my warm little house and the frozen tundra. I pulled a sweater over my head and walked to the front window, taking in the scene. About 18 inches of new snow had fallen, and was still falling hard. There was a loud wind, really loud. My home sits on the down slope of a small mountain and when the wind blows down you hear it before you feel it. Before I went outside to take on the weather I fired up the wood stove again, and put on a pot of coffee. Then I bundled up to take the dogs out and start shoveling.

I walked out with all my armor on. Carhartt coveralls, waterproof boots, wool socks, rabbit fur hat, ski parka and gloves. I looked up to the sheep sheds and not a sheep was outside their snowless caves. I couldn't blame them. I turned up my ipod and listened to an audiobook while I got to work. I started shoveling the drive, one scoop at a time and within forty-five minutes managed to free the car and move about a 1/4 of the snow off to the sides of fifteen feet of driveway (another 20 to the road, which was of course, piled with four feet of snow from street plows). I was heaving, so I decided to take a break and go inside to warm up. There is no rush, I can't rush. If I do it all at once I will burn myself out, pull my back, or cold get frostbite from a hole in a glove or boot. I have learned to do what I can in many small cuts instead of deep gashes. So, I took off my headphones and blew hot air into my gloves. White vapor came up all around my face in the 10 degree air. I watched it rise up in the blue sky and let myself get lost in the tiny meditation, that is until I heard a loud BBBBBAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH five feet behind me. I turned around and all eight sheep were at the fence gate. They must have marched down through the snow while I was lost in the work. Now I realized I had breakfast to serve, and that meant digging a path to their hay (and to them) before I went inside for my own coffee. My own break was delayed on account of eight rumens.... and fifteen minutes later they were all happily chomping through the blizzard on grass that was alive in Washington County ground in July. The wind picked up and they simply turned their wooly backed to it and kept eating. I suddenly never wanted coffee more in my life than that exact moment.

Inside I peeled off layer after layer and placed them in front of the wood stove to dry off a bit before I took on the rest of the driveway and new paths to the chickens, rabbits, and pig. I wasn't worried about the other animals. I had seen to them late last night when the first flakes started to fall and knew they had enough food and water to make it till noon if necessary. I had stapled more plastic on their windows, made sure all the chickens were in the coop or barn and shut the door tight. I was in no rush to free them either, since I knew the birds wouldn't leave the coop even if the door was wide open in this. Chickens aren't interested in reenacting the last scene of the Shining.

Storms like these stop a normal life. Schools are closed, offices shut down, and single people with day jobs and farms need to call in "snow." I had already spoke to my boss the night before explaining the amount of work that went into digging out the paths, animals, driveway and such. She told me to take off the entire day if I needed it, and I just might. People around here know that sometimes you just can't get into work when weather hits. Sometimes it's a fallen tree in your driveway, or lost power, or in this case: snowed in animals and everyone seems to understand the occasional necessary luxury of not going into the office when roads are closed. It's not even eight o'clock and the farm is just starting to get free of the snow and more is coming today, another 3-6 inches by noon. I'm going to fuel up on coffee and oatmeal and then head back out for round two: operation driveway. Hopefully this time when I stop shoveling for a break the pig won't be behind me wearing a bib and holding a knife and fork...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

home from home

I'm back at the farm and mighty tired. After a long weekend of family and friends I packed up the car last night and headed north at dawn to be back at Cold Antler before the storm hit. Tonight they are calling for some serious snow: up to a foot with more in higher elevations. Right now it's dark as sin out there and the wind is picking up but not a single flake has fallen. I'm a little nervous about the old barn roof, my touchy furnace, and knowing the stone-cold fact that my entire morning will be dedicated to shoveling paths to the animals, hay, and water so that the place can function at near-normal levels. It's what we sign up for out here. I shovel with gusto.

I'm slowly catching up on emails (or trying), cooking dinner, and getting myself and the farm ready for the new year. I have some big goals (for me and this farm), and I'm dedicated to making sure I give them my all. Starting with getting more sleep, which I will see to by getting to bed a little earlier. Farmers do not watch Conan. It's a sad truth behind the label of pastured bacon.

I hope you all had a fine holiday, and if you live anywhere around these parts: prep the coffee pot tonight. You'll be grateful in the morning.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

happy and merry!

