Sunday, February 27, 2011

the happiest sheep in washington county

going broody

Last night Tim and Cathy Daughton pulled into my snowy driveway, and I was glad to see them. Friends on a Saturday night are always welcome, but this night I was feeling extra welcoming to company. I had just spent the last few hours moving snow off the sheep shed roofs and getting a sinfully long shower. Feeling like a new woman—all cleaned and with roofs still intact—I was eager to see them. I felt like I earned their company by making sure the mama-to-be ewes still had a shelter on the hill. When you start farming, everything turns into effort and returns, even drop-in guests feel like a karmic blessing after fighting snow drifts in the dark.

They had sent me a message saying they would be stopping by with a gift: a custom-built brooder box that was made from salvage from their own farm. It was an amazing gesture just to offer such a thing in the first place, but I never expected what they had in store for me....When they walked into the farmhouse my jaw dropped.

In their arms was a structure to behold. A 4'x2' wooden box with a collapsable hinged wall (for easy cleaning/sweeping out) and a wire-hinged roof to prevent escaping chicks. It was a masterpiece. Tim had really outdone himself. Inside the brooder there was plenty of room for the 84 birds on their way. Before they had arrived I was nervous I would have to get a furniture box to accommodate them, but this was perfect. It was so far beyond anything I could have built or ever expected. We'd be just fine when the post office called.

The 84 birds aren't all mine. 25 of them are, but 36 laying hens are for next weekend's workshop attendees, 15 are the Daughton's Silver Laced Wyandottes, and eight more are my friend Noreen's. My own personal order is a mix of meat and egg birds to start off the season with. I ordered ten Cornish Rocks and a mixture of Cuckoo Marans, Ameraucanas, Gold Polish and Brahmas. (I like a colorful egg basket and that pretty much covers the spectrum.)

I'm all set up now. The box is ready to rock with all the comforts a new bird could ask for. It has a clamped brooder light with a 250 watt bulb blasting heat (a small thermometer is right under it on the shavings to make sure I hit that magic number: 90). A new chick-sized feeder and water font are also set up and stocked. Right now is just a test run. I try to always set up my brooder and keep it going the night before the birds are due to arrive. This way I'll be able to track temperature changes into the night, see what works and what doesn't, and make sure all is well. I got my bag of chick grit, medicated feed, reference books, and high hopes. This time next Sunday a bunch of folks will be here at the farm to pick up some of these little guys and take them home to their own farms and backyards. Each person also gets a copy of my book Chick Days which features three laying hens from hatchlings to adults. In the book the birds are Amelia the Ameraucana, Tilda the Rhode Island Red, and Honey the Buff Orpington. So for the workshop everyone who attends will get the same breeds as in the book. I can't wait to introduce some readers to their first-ever chickens!

If you are coming to the workshop, this is what you should have ready:

Sunday (not Saturday!) March 6th 2011 10AM-4PM
No March 15th workshop! Everyone is coming on the 6th!

For my place:
Notebook and pen/business cards
Small cardboard box with pine shavings in it
Optional hot water bottle or
Heat packet in cloth pinned shut
Waterless Hand Sanitizer
Your appetite: we're having homemade pizza and pie

For your place:
Brooder (TV-sized cardboard box is fine!)
Pine shavings
Water font and chick feeder
Medicated chick feed (not laying hen feed!)
Chick grit

I say bring a notebook to jot down ideas, book titles, websites, and other Antler's phone numbers and email addresses. I think ten people are coming, possible more with spouses and friends so it should be quite the event! The small shoe box will be all you need to bring the peeps home. A source of heat inside is a plus, but for anyone just driving an hour or two you should be fine in a heated vehicle. I have no idea where you will all park. I am working on a shuttle from the vet's office at the bottom of the mountain up to the farm. In my mind March would mean spring. I was a damn fool. There's three feet of snow out there. We'll figure it out. Please leave a comment to let me know you are coming and how many of you there are.

Anyway, The post office in Cambridge will call me first thing tomorrow morning or Tuesday to come and pick up the packages of chicks. I'll drive them the 3 miles back to Cold Antler in the passenger seat of the heated up truck and then walk them into the dog-free laundry/wood stove room. There I will carefully remove each bird and dip its little beak in the water font (you need to do this, as birds aren't born knowing how to drink water). Then when each bird has been expected for a clean vent and bright eyes it will be free to explore it's warm new home. When all 84 are watered and examined my work is done until the font and feeder need changing. So I can just ooh and ahh at the chorus of little peeps. It's going to drive Jazz friggin' crazy. At least this brooder is husky-proof.

Expect adorable chick photos and updates soon! And all of you interested in future workshops, I plan on doing another one just like this Memorial Day Weekend. Any takers?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

i love this

hay? i'm eating for three here...

simple gifts

husbands and hens

What is it about husbands and laying hens? I don't have a husband, so I can't about talk them with any base of knowledge, but I do know a thing or two about chickens. Over the years since I started this site I have gotten a lot of emails regarding the little beasts and the most common theme throughout them all paraphrases into something like this: I really want to get chickens, but my husband doesn't like the idea. Maybe some day I will wear him down.... And then the email goes on to explain why he feels that way. Usually the perception is that chickens are more mess, noise, and work than anyone wants to take on. I suppose if you wanted to convince your husband that you wanted to start a 200-hen egg operation—that would be the case—but all you backyard chicken hopefuls out there can rest assured that chickens are easy. They're quieter and calmer than your neighbor's beagle and cleaner than your kid's gerbil. And, unlike the neighbor's barking dog and Spiffy-the-Habitrail-Wunderkind—chickens pay rent. They lay eggs! Amazing, free, glorious farm-fresh eggs. And your husband gets to do all sorts of manly stuff to help you prepare for them. Things like making coops (carpentry!) and going to the feed store to heft 50-pound bags of feed (manly grunting!). And if he's not into the whole pickup-truck scene he can impress his foodie friends with his gourmet eggs or have the coolest pet on the block. Plus, at the end of the day he can watch them torment the neighbor's beagle, whom you hate.

So what's the deal guys? C'mon, get your woman some birds.

the sheep farm on the hill

Friday, February 25, 2011


I sat down to eat dinner at 7PM. Now, that might not seem like much of an accomplishment, but let me put it into context. All this winter I have been struggling with snowstorms. The first one set me into a panic. I missed work, had a minor panic attack, and ended up hand-shoveling a 20-foot driveway. It sucked. The second time was a little better, but until even with a storm under my belt I was scattered and hand-shoveling.

Today a storm came. A big one. Jackson got around a foot of wet snow and I figured it out. I got a ride into work this morning with my friend and his 4-wheel drive pickup, so transportation wasn't an issue. I called the plowman of wonder, Judah, to come to my rescue while at the office. When I got home (early, everyone left work early to beat the icy roads in daylight) it only took two hours to clean off the car, shovel paths to the sheep, hay, barn, and chickens, start a fire in the woodstove, get the driveway plowed, and dinner on the stove.

Dinner is light. Some couscous and tofu. I've been really dedicated to healthier living recently. Ever since I posted that acceptance piece on Valentine's day I have been dedicated to the goal of healthier living. Some folks read that post and thought I was just accepting myself and flaws and not interested in trying to change them. What it was, was me accepting myself and my flaws and choosing to respect myself enough to actively heal them. In ten days I have dropped seven pounds. I started working out twice daily, and eating better (and less). Between being a newborn lighter and figuring out this storm I feel great tonight. It took me all winter to feel like a volunteer instead of a victim, but now I am fighting back. My goal for spring is to be 20 pounds lighter with a healthy lamb or two in my arms. You'll see. I promise.

Currently, these arms are rather sore. I'm not used to free weights. But every second I put in at the gym or with workout videos is another second of better air breathed this spring when the farm becomes my gym. With lambing, gardens, chicks, workshops, and more along the way I'll need all the strength I can muster.

Tonight I am just happy that it's a Friday. That after all that shoveling, hay-hauling, bird tending and cooking I can just sit down relax while the wind outside whips across the farmhouse. It's a warm place to be. I think I'll stick around a while.

Seven pounds and dinner by 7PM... took all winter, but here I am.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

the scott and the swede

There's a Scott and a Swede having a staring contest by my wood stove. In a tiny hand-built wire cage in the mud room is a 5-week-old Swedish Flower Hen Pullet. A breed that until 2010 only lived in tiny farm villages in Sweden, but now is trying to psyche out my Border Collie in upstate New York. Gibson eventually lost interest and came to inspect what I was cooking for dinner. While my dinner sizzled in the skillet the soft coos of a young chicken filled the house once again. It felt like spring.

