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.