It's finally Christmas, and I am packing up the presents, dogs, and homebrew for a short vacation back in Pennsylvania to be with my family. Thanks to the goodness of the Daughton Family, I have secured some serious farmsitters and will be able to enjoy this holiday with my mother and father, brother and sister, and all 5 dogs (there are already two canine cousins waiting to meet us in Palmerton!). I'm excited for the road trip, too. It's been year since I've hit the highway, drank Starbucks (the Peppermint Mocha is a guilty pleasure), or truly strayed far from my land. This weekend will be the first time I haven't spent the night at my farm since I bought it. But the firewood will be stacked if it's needed, and the animals have their feeding rounds and heated buckets, and I feel good about this Holiday. It feels good to go home.

Also, I might be taking a short vacation from the blog as well, since this will be family time dedicated to doing nothing in particular besides talking, eating, drinking and laughing—and so the computer will be shut off or shut down. But I will be back Sunday, and writing up a storm. I just wanted to thank everyone for your readership and support and wish everyone out there a Happy Holiday! Stay safe, stay warm, and don't be afraid to hug a sheep.

Here's to 2011!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

there is no way i'm missing this

Monday, December 20, 2010

maude at the gate

secret missions

There was a big vanilla sheet cake in the break room around 4 this afternoon. I checked to make sure no one was coming down the hall, and then wrapped up a giant piece about the size of my hand in paper towels. I stuck inside my sweater and snuck away with it like it was so sort of larceny. The cake was out for the taking of course, but not for what I had in mind. I put the paper towel wad in a plastic mailing envelope, shoved it into my messenger bag, and left the office like the secret ops smuggler that I was. I had a bounty of cake and I wasn't about to o home and binge either. I didn't want to eat it. I didn't want to save it. I didn't even want to compost it with a bucket of earthworms. I wanted to delight a pig.

And delight her I did. She nuzzled and chomped on the day-old baked good as if it was manna from heaven. Sure, I could have enjoyed the cake myself, but my own fleeting gustatory desires would have nothing on the joy I got out of watching my little girl root and lap up that frosting and yellow cake. It covered her snout and she sneezed to get it out of her nose. Then she ran ate the cake snot off she added to the feeder bin. I poured on some cracked corn and she squealed with delight. Her little curled tail wagged. Her little hooves lifted up and down. I leaned back against the stack of hay and looked at the Yorkshire shoat I was growing. She was easily as long as a Labrador now, and at least seventy pounds. In just a few weeks she doubled in size and her attitude around me has turned into a Labrador's as well. When I scratch her head she lays down in bliss and when I rub her tummy she kicks her legs the same way Gibson does when I hit a sweet spot. She's clean, tubby, generally quiet, and between the food from work and her few bags of feed: really inexpensive. So far there isn't even a hint of odor. She uses one section of the barn as a bathroom and since I cover it up with hay and wood chips, it never seems to fester. I'm actually shocked at how swell it's been going. Why doesn't everyone have one of these in the garage?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

a day at the market

The bell rang at ten on the dot, and I was still flustered. I had only left the farm an hour earlier (it is impossible to get anywhere on time when you are constantly monitoring 41 other lives) and had finished just setting up my display three minutes before the official start of the event. As soon as the bell rang money was passed and food was bagged. There was a lot of winter produce (shocking amounts), freshly baked breads, cheese, milk, soaps, meat, candles, and hand-knit goods. If I had the means (or time) I could have bought everything I needed to make pot roast, a green salad, mashed potatoes, and as many veggie sides as I wanted for dinner (not to mention rolls and dessert) from a 100% local selection. It was uplifting to see so many people producing food in the middle of winter. I was also impressed by how good it looked. Every winter squash and carrot was mouth watering. The heated greenhouses of Bennington and Washington Counties are pumping overtime!

So the market was a lot of fun even it wasn't financially successful. I didn't sell a single skein of yarn, but I did sign and sell a few books. And that managed to make enough money to cover my table, gas, and buy 100 pounds of cracked corn and chicken feed on the way home. Not bad for a first time out, certainly not a loss my any measure. Any you know what?I don't think this was the yarn crowd at all. The market seemed to cater to either the highest-end shoppers swinging by on their ski vacations for morning pastries or locals who simply ran out of carrots and wanted to get out of the house. I feel that yarn folks are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum: people looking for a certain product, not browsing. But I was happy to see my skeins were the same price as the other yarn vendor.