This morning a package arrived from Greenfire Farms in Florida. They specialize in heritage livestock and in a barter for ad space here on the blog, they sent up two Cuckoo Marans and this little treat. She's too young to go out with the other big girls, and coming from Florida, probably a little timid from the snowstorm we're supposed to get tonight. So I set up the Marans in their own little suite in the cook, a wire cage with water and feed and some time to b alone (and still with) the rest of the flock. New birds need this time. They need to sleep a few nights in their new home to realize it is their safe haven of food and shelter, and they also don't need a Saurapod like one of my geese snapping at it from a low roost. This little flower hen's got spunk, even a little feathered mohawk to prove it. I'm naming her Dre, after my coworker. Like the human versions: she's small, yet badass.

So that is my evening tonight. I came home from work and unloaded the three new members of the farm, and set up Dre in her luxury quarters. That little girl has the warmest spot in the house, right next to the stove. It's a good place to be since tomorrow they are calling for anywhere from 2-10 inches of snow to dump on our little corner of the world. Looks like those robins and days in the fifties were just teases. But I'm not worried. I have heating oil in the tank, wood by the stove, a ride into work, and a weekend ahead with much in store. In a few days 84 chicks will be descending on the farm, 36 of which are for members of the Chick Days Workshops coming up next weekend. The rest are orders from coworkers who tagged their spring poultry orders onto mine, a few layers for this farm, and ten meat birds to start off my season. I am looking forward to fresh spring chickens in the oven in as few as eight weeks from now.

This farm is going to make it into spring. There are chicks near the stove, a border collie to restart training, lambs, workshops, and shearing ahead. Sure, we might get a dump of snow tomorrow but it's nothing of consequence anymore. New life is scratching at the shells around here, and it's being heard loud and clear.

i'm on the renegade farmer radio show!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

useful tools

I like technology. I'm using some right now, actually. I'm writing a blog post on a computer, and it doesn't get more technological than that on a sheep farm. I also enjoy my home’s electricity, my combustion-engine truck, heated water buckets, my refrigerator, and the hundreds of other inventions and advances that make my life easier. They’re useful tools. I applaud them.

However, I am starting to slow my clapping down to a suspicious drumbeat. Things are getting out of hand. Between my growing addiction to wireless internet, smart phones, computers, iPads, video games, and the nonstop plethora of other gadgets being shoved down our throats: I am getting weary. I live in a house where my phone is both my alarm clock and my mail carrier. I can do my job (all 8 hours of my workday) without leaving a 4x4’ space. There’s a machine here that does my dishes. Another has a program does my taxes. I am fully capable of doing small-scale chores and simple math: and yet I am drawn to the easiest way out of the deal. I don't like this about myself.

I live and work on a small farm. Now, when I say small I mean it. Cold Antler Farm is six and a half acres with an 1100 square foot farmhouse. I drive a rusted ten-year-old Ford pickup truck. I own eight sheep and a chicken coop. I raised my pork one pig at a time. I know my geese on a first-name basis. This is not a large operation by any means and yet the life I have been training myself for has been incredibly physical. Even with such a small amount of land and animals: twice a day I am outside, sweating, hauling hay and water, noticing the changes in life and nature. It’s turned me into a seasonal runner, a full-time observer, and the occasional victim. It’s also changed how I view the role of technology in my life.

I want less.

There has to be a limit on the amount of technology we allow into our lives. If not, we are destined to fall into pathetic cultural entropy. What was once innovation has become a crutch. What was once novelty has become addiction. We are already acting as if we are handicapped. For year's we've been letting machines do everything from washing a single person's dishes to opening garage doors for people with working arms and legs. But now we have cell phones that give us directions, download audio books, send emails, and soon will act as our credit cards. There's no reason to ask a person for directions, go to the library, send a letter, or go into actual stores. It may seem like the simulacrum of progress, but I disagree. Instead it is creating a socially, physically, and dare I say it: emotionally retarded society.

Folks seem to have lost a lot of the ability to process and interact. I see it in the grocery store, in company meetings, and in parking lots. Public places are becoming places where the public has headphones on and angrily shuffle about from one destination to the other without so much as a wave to the other people they pass. I know folks who keep in touch with friends across the street online. I have seen friends of mine say and write things online they would never say in the etiquette of face-to-face interaction.

This is not progress. We’ve surpassed good work. We are starting to make human beings obsolete. Taking away human jobs for the sake of invention is not progress. Making people useless in our society is not something to be commended because it comes in a shiny black box you recharge twice a day. Having an automated robotic society running on fossil fuels or coal-fired electricity plants is also not Progress. I don’t want to live in a laborless, atomized, assembly-line world. Call me crazy, but I would rather see a future where people are of use. I want to know craftsmen, farmers, educators, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, storytellers, firefighters, pastors, salesmen, athletes, and artists. I want to hear music out of wood, strings, metal, skins, breath and peoples’ hands—not from headphones on an MP3 player. I want to walk across the street and talk to my neighbor about the weather and call another in an emergency. I want the skills and community back that buttons are taking away from me.

I think we’ve gotten so lost in the addiction of gadgets and innovation, drunk on what we can invent for the rush of it. A few weeks ago a robot that understood human conversation defeated every human contestant on Jeopardy. There is serious discussion by some pretty damn reputable people that the plotline from Battlestar Galactica is a scientific possibility. We already have created machines that understand and interact with humans. These robots are not curing cancer or handing out Malaria nets. They are outsmarting us on cable quiz shows. This is not noble work to me. This is an insult: a waste of resources and money

I have no idea if Cylons are are science fiction or fate. Like I said, I’m a 28-year-old sheep farmer, I don’t claim to understand the proper use of humanized robots. But what the hell. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest if there’s a chance they could take over the world we should probably stop building them and start building greenhouses instead. We have people to feed.

I hope for a change in how we see technology. I’m not a Luddite. I don’t want innovation to fade away. But I don’t see the point of a world where the average person isn’t useful unless they understand HTML 5. I do see a point where hard work, everyday dedication, and the honesty of craft, art, labor, and education are what drive us into a useful and co-dependant future.

So put down your iPad and pick up a shovel. I’m not saying you should throw it away, or cancel your Hulu subscription, just stop for a while. For chrissakes, go outside and work on your lawn. Take your kids to the park. Leave it to your newspaper or a friend’s recommendation to find a restaurant in Portland. Jog around the block. Plant a garden. Invite your neighbors over for dinner. Join a book club. Throw a tennis ball for your dog. Do anything that involves sweating without a touch screen out-of-doors. You don’t need to live on a small farm to notice the value of physical effort and interaction with things that bleed. But I am worried pretty soon the only people who do notice, will be those of us with hay to move around and lambs on the way. As far as I know, there isn’t an iPhone app for how to turn an inverted lamb around in a sheep’s uterus. For the love of god, I hope there never is.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

how to win a new banjo!

I am trying to come up with a way to get some blog readers some banjos for Banjo Equinox: the Spring Banjo Class we'll be doing here online. A lot of folks commented and said it would be be fun to learn, but they can't afford a new banjo. I decided to give one away on the blog here: but I also can not afford a new banjo. So I have an idea. How about everyone who wants a chance to win a new banjo, puts in a small donation to the farm marked "Banjo Equinox" We'll make it something everyone can afford, and then I'll use the donations from the entrants to buy and deliver the new banjo to the random winner (I'll use a number generator to be as fair as possible). I think we can get enough entrants to get a humble beginner clawhammer banjo package: the Bean Blossom Hobo for the winner. If we don't, I'll find a way to scratch up the difference.

Now, if there is donations over the the amount for the banjo package (around $279 at, which comes with a set up banjo, case, tuner, book, strap, and picks) then the rest will remain in the farm donation pot. That money will be used to build a turkey pen off the back of the red barn this summer.

This way a reader gets a brand new banjo for the class delivered to their door for a few dollars, and everyone who doesn't win gets a chance to help the farm and keep this place running into spring. I won't set any dollar amount for the entry to win the banjo. If you want to donate a dollar, then donate a dollar. If you want to donate five dollars, donate five dollars. If you want to donate 25 cents, then donate 25 cents. I'll start off by putting $25 into the pot as the host. Winner will be announced March 15th! So if you want in on a chance to win a fine banjo, enter tonight!

staring at the coop

Monday, February 21, 2011

all over the place

Out of all my dogs, no one loves the truck more than Annie. Any vehicle, really, is Annie's favorite mode of transportation. So this afternoon when the morning's snowfall had melted I asked her casually if she would like to go for a ride? The old girl's head picked right up and she trotted over to me with the lightness of a racing star. Off to Wayside we went for the essentials (dog food and toilet paper). I am a very exciting young person.

