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

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

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.