Tuesday, April 19, 2011

the bun baker has landed!

The new woodstove got delivered today, and I was shocked at how big it was! It's sitting in my living room right now, and while it will be a while before I save up the cash to get the permits, buy pipes, and get someone here to install a proper new chimney: this winter there will be the combined smell of woodsmoke and rising bread from this fiddler's living room. I think I'm in love...

wah, wah, bok....

Mistakes happen, and they happen all the time. Today I went to pick up the chickens I drove over to Ben Shaw's farm ( named Garden of Spices) yesterday, and what came out of the back room was a pile of cornish game hens! Under all those feathers my meat birds only topped out at three pounds. Oh lord, I was so embaressed. I had simply thought they were larger, a lot larger. Under all that fluff and feathers they had not filled out to market weight. I had been tricked by post-winter bliss and excitement to think that they were ready before they really were. They are half to two-thirds the size of what you would get in the store. I simply messed up.

Well, all I can do is offer to trade them for half of what I already asked of possible buyers and let them know they don't have to take the little guys if it's not the product they want. I'll put most in the freezer and same them for bbqs and weeknight roasts for this single gal in Jackson. And hey, they might be small, but they should still taste pretty good. I'll roast one of them tonight and find out before I offer any to my coworkers. They won't have the flavor of an older bird but I have some butter, herbs, and hard cider that might have my back on that. I'll just revert to my meat bible—The River Cottage Meat Book—and hope Hugh has some advice...

P.S. Banjo players, how do you feel about sharing Sugar Hill soon?


I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin' fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin'.

And I been wonderin' if all our folks got together and yelled...

-Grapes of Wrath

photo by tim bronson

Monday, April 18, 2011

dinner and sweaters

After work I had a special task lined up. Besides the usual cores I had two crates to load into the back of the truck. 12-15 birds I had raised since they were chicks would be driving to Ben Shaw's farm in Greenwich to be slaughtered, bagged, and labeled "Cold Antler Farm" first thing in the morning. Ben usually doesn't deal with such small numbers, but being so early in the season I think the work was welcomed. For three dollars an animal I would return tomorrow afternoon to pick up meat. The Jumbo Cornishes I had first held in my palm at the tail-end of February are now 6-pound broilers. They had been outside for a few weeks now and yesterday I watched them run through the grass just like the lambs do, picking up worms from the rain-soaked new grass. They were strong, fast, and perfectly white. I was proud of both their life and their deaths.

So in a light rain I fed the birds their usual night ration in one small pile of grain. All the meat birds flocked to it and started to peck. I went into the barn to grab the two big plastic poultry crates leant to me by Bruce at Wannabea Rabbit Farm. They were kind of like giant plastic cigarette boxes with hole in them, a design that would not allow the birds the ability to crawl on top of each other while they waited at quietly at the Shaw's for morning. I watched the party of feathers and yellow feet and then dove into the pile to pick up the fattest chicken and carry it over to the crate like I would a rabbit. You don't need to rush, and you don't need to stress them out when you deal with such small numbers. Within five minutes I had 14 birds in the the two crates. I loaded them into the bed of the pickup (it has a cover so they were not in the wind and rain) and let Gibson join me in the front seat. We were off to deliver a truck of birds to the butcher.

While driving I kept thinking about lunch. I had made a giant crock pot of pulled pork, at least a 3 pound shoulder from Pig slow cooked all night and morning in a stew of apple cider, bbq sauce, my bee's honey and brown sugar. I plugged it in at the office and at lunch at least fifteen people got to enjoy an animal I raised on my farm. It tasted amazing. The meat was literally falling off the shoulder bone in the ceramic pot and some people eagerly awaited seconds. I was so proud. And not proud of me, but of Pig.

So a bunch of people in the office enjoyed a farm pig lunch, and wednesday I'll drag in a cooler full of fresh chickens in for folks who wanted roasting birds from me. I always am handing out eggs, and my boss has a jar of my honey at her desk. The new VP in our department always seems both bemused and shocked when something else I grew comes into the office. I am starting to be a place people think of when they need things, even if it's just a dozen eggs or the occasional free lunch. I love that. I love that I am able to feed people, even occasionally, from a couple acres and happy work.

I must sound so over-the-top lately. I can't help it. This winter is over and I got through lambing. Now aI have a whole summer of work I understand and enjoy: gardening, rabbit breeding, chickens, workshops, cooking, baking and canning. I am looking forward to the time for my banjo and fiddle and maybe a date or two if I'm lucky. I'm just happy, and for a while my posts might reflect that in a farmy-Disney way of sappy posts. It's collateral damage of getting through four feet of snow and afterbirth. Your patience is appreciated!

I'm a dinner and sweater farmer. How about that.

if looks could kill

Shearing day was Saturday morning, and soon I'll post the whole story, but I wanted to share this picture of me and Sal. After being shorn I packed his wool into one of the wheel barrows with Maude's. Tim caught this image of him leering at me (it was rather chilly). Usually Sal is such a happy-go-lucky guy, but shearing does seem to slam his confidence down a few levels. Anyone who thinks sheep are automatons without much intelligence has never stolen their clothes and felt their resentment. They're great.
photo by tim bronson

the buck starts here

Sunday, April 17, 2011

shepherd's dozen

12 eggs a day in the fridge
10 meat birds going to the butcher tomorrow
9 minutes till I start dinner
8 sheep shorn yesterday morning
7 dollars in my back pocket
6 friends went out to enjoy indian food and Iron and Wine
5 coworkers getting fresh free-range chicken Wednesday
4 different vegetables sprouting in the raised beds
3 pounds of pork shoulder in the big crock pot
2 apple trees ready to be planted
1 sheepdog back into his herding lessons
0 things to be ungrateful for this Sunday night.

Little known fact: a shepherd's dozen is 11.

an off-grid morning

Wind storms took out the power early this morning. I was shaking and straining my way through a BIggest Loser Weight-Loss Yoga DVD in the kitchen, and was never more grateful for a blackout then when Bob disappeared instantly (a girl can only do so many plank-pose pushups). I needed the break.

