Saturday, March 19, 2011

we still wait

Today is the official, on-calendar, unequivocal due date for 06-04. She's round, has a huge bag, and a red rear end. It could happen any minute now and like the midwife I have turned into: I am getting prepared for a midnight delivery. They want it 16 degrees tonight, so I already ran a heat lamp up to the lambing jug. 100 bright-orange feet of extension cord are carrying warmth to that little brown shack on the hill. It is loaded with hay, a water bucket, and a safe gate to keep mother and young together. I bought a small oral injector of LambSaver: a nutritional supplement for the first 24 hours of life. I'm ready, at least as far as physical preparedness goes. I have no idea what will happen emotionally once those little ones are in my arms. I'm pretty sure I'll cry more than I have in a long time.

I think everyone who has Barnheart, who seriously pines for an agricultural life, has these fantasies of being under the stars after a long day of work. Some time of year when everything is green and lush. Of reclining back after the birds have been processed, the salad greens swaying in the wind, and that first hay field cut down and relclining (just as you are ) after all your labor and strife. You want to be on the back bed of your pickup truck, tanned and thin, tired and happy. Perhaps with your dog, partner. or a cold beer (all three please).

But that is a fantasy. It happens, sure, every June night somewhere in America, but the longer I am a part of this farm the more I realize those greeting-card scenes are not what I had wanted all those nights paging through Hobby Farm Magazine in Borders. It is moments like this.

This farm is a mess of mud and melting snow. There are jars of honey glowing in the afternoon light on the window sill and I know another hive is on the way. Right now the chicks in the brooder are on clean shavings, fed and watered. The eggs are collected from outside and in the fridge. Production is good. The lambing basket of gear and supplies by the back door are like a hospital suitcase for a mother-in-waiting. The dogs are asleep. The chores are all done and now there is nothing but anticipation. Sweet, writhing, anticipation. This farmhouse is humming with it. Any minute, hour, or day (even this minute as I type!) a ewe will start hunching with contractions and start going into labor. I'm hoping I am able to be there to watch and assist (if necessary) as the first ever Cold Antler lambs come into the light. If one arrives today by morning it will be tagged and docked, given a booster and a head scratch. I will have completed the shepherd's year, and started a new one.

I'm here writing you because I'm not sure of what else to do? I suppose I could try to take a nap, but even on such little sleep I feel wired and restless. I keep checking for water bags, listening to what might be a contraction. Windows are open. Wood is piled by the stove. I was invited to a solstice bonfire tonight at a friend's farm and I doubt I'll stay an hour. I just want to be here. I want to know what it feels like to be there when this happens to me.

I hope my next post is a photo of a healthy lamb.

Friday, March 18, 2011

good news and bad news

Bad news first: my bees didn't survive the winter. Can't blame them, I barely got out alive myself. When I went into the hive I expected low numbers, but the box was nearly barren. What was left inside though, was a few pounds of uneaten honey...

Good news: I had an early spring honey harvest today! I brought in the combs and scraped the wax and honey into a colander set over a 5-gallon saucepan (cheap extracting) and by morning all that will be left in that colander is wax. So tomorrow I can heat up the honey on a low heat and strain it again through cheese cloth to get it clean and ready to jar in the larder. I wasn't expecting a spring crop of the sweet stuff, but at least I'm getting it instead of the bears.

Losing a hive is a burn, but since I'm not sure if it was disease or the cold that killed the Styrofoam hive: I'm not letting others coming in the end of april re-use it. Besides the fact it might carry mites or other critters—it could easily attract animals coming out of hibernation (like bears!)

Also, it is a goose magnet. Who knew? My geese never bothered the wooden hives but boy do they love pulling little Styrofoam balls off that new hive. It's been trashed by winter, geese, and dead bees. Time to cut my losses in the shape of honey jars and order a wooden hive.

Still No Lambs...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Banjo Equinox!

This weekend is the Spring Equinox! For a girl who just went through a hell of a winter, reading that out loud is music to my ears. It feels like Spring out there, too. I collected five eggs today (girls are back into production!) and lambs are moments from hitting the ground bleating. This farm is still melting the feet of snow and ice that covered it all through the past three months—but spots of grass are showing up. Tiny bright green blades are shooting through the winter of sheep poop. It's a hell of a contrast.

In celebration of warmer weather, Easter, sump pumps, daffodils, chicks, lambs and everything else wonderful about spring: we're going to put on a concert. We're going to play some banjo music. Yes, us. Any one of you out there that wants to be playing tunes on your porch by the solstice (and you will if you stick with us) can. No experience with instruments needed. I don't care if you never read a sheet of music in your life. We are learning the mountain way to play banjo: which is by ear and tune. And not any of that newfangled bluegrass: but OLD TIME banjo!

Yes darling, Old Time! The banjo music that grew out of the soil of the south. The songs from older Appalachia. The banjo tunes people played at Civil War camps and trapper rendezvous. We're all going to start with our first lesson on the Spring Equinox, right here. On this blog we'll start with the parts of the banjo, the history, and how to get her into tune. We'll cover the basic clawhammer strum, and I'll add my own videos of learning along with Julie Dugan: Grand Banjo Frailer of Cambridge, New York. It'll be fun and easy. You just need to promise to practice with us everyday.