Wayside had just finished a batch of some sort of brownie/blondie cookie dessert and I cringed. Ever since that Valentine's Day post I have been trying my hardest to treat myself with the same politeness and self-interest I have in others' well being. I snatched up a granola bar and headed out the door. I tempered the urge and rejoined my canine in the front seat. So far I've lost a little weight from better choices and every day work outs. It feels good, and I don't want to fall off the wagon for something in plastic wrap.

Whenever Annie gets out of the car after a ride she looks like she just won something. She literally prances to the door. An all-Annie-based reality show would be the most boring event on television. This week: jump on daybed, will she make it? Next week! Can she finish her bowl of chow in under 3 minutes? Let's go to tape and find out, Stacy! In the nail-biting finale... SLEEP!

I'd watch that show. Hell, I already do. I love it.

The weekend with my sister and her husband was so enjoyable. When you live with three (generally) quiet roommates you forget about how neat it is to wait for someone else to wake up so they can join you for coffee chatting and you can give them the morning farm report (wether they are interested or not). The three of us had a whirlwind weekend of local adventures in Veryork, and they took me out to dinner in Manchester Saturday night. We did some shopping and I got a $5.86 jean skirt at Ann Taylor's bargain rack and decided I felt both fancy and useful that day. A nice combination, that.

The farm is getting through this last leg of winter with aplomb. All the sheep are holding their heads high. The chickens seem either resigned or oblivious to their indoor lives. They rarely leave the coop more than a few feet so I feet piling fresh bedding on their own waste. When I finally muck that and the winter pig pen out I will have the beginnings of a compost pile so wonderful I can already see myself spreading it up their on the pasture. In my mind a small pony or donkey does the bulks of the heavy lifting and together we walk along the pastures trailing a small spreader and filling this old New York dirt with fresh ground. Replacing and repairing soil here to create new and foamy earth is a big project of this farm. I want to do a little each year, some day with working animals aside me to help. When I think about a draft pony my heart rate literally speeds up.

Saro is still on her eggs but I think the cause is lost. It's been too long, and too cold. I'm giving her a few more days and the the nest has to go. I decided this while cleaning out the coop a bit, after getting snagged by a nail. It was a very shallow scrape, but still drew a little blood. I went inside instantly to clean it up and was grateful I spent the $29 on that tetanus shot last year...

Dinner tonight: a bowl of chili that's been sitting in the slow cooker all day. After that, my plan is to read a chapter on lambing in one of my sheep books and watch some online videos and take notes. We're getting down to the last four weeks before my first lambs are due and besides studying up there are jugs to set up in the shed, the bum-lamb pen to prepare (and hopefully not need) in the barn, and a vet to come and give them a look over and possible vitamin booster. If I can manage getting them shorn mid-March, I will certainly do that as well to make sure their as visible and clean as possible before birth.

It'll be quite the ride, this spring. I'm not sure I'm prepared for it, but I'm already looking forward to the fireflies and storms of June: knowing when they arrive winter, lambing, and so much more will be behind me and overcome. How's that for greedy? Not even through with winter and wishing for the end of spring....

Saturday, February 19, 2011

sheep and goats

I fell in love with goat cheese today. We dated for a few years, but kept it casual. I couldn't commit, I mean, who wants to limit themselves to one type of cheese? We're still seeing other foodstuff, but it's getting harder. Polymeadow Farm's chevre spread over a slice of brick-oven bread was so savory, so rich, so amazing I bought a container on the spot. This is what happens when your wool booth is parked right next to a goat dairy. Love happens in the strangest places. I think this is the beginning of something serious, people.

I came home from my second market breaking even but damn happy. My humble sales covered the table, gas, and bought my lunch. That's more than enough reason for me to spend a winter day around other small farms and their wares. There was live music, artwork on display, carrots the size of my rolling pin and fresh coffee. That's really all I need to die happy.

Friday, February 18, 2011

new shirt design!

jacci and her gang

This wonderful photo was sent in by reader, Jacci. Her companions in the photo are her first-ever chicks! Meet Apple, panini, basil, clover, nutmeg and pepper. Looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

take that

A thaw came today. The real deal. Fifty degrees of slush and sunshine. You actually see parts of my driveway. I was outside tonight with Jazz and Annie on a short walk and the stream that runs through my property was roaring (if a stream can roar) and the sound was spring. I stood out there and closed my eyes. Poetry, that rambling. Mixed in with that gurgling percussion was the soft hools of a Great Horned Owl in the high trees. I turned around to look at the house. It looked tired. Stains from the old furnace pipe on the front, leaves and ice stuck to the sides. It looked like a panting version of the proud white house that shone like a lighthouse on the green mountain all summer. Yet she was still there, and realize that we had almost made it though our first winter here, this pack of four. Gibson was on the steamer chest in the window, sitting on s sheepskin and watching us. A light was on upstairs in my office. It was on because I forgot to shut it off when I was watering the snap pea: but it was also on because somehow through all the furnace drama, snow plows, heating bills, and mortgage payments I managed to keep paying the electric bill. Same goes for the internet, groceries, and gas in the truck. Such modest accomplishments, but I felt like a domestic superhero. This place is making it. We're not eating Lobster dinners or keeping the heat above 64 degrees—but we are making it. And who needs 64-degrees of luxury when it's 34 degrees outside after dark!? Do you know how long it's been since we had a night above freezing?! I was floating out there among the exposed mines of dog poo from a winter of snow cover. Beaming. Hell, I didn't even have a jacket on.

I needed that breather. Today was a rough day. For no particular reason it had me languid. If anything I should have felt great. I started working out again this week, eating better, and even managed to run a mile in the gym yesterday. I had my annual review at work, (and I'm still working). All flags were at full mast, but I was just dogging it. Maybe the barometer gymnastics had me wonky.

But some time to slow down, breathe deep, and come home to a banjo and three smiling dogs was all I needed. Throw a thaw on top of that sundae and you've got yourself a farmer crouching to pounce on that defrosted soil. Soon there will be potatoes, peas, lettuce and more in it. Soon lambs will be running across the fence lines in little gangs of lost boys. And soon I'll be running again across the back roads of Washington County under a blazing summer sun. It just takes me a little time to recharge to see all that. Tonight I got it. I might even get 6 hours of sleep tonight.

Take that, winter.

Tomorrow my sister and her husband are coming up to visit the farm. We'll spend some time just enjoying the hill here, and we'll get to work the Farmer's Market table together in Bennington this weekend. It's my second market appearance, and I'll be hoping to sell some yarn and books. Wish the rookie some luck out there. I never turn it down.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

winthrop and me

go to sleep

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

sheds in the wind

The wind last night was epic. The kind of gusts that make you think the slush under your feet was really planks on an old ship. The warm weather (oddly 50 degrees) and melting snow made the blustery night something out of a sea shanty. All of Veryork was swaying. On this mountain you could hear the wind come howling down in stages. First up high and far away and louder and closer....A few moments later your body is covered in goosebumps and you see the trees break fresh with the air mass, and seconds later feel it on your own face. Your hair everywhere. Cracked lips crack even more. Over and over the wind rolled down onto the farm like this. I was in full batten-hatch mode and made sure everyone was inside their allotted home (be it coop or barn) and the dogs did not get walked. Instead we all ate our dinners inside and watched the clouds race over navy blue stars. What a show.

Feeding the sheep was complicated and labor intensive. I knew the second I dropped those flakes onto the snow they'd be blown into the night. So instead I grabbed an entire bale and hefted it over my shoulder. I carried it up the sheep hill as the wind and drops of freezing rain pelted me. I felt like some character in a Lord of the Rings movie. All I needed was a lantern and a cape. The sheep watched me with their dinner and only the three Longwools followed me. Good ol' Sal and Joseph were right behind me and Maude wasn't far behind. But the five Blackfaces stayed at the bottom of the hill where they always got fed. They had no idea why this crazy woman was pulling a full bale up to their apartments.

When I finally reached the sheep sheds I opened the full bale and spread it everywhere. I wanted the top layer to be dinner, and the bottom to become fresh bedding. I knew only half of the load would be eaten that night and the rest would just be a blanket, but I was okay with that. I wanted that shed as comfortable as possible. As the wind whipped at us all inside the little 8x12 building, I prayed it wouldn't tumble over. I watched my flock all around me in this domesticated space, totally calm and content while I made sure for the hundredth time the roof was clear of ice and snow.

This morning it was still there. The shed made it through. As I walked outside early to let Gibson enjoy a morning pee—all the sheep emerged from their nest content and still chewing cud from their midnight snacks. Storm? What storm? The just watched us from their hill like Gods at the Pantheon. It was a fine sight to see.

On Point!