My guest, Erin, was still asleep upstairs. I didn't want her waking up to a dark house without warm food or hot coffee, so I did what any proper homesteader would do. I turned to my wood stove. I fired it up and set a cast-iron skillet on top of it with a pat of butter. Then I grabbed some eggs from the hens and scrambled them while the stove-top percolator water heated up. I poured some whole coffee beans into my hand-cranked grinder and within moments a hot meal with protein-and-caffeine a plenty was sizzlin' on the metal top. I turned on the radio (battery powered with a hand-crank option) and soon NPR was sharing all the latest goings-on. Not bad for a house without a working outlet.

I'm not an extremist when it comes to all this emergancy/survivalist gear but I have noticed that the more I get into homesteading and self-sufficiency the less interested I am in buying things I need to plug in to do the same job as something that doesn't have a plug and simply does it slower. It may have taken twenty minutes to make some eggs and drink a hot cup of coffee today, but there were eggs and coffee. I like knowing my plan A also works as plan B. I'll take the trade off of time and effort for reliability.

And plan B is getting pretty exciting this week... Tuesday afternoon the people at Vermont Wood Stove are bringing over another woodtove for the farm and I am *really* excited to have a hearth in the living room again. Having a warm fireplace in the space I read and relax in while the snow falls outside is true comfort to me. Primal comfort. This stove actually does it all. It has both a firebox heat and a lower oven section for roasting, baking, and cooking. I love the idea that even in a blizzard without power I could crank out warm bread or a roast chicken if the woodpile was high enough. Now I just need to save up the money for the chimney! It will be a few months before I can use her, but hopefully by the first crisp weekends of fall I will be enjoying toasty nights in a two-stove heated house. I also am hoping it helps with fuel costs. I cant' imagine it won't?

Clearly, the power is back on now. I'll have stories and photos from shearing soon, hopefully later today. I just wanted to share about the woodstove, and give Tim some time to pull together the best images from the day. He came out to take some photos of the wool circus. I will say that shearers Jim McRae and his mentor Liz did an amazing job. All eight adults in the flock look like chubby Labrador-deers and suddenly appreciate their out buildings a lot more. I guess everyone needs a plan B.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


it's shearing day!

Shearers on the way, coffee on the stove, donuts in the kitchen, and stories and photos to come. What a great, great, thing to happen on this happy day: One Full Year on my own land!

I'm off to build a holding pen!

Friday, April 15, 2011

I can't wait....

livestock and deadstock

My Jumbo Cornish Crosses are ready for their date with destiny. I made the appointment at the poultry farm in Greenwich (and here in Washington County that is pronounced green-which)—they are going to take my crate of 10-15 plump birds and professionally slaughter, clean, eviscerate, ice, and wrap them. I will get a cooler of wrapped birds in plastic with Cold Antler Farm printed on a label. It's a step up from processing them all at home, but a step I am happy to take. I learned the hard way how a mistake in backyard meat production can nearly put you in the hospital. While I have processed rabbits, chickens, and game here myself since (without incident. lesson learned.) I have learned that the price of three dollars a bird from live-in-crate to bagged meat is a price worth paying for a full-time employed office worker with lambs to castrate and a sheep shearing coming in the morning....So you pick your battles. I'll help catch and wrestle sheep, but I won't be preparing this lot for the freezer alone. And here's something worth celebrating: already enough coworkers have signed up for the birds to cover their purchase price and feed. That means the one I keep were free-of-charge (minus my labor and time) and that's an economical milestone as well. I'll deliver fresh chicken to the office on Wednesday. This place is becoming place people think of to get dinner.

I was in Manchester today to pick up a few meat rabbits from Wannabea Rabbit Farm. Bruce is an expert, I mean it. This man knows his trade and he sold me three beautiful rexes (one buck and one bred!) and a giant Chin/New Zealand cross I've named Bertha. Now they will join my heavy Palomino Doe and the young black buck in the barn. Five hefty meat rabbits. I can smell the crock pot already...I think rabbit might be my favorite of all meat.

The two Angoras I bought both died earlier this week. They had coccidiosis, I think, and the breeder refunded the money I paid for them. It was quite the hit, but I don't know what else I could have done to prevent it. They were set in a completely clean cage with the same feed the breeder handed me. They had clean water, protection from the elements, natural light and twice-a-day check ins from me. But three days after I bought them one was dead in the cage, and the sister died a few days later. I tried electrolytes, diet changes, grass (that is what saved my Palomino doe when she was ill at that age) but no luck. We failed each other in the end.

It's a part of all this, I know, and the girl who removed those corpses was a lot tougher than she would have been if that was Bean Blossom or Benjamin in 2008...But as I explained to a non-farming friend today, it's simply how the farm functions. Where there is livestock, there is deadstock. Birth and death are so common. They do not cease to be awe inspiring or incredibly sad, but they both become common. You keep a stiff upper lift and tend to those among the living.

Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of buying this farm. The shearer is coming and I am going with a small army of friend to see Iron and Wine perform at Mass MoCa in North Adams. Not a bad way for a farm to spend its birthday.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

hang a picture, feed a dream, and win some sal!

I'm happy to announce that there is now a Cold Antler Farm print shop! You can now take a piece of Cold Antler home, while supporting a new talent in the Veryork Community. Award-winning photographer, Tim Bronson, takes a nice picture. Like I aspire to be a farmer, Tim aspires to follow his own path as an artist of shutter speeds, glass, and pixels. He has posted a collection of his farm photos (mostly Cold Antler, but some other local sheep and barns) for you to peruse. These images are ready to own for as little as five dollars a print. These come to you directly from a professional photo lab, shipped safely in a plastic protective sleeve so they arrive in mint condition. They are perfect for framing, gifts, and hanging for inspiration on your wall. I'll be posting a few around this farmhouse, that's for darn sure. I think I need the photographic evidence to even believe I got through lambing season....

To enter to win the print of sal,check out the gallery at Tim's site and leave a comment here (or on his blog if you prefer) letting us both know what photos you like, and what you would like to see more of! One commenter will be chosen randomly Friday night to win the 11x14 signed print of smilin' Sal. Good luck and thank you for all of your support, whatever the dream!

UPDATE! Devouring The Seasons, you are the random winner of the print!!! Please email me at jenna@itsafarwalk.com, and I'll have it in the mail to you Monday. Congrats! And I hope those of you who didn't win will consider supporting Tim's work and taking a piece of Cold Antler Farm home with you.

Shop 468photography Now!

the lambs of cold antler farm!

a small favor?