You don't need a banjo to join us yet, but if you want to learn, you'll need to get one soon. You can borrow, buy, or beg for one. I can't say enough good things about (They aren't sponsors, so I'm not getting any sort of cash for endorsing them. I just really like them.) They hail from Knoxville, Tennessee and sell affordable banjo starter kits for beginners at affordable prices (under 200 shell cards) and the best part: they come all set up. You don't get a box with strings that need to be attached and tuned. They also come with electronic tuners, and many kits come with the book we'll be using to learn. It's called "Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus" by Wayne Erbsen. This course is 100% FREE. Enjoy it! Share it with friends and family who might want to join. If you can't do it in real time, that's okay, you can always catch up later.

Robert Webb won the CAF Bean Blossom Hobo package giveaway. It's a fine beginner banjo, and if you can swing it, get one or one like it. I play the Morgan Monroe Scoop Neck. You can play any 5-string banjo you can think of, resonator backs are okay too if that's what you got. We aint fancy.

So here's what you need to join up, son:

A 5-string Banjo (open back preferred)
An electric tuner (guitar tuners are cheap and work great)
Wayne Erbsen's Book listed above
Practice time of minimum 15 minutes, twice a day.

Additional Goodies and inspiration to check out!

Songcatcher (movie!) about old-time music
Banjo Camp! by Gene Senyak (amazing beginner book!)
The How and Tao of Old Time Banjo by Patrick Costello
Clawhammer Banjo From Scratch - DVD- Dan Leverson

Homework before starting: Order Erbsen's Book, read pages 1-22 with CD to listen to as you go. Get a banjo and tuner too. Check back on the Equinox to see our first group lesson: holding, tuning, frailing 101.

Raise up those stickpots, people. We're learning to make mountain music!

the good book

I was living in an apartment in Knoxville when I picked up Catherine Friend's memoir Hit By a Farm. I grabbed it from the shelf in Borders, mostly because Garrison Keillor had a quote on the back. I think I read it in four days. The book was about two people deciding to become shepherds in the 21st century. From clueless to buying land and picking up 50 ewes.... What a ride. It showed me that changing your life 180 degrees was possible. It was the first of many like-minded stories that made me quit my job in the city and move out west.

Last week I got an email from Catherine asking if I wanted to read her new book, Sheepish? I was thrilled and an advanced reading copy came in yesterday. I started it on my lunch break. It is wonderful. You feel like you're walking with her around the farm and she's pointing and talking about things right in front of you. It is reminding me so much, so very much, about that first read of last book. I have no doubt in my mind that Friend's story of becoming a shepherd was one of the many influences that got me to this farm. Her and other authors have filled my house with their how-to, memoirs, and novels. They were all my ticket here. The inspiration that created my reality. Sometimes a good book is all it takes.

Books have been my companion on this adventure from apartment-dweller to small holder. Some like Logsdon's Contrary Farmer have spent as much time in the pasture as I had. Wendell Berry lives in my kitchen. I have listened to Kingsolver, Pollan, and others on my ipod read to me so many days in the garden I equate certain audiobook voices with seasons. Some are funny, like the recently read Bucolic Plague, and others are just Biblical standbys, like Carla's Encyclopedia.

So what farm books have inspired you along the way? Add to my list, please!

P.S. No lambs yet. This is torture.
P.P.S. Banjo Equinox details later today
P.P.S. Anyone want to come to a sheep workshop?
P.P.P.S. That picture is from last summer. I miss green grass here...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

big plans

My morning started with me leaning my arms over a metal stock fence with a cup of coffee looking at sheep vulvas. Not exactly what I expected on my graduation day from my 4-year Graphic Design program, but pleasant enough. It wasn’t easy holding the mug. My right hand had been slammed into the sheep shed wall while administering Selenium shots this weekend. Now a black and blue mark like a large shadow marks the back of my hand. Since this side of the Mississippi lacks natural sources of selenium and haven’t been feeding much mineral in the frozen months, it was an important pre-natal care step. Selenium adds muscle tone and strength to ewes, helps stop prolapses, and fights white muscle disease. It took four of us to inject all five mommas-to-be. Myself, my friends Othniel and Yeshava, and Diane all took turns filling needles, catching and holding sheep, and letting them go one at a time. Liset still feels so frail compared to the others. I worry about her all the time.

I'm often asked by my non-farming friends and family what my plans are for the next few weeks? It’s a conversational segue, a totally benign question, and yet every time I hear it a little flicker of panic shoots up my spine. I have learned that my farm-related answers like lambing! or setting up the brooder for 84 chicks are not what people expect to hear. To them farm events are home-maintenance. It’s like saying I have dusting and laundry lined up for the afternoon. They want to hear about events off the farm. Things like dates, shopping trips, travel, vacations, furniture purchases, movies, parties, anything involving commerce, clothing, and culture. Pretty much anything that doesn’t involve a grain bucket.

My answers usually disappoint. I really don’t go anywhere. I don’t want to. My whole life right now is 6.5 acres, due dates, books, a garden, and this world of chickens and freezer pork. I like to cook and listen to music, play some when the work is done, and when I do leave the farm it’s for things like local friends and neighbors parties and events. We’re almost hitting a full calendar year here in Jackson and the only three nights I didn’t sleep a couple dozen yards away from sheep and chickens were the nights I spent in Pennsylvania with my family over Christmas. So travel is out.

I do buy things, but 85% of it is related to the farm and the other 15% is spent on little whimsical things of my own amusement (i.e. records, antiques, Fireking mugs, expensive coffee shipped from Portland, etc). I have yet to drop a couple hundred bucks on furniture or fashion: mostly because the farm needs fences and field shelters. Clothing is worn till it frays apart, and then I buy second hand online or in thrift stores.