I'll be recording a live interview on the NPR show, On Point today, I'm a little nervous! This is a show I hear nearly every day, and Sunday night I got an email asking if I could possibly be a part of this day's theme. It's about fiber and fiber optics: kniting in the social media age. The show is about the surge of knitting in a modern world and how blogs, facebook, ravelry, and such are creating even more interest in this old-fashioned hobby. So this small farm, blog, and (mostly online) CSA is being featured to show how knitting and modern technology go hand-in-hand. You can listen live, it airs at 11AM EST.

More information about the show and how to listen here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

something radical

You know what kills me? I can grow broccoli, raise animals, train a sheep dog, buy a farm, and start a small business. But I can not say no to an onion bagel with cream cheese (at least not yet). It's so frustrating. To be a woman who feels totally capable of tackling anything she dares to take on—but unable to drop twenty pounds—is demoralizing. You can't feel like any sort of success when you're unhappy with how your jeans fit. Diet and weight loss that are my biggest failure. I can push myself for weeks, lose fifteen pounds, and then be upset it's not thirty and bounce right back to my older weight. It's never good enough. It is frustrating as hell.

I always wanted to look like a hay-strewn, cowboy-shirt-wearing version of Jillian Michaels with a dog-eared copy of the Dharma Bums in her back pocket. The kind of woman men get nervous around. I had this idea that the only way I would ever be happy with myself was if I looked like people on the cover of fitness magazines, but you know, "farmier". Basically, I want to be a thoroughbred in a draft harness.

But the thing is...I love food. I adore it. I love growing it, raising it, being a part of the system. I love the seasonal role of food. The way my year is shaped by planting and harvesting, chicks and lambs, and the constant waltz of birth, death, and preservation. The same slow dance that has kept our civilization alive since time out of mind.

I love old recipes with butter and cast iron. I love the honey BBQ pulled-pork sandwich on a hand-kneaded fresh butter bun I ate last night for dinner. It was amazing. I love that I spent a whole day in the winter farmhouse smelling that crockpot wafting, baking bread, listening to music, planning a meal. I knew the pig. I learned a recipe. So many experiences and stories, images and tiny victories on one plate. This is the center of my life now. The rituals and dance of making food from earth and animals. My rumbling tummy working up to it is a fasting liturgy. The whole story, canon.

So today is Valentine's Day. A day dedicated to love. I'm single and thinking about dinner. It's not upsetting or depressing, but it is frustrating. I'm constantly battling this desire to be thin with my love of food. It makes me think so little of myself, knowing that the biggest thing getting in the way of my happiness has nothing to do with men or dating: it has to do with me. I can not accept myself for who I am because I have this ridiculous idea about what I need to be. I don't think I am alone here, either.

Today I am letting go. I don't want to want to be anyone else anymore.
Happy Valentine's Day, Jenna.

I have decided to embrace radical self-acceptance. Tonight I looked in the mirror, took a few deep breaths, and smiled. This is who I am. I'm a size ten. My hair is thin. My skin is blotchy, scared, and scratched. My arms are flabby over my bucket muscles. My teeth aren't great. My wardrobe is basic. But this is who I am. I accept it, and am grateful to possess it, and I am tired of believing it's not good enough. In fact, it does a pretty damn good job around here. Not everyone has a body that can run five miles in the summer, wrestle a ram, or take care of a farm through a -25 degree night. Some folks don't even have the ability to stand up—and yet here I am—being down on myself because my perfectly adequate legs aren't fit for the cover of a lululemon catalog? Well guess what dear readers, thoroughbreds aren't draft animals. I am 100% Percheron.

I'm not saying I'm settling. I'm not saying I'm giving up. I'm not saying I should put down those three-pound weights or throw out my running shoes. Accepting myself as is is isn't about giving up on goals—it's about not being angry for not obtaining them yet. I'm embarrassed about how self-conscious I was about my appearance. Embarrassed because I know this isn't the right way to go through the world. This ride is too short, and I am spending the whole time worrying if other people in line think my ankles look fat in chacos. Well, I'm done with that. I'm just going to step onto the rollercoaster now. No one else who is actually enjoying in the ride cares about your ankles, just the people waiting in line do.

So on this Valentine's Day I think I'll love myself for who I am.
All of me.

I'll do that and see what happens next. Because I have a hunch the first step towards actually changing some weakness in you is truly accepting your faults, flaws, fears, and fights for what they are. See them, know them, and let the go. If farming has taught me anything so far, it is that nothing is perfect, and the things that are usually aren't very functionual. Useful buildings, animals, pastures, and people are a mess of history, purpose, and weather. Their work changes them, and always for the better. I'll leave the braided-maned cart ponies pulling ribboned cabriolets to the folks parked next to the white picket fences. I'll be the wind-tussled workhorse beside the faded red barn and barbed wire.

Be grateful, be kind to yourself, and most importantly: be of use.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

my banjo mentor

I found a banjo mentor and her name is Julie Duggan. She plays old-time banjo better than crows fly, and it was an honor to have her sitting in my living room. Today my house was bursting with old songs out of Julie's 200-year-old banjo. It was the kind of clawhammer I had only seen on videos or concerts, never in person, never in a way where I could ask questions and stare at hands. I was in awe.

Julie and I have been in touch on-and-off since I moved to Cambridge, but we never really got together like we planned. She knew I was interested in becoming a better banjo player, and that I had a fiddle here too. But finally after a week of banjo posts on this blog she and I couldn't put off hanging out any longer. So we made banjo-brunch plans.

She lives just 6 miles away from my farm, on her own 30 acres of gardens and music. There, her and her husband Dennis collect antiques, garden, build log cabins and acquire and restore old banjos. She also teaches art in Cambridge High School, paints, does pottery, and plays a bevy of other folk instruments to boot. She used to travel and teach at camps and festivals all over America, but now lives a quieter life (if a banjo player can have a quiet life) here in Washington County. That video posted above is Julie playing Cluck Ol' Hen. It's a favorite fiddle tune of mine, but you can really see her fly on that 1800's pot. She's certainly got the gift. You can listen to plenty of free recordings and videos on her website

As soon as she walked in the door there was an instant sense of familiarity. After all, this was a woman who knew about that sweet music, played fiddle tunes, loved dogs and horses and appreciated small farms. We got along so well we didn't actually get a chance to play anything till the last 45 minutes or so of her visit, but she explained things perfectly. She's a natural teacher, and she showed me techniques, tricks, and hints to help me get started. After years of books and videos I finally had someone really explain, in person, the way to frail the strings. How my hand should feel, how my thumb should work. It will take weeks before I am used to the clawhammer motion, but at least now I know exactly what I am working towards. My homework: one simple lick she called Alligator, which is more or less a lesson in motor functions.

We'll barter for lessons. I'll be providing her with eggs, honey, knit goods, and help with some projects (no meat, she's a proud vegetarian but supportive of small-scale meat farming). I'm beginning to barter more and more, it's swiftly becoming my favorite economy.

She was frank as hell, too. She basically explained I'll be as good of a banjo player as I'm willing to work for. If I play 15 minutes a day, I won't progress as well as if I was playing 2 hours. I nodded in understanding, and when she finished a particularly beautiful version of waterbound, I asked her how long it would take for me to get to something like that? Her answer: about 2-3 weeks with real practice. This blew my mind. I told her I just wanted to get there by summer. She laughed, shook her head, and said "Stick with me, Kid."

As if she could get rid of me now...


photo by tim bronson

thinking on the garden...

I am trying to plan my garden, but no sure about the best way to do it. I am considering building a few raised beds this year, because they are easier to contain and protect from beasties and animals were the number one reason my garden failed this past year. In Idaho my first-ever gardens were raised beds near an old cow barn and I built boxes (of various sorts). Instead of a big perimeter fence I built mini fences around each bed. It worked great, and thanks to my slug eating Black Silkie Bantams: I had built in migrant workers on staff.

So that might be the most realistic option, but I really do prefer working right out of the ground, tilling, hoeing, and building the growing rows with compost and straw between them. However, last year animals destroyed this method with an attack on all fronts. I had deer, rabbits, groundhogs, birds, the works. So I am hesitant to use the same "garden" from last year. The old chicken wire and shallow posts the previous owners used did nothing to stop animals. It's getting ripped out for sure and something new will replace it. But that leaves me with a space that needs some serious work to turn the slight hillside into a cascading garden with tiers and new fences.... or just let the whole things revert to pasture and build a hoop house or inexpensive greenhouse elsewhere. A place to keep out large animals and place it over wire to keep out ground animals. Sounds like vegetable jail, but when your farm is on a mountain in the gotta do what you gotta do.