I have a small favor to ask? I am currently working on a project with my publisher, and they asked me if it would be possible to get quotes from blog readers about why they read Cold Antler Farm? They want to use it for possible promotional materials, back covers of books, that sort of thing. Would you guys be willing to share in the comments why you check in on this random farm in Upstate New York and how/if the stories of this shepherd effect you in any way? You never know, you could find what you type here on the back of a book jacket! (With your permission, of course.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

droppin' thumbs

the wolf and the lamb

I came home to not a single escaped sheep today.

I came home to four.

A ewe and three lambs were pacing along outside the fence when I got back. Now I was certain there was a hole in the fence. A ewe could jump over the combination of sagging fences and piled up winter hay, but not the small lambs. Even at their best jump it's not enough to clear three feet yet. So I went into Farmcon Level Blue mode: tricky but stable.

Step one: don't panic.
Step two: control the animals not outside the fence.
Step three: figure out how to get the cause of step one into step two.

I dumped a pile of hay inside the fence for the other sheep and then went inside to fetch my long crook. When I came back outside the ewe and her twins were back in the fray, eating with the others. Just one lamb remained bleating outside. A short exploration of the fence showed me a small hole that all three scrambled through. I used some green baling twine for a Jackson patch job and decided it was time to play a round of lamb-catch.

The road to catching lambs is littered with the corpses of failure. You can't hunt them like a wolf. You can't sneak up on them in open ground and catch them with your staff. At this age they're just too fast, too agile, and too damn smart. The little ram just circled the entire pasture line, both of us making loops that meant nothing. Finally, I gathered my wits and decided to open up a section of fence and chase him towards it, hoping he'd see the inside of the sheep pen as an "escape" from me. After two laps, it worked. I got a workout and a small victory. The ram lamb got to see the suburbs.

I have learned that 90% of shepherding is about letting the sheep think they are outsmarting you. It is a path of least resistance to gain maximum results in this game.

get'em started right!

If you’re new to raising chickens, you might be a little intimidated setting up house for your new flock. After all, this is a big step. Chickens aren’t pets: they’re livestock. That word seems to carry a sense of import not bestowed on our humble cats and dogs. And rightly so — these girls have a job to do! In a few months your little fluff balls will be producing eggs so rich in omega-3s and energizing, wholesome protein you won’t be able to remember a time in your life without hens in the backyard.

But before you can start learning how to make your own Hollandaise sauce, you need to learn how to raise those birds. Here’s my recipe for the perfect chick-brooding environment. Follow these basic rules of warmth, safety, and care and feeding, and you’ll be home free.

Preparing a Safe Brooder
Chicks need a warm, clean, draft-free place to start off in the world: a large container that allows enough room for the birds to walk, scratch, and get the space they need to stretch their wings. You can create a brooder out of something as basic as a cardboard box or as complicated as a large stock tank. I know someone who once used her downstairs shower to raise laying hens, lining the bottom with newspaper and then washing it down between regular cleanings.

You don’t need to share a shower stall with your chickens, though. The classic cardboard brooder box is perfect for a few laying hens. Line it with newspaper or pine shavings (which I prefer), and set it in a draft-free area of your home or garage that curious cats and toddlers can’t get near. Once the brooder is in a safe, quiet, corner, above it place a heat lamp that is clamped safely. These powerful 250-watt bulbs become your foster mothers, and make the brooder a comfortable 90°F (32°C) for your little ones. To be sure your box is a safe temperature, place a thermometer in the base and check on it in a few hours. If it reads higher than 90°F, lift it up a few inches, and take another reading a while later. If it reads 70°F (21°C), drop it an inch or 2, and do the same. You want that magic number of 90°.

Feed and Water
When your brooder is set up with proper temperatures, location, and bedding, you can set up your cantina. Choose water and feed bases designed with chicks in mind. These usually are made to screw onto the bottom of quart canning jars and are inexpensive. They allow chick feed and fresh water to flow out all day by the grace of gravity, letting you leave for the office worry free. Just make sure you have them set up on sturdy bases so none of your new charges plows them over and makes a mess.

Feed your chicks a medicated starter feed, which prevents the early onset of such diseases as coccidiosis, which can easily kill an entire brooder box of chicks. If you want organic eggs, you can always switch to organic feed when they are laying age, but to prevent unwanted disease in so fragile a creature, I suggest the medicated starter or paying for immunizations on any laying-hen chicks you plan on raising organically. It really is the best insurance for a healthy start.
With this combination of a warm place to crash, good food, and clean water, you’ll have yourself some truly happy hens on the way. The care and attention you put into their upbringing will shine forth in your future adventures together on the farm, in the backyard, or on your condo’s roof. Welcome to the backyard poultry club, and good luck with your very own livestock!

P.S. Join the conversation over at Homegrown.org on Chickens, farms, and more!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

queen of the sun

Monday, April 11, 2011

since I was thirteen

The movie Babe—possibly the first and only mainstream movie to show shepherds and sheepdogs working together on a farm,—I first saw when I was thirteen years old. A junior high student, who knew something about that life felt correct. I have carried a copy of this movie with me for over fifteen years. It just keeps getting better and better.

Watch my favorite clip of Rex here

online print shop coming soon!

Over the past few months I've read several of your comments and emails regarding my friend Tim's photography here on the blog. Folks wanted to know how to order prints or tote bags, or just see more of his work? Well I am happy to announce that Tim is working on opening up an online print shop for his business 468 Photography, loaded with CAF photos. Prints will be available for as little as five dollars, professionally printed by a professional lab that ships them right to your door. Hot Dang!

As a bonus he's donated an 11x14" print of Sal, this one you see here, as a giveaway. I'll be handing it out this Friday. So check back and see if you're the winner of a that goofy mug. Framed it sure would look smart on your wall.

See Tim's website here, and sign up on the bottom of his blog for email updates. While not all of his work (most of it actually) isn't farm-related, it's still neat as hell.

just a regular weeknight

All I wanted to do was go for a jog.

It was an unusually warm day for April here in Veryork; 70 degrees and intoxicatingly summery. I had a grand day at work enjoying the design department's move to the first floor from the third. Now I was working literally thirty feet away from my truck, Gibson, and the big-glass back doors that overlooked acres of yard with a pond and woods. I could now step away from my desk and sit on a small porch and watch crows fly or dogs play. This is quite the gift for an office employee. Prime location for a girl with Barnheart and a black dog.