I just got an email from a friend saying her company was sending her to Sweden. I cringed at the idea of being that far from the action at Cold Antler. If someone handed me a plane ticket to Bali for a Yoga/Spa weekend during lambing season I would poach it on Craigslist for a new shed with jugs and creep feeders. I’d buy the winter hay. I’m already in Paradise. I don’t want to be distracted from it.

I forget what it was like to not have all these animals and plans. I really mean that, too. I don’t remember what it was like to have nothing to do but go to work and then come home and feed and walk Jazz. I do remember never sitting still. That dog and I were all over the city of Knoxville, at every Farmer’s Market and Street Fair. We explored constantly, never static. So I’ll start dating (but won’t be blogging about it) and going to things (iron and wine concert in April!) but these things are holidays in a very filled-up life. This first year on the farm: learning the process of lambs and wool mills, markets, ad sales, and working on another book are all dancing along with learning to manage an old farmhouse and all it’s care and feeding.

happy birthday gibson!

congrats robert webb!

Winner of the Hobo Open Back Banjo! You can email me at for details and to get me your mailing address. Well done!

I would have announced this last night, as planned, but lamb-watch and an appointment in Cambridge threw me off my game. But hey, we're only a few hours late. And for everyone else who entered, thank you. Banjo Equinox starts this weekend with an intro and banjo primer. We'll be learning to play Clawhammer together using Wayne Erbsen's book and CD. Grab a stickpot and join the party!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

5-minute primer

the waiting game

Monday, March 14, 2011

the prayers run like weeds along the road

I'm listening to Kiss Each Other Clean on the record player while the tea kettle simmers. The combination is making this old house a few degrees warmer. I very much like the sound of new voices on old machines. I like it even more with a hot cup of tea between both hands. It fills them, keeps them warm. I keep my house at a temperature I can afford, and it's not uncomfortable with a sweater. Sometimes it gets chilly, but moments like this: with music and hot tea make the heat deficit poetic. Swirling steam rises from mugs. You can make your own weather in an old house in upstate New York in late spring.

I'm tired from a long day, spent with a fever and trained on the tasks of preparing the world for a few more wooly souls. I finished the lambing jug tonight, and while it's crude it will make a fine nursery for whoever decides to lamb first. It's built inside the smaller sheep shed and creates a 4x4 pen with it's own water bucket and hay supply on a hook. I'm proud of it. It's the last thing I had on my list to prepare for these new blackface lambs. I'm ready now. I'm ready for what's next.

I sing along with my record player. Sam doesn't know it, but we're a capital duet. I especially adore Walking Far From Home, which I know every word by heart now. That song reminds me so much of the last few years driving and living all over this fine country. It feels so good to sing along with the cracking LP while finally home.

Six years, 7,000 miles, five states, three vehicles, and a farm that is turning me into the woman I so desperately want to be: strong, graceful, calm, and quiet.

I'm none of those things, not really. I can carry a pair of 50-pound feed bags over my should, but that's not the strength I'm referring to. I mean stronger willed, more in control of my actions and emotions. I want to be able to obtain some level of moving grace, be able carry a mug of coffee up a few flights of stairs without spilling half on the trip. I want to get through a day without cutting or bruising myself. I want to get over my anxiety and panic, stop being a slave to my own fears. I want to not need to talk all the time, just listen, and remember the old Japanese saying that silence is better than 99.9% certainty.

Maybe these lambs can be a new start for me. Maybe they can be my ovine ambassadors towards being a better person. I'll hold up my end of the deal and stock my pantry with colostrum, vitamins, ear tags, and hoof medications, and they can show me how to exhale slower. Something like that.

I have a long way to go. I'll start here.

cornish's rock

The chickens here are all doing well and growing at a breakneck pace. I have about a dozen laying hens and twenty freezer birds all mingling in their fancy brooder castle. The Cornish Rocks (my meat birds) are a little over two-weeks old, and weigh a pound each already! They are three times the size of the laying hens! It amazes me that these animals will be dressed and in the freezer in just 6-8 more weeks! Raising your own chicken dinners is pretty economical once you have your brooder and coop ready to go. Since this is the first year I am only buying feed and birds (already had all the supplies and a barn) the cost to raises this clean meat is only 1.99 a chick and two or three fifty pound bags of chick feed. It comes to about 40 dollars in chicks, 30 dollars in feed (max) and three dollars a bird to have them processed and packaged. Which comes to a grand total of $130 for 160 pounds of free-range chicken from a sustainable farm. Making each bird cost about $1.23 a pound. Not too shabby.

Of course, this isn't about saving a few dollars a pound. It's about knowing your food, knowing how it lived, seeing it from peeper to pepper. It's being part of the story. Here's to cheap Sunday roasts I stoked a wood stove for!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

back to the root

15-06 due any day now...


So I didn't tell you the whole story yesterday, but I think this house is trying to break me into being a bomb-proof homeowner. The sump pump adventure was one event, but yesterday we also noticed that the power lines from the pole had pulled off the house, causing the live wires to sag and hang by nothing but the cables support, no screws, dangerous stuff. So I called the emergancy service and within a few hours the road crew from National Grid came to the rescue. They parked their giant truck by the sheep and all eight lifted their heads at once to see the man in the giant grain bucket lift off the ground. I had to smile at that.