I do want a pumpkin patch. That I am sure of.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

here i come

The kindness of my banjo has lifted me up, so much. It is amazing how much some bright strings and those those mountain tunes have raised my spirits. I feel like a new woman. Between the instrument, the warmer days ahead (mid thirties this week!), and the promise of spring adventures here on the farm. Bees, seeds, and chicks are on the way. Plans for a raised-bed salad garden are already rolling around in my head. Today I was in a wood-heated greenhouse looking at how they have managed to grow food all year and felt so inspired around those baby greens. To see rows of kale, buttercrunch, and spinach all around me was a farmsmack of goodness. Standing on dirt, tasting cabbage off the stalk, laughing with a fellow farmer and talking about our farm's own plans for summer...

This recent turn of events is just want I needed.

I am beginning to feel like the worst is over. The winter is coming to a close and never before in my life have I had such a soft spot in my heart for spring. It's a season I usually despise, but this year I will meet it on my knees.

I have some neat things to announce, including a joint project with two readers who are starting a small business making bamboo notebooks. They are using Kickstarter, a program that lets you rally funding online in the sense that a bunch of small-scale investors help get you started. A micro-loan thing much like Janet described in her post. You can see information about their notebooks here, which will focus designs like the CAF barnheat, veggies, woodcut animals, and other funky agricultural designs I come up with.

And the second neat thing....I want to propose Banjo Equinox. We're going to start an online old-time banjo course here, and it will go a little something like this: anyone who wants to learn to play the banjo will. You won't need any musical experience, or need to read music—you'll just need some stubbornness and dedication. You'll learn with me right here on the blog. All you'll need to get started is a 5-string banjo, a tuner, and we'll all use the same books and materials and share videos, ideas, stories and what not. To kick it off I will be giving away a beginner banjo kit here on the blog in mid-march. It won't be the fanciest banjo, but it will be a nice open back perfect for some clawhammer action.

Okay guys. Spring is a real thing. She's coming, and when she does, I will be ready with a hoe in one hand and a chicken in the other...

I can not wait.

truck errands

woven in

A corporate office isn't the kind of place that makes you think of banjo music, but yesterday right in the middle of my pod I was playing some beginner clawhammer. Right next to my computer I was strumming and picking on our lunch break, filling the third floor with an old waltz. Out of those who took notice, no one complained.

My banjo arrived—as most of my mail does—at work. I had been stalking the UPS website all morning, waiting to see when the delivery truck had arrived. At noon the men in brown where here and I floated down to the second floor. The long box marked Fragile was there, as was a slew of other employees, and the UPS guy. All were eating cake. It was the driver's birthday, and Tami, our mail maven had made sure he had a vanilla sheet cake waiting for him. (I adore that I work for a company that remembers the mailman's birthday, and bakes for him). I had my cake (at wolfish speed) and then took the box down to an empty room on the first floor to open it, tune her up, and frail away.

When I was in the sanctity of the little private room I opened the box and pulled out the black case. INside was green felt, a little hydrometer, and a thing of beauty: a 5-string open back banjo. It was a modest model, a Morgan Monroe. (They also make the great beginner old-time banjo, the hobo) and since it was ordered from Knoxville's Banjo Hut: it was ready to play—strings on, bridge set, nearly in tune. I lifted her into my arms. I took a deep breath. What a feeling to have back again.

It had been a while since I had played, but the old Waltz came back to me. I played Down in the Willow Gardens, which I learned from a Wayne Erbsen beginner tab book, and that mountain music was back. I closed my eyes, playing from automatic memory. The same type of motions that get you twenty miles down the road you don't remember driving to. I played that song, clumsily, making mistakes and keeping on. I felt the dark green grass under me, and the navy blue and purple sky above me, and the blesses summer heat of Tennessee. I felt the warmth of a campfire on my cheek. The sting of muscles sore from hiking up Chimney Tops. The flash of heat lightening, the glow of a firefly just outside my line of site, the constant percussion of a cold stream.

Old Time Banjo is all these things, every time. From that first lesson of learning how to frail the timeless clawhammer strum to your mastering of Georgia Buck is Dead: it's that exhale of place and past. It's a postcard and a memory. It's instant smiles and heart-wrenching reflection. It's the music played in camps of the Civil War, and 60s protests, and my own adventures around America. It's a part of me, woven in.

Thank you for this fine gift.

Friday, February 11, 2011

a chicken story

Thursday, February 10, 2011

janet's hat

I got an email from Cold Antler CSA member, Janet. She lives up in Nova Scotia, sews quilts, and supports small farmers like me just starting out by buying a share of wool in advance, and then waiting patiently for her booty to be mailed after harvest this spring.... She sent me email with photos and the project she created with the help of Maude and Company. The following post is from the email she sent me, and the photos of the project she knit from her first skeins. (Some members got two skeins to start, others got one. The number you got was based on how cold your area of the country was! All members will receive the same amount when the rest of the shares are mailed, so it will even out, promise.) Thank you, Janet. It is a special kind of satisfaction keeping people on the cold north sea a little warmer!

I had been following Jenna’s blog for about a year and enjoying her quest for a few acres of farmland on which to establish herself, her dogs, chickens, ducks etc, and quietly applauding her grit and determination.

At the same time I had been slowly building an investment portfolio of loans through Kiva, despite misgivings about the sustainability of some of the projects funded.

Mainly I had been concentrating on Africa and on women who were responsible for the future of children and grandchildren. I had been strongly influenced by Canada’s Stephen Lewis an advocate for both AIDS funding and the African grandma’s who were shouldering the burden of raising children orphaned by AIDS. So the concept of microloans to enable women for the first time to access funding for their business and agricultural pursuits struck home.

I knew that if I had had access to microfunding twenty or thirty years ago my future might have been very different.

When Jenna announced her plans to purchase a half dozen blackface sheep and form a CSA (community supported agriculture) cooperative through which to market her wool, I came right on board. In my view it makes a great deal of sense to receive your money upfront with which to finance your ongoing operation rather than seeking a bank line of credit (with its attendant control issues) and paying interest for the privilege of lining someone else’s pockets. Right now, the less we rely on and submit to the control of banks the better we will be…. After viewing the recent meltdowns in the US, Iceland and elsewhere.

To make a long story short, just before Christmas I received Jenna’s preliminary packet of info and wool from Maude and other 4-legged friends and the other night I wound some and chose a pattern I had enjoyed making up twice before – a funky, folky hat with huge tassels, designed by NavIne, I must say I am enjoying using this lovely soft wool, and that it knits up into an elastic, warm, yet lacy fabric. I think all Cold Antler Farm’s other CSA members will be as enchanted by it as I am.

I can hardly wait to receive next summer’s installment of skeins and roving – I see thrummed mittens, a traditional New England and Atlantic Canadian concept using roving knit into the inside of mittens to provide loads of insulation for cold days. As I say, I can hardly wait!

Jenna’s prices, from what I can see by cruising the web, are realistic for the quality of wool on offer. Now I need to learn how to dye wool! Perhaps even to spin! Being able to knit is not enough……

Attached is a picture of the hat I made with Jenna’s first wool CSA installment. Who to give it to? What would be more appropriate than to send it off to Jenna in appreciation of her grit and determination in developing a flock to help support her small hill farm? Perhaps she will use it to publicize her products when she appears at farmers markets.

I can hardly wait for the really big installment of wool to arrive – what will I knit with it? I’m busy scanning the internet and collecting patterns to help me decide.

Thank you Jenna for re-introducing me to knitting with wool, rather than blends and acrylic fibres.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

gifted a banjo

I got an email from a reader who saw my post about missing my banjo, and how it meant spring to me. In an act of pure kindness, she made it possible for me to order one, on the condition I will never sell it. I must treat it like another dog, a thing of companionship and import. I found a Morgan Monroe model, a fine open back design for clawhammer and it will be delivered on Friday. I am so excited about this banjo, you just can't know.

I decided if a gift like that could be given from a stranger, than I must honor that with a dedicated practice of the beast. I will be studying the banjo, in the Old-Time style this spring with a fresh heartbeat, a renewed intent. I want to approach it as a beginner all over again. And if anyone out there wants to join me, we'll do an online webinar course.

As soon as I am able. I will be gifting a banjo here on the blog to one of you readers. We'll keep that sweet music grazing.

hay time switchel

Hay Time Switchel was a popular drink in New England once. It was the original Gatorade for farmers. A homebrew of various potent sources of protein and sugar (maple syrup, molasses, eggs, cider, vinegar, ginger, honey, and cane sugar: among other regional ingredients) and together they created a lasting source of hydration and stamina for men working from dawn into the full moon to bring in the hay. It was quite the thing.

I have created my own Switchel here at Cold Antler, and while the ingredients are different the effect is the same. I make a combination of really, really, strong green Yerba Mate green tea,100% fruit juice, and raw honey. I make it in giant two gallon pots and then let it cool in the fridge. I then bottle it into beer bottles, cap it, and set it in the fridge. These switchels then are ready to be drank as a booster when I come inside from morning chores (so refreshing cold) or this morning, I still am fighting a cold so I poured a bottle into my giant brown mug and heated it up for two minutes and added more honey and lemon. It did the trick.