So I was happy. And it wasn't just this downstairs office gig either. It was the fact that this April I had managed to pay my truck loan and my mortgage entirely on my farm's income. This is quite unusual, but between the 2012 CSA and some writing gigs I pulled it off. I was feeling like celebrating. So when the office day was over I decided I would end this fine warm day with a long run, and some pizza and booze.

This was my plan: after work stop at Wayside for a 22oz hard cider, come home, walk the dogs, do farm chores, and then go for a warm dusk run along the dirt roads. I would end my night with a homemade slice of pizza and my ice-cold cider after a shower that was long and well-deserved. I looked forward to this like my mother looks forward to the opening day of the Palmerton Pool.

I pulled into the driveway, cider bottles clinking, and singing along with Josh Ritter on the truck stereo. I let Gibson out of the cab and we went inside to take care of evening chores. Jazz and Annie were by the front door waiting. Patient as saints, they hold it in all day while Gibson and I are at work. I put Gibson in the crate with his dinner, and leashed up the Sibes for a nice constitutional.

We stepped outside to the side yard for their initial relief and before Jazz could so much as lift a leg I froze and backed up. Not ten feet in front of my sub-par wolves was a Blackface ewe (number 15-06) escaped from the pasture fence. She was panting in the garden. She had slipped out from the wire and t-posts and was trying to get back to her lambs. If Jazz and Annie wanted to they could easily rile her up and run her off into the woods. I backed up slowly and rushed the dogs back inside the house. I had no idea if they got to so much as pee, but sometimes crisis is bigger than a husky bladder.

I grabbed some grain and walked up to the Blackface, who let me get close because she was worried about leaving her twins on the other side of the fence. We paced together. I had cut this section of the woven wire a few days earlier to move equipment in and wondered if she figured a way to slip out? As I worked with pliers to let her back in something in the distance went off, a shotgun or a blown tire and she bolted. I watched her crash right through the Heirloom Salad Green bed I had spent my Saturday constructing, tilling, planting, and creating a bird net around by hand. In seconds it was destroyed and the neatly mounded rows a scattering of mud and hoofprints. I realized my five varieties of greens were now all smooshed together. A baby green salad now pre-mixed by an errant ewe.

It took some more commotion but I got her back inside the fence. A long drink of water and some fresh hay and she seemed content to stay inside. I then walked the entire fence line looking for the hole she squirmed through and found none. She must have jumped clean over it. I'll never know why.

Later, tired, and now still faced with farm chores and two dogs with crossed legs. I went back inside and saw Jazz had left a dump the size of a small cat in the middle of the living room floor. I looked right at him and said I was sorry. I cleaned it up and didn't utter a word of admonishment to the old dog.

When the dogs were walked, fed, and the farm repaired and cared for I put on my sneakers and went for a run. Three blessed miles of alone time, music, and a short tour of my neighborhood. It had been a while since I could run a distance (humble as it is) like that outdoors and the fact that I had reunited a stray sheep and her lambs, fixed a broken raised bed, paid for my farm for another month, and still managed to sweat like a man—had me ridiculously happy. Not many days are like this. Few, honestly. I nearly sprinted the last mile home. If the run was exhausting, I didn't notice.

Just a regular weeknight. Just another step towards a feral dream.

So I'm calling it a night soon. Turn on the hot shower and crack open the cold cider: this day is done. And If you think I'm going to feel guilty about tha pizza, you better get to know me. I might even go for seconds.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

might be

The Lord can give, and the Lord can take away.
I might be herding sheep next year.
-Elvis Presley

photo by tim bronson

csa update

I think everyone who is renewing their CSA spot has contacted me, and all shares should be set for the next season. If you have yet to renew, please contact me at jenna@itsafarwalk.com

Saturday, April 9, 2011

back in the soil

I leaned against the side of my truck and let out a very long, very tired, sigh. In front of me on a slight incline was 32 square feet of future vegetables. Just beyond the bird-netting covered bed was one of Lisette's lambs, watching me through the field fence. I raised my water bottle to her and took a long swig, wishing silently it was either Guinness or coffee. I needed some sort of pat on the back. I had spent most of my Saturday constructing two 4x4ft raised beds out of scrap lumber on sale in the back of Home Depot. Before the cordless drill had the chance to meet any of the 2x4's I reenacted a passion play I have taken part in every year since I lived in Idaho: breaking sod. With my brand new hoe I pulled apart the earth and discovered black foam and earth worms enjoying last years fingerling potatoes I had missed in the harvest. I broke a sweat and broke in a new pair of gloves. When about ten inches of soil was loose and free of roots and rocks I filled a wheel barrel of year-old rabbit compost from the barn. It was covered in decayed hay that was stained with pigs blood. Shit and blood are horrible things, but to a gardener they are poetry. Left alone to think about what they have done, they decompress into a potion so rich and beautiful it literally creates new life. I mixed in the horrible with the raw earth and thought about the rabbits, Pig, and the months of story that go into a bed of lettuce. What a thing, this wooden box.

I covered the earth and compost with 6 cubic feet of organic, black, topsoil I bought in bags. I made five long rows of mounds and planted the seeds a half inches or so below the dark earth. How odd to be engaging in such an ancient practice with heirloom seeds I had ordered online. This really might be the greatest time in our history to start learning older country skills. Between the internet and our gusto we can learn or achieve just about anything we are stubborn enough to attempt.

So why the heirloom lettuce seeds instead of my usual 6-packs of started Buttercrisp and Romaine from the local greenhouses? Well, this year I am trying to plant things now are sustainable; meaning vegetables that if I saved the seeds this fall I could plant them again in the spring and so on and so forth into eternity. Few folks realize that 99.9% of the vegetables grown in America can't be grown again from their own seeds. They have been genetically engineered into a hybrid form that produces just one generation of outstanding product. So if you want a garden that can feed you for more than one season, you need to dig a little deeper and plant seeds saved by folks who kept the old breeds of vegetables alive. Is it just me or do you find it kinda creepy that most vegetables can't be replanted? I think potatoes with eyes might be one of the few things we save from the grocery store we can actually resurrect...

In my lettuce bed I planted varieties called Amish Deer Tongue, Bronze Arrowhead, Red Velvet, Susan's Red Bib, and Speckled Trout Back. You can't find these in Spring Mixes at the grocery store, but you might find them at your local farmer's market. Or you could grow them yourself if you have the inclination and a 4x4 spot in the backyard that gets good sunshine.