So now that the power lines are fixed, I found out my heating unit's ventilation system is down, meaning my furnace can't run without filling the house with CO2. So I turned off the heat, stoked up the wood stove, and chalked that up as a loss until the maintenance guys can come see it tomorrow. With a night in the 40's it's pointless to waste money on an emergency call to come out here. I'll be fine.

So in the last three days this house has lost siding, filled a basement with water, downed power lines, lost heat, and is possibly trying to kill me in my sleep...

You just have to have a sense of humor about it at this point.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


It has been an extremely long 24 hours. I slept a total of 2.6 hours and my rugs need to be washed, but I am happy to report that the problem has been solved! Thanks to the amazing help and unwavering kindness of friends and readers this girl's basement has no standing water at all!

I spent the entire night hauling buckets, by 4:30 AM I was so worn out and sore I thought I would crumble on the old basement stairs. But at some point you just snap out of any sort of stupid self-pity and do what needs to be done. I got my second wind and kept about 200 gallons of water away from my furnace. By morning I was that shaking-tired that infuses the whole body. You feel like one of the characters in some epic movie moving across mountains in a cape with a pony on a lead rope.

But in the morning I got a text from the Daughton Family, my heros. I called Cathy and she told me Tim was coming over to assess the damage and he would be bringing me back to their house for a hot breakfast and then taking me to Home Depot to buy a sump pump. I could have cried. With them in this, I knew I would be okay.

After an amazing meal of eggs, bacon, cinnamon toast and coffee (I was so hungry it was ridiculous) we picked up our supplies in Bennington and then headed back to the farm in the Daughton Suburban. At the front door when we arrived was a site for sore eyes...a black pump and a yellow hose. Someone had just simply come to my rescue without a note. (I later found out it was the gals from Windwoman Farm). If anyone doubts the reality of guardian angels, well, then they haven't tried to run a farm alone....

We spent the day rigging up a water removal system, and it might be what Tim calls "Ozark Engineering" but I'll be damned if it isn't doing the job perfectly. Here's what we did.

Tim drilled several holes in a large 5-gallon buckets bottom sides and then we wrapped it in gardening cloth. The cloth was held in tape with Gorilla Tape, and created a screen to keep rocks and debris from entering the bucket. We submerged it in the lowest part of the basement and stabilized it with gravel. I bought a 1/3 HP sump pump with the auto-start float you all suggested and all the other hoses, clamps, PVC, and other supplies we would need. We rigged it up to shoot up 7 feet (three feet below the 10 foot max) and then ran it out a hole we drilled and threaded with PVC pipe. The hose now sends water from the basement out and away from the house.

Some of it was trial and error, and some of it was luck, but we put away the Shop Vacs by noon. Now the basement has some serious dampness issues, but is cleaned up. I now feel pretty confident doing it by myself or for someone else. A skill I would have never learned away from this house (which more and more reminds me of Maude). I might be dealing with a rough first-year, but this farm has taught me so much. And when I realize next winter I'll already have a 4WD truck, a plow man on call, a year of lambing under my belt, and a sump pump. Hells Bells, there aint nothing I can't take on.

Right now I am beyond tired, beyond hand salve, beyond useful, and beyond grateful. I do not deserve this kind of love from you, but I accept it as gracefully as this clumsy girl possibly can.

Thank you.

Friday, March 11, 2011

the bottom

Rain, wind, melting snow and a 50-degree day have created nothing but trouble. I woke up to the sound of something like a shopping cart being dragged across my outer walls and when I went out to feed the sheep I discovered that the gales had ripped some siding off. It was partially attached, but flapping in the wind. Not a big section, but a section I couldn't nail back on myself. It was near the roof. I don't have a 20-foot ladder. I'm scared of heights. I'm also a klutz. Wonderful.

What started as a little water in the basement is quickly escalating to a stream turning into a pool. I have spent the entire evening running Shop-Vacs full of water up the basement stairs and pouring them outside down from the house. Every time I thought I had it cleaned up, I would return fifteen minutes later to see it even deeper and farther spread out. At this point I panicked and called a half-dozen friends: all of which had the same advice: call a plumber or buy a sump pump tomorrow at home depot. But I am worried the water will reach the furnace, an item I need and can not afford to replace, and so I am taking shifts all night to do what I can to control this. I did eventually find the source in the floor wall, and was able to plug it up a bit to slow it down by piling mounds of wet cat litter over it. I bought five bags at the IGA in town earlier and felt I had to explain why to the check-out 16-year-old that I didn't own a cat, I had water in my basement. The idea of a single woman buying cat litter on a Friday night was just too pathetic to go without rebuttal.

This is wearing me down. I'm hungry, exhausted, and worried. I'm not going to lie, around 8PM I just started crying. I was crying because I was worn down from other things, but also because I knew the rest of the night I would be cleaning the mess the mud made in the house, and taking constant heavy buckets up those stairs. It's part of owning your own house. It just is. I'm not breaking down because of the work. It's the fact that every goddamn lesson there is to learn about houses has happened this year to me: and I have no experience with any of it, and it's just me trying to doggy paddle through it all upriver.

This winter has been so draining on me. Now that it is finally coming to a close it's draining into my basement. This better be the bottom.

A kind neighbor who has a contracting business stopped on their way into town and fixed the siding. They are certainly getting a pie. It's little things like that, that keep me going.