Someone asked why I even bother with a farmer's market when I could sell out of yarn online? My answer is simple: I want my neighbors to get to know me. I want local people who are stumbling by to say hello and learn there's a new sheep farm in town. I love and appreciate this online community, but I also want to get to know the people in my area who also share my interests and values and a warm market like this in the heart of winter is a great example to take a field trip from the farm and shake some hands. I spent the entire day talking to people with sheep histories, hearing stories from beautiful faces who grew up on sheep farms before the world changed. One European ex-pat woman named Viola told me (as she shook a skein of my yarn at my nose) to never to get married and to stay smart. Another woman told me about the cabin on her great grandfather's sheep farm with a fireplace just like little house on the prairie. A fellow who grew up with summer chickens talked about his old flock and a man who just got some pet hens bought Chick Days as a gift. And Holly, a woman with a small farm in Bennington whom I bought some birds from last summer was delighted to see the story of getting those birds in her house made page 56. It was a lovely day. I plan on returning with some of your fantastic ideas to help the booth in January. I'll have some hand-knit goods, pattern giveaways, and one of those digital frames of my best photography of the gang here. My goal for the next market: sell three skeins!

So that was why I did the market. Cold Antler Farm isn't just a new business: it's a community and a personal culture just peeping out of of the New York soil. I want it to be part of the local food and craft network and to meet people who had been doing this longer and far better. I could always come home and sell some yarn online later. So no regrets from this farmer.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

the smallest table at the market

off to market

In a little over an hour the station wagon will be packed, the animals will be fed and comfortable, the coffee will be in the travel mug, and I will be on my way to my first ever farmers market. Butterflies are swarming inide me. To put it lightly: this is a pretty big deal for this little farm.

It's a small step, but as far as statements go it is huge. Sitting at a table with a sign and a product right next to other farms doing the same thing is a right of passage. It says I too am in this, I am trying to make a living as a small farmer. I'm in the divine brotherhood of folding tables and business cards set up alongside lifelong goals, dreams, and stories about land and animals. It will be a fine way to spend a Saturday.

I don't know how well I will do. People expect heirloom root vegetables and grass fed meat to cost more than store-bought but artisinal wool is not something people are used to seeing for the same price as a large pizza. So to invite people to the table (literally) I will have a wool carding/drop spindle demo ready to go and books as well. The goal is to earn enough today to cover the table and gas money, and spend the rest of the day chatting, knitting, networking, and meeting others in the market. Wish me luck!

Friday, December 17, 2010

sal on the hill

a free lunch?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

time to slow down

It's winter, and running a farm takes more out of you. The morning chores are slower, require more layers and effort. The night rounds are tricky, slipping on ice and carrying buckets through deep snow. So to make things a little simpler, I have stopped some of the things that pull me away from this fine work and require more of my time. I'm offering these as examples for some of you in the same situation.

1. No more classes or lessons.
Riding lessons are on hold, herding lessons are on hold, workshops, classes, and anything else extracurricular are on hold till the sun comes back. It's just too much to come home on a 12 degree weeknight, rush through chores, rush to the barn, and then come home around 8 panting with still more work to do. Same for weekend herding. Now is the time to read, study, write, and stoke fires. I am in a semi-hibernation.

2. Less Shopping.
I stopped carrying a debit card or credit card with me. I carry a few bucks in case I need gas or something, and the impulse to order online is fading as well. In an effort to start truly saving for the life I want: which is to say a full time farmer and writer, I need to learn to be frugal. Which my natural tendencies lean towards anyway. I buy used, I cook at home, I don't travel, I don't have cable. I do buy a lot of books, but in a way, I consider that okay. As a writer I want people buying/borrowing/reading books.

3. Learning to entertain myself

...with my own means. A fiddle, a novel I bought but never got around to reading, another day with the Lord of the RIngs on DVD instead of renting a new flick: all of this saves on energy and time that would go into buying, renting, or doing things outside the home. While the point is to stay put, not to save money, I have learned that in my own life leaving the farm is a way to ensure I'll lose money. But staying put is a way to ensure I'll either create, fix, or tend something. I am getting to the point in my life where those three things are all that seems to matter anymore.

4. Back to (Home) School.
I've learned that farming this way, which is to say mid-life with a full-time job) means I can't stop the train and become an apprentice. But I can dedicate my time to a chapter a night of a farming book. I can take notes, get videos from the NEBCA library, sort through back issues of Countryside, Small Farmers Journal, SHEEP!, and countryside to learn this life in the academic sense. With lambs just a few months away (the earliest drop date is March 19th) it can't hurt to re-read Storey's Guide to Raising Sheep (my bible), Living with Sheep, and the Modern Shepherd. I can watch some videos and read some of the stuff for free from the NEBCA library (Like Aled Owen's Time Well Spent) and start learning more about the partnership that is me and Gibson here at CAF. I don't expect him to be truly trained until he is 2 or three years old (long learning curve on new shepherds) but that doesn't mean I can't study up. And, in no way do I mean to diminish the value of classes or extension workshops (I will take one to learn shearing this spring), but there is nothing just as valuable a book, highlighter, and spiral bound notebook and pen can't teach you if you're willing to become your own teacher.