I bought the Heirloom Seed Collection from Seed Savers Exchange and planted all of them (save for the Crisp Mint). Tomorrow I'll fill the second bed with Danvers and Dragon carrots and potatoes I had let go to seed in my kitchen. Talk about practical! Salad greens, carrots, and potatoes so far. Early and hardy vegetables I can start from seed outdoors right in the soil. I want to plant not only heirlooms, but heirlooms I eat a lot of. Every time I roast a chicken (and I have a lot of chickens...) I place them on a bed of potatoes and carrots. And who doesn't have a thousand uses for salad greens? Not very sexy, but a good start to real food right here in the backyard. And as the weekend's progress I hope to plant many more raised beds.

It feels good to be back in the soil again. I missed it so much.

what are YOU looking at?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

a lost pullet and future kits

The little pullet didn't make it. Poor thing. I went into the mud room to check on her and she was cold as the stones outside. It was more of a blow than it usually would have been. I'm not sure what else I could have done within the realm of practicality—losing chicks is part of the story. Even the best of us fail one or two.

Cambridge (the closest town to Cold Antler) is coming alive for the big bike race taking over the town this weekend. Cyclists from all over New England and the Mid Atlantic swarm into town to peddle through Washington County's back roads. It's great for tourism dollars and hell for locals who need to get nails at the hardware store or buy milk at the Co-op. It is nice to see the parking lot at the grand Cambridge Hotel (home of pie ala mode) filling up in every spot. Stores are staying open later. New faces are popping up at Stewart's.

Today was a fairly humdrum day at the farm. I ordered some supplies to brew some new stout beer for the early summer. I renewed my membership to the ARBA, and got more pedigrees for the new kits I hope to be born by fall. I'm already excited to hold those pedigreed bunnies in my arms...

I'm also excited about breeding some meat rabbits. Last year was a flop, but this year I hope to run a very small rabbitry for personal use and extra income. Just two breeding does for wool, and two breeding does for meat. I already have the angora bucks (sons of Benjamin and Bean: my previous foundation stock) and one healthy meat Palamino doe that was born in Vermont and raised here in New York. If I can get her a decent buck and one more doe to share him with at the big Poultry Swap coming up in May: I'll be back in the rabbit business.

You know, I always thought rabbits would be a fad with me. An entry-level livestock I would replace with sheep and meat chickens or grass-fed beef. But rabbits are too good, and too addicting, to stop raising. For how inexpensive they are to raise (and how amazing a crock-potted rabbit tastes in Italian seasoning with red sauce and wine) they really might be the most practical source of backyard meat. A doe can raise three to four litters a year, up to 70 lbs over her own harvest weight in meat! For something that lives in a hutch and can make a home in every backyard in America, that is damn impressive! It's also encouraging to know that there's this wonderful alternative for urban and suburban homesteaders to chickens and eggplant. Do many of you eat rabbit? Or is it still a weird idea to have Thumper kabobs?

Regardless, I gave up giving up rabbits. I'm back in the club and happy to be here.

make your own top bar hive!

Beekeeping is an ancient DIY art, performed by amateurs and makers for centuries. Anyone can produce natural honey at home. People keep bees in many different kinds of hives, but we will focus on a cheap and simple design, called the Honey Cow.

The Honey Cow is designed to mimic nature as much as possible. Unlike commercial hives, it does not have frames, foundation or excluders. Instead, it just has top bars, allowing the bees to do what they would in a fallen log: build beautiful, natural combs. Because it is less intrusive to the bees, it's easier to make and manage, which makes it a perfect beginners backyard hive.

(Taken from Instructables.com - Click here for instructions!)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Tonight while doing my usual evening chores I came upon a sad sight. One of the little laying hens, a tiny brown babe, was dead on the ground. No sign of struggle or feather—not the work of a hawk or a fox. It simply died of exposure. Perhaps this little gal wasn't tough enough to get her share of feed from the scattered grain? Maybe she was too scared to drink water from the big-girl font and died of dehydration? Who knows. I reached down to pick her up and bury her under the compost pile.

I was quietly surprised she was still warm and limber in my hands. I looked closer. She was still breathing... She was failing fast, but still with us. She must have accepted 6 weeks as her life's work. I refused to agree. I wasn't giving up without a fight.

I walked her over to the well, keeping her close to my chest and breathed warm air on her. Her eyes half-opened. I dropped her beak into the stream and she barely drank, but some of it seemed to slide down her now slowly opening and closing mouth. I brought her inside by the wood stove and brooder. I set her on a small basket of wool and hay I keep on top of the dryer to collect eggs. I put her on the wool and set her chilled body right under the warm light. I watched her chest slowly rise and fall. She was trying now.

I left her there with a prayer and some hope while I returned to my evening chores. As much as I would have liked to play chicken ER, there are priorities I need to address. One chick gets a second chance, but she can't hinder the meals and water of dozens of other animals waiting. I had lactating mamas bleating for grain. I had rabbits parched for more water. I had my own dogs to feed and walk. The farm is so many parts it is like our own bodies. You can't stop everything because you get a papercut on your index finger. You bandage it up and continue with your life.

I pushed her out of my mind while I went about the regular work of replacing water buckets, counting lambs, collecting eggs, checking on the new bunnies, and feeding the dogs. My brain didn't trot back to the thoughts of the gasping pullet, but they did seem to latch onto something I heard a few weeks ago. In that video I shared here about Novella Carpenter's Ghost Town Farm in Oakland—she did a short bit on the importance of endurance. She said that running a farm, even a backyard homestead, is something you work up to. You don't start with 6.5 acres, a flock of pregnant sheep, 50+ chickens, dogs, bees, geese, ducks, rabbits, an old barn, and a giant garden. You start with a 5x5 raised bed and a trio of hens. Maybe three rabbits in a hutch and plant an apple tree—canning your own jam or sewing your own hooded sweatshirt. You get the jist.

When I look at the things I do in a normal 8-5 work day it seems so utterly normal, but the girl from Knoxville might have thrown up after a week of it all.

Endurance certainly is the word.

I started with such a small project list. In Idaho I had a few raised beds, backyard chickens, bees, and hutch rabbits. It seemed like so much to handle then. Now it seems almost too little to even consider. This farm went from being an idealist hobby into flirtation with self-reliance. Now I am head-over-heals in love with it all. I signed that mortgage and accepted this farm as a partner and friend. It takes care of me and I take care of it. It feels like all those late nights reading about gardening and sheep in rented apartments and busting sod all over the country on stranger's land was training me for this place. Endurance training. And it all started with an apartment in a city with a red dog and a hankering for the mountains. Look at all the trouble I got myself into now...