So here's what I am going to do. I am going to clean up this house from the mud, clean up myself a bit, and make something to eat. Then I am going to do another round of hose and buckets. Then I am going to take a nap. Then I'll wake up to the alarm and repeat the whole process over and over. If I let it go those giant puddle will turn into an entire basement full of water.

How much do sump pumps cost? And do they handle shallow water?

wound in bailing wire

Thursday, March 10, 2011

novella's little farm in the city

lambs soon!

We are less than ten days from lambing here at Cold Antler Farm. The shepherd's records for the blackface sheep mark the earliest birth at March 19th. All my lambing books say to take that date and remove three as the earliest birthday. It's the 10th of March and that means by next weekend there could easily be two more sheep at this farm.

Right now all I can do is remain extra vigilant and make sure everyone has what they need to get the job done. Everyone is eating well, has a nice straw bedding in the shed, and for once mother nature is starting to agree with this whole lambing thing. Tomorrow might reach above fifty degrees. Beats being born at -8.

My job when the lambs come is to make sure they are healthy and upright. If a lamb is with her mother, drinking her milk and by her side: we can assume all went to plan. But that still means the sheep needs to be tagged, docked, and looked over. She'll need her cord trimmed and dipped in Iodine. If I come across a lamb in the shed or snow without its mother, I just have to pray that it's still alive and I can bring it indoors under a heat lamb on a blanket and feed it some of the frozen colostrum I have from my friend's dairy goats. Just in case of such events I have special tubes that the lambs swallow down right to their stomachs and formula if their mother's don't produce milk.

My biggest fear is that a lamb will be in trouble giving birth and I won't be able to help. I know that's what vets are for, but if it happens at 4 AM and I'm still asleep...the guilt would be tragic. All I can do from tonight onward is set my alarm at 2 AM and 4 AM to check on things.

Any day now. Any day now....

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

just 5 days left to enter! win your own Bean Blossom Hobo Banjo! For details on the Banjo Equinox blog lessons and giveaway, click here! Winner will be announced on the night of the 15th.

the cambridge kids

On a hay pickup in Cambridge last night I was invited to see the newest members of my friend Jonah's farm. These little twins, a girl and a boy, were under the glow of the heat lamp in the old dairy barn. Being a milking operation: the little ones need to be taken from their mother's right away, but they are doing well on their bottles in their own little corner of the barn. Did you know when you hold them they nuzzle right into your chest? Makes a tired girl smile.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

on the tailgate of his new rig

resting stance

I bought some straw bales to couch up the sheep sheds and make them clean and comfortable as possible. One of the sheep seems to have dropped her lambs from behind her spine down into the lower belly. This means we're T-Minus two weeks around here for some lambs. Everyone is eating well and enjoying their grain rations and minerals.

Last night was a firestorm of work and small emergencies. I was pumping water out of the basement, cleaning the brooder, working out, all over the place. Tonight I was done with errands and chores by 7:30. I was on the daybed with an oven-fresh piece of pizza and homebrew by 8. No working out. No water in the basement to pump. No drama with beasts living or dead...

I'm going to bed early, people. That's that.

Stay tuned for that first CAF lamb....

young generation of farmers emerges

“People want to connect more than they can at their grocery store,” Ms. Jones said. “We had a couple who came down from Portland and asked if they could collect their own eggs. We said, ‘O.K., sure.’ They want to trust their producer, because there’s so little trust in food these days.”

Garry Stephenson, coordinator of the Small Farms Program at Oregon State University, said he had not seen so much interest among young people in decades. “It’s kind of exciting,” Mr. Stephenson said. “They’re young, they’re energetic and idealist, and they’re willing to make the sacrifices.”

Though the number of young farmers is increasing, the average age of farmers nationwide continues to creep toward 60, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. That census, administered by the Department of Agriculture, found that farmers over 55 own more than half of the country’s farmland.

From a Fantastic NY Times piece on young farmers!

all better

Gibson's body is back to normal. Turns out he passed all the staples he ate—and no metal showed up on the Xrays—but What the x-rays didn't show was the popsicle sticks jammed inside him. Two days after we hit the emergency vet he passed a wad of wood and has been acting normal ever since. At the workshop he was piling on top of people and yesterday he spent lunch hour at the office running amuck with an Australian Shepherd. If you want more details on the story and the vet visit, you can follow the comments on the Facebook page and on the ER post below.

Thank you all for your thoughts and support!