So what do you do to cut back and slow down in winter. Is it a time of study and reading for you as well? Or is it a time of planning, seed catalogs, and phone calls?

P.S. I emailed my editor about the idea of making this blog into a book. They are considering it. But if you want to urge them forward, send a note to Storey and let them know what you want to read from me!

snow march

tent city

Flying Pig Farm is just a six mile jaunt from my front door. Being a grass farm, they move their herds of heritage hams around their vast acreage, but I personally love the spring and winter when they are near the road that leads to Cold Antler. I pulled over my car on the way home at lunch and took a picture of a small section of their vast tent city. It looks like a group of mostly Tamworths were in frame. All of them trotting about to or from the food to their shelters. It reminded me of my weekend at Bonnaroo.

the flock

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

dinner guests

the one thing

Imagine a peaceful white farm house covered with snow. Imagine the smoke swirling from the chimneys, the sheep chewing cud on the hillside, and the sun setting over the mountains in a way that turns the whole world a rich purple and navy blue. Can you see the warm yellow light of the life inside? The glow of a wood stove, and the friendly face of a dog in window? Can you picture the way the snow has covered everything in a fondant of smooth frosting? Perfect as a wedding cake? Pure as a newborn lamb?

Got that scene in your head. Great. Now, imagine a pair of loud, honking, obnoxious geese carrying on in a totally illogical crisscross of paths, leaving giant green turds on your Thomas Kindadian Doorstep. Welcome to Cold Antler Farm: where nothing is perfect as it seems.

That doesn't mean it's not perfect.

Folks write me and tell me how much this place is something they envy, or something they wish they could have. I tell them if I can do it (a single woman on the equivalent of a teacher's salary with iffy credit) then anyone can. It takes some financial juggling, a lot of help from experienced people, research, and determination, but you can certainly get a little land and some chickens if that is what you want from the world. In the greater scheme of things, it's a pretty attainable goal. But I have found far above money, or location, or determination becoming a farmer requires one thing above all.


I have been told I write far too romantically about my life here at Cold Antler. Well, darling, that's because this is a romance. I am head over heals for this place. I love it. I love it and all its many imperfections, grief, and complexities. I love the beautiful things like a snow-covered farm and I love the messy things too, like those damned geese. I even love the goose shit they paint on my front step, because a life without goose shit would mean a life without geese, which is beyond comprehension at this point. I mean, how do people without geese even know when their mail's here?

And I strongly believe loving this lifestyle—whether that means a goat in your Seattle backyard or 40 acres in Swoope, Virginia—is the the only way to be successful. And by successful I don't mean a thick wallet, I mean a life that makes you happy, surrounds you with good food, and builds community and a sense of place. If you are truly in love with the idea of producing your own food and caring for your own livestock, then it will happen because it simply has too. You won't be able to be content until you do, you'll give up what you have to give up. You'll take the leaps and risks that you need to take, and you'll sweat and work until you can't see straight or feel your hands through the calluses. You'll do it because it sustains you. Because the lack of it will become a cancer.

I still feel it—from the moment I wake up grateful to the moment I fall alseep worrying—I am twitterpated. And as long as I'm in this relationship with sheepdogs and hillsides, chickens and fresh eggs, gardens and corn rows, and hats made from backyard wool: I'm going to let that undercurrent rise up. If you're in this too, then you can only understand. And if you can;t fathom how anyone could love goose shit: then make room for the people who do. They are legion.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

waking up to winter

Monday, December 13, 2010

narnia, ny: population 1

When I was about ten I was gifted the entire Chronicles of Narnia Series for the Holidays. I still remember reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by the time I went to bed on Christmas day. I devoured it in hours. I loved the other world, and I especially loved the idea of it existing alongside the mundane. I think we all strive for that in some sense. We know there's a world we can't change, but a home we can create. For some of us it's the stuff in our backpack as we hike the entire AT, and for other's it's a little farm in Jackson.

