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 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?