Monday, March 7, 2011

five hours

Came home at 5:30. Parked truck outside driveway. Shoveled snow pile road plows built in driveway. Snow was heavy. Pull truck into driveway. Bring Gibson inside to eat his dinner in crate. Take out Jazz and Annie for a short walk. Bring in Jazz and Annie. Feed them dinner in front room. Go outside to feed sheep while still light out. Give half a bale of hay to flock. Separate it into four sections so everyone eats. No more big piles: leaves some out. Give a cup of grain to each sheep at its own station in the snow. Check all ewe's health and general condition. Scratch Sal. Set water bucket at artesian well spout. Stop to be grateful for artesian well on farm. Remind self to come back aftera short while and replace dirty water in heated pail. Go inside to check on chicks. Clean out brooder and replace with fresh shavings. Refill water and feed containers. No casualties for days. All Chicks look good. Vents clean. Eyes bright. Start fire in woodstove. Start a load of laundry. Check emails. See angry vegetarian on Facebook. Feel self-conscious he called me a pig. Let Gibson out of crate to play with big dogs. Check on oil in basement (half a tank) and realize water is all over. Panic. Post about it on blog. Call friends Shellee and Zach for advice. Zach asks if I have a wet/dry Shop-Vac? I do! I spend the next 45 minutes sucking out fifteen gallons of water and dumping it outside back of house, away from house. Feel like a home-owning superhero. Clean floor from basement-to outside trips from mud. Wash hands three times and still dirty. Sigh. Go outside to collect eggs and feed big chickens. Door of barn is frozen shut from ice storm. Pry open door enough to throw in grains for the barn-birds. Has to be good enough. Only one brown egg inside. My hens don't lay for ice storms. Smart. Come inside. Put clothes in dryer. Start to feel tired. Take out all three dogs again. Come inside to check email/delay 30-Day Shred DVD. Change into workout clothes and do level one in kitchen. Gibson lays on my stomach when I try to do crunches. He licks my face during push ups. He is the world's worst drill sergeant. Finish workout and back hurts. Wonder if pigs get back pains? Take ibuprofen and stretch. Change into PJs. Remember I forgot to fetch the sheep's water and look for warm socks. Take sheep fresh water and all dogs outside one more time. Dinner is yogurt and a peach. Drink a lot of water. Crash out on daybed with warm dogs. Put on mindless movie. Pray for June. Set alarm for 4:45.

It's not always like this.

water in the basement

After this weekend's rain and thaw the basement is starting to get water in it. I'm sure this is normal for the house, as the basement is always a little damp, but the water is pooling in just one section, near the holding tank and furnace. The boiler is a good six-inches above the half inch of water seeping in. But the furnace is just an inch or so above it. Can this water hurt it?

I'll call my furnace guys tomorrow to ask, I need to call them about the rattling vent anyway—but does anyone know ways to keep water out of a dirt and stone basement? Do you shovel all snow away from the walls of the house? Do you buy some water-be-gone powder from Lowe's?


Sunday, March 6, 2011

the workshop

I just finished a tall frothy glass of Caribou Slobber and I loved it. The brown ale with the eccentric name was a gift from Sage, one of the workshoppers who traveled to the farm today to dive into the world of backyard chickens. She and ten others came from four different states (and two cities!) to spend a Sunday at Cold Antler and go home with a cardboard box full of future fritatas. It was a wonderful afternoon.

The Chicken 101 workshop was my first since becoming a Chicken Author. I was nervous as all get out. There were things I wished I had planned better—but overall it was a success. Folks signed up to learn about raising laying hens, and between the talks, questions, and conversations: that is exactly what they received. They also left with a copy of Chick Days and their very own Ameraucanas, Buff Orpingtons, and Rhode Island Reds. Not a bad way to spend a rainy Sunday.

Cathy Daughton arrived early to be my saving grace. She brought her beautiful cinnamon coffee cake braid and did everything from dishes to help answer beginner questions. I'm blessed to have her in my life.

Soon after she arrived the attendees started to show up. The recent snow melts of the last two days brought the gift of parking spaces, so everyone was able to squeeze their cars and trucks along the road. Before long the house was full of people eager and willing to see their chicks and talk poultry. We enjoyed a brunch of quiche and Daughton Cinnamon Fanastico and then got into the big show.

We started in the nursery, going over the breeds and brooder basics. As I explained about heat lamps and pine shavings, people got to hold their future employees in their warm hands. After that initial talk from me and a general Q&A we broke for lunch to eat up some homemade pizza. Collin played some banjo tunes while the PBS special The Natural History of the Chicken aired on the used television. After that, we went out into the wind and rain to discuss adult hens, housing, and diseases in the barn. It was like a treehouse club of homesteaders and future farmers. Everyone was friendly, helpful, and kind.

The workshop ended in the living room with more questions and discussion. We went over cleaning coops, predator control, stories, and more. When all of us were spent, full, and excited we filled up their transport containers with chicks and said our goodbyes. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed the fellowship and fowl. I felt lucky to host it.

I'll do another workshop like this the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Already we have three folks signed up and I hope more of you decide to join us. It'll be a beautiful spring weekend on the farm, complete with romping lambs, home-brewed beer and a bonfire. And you get to go home with some chicks in a little box. Email me if you want in on the party. There's a great old grand hotel just three miles from the farm.

I didn't tell this to anyone, but the entire time I was handing people chicks or in the barn talking about frost-bitten combs—I kept thinking about a few springs earlier in Idaho. I was in their position in 2006. I had just moved to the other side of the country and wanted to produce as much of my own food as possible. Diana (my friend and mentor) showed me all of the things we covered today. It was a wash of gratitude to realize just half a decade later I was back on the east coast with my own land, flock, and telling other beginners about scratch grains and reference books. I still remember that day I picked up our spring order of chicks and I drove them in the snow to her farm. We set up the brooder, and I watched her open that postal box of babes with the awe of a 6-year-old in a pet-shop window giving away free puppies. After the chicks were settled, I remember thanking her and telling her I hoped some day to do the same for someone else. Today I had that chance.

Thank you, Di and everyone who made my farm a part of their weekend. Let me know how those little ones do.

photo by Alli Schweizer

Saturday, March 5, 2011

splattering the robe

In the Zen Buddhist Tradition there's a ritual I truly adore. Those who choose to take the vows of Jukai—to become dedicated students— sew a small special robe in the shape of a rice field. This garment is called a Rakusu. It's a collection of delicate scraps of fabric patched into a hand-sewn quilt worn across the front of the body. The ordained wear it over their sitting robes as an affirmation of their vows (and so other students are aware of the level of their practice). It takes weeks to create these relics by hand. When the final product is done it is magical. A handmade meditation.