The little pullet was sitting up and drinking water as of just a few moments ago. She has the whole brooder to herself by the wood stove with feed and clean water. I hope she makes it.

I hope I do too.

winner of the first banjo equinox challenge!

Congrats to Julie! She was the lucky random winner from the videos submitted for the first recital. For all her hard work she gets a copy of the book Banjo Camp! mailed to her (email me Julie so I can send it to you), and hopefully she'll keep on keeping on as we all head into our next song. I think she's a brand new frailer? Even so, how beautiful to see that hand flurry into a blur! Congrats to all who entered and are taking on making your own music for the first time with clawhammer banjo. Now, start practicing Sugar Hill! Our next challenge will be next weekend and the winner out of the videos will get a skein of Cold Antler Farm's yarn!

Here's a question for all of you out there taking part in the lessons: how do you learn a song? Do you go through the whole thing slowly until you can do it? Do you start with one note at a time and add new notes on piecemeal? Or do you do what I do and listen to a song twenty times and then try to learn it in small sections before moving on? Teach us your methods!

start living your dream (and win some books)

CAF is giving away the complete collection of Ashley English's current Homemade Living Series! Four, beautiful, hardcover books about chickens, canning, beekeeping, and the home dairy. Signed by Ash herself, these would be wonderful references (and inspiration) to add to your farm library. To enter for the fancy set, you need to do something for me first.

You need to sit at your desk, coffee table, etc. and write down on a sheet of paper exactly what your dream homestead or farm would be. Not on your computer. Not on your iPad. On paper. Write down the acreage, the house, the barn, and the animals you will share it with. Draw a picture of the layout, where the stables will be, where the garden will be. Be specific. If you are already at your farm or working your own homestead: do the same for a new project. Draw the way the new pork pasture will look, and write a description of the exact solar charger and line weight of the wire. Then, after you brought this dream or project into the world of actual paper. I want you to make that first step. If you described your little cottage in the country, then I need you to call a realtor and explain to them what you are looking for in your price range. I don't care if you plan to move, or buy, or what: just make the call. If you drew chickens next to your backyard garden, then run to the library to get a book on basic chicken care (I can think of one that is just delightful). Whatever it is you wrote down as your dream, the point is to take that first step towards making it happen. Get a book, call a mortgage broker, order seeds online, talk to your husband about wanting that draft horse...just do something that is beyond dreaming.

Then fold up your piece of paper, put it in your pocket, carry it with you always. It will work miracles.

And to win these books, leave a comment telling all of us what that first step was. When you've done that: you've just entered to win.

Winner will be picked Friday Night! Check back to see in comments!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

young man

photo by tim bronson


I'm so incredibly relieved that Spring is here and lambing is behind me. The winter and the births were beautiful and trialing—I don't mean to discount them in any way—as lessons were learned and I feel like I truly pulled through. But for it to be a warm 50-degree morning in April and not have to worry about sinking roofs, dodgy commutes, plowing driveways, pregnant animals, or heating oil is such a weight off this girl's shoulders it makes me almost want to retract all my smack talk about April I've done on this blog years prior....Almost.

April is still a creepy son of a bitch.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Announcing: 2011/2012 Fiber CSA!

Cold Antler Farm's main enterprise is the Fiber CSA, and with shearing day just around the corner, I thought I'd explain how the main business of the farm works and how you can be a part of it if you'd like.

What is a CSA?
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It's a fairly popular system. A practice of small-farming economics that helps farmers raise the capital they need going into the season under the agreement that when the crop is harvested (be it eggs, meat, dairy, veggies, honey, or wool) that they will be delivered the goods they paid for in advance at a later date. So you pay for your share up front, and become a shareholder in the farm. While this doesn't make you a part-owner (like a share in stock) you are getting to share in the joys of (live)stock. Members of the Cold Antler Farm Fiber CSA get a welcome packet with some wool at a date based on shearing and processing. You might pay and not get your wool until months down the road.

So that's how it works. It's actually a small gamble in some senses. If all goes as planned, you get a big package of wool and keep Cold Antler on its path to become the farm it will be! But if tragedy strikes and a tornado lifts my flock up into the air: no one gets any wool. While I doubt that's the case, you just need to know a CSA share is non refundable. The money will be long spent by packaging day.

How to Join the Lottery
If you want to be considered for the first lottery, understand that you need to be ready to commit to payment up front and you won't get your share until the 2012 season. This year's members get this season's wool, and if there is enough extra: so will you, but if not, it waits still next year's share. The price is $150 a share for 5-7 skeins of CAF Blackface/Longwool blend. It will be a near weatherproof wool, perfect for hats and gloves, vests and Irish Fishing sweaters! This is fifty dollars more than last year, because I actually lost money on the first round, and am hoping to lose a little less this time... The price is based on the cost of the mill, shearing, feed, etc. And keep in mind producing such a small batch of wool at a professional level is very costly. Last year's mill bill was nearly $900 dollars just to produce 68 skeins, and that wasn't counting the thousand dollars paid for five bred sheep! This next round will also possibly include some Angora Rabbit wool for hand spinning.

If you want to take the plunge with Jenna, leave a comment saying you are interested. I will pick names from this group (3-5) based on how many openings there will be.

Current Members
If you are a current member and would like to retain your membership, please reserve your 2011-2012 spot by emailing me at jenna@itsafarwalk.com with your current mailing address and send a PayPal payment of $150 to that address as well. Please include a few extra dollars to cover shipping and handling. If you will not be renewing, then please let me know soon as possible so I can open more spots up for others for future lottery drawings.

Thank you all, for your interest and support of my small farm.

photo by tim bronson

foundation stock

photo by tim bronson

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Old Molly Hare

Welcome to the first group recital for Banjo Equinox 2011! So for this first go-around, all we do is post videos of our first tune. This is not a contest, nor is it anything you should feel like you are being measured on or against! It is simply a chance to show each other our music, and to see how we are coming along as the weeks progress. In eight weeks you'll be amazed that you're the same person in that first video. I promise. Even if your songs are clumsy now, keep with us and by firefly time this summer you'll be frailing like a front-porch superstar. And no need to apologize or feel sheepish for your music either. For some of you, this is your first instrument ever! Be darn proud of yourselves for the home schooling and homebrewed music! And remember, one of you video posters will win a copy of Banjo Camp, the beginner's book and cultural manifesto I love so much. I'll pick a random winner when all the videos are in, so check back to see if it is you.

