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.