Yerba Mate isn't like coffee or tea. It's an herb from South America and bought loose and green it brews just like coffee in your percolator. I brew it strong, almost brown, and pour two coffee pots of it into a stainless steel saucepan before I add my can of berry juice concentrate and a half cup of honey from my bees. It is a true natural energy source. Yerba Mate doesn't give you that jolt like coffee (something I still adore but drink much less of) instead it slowly rises you up to a calmer state of awareness.You just feel like it's four hours before you drank it. Refreshed.

So there's something to consider. Either digging up some ancient Switchel recipes and trying them out instead of buying corn syrup and food coloring, or giving Yerba Mate a try. It's pretty awesome.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

this morning

weather and such

I woke up to the snow from childhood memories. The kind that covers every tree, every fence row, and hides all sin. It was still dark when I was outside delivering hay and water, but in the glow of the lamppost the flakes seemed magical. No cars drove by, and because of the atmosphere I would have been shocked if they did. The only transport that would have made any sense was a jingle horse. Inside the coffee was perking, there were some oatmeal cookies in a quart jar, and all the dogs had already been taken out and fed. I stood out by the well, on a slight down slope from the farm house and the sheep and just took it all in.

The weather has been flirtatious lately. Saturday night temperatures rose to nearly 40 degrees and a thunderstorm ripped through Jackson. I wasn't prepared for it. I was out late with the dogs, giving them their last trip outside when I noticed a giant flicker of light. I though the house shorted, or the lamppost was on the fritz...but then a clap of thunder filled the sky and I felt six again, I was so excited. I fell asleep with a window cracked open as the rain fell. It was almost like a summer pre-show. A trailer of what's to come. I missed my banjo. The rain reminded me of spring, and spring is for banjos, mud, chicks, and pea vines.

Sigh. They want it 0 tonight.

Monday, February 7, 2011

shepherd shirts!

I added some more stuff to the Dry Goods store. You can now get this design on some products (including an iPhone holder) and some other nifty farm goodies at my Cafepress store. Might be fun to stretch out on a Barnheart yoga mat, or eat your pulled pork lunch from an antler container. Every item puts a few dollars towards the farm.

peas and snow


Every time I hear someone tell me how stupid sheep are I think of my boy, Sal. Sal's my British Longwool crossbred wether: half Border Leicester and half Romney. He's huge, easily 200+ pounds, and to some people that makes him a little menacing. I remember when my friend James came to see my new farm and he saw Sal up on the hill standing under the apple trees he just stared, asked "when I got a pony with a sweater?"

Truth is, Sal's the calmest and most social sheep at Cold Antler. He comes when called, nuzzles you, and will lay next to you in the pasture if you promise to scratch his ear. I have watched toddlers stand right next to him and tug at his wool. I have set a dulcimer on his back and played it at length. He's just an easy going guy. A Golden Retriever in sheep's clothing. When Gibson charges up at the fence every single sheep but he race up the hill in a dust cloud. Sal stands calm as an iron Buddha. He chews his cud, looks at me, looks at the dog, and says in his own sheepy way, "What?"

Someday Gibson will snap his nose to teach him to respect the Law of Dog, but until then he is unmoved by 55 pounds of talk.
I like that about Sal.

He and Maude change people's minds about sheep. Most people think they are all without personality or thought, but spend one afternoon at this farm and interact with angry, sullen, Maude and joyous Sal and you'll see emotions and complex thoughts like our own behind those eyes. I'm not saying sheep are people, but they are individuals. They react with the world in their own way.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

ice rain day

hands down

The best pulled pork sandwich I ever ate.

Friday, February 4, 2011

the ones you chase

I was driving home from work in a fog. (The head kind—not the weather kind.) My brain was going over all the things I needed to accomplish that weekend (winter still leaves most of the work to the daylight days). I went through the cartograophy of the farm's needs as I zipped around corners on 313 West. Dig out around the fences so the sheep don't walk over the packed snow. Shovel out path for garbage can. Buy more hay from Nelson if it doesn't snow. Defrost Pork Butt. Call Butcher about mailing knives she left. Clean up the barn. Dust up ashes in the woodstove. Put the garden down on Paper. Read about lambing. Watch Youtube sheep births. Buy a crock pot. Meet Brett about fixing up the Red Barn. Find rib recipe. Make ribs for Superbowl party in Dorset. Deliver meat to smokehouse. Call your mother.

It was one of those winter sunsets you chase. You drive a while and things seem to turn dark in the world, everything inside it like black sheer fabric draped over a glass dome. But then you turn your rig due west the pink sky comes back, just a sliver. Proof that the winter is winding down. I was watching this happen, laughing every time I seemed to catch up with the sun. The radio was blaring something on WGNA. I tapped my thumbs on the dash along with the tune I didn't know, but let myself enjoy anyway. My head was warm in the white cap I handspun from my first three sheep. People at work must think it's a homely thing, but I wear it with so much pride it glows. (I don't even have to bleach it.) I was in an old cowboy shirt, Canvas Carhartt vest, jeans, and my black Muck boots. I was in my little truck, which seems to die and be reborn every few weeks in random garages around Washington and Bennington Counties (my land of Veryork) and as I caught up with the sun one last time before turning off route 22, I said a prayer that the Ford would make it until I could afford a new truck. One a little more reliable. Some times she doesn't start. Some times I don't either. I can't really judge her. I have 300 dollars saved. It's a start.

This girl in the truck is so different than the girl she used to be. I'm not talking about the whole city-turned-country aspect either—I am talking about someone who prays on her ride home. I don't even know who the hell I'm praying to, but I do it. It's something I picked up trying to build a farm out here alone. Sometimes you just need to be heard when you're racing light.

I now step out of my salt and dirt covered truck and walk into the Agway looking just as sorry and tired as anyone else working with cows or greenhouses. We're a ragged bunch, us growers. Some have been running to their greenhouses every three hours a night to restock the wood stove so the salad greens won't freeze. Others have been up milking and meeting trucks since 4 Am. Me? I'm not there just yet. I don't work on my land full time, but I too had been up since before dawn. With a headlamp in a huff I was feeding sheep, lugging hay, checking on pregnant ewes, and collecting frozen water bottles. I feed poultry, check on goose nests, plan and devise ways to keep the heart of this place beating. How to improve it. How to improve me. It never ends. I am so grateful it doesn't.

I have decided the girl in that humble pickup truck with the rusted tailgate is a farmer. I doubted it for a little while. I let the fact that I work in an office and write books tell me I was getting there: but not quite. I no longer believe in "not-quite." I am a farmer now, and my entire life has evolved to meet that desire.

I am a farmer.

It's hard to believe you've gotten to the place you've been working towards for so long. But I am here. I have some land, and livestock, taxes and sales to figure out, a commercially registered truck with my farm's name on it. I have a working stock dog (kinda), feed sacks covering my barn holes, and a book on raising chickens under my belt. Today I mailed off a mortgage check. Yesterday I sent the electric bill and ordered more heating oil. Christ alive, it's expensive, but I am doing it. There's pork in my freezer, eggs in the fridge, chicks on the way, and a garden in my mind. I can't wait to slide my hands into that black soil. I can't wait to muck out those winter buildings and start a compost heap. In a year I will have made earth so black that when I spread it over my garden and on the sheep pastures I will have to sing. This is my work. This is it.

I am a farmer.

I can't wait to be so tired on a June night that I can't even lift a glass of sweet tea by my fiddle. But I do, and I watch the cars of friends pull into the driveway to join me at a bonfire. We will watch the darting ghosts of lambs in the pasture and laugh. I will be tanned and tired, lithe and light, zen and bones. Fireflies will meet us halfway behind heat lightning and this winter will be a past life we only talk about in jest. Smiles are worth more when you are tired. Maybe some one's strong arms will hold me close, and remind me you're just flirting with a dance 'till fall, and then winter will return. And I'll tell him to stop that nonsense with a kiss, and to go check on the pulled pork and cider.

I am a farmer.

can't wait for chicks!

This photo was taken at the cabin last spring. Just one year of birds and so much has changed...What hasn't altered in the slightest though is my excitement about getting chicks in the house again. I love their fluff, peeps, and antics. There will be scads too, since so many folks are coming here for a full day Chicken 101 workshop and leaving with their own Buff Orpington, Ameraucana, and Rhode Island Red (just like in Chick Days) to take home and raise up right. With all this snow (and more on the way)—nostalgia from even a year ago is comforting. Take heart though, fellow Antlers, Spring will come!

I hope.