Here's my Old Molly Hare. I need to work on keeping my hands closer to the strings, but it's still music. I can't wait to hear all of you, keep plucking!

get your banjos ready!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

tha gang's all here

As of just before midnight on the second day of April, the last ewe due gave birth to a pair of beautiful ram lambs in the far pastture. I sat outside with 15-06 for the birth of her twins. When I walked outside on pe-bedtime rounds I noticed her pacing and pawing at the grounds. Knowing she would be in labor soon, I ran inside for a blanket and a book and outside under the cold stars I talked to her, read, and watched the whole show. When all was done on her part, it took me a while to get the boys and mama into their jug, but I did it. Slow and steady, I stepped backwards with the ram lambs while she knickered and followed me. I set her up with her sweet water, hay, and when I saw the older lamb start to nurse I knew she had it all under control. I was covered in birth fluids. I was clammy from the late night arrival. I was smiling as I walked down the hill to my dogs and warm bed.

Lambing Season 2011 is finally at a close. I'm pouring myself a large mug of warm cider and calling it a night. The first night in quite some time my alarm won't be waking me every two hours to beam a light through the fields. Amen.

proud girl

Here is our champion: Lisette and her beautiful twins. The little girl I'm calling Pidge, which is a nickname form of Pigeon Forge, home of Dolly Parton. Her brother and the yearling's boy are being traded to another farm for hay (a good lot of next winter's hay!) so I'm not naming those for fear of struggling to part with them. So far the count is thirteen total sheep, eight regulars and five new lambs. I wish you could see how Knox and Ashe run together in the pastures, leaping on dirt piles, playing tag. They're just waiting for the little ones to catch up to their reindeer games. I'll have to take a video of all the babes for you soon. Just one sheep left to lamb and the 2011 Lambing Season will come to a close. As grateful as I am for experiences I am getting, I am looking forward to a full night's sleep. I have also decided the extra-large wine glass was invented by shepherds in March.

Some non-related news: I'm hosting an Ashley English Series giveaway this week! Enter here for a chance to get all four of her books, signed by Ash, and sent from the publisher to your doorstep. The books are beautiful, informative, and a great addition to your homesteading library covering chickens, canning, beekeeping, and the home dairy. Not too shabby.

Also, starting the first lottery for the next Wool CSA soon. I decided instead of posting once a year for a giant lottery, I would do it several times a year for just four or five slots. This gives people more than one chance to get selected and if they happen to miss the post, another one will come along. This is for the 2011/2012 CSA, not this year's shares. But you will get a welcome packet and your first skein this fall. Current members will receive the rest of their wool, but it will be a blend of the Longwools and Blackface.


It's 3AM on a Saturday morning. When I was in college, 3AM was normal. We'd be over a friend's apartment, still swigging bottles of Yuengling and talking about how we were going to change the world through graphic design. We'd be on some rooftop in warmer Pennsylvania, laughing through clouds of cigarette smoke and candlelight while the Postal Service played Clark Gable in the background. John Mayer's quiet version from some Atlanta bar of 3x5 was an anthem. I would crank it up as I drove through Amish country, singing along as I planned my future with friends passenger side. Stories about how by the time we were thirty we would have seen Europe, got printing in Comm Arts, and starting our own firms. I was already planning my future brick loft's Eame's furniture in my Rittenhouse Square apartment. I was all set.

It's 3AM on a Saturday morning. I am sitting in an 1860's farmhouse in Washington County New York. I'm typing on the same six-year-old Mac I graduated college with. I'm sitting at the same desk I scribbled on when I was fifteen. It looks nothing like an Eame's desk. It was my grandfather's desk and it was a gift from my parents shortly after I moved in. It is scratched and simple. An old Smith Corona sits here next to a stack of farming memoirs by far better writers than I. And a snow globe that cost three dollars with a black bear in it says Great Smoky Mountains and I am starting to cry just looking at it. It was Tennessee that showed me homesteading, and farming, and mountains, and music. I miss her so much.

It's 3AM on a Saturday morning and I am exhausted. Today three new beasts were born on the 6 and a half acres I now own. One ram lamb was a struggle just to keep alive and the twins I just walked in on. They were Lisette's and already asleep with full bellies when I found them at 2AM. I was so happy for this sheep it caused pause. The ewe I had worried about, given glycol shots to, medicated and called the vet to inspect...the sheep I expected everything to go wrong with come birthing had done it all herself. Her ewe-lamb and ram-lamb twins were big, beautiful, babies and now all three are in a stall next to the yearling and her little curly-faced boy. He seemed alert and healthy as of a few minutes ago. I hope they all pull through.

It's 3AM on a Saturday morning and I am not exactly sure how the design student in the red Jetta became the farmer in the Dodge pickup. I am certain that this farm—and this life—that so many people see as limitations and stress, is the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my entire life. I don't know if the other version of me with the Herman Miller chair and wall of records would have friends that would come running to help me when I was scared about a possible prolapsed uterus. I may have had a fully-stamped passport, but would I even know the person who's name was on the front cover? Maybe. I know most of those people I shared all my big plans with in college no longer talk with me. I miss them all.

I do know that it's 3AM on a Saturday night and I am happy. Five lambs and four ewes are okay. My border collie is chasing shadows in the living room and tomorrow I will buy more anti-toxin, crimp ear tags, give shots, band tails and buy mineral licks and all of it was never talked about on rooftops while Ben Gibbard crooned.

It's time to get some sleep. Big day tomorrow. One ewe left to go and lambing season is over.

What a ride it's been.

Sorry about the lack of pictures.
I didn't have a camera by my side this time.

Friday, April 1, 2011

rough day

Sometimes you wake up on your morning rounds and the lambs are clean, next to their mothers, belly full, and sound asleep...

And sometimes you and three friends are pressing an angry yearling against a shed wall in a snow storm so you can milk enough colostrum out of her to fill a feeding tube for her lethargic and neglected ram lamb who is growing colder by the minute....