Stories passed down tell of Zen teachers who looked at their students' robes with discomfort bordering on disgust. The students had too much pride in the work, too much attachment to an item that would compost into soil if left out in the rain too long. So to keep their students awake to the point of this world (to live free of attachment and suffering) they would splatter a bit of ink, or tear a corner, or squash a berry into that beautiful robe. Anything that would remove that silly desire to keep something owned as worthy of permanence: from being seen as an object instead of a purpose. It kept folk's eyes on the prize, so to speak.

I once heard a Baptist pastor say that you never see a U-haul following a hearse. He was a great Zen teacher.

Gene Logsdon says the best investment a small farmer can make is in their truck. It does a million different jobs, and makes an agricultural life possible. You get a stock trailer, hay hauler, and car all wrapped up into one. In a way, buying a truck is a homesteading Jukai. It is your Rakusu. As an object of utility it doesn't need to be shiny and show-room ready. It just needs to practice. It needs to be a truck.

The seven-year-old Dodge Dakota I bought yesterday came with a few dents and tears. There's no point in being overly proud in something already imperfect. Just 24-hours after driving it off the lot I have it coated in mud, strewn with hay, and coffee-rin stained. To own it I had to trade in the truck that had carried the farm this far. It was sad to see that little Ford go. Sadder than it should be.

Gain and Loss. Ink and berries.

Consider the robe splattered.

this shepherd got a ram!

P.S. Gibson is pulling through.

ER trip tonight

Thursday, March 3, 2011

news that didn't happen

Liset, I think, I hope, is doing much better. It's getting harder to catch her to give her the prescripted dosage of Glycol. That first day I could walk right up to her grab her. Now we play an eye-locked game of chance trying to hold her still long enough to inject the goo into her mouth. But now she's excited to eat her grain and hay and seems to more a part of the flock now. She's still lean but "with it" Keep her in your thoughts. I depend on each of these girls to help produce the future of my flock.

Good news: Murray McMurray is sending replacements for ALL the birds I lost. All 27 will be here next week. And everyone coming to the workshop will have their pick of the current healthy birds in the brooder now. I'll sell some started pullets later this summer for side cash. It will work out. Chickens make a lot of sense now, folks will scoop them up in pairs and trios.

I have some news (that never happened) to share with you all. I came across the perfect pony this week. A small 37" gelding named Rebel. He was a fully trained 6-year-old, road-ready, drafting pony down in Sharon Springs. Small enough to share my sheeps' sheds and hay and large enough to pull a small plow. He could cart, pack, and help spread manure around the farm. I dreamed of this pony. He was perfect. I went so far as to make plans to have him delivered. I told friends at 28: my dream of finally having a pony was coming true. My new ATV was just a few hoofprints away...

I emailed the trainer to apologize. I can't take him. With lambing, a new truck, a chimney, and so much ahead: a pony isn't a wise choice. I was justifying it because it was so perfect and priced so well, and who knows when a bombproof working horse could be delivered to the farm again? but I need to know what this farmer can handle. Maybe I could have welcomed Rebel into my life without a hitch? But I prefer to not find out the hard way anymore.

Some day I will have a working horse on this farm. This year I'll focus on a working chimney and used 4x4 truck.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

United States Poultry Service!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

liset's big scare

I know everyone is expecting an adorable chick post. I was expecting to write one. I took photos, video, the works... But life has a way of happening at 6:48 on a Tuesday morning. Sometimes it's not all fluff and feathers. Sometimes you're covered in sheep shit trying to inject glucose down a sick ewe's throat.

I woke up this morning excited about a lot of things. I had an order of chicks to pick up at the post office, and there are few cuter mail-order items than baby chicks. I was excited for the workshop this weekend. I sang to the Swedish Flower hen like I was a Muppet Chef while dumping out the laundry into a basket. I had a pot of strong coffee started, the wood stove lit, the brooder lamp had been chugging all night. Damn, things were looking good. I called the post office to make sure my animals were ready. The truck was warm and started like a normal vehicle. The sun was coming up over the ridge line, and the whole house smelled like coffee so dark you could eat it with a spoon. Heaven. All I had left to do before I got my basket-o-chicks was to feed the sheep before I left the farm.

As I was doling out the morning's hay ration I noticed Liset (number 20-06) stumble and walk oddly down the hill. My first thought was hoof needs to be trimmed. I'll check it right after I get back from the P.O. but then I watched her stare blankly at me. Within moments she was standing away from the flock chewing her upper plate in her mouth. She wasn't eating much at all.

This was bad. This was really bad.

I went through the flip-file in my head of sheep diseases. Listeria? No, she'd be circling...Rabies? No drool or twitching. Worms? No, she'd be eating like crazy.... Liset just seemed drunk. Wobbly. Like a waif in some Victorian play about to collapse on her fainting couch.

I ran inside to my lambing supply basket where my neighbor Shellee's number was located on a pink post-it note. Shellee was a large-animal Vet. She knew more about sheep than anyone on this mountain and happened to live a quarter mile away. I called, explained what I saw, and asked her she could come over? She had another appointment but said she'd come by later. Her instinct though was Ketosis; a late-pregnancy disease in sheep. It's a situation where the lambs are literally sucking the life out of her. She said she'd meet me in the farm in moments and bring up some Glycol and an oral syringe. We'd talk more in person.