Anyone else getting chickens this spring?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

bacon and hams

This weekend (weather permitting) I plan to visit a nearby smokehouse in Washington County. Locust Grove Smokehouse of Argyle, will be taking my 16 pounds of pork belly and two thighs and smoking them into bacon and ham. I'll get to pick flavors, cuts, bacon's the kind of shopping you just can't do at the store. It will take somewhere around two weeks to pick up my meat, but it seems like a pretty simple transaction. Drop off frozen packages, fill out order form, sign papers, come back to get over thirty pounds of farm-raised meat.

I can't say enough good things about this first hog experiment. It has been a wonderful ride. From picking her up at Dreammaker Farms last fall to picking up these vacuumed sealed packages of bacon: all of it has been a rewarding experience. I think a pig will continue to be a presence here on the farm, specially in these off seasons when other activities like the garden, lambs, shearing, and such are calmer. And while some of it was luck (finding Vicki the Butcher, free feed, and local smokehouses) some of it was just experience. I knew how to build a pen, had a truck to move animals and supplies in, had hay and a life dedicated to animal farming ready. I think the reason Pig was such a success was because of the lessons on this blog. Years, even just a few, have made me better at this, and PIg was not so much an experiment as a project with a good head start.

I get paid tomorrow. After the mortgage check is sent I'm buying a crock pot. Little celebrations go a long way in the North Country.

not a crazy idea

The storm didn't deliver the snow that was predicted. Instead, it dropped an angry layer of heavy slush on the farm. It made shoveling the equivalent of moving wet flour in bulk. (You know it's bad when the guy you hire to plow gets stuck in your driveway.) But a few stuck trucks aside: I was grateful for the lack of snow. The piles on the sides of my driveway are easily 5 feet tall now, that's enough.

This winter is changing how I see the roles of a functioning home. The only way my place stays warm (and has hot water) is if I keep pouring oil into it's parched maw. I'm not too thrilled about buying another hundred gallons of fossil fuel every few weeks for the rest of my winters... I was recently informed about these piggyback wood stoves that hook up to your oil furnace. They use wood to heat your water and home, and when the wood fire goes out, it switches to the back-up oil. I love the idea of switching to 90% wood heat, and still having the same water system and the back-up of oil if I need to get away for a few days. Does anyone have any experience with these things? I don't think it's in the budget for this year, but it is something to consider in the future. When you live on a woodlot, a wood-heated home isn't a crazy idea.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

on the way in

Came home to just a few inches on the ground, was even able to dig out the car and do usual night chores without much fuss. Looks like the real ringer is tomorrow, and only around 10-15 inches so we might skate with under twenty total. Two months ago that would have sounded like a ridiculous sentence, but this year has taught me any day above 0 with less than thirty inches of snow at once is a blessing. Manageable. Kind.

Looks like my ride and I are braving the weather to go into the office tomorrow, but he thinks we'll skip out early in the afternoon if it's as bad as the reports say it will be. If that's the case I might be slow roasting some pork here and baking bread. Anyone with a good recipe to share, I would appreciate it. I'm embarrassed to admit I never roasted pork pig cooking skills end at bacon and helping my father pour a can of Coke over the Christmas ham.

I'm reading The Dogs of Bedlam Farm again for some comfort. The book takes place just twenty minutes North of Cold Antler in the town of Hebron. It's about author Jon Katz's first winter alone on a sheep farm in Washington County. He's there with some Border collies in his new/very old farmhouse and deals with -20 nights, lambing, and being a new farmer in a very old farming community. It's comforting to see someone else get through it all, so I pick it up and read about taking rectal donkey thermometer readings and feel like I've got it easy. It's also kind of surreal to read a book about the town and places you live in. Same gas stations, same Agway, same trips to Gardenworks and the Barn in Pawlet. If you haven't read it, check it out. Or visit

I was asked in a recent post about my plans for the lambs slaughter in the fall. I am hoping to do something like I did with Pig, and have their lives ended here. But unlike pork, lamb needs to hang for a few days before butchering so without perfect weather conditions outside, it could get tricky. I plan on having the animals slaughtered, skinned and such here and then driven over to a local small butcher shop to hang and wrap.

We're a long way from eating lamb chops here though...first they need to be born. We're still about seven weeks from the earliest possible due date (expect the first lambs here around March 19th) but I am starting to dream about them. I woke up this morning to the sound of a crying lamb and jolted out of bed, which freaked Gibson out. It was all in my head, there were no little ones outside, but it was amazing how even the notion flung me into action. If you think this winter has been a wild ride on this blog....just wait till spring. That's the real test.

storm coming

Monday, January 31, 2011

another one

A storm is coming. A big storm. The weather reports for the 12816 are calling for 15-30 inches of snow in the next 48 hours. In preparation I am making sure all the animals and I are ready this time. It's the second half of winter and I now have a plowman on call, a ride to work when the truck can't hack it, hay for the sheep under the side porch, wood stacked inside, water ready in the trough the night before, and am even setting up snow shovels by the front door. I have a roof rake. I have good boots. I have three warm dogs and an electric blanket. I am stacked inside with books, hot chocolate, coffee, tea, and a full larder. Pray the ice stays away, and the snow is only a foot or so so the buildings stay upright and the sheep aren't in need of a rescue dig out.

I have a feeling there won't be a lot of folks making it to the office Wednesday. If it's a white out even my ride in his giant Suburban won't want to fuss when he could work from home. Wish us all luck up here in Washington County.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

a winter pork harvest

This morning I had to go check the freezer to make sure the meat was still there. I wasn't entirely sure if this was a dream or not. I wanted to see proof that yesterday's work party had actually happened and it wasn't some crystal-mushroom induced frenzy triggered by a movie marathon of Babe, Witness, and Mystic Pizza (I'll explain later). But when I cracked open the chest it was all there and accounted for. Over a hundred and twenty pounds of roasts, ribs, hams, pork belly, sausage fixings, loins and chops. I realized I had never been in possession of this much meat before in my entire life. I was lousy with pork. I got a little dizzy and shut the lid.

Yesterday was quite the day. Eleven people, six dogs, and one swine made up the work crew that descended on Cold Antler. The mission: to turn a living Yorkshire Pig into food. The pork patrol was mostly limited to myself, my good friend Steve Hemkens, and Vicki Frost the traveling butcher. But other friends of the farm stopped by during the day to help with various aspects of a winter animal harvest, and their effort was greatly appreciated. Two families, the Daughtons and the McEnenys, arrived with their young children and did everything from help pick out a butchering location to climb on the roof to push off snow. It takes a village, darling. This post is the story of one farm's winter pork harvest. The entire day. Welcome to the table.

The rest of this post will explain the work, the emotion, and the images of a day making meat out of a living animal. Be aware that the content is graphic. Out of respect for the animal, there is no images of her slaughter, but much of the work of butchering. If this makes you uncomfortable, please govern yourself accordingly.

Yesterday morning I woke up to snow. Outside thick flakes were coming down, snow-globe style all over the farm. It was beautiful. I stoked the wood stove, put a pot of coffee on, and pulled a wool sweater over my braids and headed outside to see to morning chores. I thought about the Tschorns hosting dog sled rides today in Bennington, and my friend Tim's photography show I still had not seen. There was so much I could be doing with my winter Saturday. But today I wasn't going to be riding in a dogsled or looking at pictures on a cafe wall. I went into the barn to have some words with Pig.

It was warmer than I was used to. The day was already in the high twenties, and the comfortable atmosphere paired with the gentle snow seemed to soften the work ahead. Pig was just inside the old red door, standing up, looking at me curiously. She let out a few gentle snorts and I realized how quiet she had been this whole time. She never really made any noise unless something in her evening meal made her snort with glee. Despite eating a hen that flew into her pen, she was never vulgar. She didn't smell bad. She wasn't violent, or jumpy, and never complained—though her world was never one to cause much complaint. She had lived a peaceful and comfortable life in this barn. Her nests of hay, pan of grain, and red water bucket served her well. Compared to most of the pork in this world, she was living the life of royalty. Her little curled tail wagged as I scratched her ears.

I looked down at her eyes and told her Thank You.
I had never meant those words more than at that very moment.
I walked out of the barn.
The next time I would go in would be with the butcher.

Inside the house I was preparing for the day. I baked an apple pie that morning, and put on more strong coffee for the crew. Steve arrived first with his bird dog, Cayenne. All four dogs played while we enjoyed a breakfast of pie and coffee, and caught up with each other. Soon the other families and the butcher arrived, and before long everyone was helping set up the work station and gathering supplies. I liked Vicki instantly. She carried herself with the authority of an expert in her field. She has been raising and harvesting hogs since she was nine-years-old. I was grateful she traveled all the way down here (over two hours) to serve the farm.