Outside my house is one lamppost. The Millers (whom I bought the house from), had connected it to the house so I can flip it on when I get home. I never thought much about it in the summer, but now that there's a heavy snowfall coming down outside: I keep thinking of Narnia. I keep thinking if I wait outside by that snowy lamppost in the woods a fawn named Tumnus will come out of the woods and tell me something important. Or, more lightly, a horned sheep who's hungry for grain.

It's really coming down out there. In a minute I'll suit up and check on Pig, close up the chickens, and walk up to see the sheep on the hill. I want to see if they are using the shelters yet, now that there's a driving snow. I know Maude, Sal, and Joseph are in theirs, but I am curious to see if this 3-5 inches falling tonight will get the Scots in their winter quarters. I'll grab a lantern and my crook and put on a hat with earflaps. Take that, fashionistas.

This place no longer feels like a stranger's house. It took a whole spring, summer, and fall but now that winter is here and I will soon have been in this place an entire year: it feels like home. It feels like mine. I pulled in from the white-knuckled drive in white-out conditions and just instantly went to the work of caring for the place and my animals. Got pots on the stove, got a fie going, put water on for tea, saw to the animals. When you come inside from all that, eat a meal, and sit down to read on a winter night you can't help but sigh. For tonight at least I am warm, full, and surrounded by my pack of kind dogs. I'm exhausted, but it's a happy tired. And older kind of tired. The tired that we all thought went extinct before every home had a microwave and a Tivo. I love this tired. It can eat me up.

Oh, and I did eventually get a chance to play a lead character in my High School's performance of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I didn't get to be a queen or princess. I played Fenris Ulf, the wolf.

Go figure.

want some of this?

I'm selling a few skeins of wool in bundles before the farmer's market this weekend—for folks that would like to buy wool but aren't in the CSA and/or can't travel to Vermont to shop this weekend. If you are interested in knitting some of Maude's angry wool (anger keeps you extra warm, if you're curious of its inherit benefits) please email me at jenna@itsafarwalk.com for details on prices and shipping. I will warn you that entirely home-grown wool isn't cheap as storebought. Prices for bundles will cost what half a CSA share would cost since three skeins would be half a share upfront. I am only offering a few three packs so email quick and I'll package it up this week and you'll have it by Christmas!


Outside is a blustery and chilly day here in Veryork. It's freakishly warm in the high thirties. last night the temperature never dropped below 44, and I slept with a window open as the rain fell outside. It felt like April, not December. At some point in the night Gibson busted out of his crate (I have no idea how) and woke me with a wet nose and wagging tail on the edge of the bed. "Fine, darling," was all I said, half awake, and he jumped up next to me and curled up right near my chest, put a head on my shoulder, sighed, and fell promptly back to sleep. I placed a groggy hand on his head and told him he was a good boy. All was forgiven from Saturday's romp. He can't help himself. I can't help loving him.

I have never known a dog who needed to be close to me this much.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

to market, to market...

I just found out today that the board of the Walloomsac Farmers' Market of Bennington, Vermont approved my application for the winter market next Saturday! I'll be selling wool and signed books from 10-2pm on December 18th in the First Baptist Church on Main Street. Stop by and say hello if you're in the area, buy some angry wool of Maude's, or pick up a book. I'll be there (knitting, most likely) and so will other winter vendors with root vegetables, pastries, crafts, and grass-fed meats. There's plenty of local shops and restaraunts as well if you want to make a day of it. Hope to see you there!

the rookie

There was a point early Saturday morning when I was hunched over a large, upset, sheep holding her in place by the horns, panting like I just sprinted a mile. I was holding the new sheep between my knees, shearing-style, to slip on a makeshift halter. After which I slowly walked her through the snow back to the pen she had recently escaped from in a wild panic. We made our way past the dead garden (where I caught her), past the Subaru in the driveway holding a frantic, howling border collie who was ripping up the interior while I pulled one of "his" sheep away from him. All the while, I was trying not to slide or fall (again) on the slick wet snow covering the farm. Covered in sweat, heart-racing, I lead the sheep into the pasture and shut the gate. The ewe walked off to her friends who watched the whole adventure in quiet amaze. I turned around to face Gibson in the mystery machine. He stopped barking when I looked right at him, narrowing my eyes. He smiled that dog smile and wagged his tail, tongue out long enough to reach his elbows. Can we do it again, Lady? Please pleasepleasepleaseplease. He had no idea why I stopped all the fun short. I let out a long sigh, the kind that leaves a trail of smoke, grabbed my puppy out of the car and went inside. I was covered in mud, sweat, and lanolin and had not yet tasted my first cup of coffee.