I stood outside by my running truck and hung up my cell phone. I was no longer thinking about chickens.

I was so worried. These sheep were pined for—a dream come true. They took an entire summer to pay off. I had hauled and stored their hay, carried water, built them a shed and then spent frozen nights removing snow from it. I had studied. I had gone to sheepdog trials, workshops, and everything else I could think to do. What I didn't have was experience. I had no idea what a Ketotic ewe looked like. All I knew was something wasn't right so I called someone who could help. I know that much.

Shellee showed up a little later that morning as I was setting up the chicks in the brooder. She was standing at my front door with a jam jar of Glycol and this plastic-tube device and explained she'd be back later to check on her properly and run a urine test. I didn't ask her the one question on my mind. How do you want me to collect sheep urine?

I had taken the morning off from the office, and was grateful I had. Cathy Daughton was coming over with her boys to get their 15 Silver-Laced Wyandottes. I knew her boy Holden (a teenager) could help me doctor 20-06. When they arrived we set about the business of checking on the brooder and I explained the day's second small crisis. 25% of the birds died in transit or were failing fast. This was because (I think) of bad weather that delayed my order a full day). We did our best to help bring back any chicks that were fighters (and did manage to save a few) and caught up on farm talk. When the birds were as well enough as we could get them, Holden and I went outside to tend to little Liset.

There was a time in my life when walking straight up to a hundred-pound horned animal and flipping it onto its back would have been an impossible to even consider. Not today. In my Polyface sweatshirt (a barter for wool from Wendy down in Swope), my beaten-up Carharrt vest with hoof-trimmers in pocket, Muck boots, and dirty jeans I walked right into the fray and grabbed her by the horns. Shepherds (old or new) are tough stock. Soon she was on her back Holden filled the syringe and handed it over to me so I could slowly inject the energy into her throat. She didn't flinch. She was such a good girl. Holden was an amazing help.

I trimmed her hooves (she was on her back, why the hell not) and offered her more hay. She needed to bulk-up before lambing. This Ketosis is a carb-deficiancy disease. The same disease that human beings can waste away from if their body and brains don't get enough carbohydrate energy. In fact, you force your body into Ketosis to burn fat because the lack of carbs makes your body think it is starving. It's not a good thing, people. Eat bread.

Anyway, I had to head back to the office in about an hour. I debated just calling in the day to be here and keep an eye on the failing birds and the sheep but I had to go in. The office is what keeps the hay, vets, and chickens here in the first place. Also, the vet wouldn't be able to come back till after five anyway. I left the farm worried and confused, but content I was doing everything I could. I'd save my call-in days for lambing.

Work went by fast. I had completed most of my tasks on Monday in anticipation of today's morning off and so I scuttled through spreadsheets and emails. Soon as five clicked I was back on the road. Shellee had called to say she was coming back to the farm for a urine test at 4:30 and I could meet her for a diagnose when I got home. (By the way, if you turn a sheep on its back and hold its nostrils shut it pees. Fun fact for your evening read...) When I pulled back into my driveway I saw the vet-truck there and Shellee and her helper, Billy. They did the test and it turned out positive. My heart pounded. Liset was in the beginning stages of Ketosis and it could kill her if untreated. I asked Shellee what to do?

The remedy would be energy. Get the girl on more hay, twice-a-day Glycol down the throat, and start her on grain early. She would most likely recover, but this hit could mean her ability to produce milk is all but shot. Her lambs might be destined to be bottle feeders. Billy—a long-time sheep and goat keeper—said she would be fine and lambing would be fine too. My own opinion was too raw to decide either way. This morning when I woke up I thought all was well with my sheep's world. I chose to lean towards caution and do everything the Doc says and hope for the best. Tomorrow morning I'll have a date with the Glycol syringe and a skinny sheep. She might hate me for the drugs, but I'll buy back her love with Coarse-14 grain. I'll do what I can.

Now it's after 8 and things are calming down. The house sounds like a weeknight house; dryer tumbling, dogs eating kibble, computer keyboard tapping away. The remaining chicks are healthy and I'll pad the order with more Rhode Island Reds coming into Tractor Supply tomorrow. I think if I call the hatchery I might even get a refund? Right now though, I think I'll take a long hot shower, make some hot tea, and call it a night. I had a long day and another one of sheep-flipping and spreadsheets waiting for me tomorrow. I love this farm, but occasionally love is friggin' exhausting.

I promise my next post will feature adorable chicks.

FYI PDF on Ketosis in Sheep and how to treat it.

Monday, February 28, 2011

images of the new brooder

A few folks emailed or commented that they would like pictures of the Daughton Brooder. Here you can see it in all it's glory. Right now it is lit up and waiting the 84 chicks being picked up early tomorrow morning. My laundry/mud/stove room now has the joint glow of a heat lamp and woodstove. It might be the warmest room in the house. Strike that. It is the warmest room in the house.

get your birds! announcing a memorial day weekend chicken 101 workshop!

Morning everyone! No chickens came in the post today, tomorrow will be the big chicken delivery of 2011, however I do have some news. I will be opening up the farm Memorial Day weekend to have another Chick Days workshop that Sunday. If you'd like to come to the farm for an all-day workshop on chicken 101, please email me for details. All attendees will go home with three baby chicks, and a signed copy of Chick Days and all the information they need to raise them right. If the weather cooperates we might even have a bonfire that night with music. Chicks, lambs, a green farm and fiddles. Does it get any better than that?

email for details

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....