Even the children got in on the action. Ian Daughton (10) scoped out trees around the farm to use as our butchering hoist (I was silently hoping we could spare the neighbors the site of a bloody hog operation in the front yard) and his brother Seth (6) helped fetch cameras and bleach. Later during the day, little Eli McEneny (2) walked around the job site as uninterested in the carnage as he would be dry leaves in the fall. These were the children of sporting families. Kids that grew up learning where their food came from and helping with the process—they hunted, made sausage, had cows in the backyard. I however, grew up in gentrified Suburbia, and I couldn't imagine helping one of my parents' friends locate a slaughtering tree in second grade. They amazed me with their gumption.

As it turned out the only proper place to work was the giant Maple right on the front lawn. It was strong enough to hoist the animal, close to power sources for the electric saws, and had a flat area to set up the water and bleach stations, knives, and wrapping workshop. People who would drive by would see a carcass hanging from a limb. They'd see blood and guts and all sorts of things you don't plan on seeing when you drive into town to pick up a movie and Chinese food. "Oh well," said Steve with an air of stoic amusement, "This is the country. This is a farm. They'll just have to deal with it." I agreed. Goodbye Suburbia.

When the abattoir, butchering table, and supplies were all lined up and ready it was time to slaughter. Vicki had a 30-30 deer rifle, and explained that she would wait as long as it took to get her perfect shot on a calm animal. She had stood in pig pens for two hours before. She had no interest in a frenzy or chasing a wounded animal through the snow. I trusted her, and only the two of us went into the barn.

I stood just outside the pig pen while the butcher climbed in with the now loaded rifle. I had been asked to stand behind her and act as calm as possible. Pig seemed confused by the sudden roommate, but not in the throes of any existential crisis. Vicki spoke to her in a calm voice, explaining to her perfectly what was going to happen. "Your farmer has been taking care of you and feeding you for a long time, and now it's your turn to feed her." she said as she scratched the little girl's head. I was a little shocked at how okay I felt about all this so far. I was told it would rattle me. I was steady at the helm. 100% present and aware. And I felt lucky to have someone as experienced as Mrs. Frost on the job. The woman has been raising and butchering hogs for forty years and her mind was entirely focused. Her expertise and steady hand were all the affirmation I needed. This woman butchered over 500 swine a year, on farms all over New England. Both me and Pig were in good hands today.

If Pig did know what was coming, it wasn't jarring enough to stop her from eating the pan of sugar-soaked apples and grain that would be her last meal. I watched the scene with curiosity, but not remorse. Guilt and sadness wasn't on my mind at all, (but then again, she hadn't pulled the trigger yet). I had no idea how I would feel about the slaughter of my first hog. I was less than four feet away from the event. Slowly and gently, Vicki aimed her muzzle right behind the porcine ear and the shot rang out. Pig dropped instantly to the ground. Just like that, it was over. I did not cry.

Within a moment of the drop Vicki sit her neck and the pig bled out right where she had slept the night before. I watched her final moments of twitching and said a prayer quietly to myself. I was assured that she was already gone. The bullet had gone directly through her brain and that instant drop to the ground was the certainty we needed. Within moments Vicki's husband and Steve had walked in the barn door. They slid hooks through her back hock tendons and dragged her out to the giant maple. The work of making food would begin.

Vicki set to skinning first. She cut off the skin around the pig's feet and head, and gently pulled off the hide with the expert of a surgeon. It was many, shallow cuts, and took half an hour. Feet were removed, so was the head. What remained hanging was no longer anything like a pig at all. It looked like the hanging meat you've seen in movies and television your whole life. But you know, in your front yard.

While we worked with Pig, the Daughtons headed out to help a friend move and Scott McEneny became a homeowner's super hero and climbed on the roof of the house to push off snow. I had been so worried about the barns and animals I didn't realize my own attic roof was swelling. I told him I could rake it down, but he insisted that he had to do something, and was stunned at his kindness. His wife and their little boy talked to the sheep, and their two hunting spaniels in their Volvo sang back-up. I kept thanking them like an idiot. Not many of my friends in my previous life would come help gut a pig and shovel my roof. I decided right then and there, he was getting meat on Monday once we wrapped it all up. All who helped that day would leave with some. It was the least I could do.

We breaked around 2PM for pizza. I wasn't sure what Emily Post had written about the etiquette of hosting traveling hog butchers, but I decided in that mine would be well fed and have all the coffee or tea she could drink. We came inside and washed up before enjoying a thick-crusted pizza loaded with cheese. It tasted amazing. I had been fasting all morning, and we had been working non-stop. We talked for over and hour in there. About farming, our dogs, relationships, sustainability. Vicki seemed comfortable at Cold Antler, and I was pleased at that.

The next round of work was gutting and splitting the carcass. Vicki estimated the weight of Pig to be around 180 pounds. A third of that would become waste, and the rest would become food. The "waste" was mostly entrails and things like the head, fat, and feet. On future animals I might render my own lard and make scrapple: but this was not my intention with this first pig. I would take the hams and bacon to be smoked, but that was the extent of my adventures beyond basic pork. So entrails went to compost and the head went far into the woods for the birds. The skin was laid out for the chickens to pick the fat off and enjoy. The soil, the crows, the poultry, and several people would be fed by this one animal. How humbling.

Vicki explained the anatomy to me, and said that the inside of Pig was as healthy looking as the outside. The only thing we needed to be mindful was that she did eat raw meat (the errant hen) and that meant the meat would have to be frozen for twenty days or cooked to 160 degrees, well done, in case of any possible trichinosis. The chances were rare, being so few meals she acquired that way, but no reason to play it safe. I was so upset. Did I mess this up? Was the pork dangerous? Vicki assured me it was fine, that she would eat it and feed it to her grandchildren, just not rare.

We set the sides on the table and went to work. We cut up the liver, heart, some fat, and all the scrap cuts into a giant bowl for sausage making. We wrapped up the roasts, loins, ribs, and chops in cling wrap and freezer paper and stacked them on the table. Mounds of wrapped meat piled up, cuts I could never imagine seeing in a grocery store. Jowl steaks, Blade roasts, and stir-fry cuts would be in the freezer along with the hams, belly, and chops. The whole time we worked Vicki explained how to cook things, how to prepare them, and stories of past hogs and farm adventures. It might sound like a bloody mess, and it was, but it was also a happy practice. A bunch of kind people getting together, working side-by-side to achieve this goal.

Time went fast as Steve showed me how to wrap and mark the packages. As it got colder out we worked even faster to get everything in the freezer. I looked over at Vicki, in just a light sweater, snow pants, and a garbage bag apron and how cold she was among the knives and flesh and decided she was getting a tip. How could a four-hour round trip to dress one hog be profitable for her? I offered her pork as well (stupidly, she had plenty) but decided this was the best way to show my appreciation, and entice her back for the next pig. When you find help this good, at so good a price ($200 was her fee for the travel, slaughter, butchering, wrapping and bringing all her own supplies. Not to mention, over five hours of work...) you hope they'll like you enough to return.

A one point worked stopped to take in a scene. We all were stunned to see a group of robins in the well, just down the hill. I saw them splash at the stream and saw hints of green grass the water had washed the ice clean from. I felt as uplifted, better than I had in days. I took it as a sign that the worst of this winter was over. That spring, and lambs, and good things were going to come my way. Robins on slaughter day: a new folk saying was born.

Eventually, everything was wrapped up and cleaned. Knives were put away, the meat in the freezer, the station torn down, and all that was left was our footprints and the red pile of blood under the maple tree. Steve left with a hug, told me he was proud. I was proud too. That was the overriding feeling of the day. I had no regret or guilt for taking the life, and realized this would carry over to the lambs in the fall as well. This was my work, creating healthy meat, the food of the ages. I was proud that I completed this project, the first I executed alone. I needed help of course to do all the work, but the planning, the pen building, the finding cheap feed, the labor, the raising, the setting up the butcher date and the day's work...I did it. I felt like carpenter that finished her first house. This was a life to live in.

My life has changed from one that coveted material things and experiences to one that savors hand-made comfort. I used to want everything I saw at Crate and Barrel and dreamed of weekends in London. Now I am planning how to install a bread-baking wood stove and filling a chest freezer with yard pork. I still enjoy the Crate and Barrel catalog, I still imagine weekends in London, but they aren't what they were. They are distractions now from a better world. Amusements. When I realized the only reason people were shopping or vacationing was because someone else was making their food: it lost much of it's appeal. You can be the most strident anarchist and own your own indie gallery but you're as dependent as a suckling child if you can't fill your own fridge from time to time. I'll trade in my plane tickets for a weekend like this any day.

This morning when I was outside fetching water from the well for the sheep, I walked past the giant tree that was yesterday's scene. The new snow had all but covered the blood.

A farm exhales.