One of those days, you see.

Yesterday morning was Gibson's first time with his own sheep. It didn't go as planned. I was herding under the influence, drunk on the excited of the event. I would be herding sheep today on my own farm, with my own fine dog, with my own stock. To walk out into that pasture with my collie and my crook, I felt like my heart was stitched together with wool and tweed: a hill shepherd to be. When you get glossy-eyed at 28 at the idea of a life of a sixty-year-old Scottish Farmer, you know you're in trouble.

I had selected two of the older dog-broke, Blackface ewes to work with, and had Gibson on a lead. We had been training for weeks, so I planned on doing what I did at Barb and Denise's farms, just here in the backyard. I walked up the hillside and Gibson seemed focused, but calm. When things seemed okay I let him circle the ewes, but that peaceful stride soon turned into an all-out chase. The sheep were running away from the young dog, who had no interest in hurting them but had a lot of interest in seeing who could win the race down the hill. He was right on their heels.

Oh man, was that puppy happy... Gibson was nothing but pure glee, running up and down the hill after one sheep at a time. I however, was not sharing in the euphoria. A sheepdog is supposed to be subtle, move the sheep with his eye, suggestion and what not. They can (and do),use force when needed but not on a small 1/4 acre paddock. Thinking my area wasn't that much larger than the training pen at Denise's Farm I foolishly thought I could control the situation like I did there with a trainer on hand. But this was Bedlam. Gibson was digging his claws into the ground with each joyous lope. One ewe flew past me and like a deer vaulted over the gate into the driveway. The other one slammed on the brakes in front of the fence and then turned around and stomped at Gibson.

I'd seen this before, and so had my orthopedic specialist. A knee of mine has been damaged by a sheep that stomped at a dog right before I shoved my right leg in front of the dog to protect it from a head butt when it was backed into a corner. Not wanting to repeat history: I told Gibson to stop, come here, and lie down (which he did, now happy to listen that one sheep was backed into a fence and the other was trotting around the driveway. So his work was clearly done). I shooed away the ewe, and grabbed his lead and stuck him in the back of the station wagon while I tried to collect my lost sheep. "That'll do." I told him as I shut the car door. He barked the canine version of a cuss word.

Seasoned as I was now at the antics of runaway sheep: I went right for the grain bag and decided honey would bring my a fly better than vinegar. So I filled a small wooden box with grain and tried to bribe her back into the fence she just vaulted from. She just looked at me from half an acre away. Just looked, then trotted away around the back of the fence.


Gibson cried and barked as I got more grain and convinced the other 7 sheep to join me for a nosh. This got the loner interested and she came around to about five feet away from me, a fence away from her friends and the free buffet. When She was between the garden fence and the pasture fence I decided my honey days were over, and jumped her. I pulled her rump and head the way I was taught in Sheep 101 from the Vermont Extension and flipped the horned gal on her butt. With one hand on her horn, the other on a dogsledding x-back harness I grabbed from the hutch of the Subaru, I created a halter and slowly walked her back with grain to the pasture gate.

Like I said, I still hadn't had any coffee. I was beat.

I came inside and Gibson drank a gulp and sprawled out on the kitchen floor, he was in pure Nirvana. I emailed my trainer and explained what an ass I had been, taking on too much work too soon. She explained that all Gibson did was exactly what he does at her farm: starts out frantic, but since he wasn't in a controlled environment like her round pen, he panicked the sheep and they fled the circumstances. I needed to be in control, not Gibson. I needed to be able to have him work for me, not me chasing him, shaking a crook in the snow. I simply expected too much. I apologized to Denise, Gibson, and the sheep and realized if I wanted to train my pup here I'd had to build a proper pen to start in.

The good news is no one got hurt. Not me, not the sheep, and not Gibson—and while it sounds like chaos it really was just a few ewes being scattered around for a few frantic moments and then fleeing the scene. Then it was just a hassle to get the world back in order again. But it's a good lesson, all this. Just because you have a border collie and a few sheep doesn't make you Aled Owen. You can't expect to have a great training session when you're new at this game, the dogs new at this game, and the sheep have only been here one week. But I am glad I gave it a try, that I know what not to do, and that while I was frustrated I'm not detered from training myself to train this dog. His father might have been winning Nursery Trials at 10 months old, but he was trained by a pro. My crook cost twelve dollars.

It's only up hill from here, right?