I'm glad I stayed home today. We're not out of the woods yet.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

a lamb's storm

A storm is brewing up here in Veryork. Unfortunately, I'm not being figurative. An actual snow storm is whirling right now in the angry sky and planning to dump 5-10 inches of snow on our current the world of taupe. The combination of nearly a foot of snow and three more pregnant ewes about to lamb required a vacation day. Some times you just have to put the farm first, and snow storms, a ewe recovering from ketosis, and an inexperienced yearling will be making for an interesting three-day weekend.

But lambs are not the only projects on the farm. I have plans to start really cleaning out the barn after the winter of pig and chickens, and preparing for the smaller rabbitry. Since my friends Zach and Shellee are returning the Angora bucks they got from me last year, and I already have a Palomino doe in the barn, it made sense to me to keep breeding them for meat and side-income. So Sunday I’ll pick up two little Angora does who will be bred to Benjamin and Bean’s progeny later this summer. Wool rabbits are back on the farm and I am glad. Expect cute bunny picks along with new lamb picks (if they ever show up….) soon.

P.S. I still have two spots free for the memorial day laying hen workshop, so come on over! It’ll be a summer day on the farm with friends from all over the New England/Mid Atlantic area with a campfire jam at night. I also have one spot left in the meat bird workshop. And five spots left for Sheep 101!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

knox and ashe

everyman's steer

The meat chicks are now living outside and thriving in the spring sunshine. (The dozen layers are still inside the brooder, but without any heat lamp.) They were welcomed into the coop without much fuss. The other birds mostly ignore them, and they spend their days walking around learning to scratch, hunt, and cause chicken-level trouble. At about a month old, these Jumbo Cornish Crosses are already halfway to harvest weight. In about a month I'll have a freezer full of enough chicken to get me a homegrown Sunday roaster for 5 months!

A lot of folks ask why I don't raise a breeding, sustainable, flock of meat birds that can reproduce? My answer to that is: I do. It's called my laying flock! You can eat any chicken, including slower-growing heavy breeds like the Orpingtons and Brahmas, and I would certainly raise their chicks for meat birds some day when Cold Antler is more along the path to being self-sufficient. However, right now I am a 9-5 office worker with an oil furnace... I order my meat birds with gusto.

So many folks look at the Cornish Cross as an industrial mutant, but hell, I like them. They get the job done right, and fast. I also like raising meat animals that were bred to be meat animals. For example, you could make hamburgers out of a Jersey cow, but certainly you would gain more value out of their milk. So cattle bred for beef like angus and herefords were developed. Same goes for these big Cornish birds. They are the angus chicken. They grow true, make delicious healthy food, and can be harvested right at home with little tools and supplies. They are everyman's steer.

I have heard horror stories about these guys though. About them not moving in pastured tractors. About broken legs and exploding hearts, but I have never experienced anything like that. I have found if let them live outdoors while their bodies are growing—free ranging across a farm—they grow strong and beautiful. They need space, not just a movable pen, and if given that freedom they learn to support those hefty frames. There is still one of last year's meat birds (same jumbo cross variety) in the barn. He missed last year's harvest season so he's earned his place to live out his life as a scrappy barnyard bird, which he does. I call him Castro. He just never dies.

And you may not ever want to raise an animal that was designed to be breasts and thighs and not a functioning breeding animal. I get that. But I still have a fondness for these chunks. They aren't perfect. That is true. But if you are looking for a model of perfection, man, have you ever come to the wrong blog....

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

banjo equinox: first challenge!

For those of you taking part in Banjo Equinox: here comes your first group recital. We're going to get together and play some music. This weekend I'll post a video of myself playing Old Molly Hare (the first tune in Erbsen's book), and in the comments you can add a link to your own video. A randomly picked winner of all video submissions will win a copy of Banjo Camp!, which is a beginner's book about the culture and magic of the banjo. Great for inspiration and lessons on clawhammer and bluegrass styles (with a CD to boot). So start practicing.... Video will be posted this weekend! Winner picked next Tuesday night! Oh, and if you learned this tune on the fiddle in the Fiddler's Summer challenge a few summer's back. Post a video of you sawing out that tune and you are entered too. Same goes for guitars and dulcimers, voices and pots and pans.

Below is an interview with the author from a few summer's back.

I want you all to meet Zhenya Senyak, the author of the recently published book Banjo Camp! Zhenya hails from Asheville, a town I love and used to frequent when I lived in Tennessee. Banjo Camp! is a gem folks. It's a beginner's instruction book for teaching yourself the basics, but it's much more than that. This colorful and friendly book is a tour on the backroads of America's roots music. You'll see photos, hear stories, and learn about all the ruckus happening in camps and shindigs all around the country. It makes you want to sling your banjo over your shoulder and start walking to the nearest campfire jam.

Zhenya has been kind enough to stop by the farm for an interview. We'll be having a friendly conversation about old-time music, his love of openback banjos, and some advice for all of us new pickers out there. If you are even mildly interested in making the banjo part of your life, pick up his book. It comes with a CD too, so you can listen to what you should be playing as you frail along at home ( a must-have for all us self-taught folks.) Okay enough yakking from me, everyone pull up a chair and gather round.

Zhenya, thanks for stopping by. Welcome to the farm.
Hi, Jenna, appreciate the invitation. Love the farm… and thanks for the mug of coffee. If Jazz and Annie are willing to move over a little, I can put down my banjo case.

So you've been playing banjo for how long now?
That’s hard to pinpoint. Six years ago I started Blue Mountain Schoolhouse, a teachers cooperative that offered all kinds of classes around Asheville, North Carolina. And in the course of interviewing teachers I got turned on to old-time music. I found a little hand-made banjo at a garage sale, , cracks filled in with bondo, strings high off the fretboard and some assorted tuning pegs screwed into the peghead. The guy said it would look good hanging on my wall but that was my first banjo. I paid $12 for it, about what the Pete Seeger banjo book cost me.

That part of my banjo career lasted about two weeks, maybe less. But I did hear some banjo sounds before I got discouraged. It was three years ago, when I was about to start a newspaper job, that one of the Blue Mountain teachers traded an open-back banjo for one of my acoustic guitars. And there was something magical about that banjo. I played it first thing in the morning, lots during the day and last thing at night. I’d wake up hearing that jingle jamming plunking sound in my head and couldn’t wait to start picking. So I’d say, yeah, I’ve been playing about three years now.

I gather you started as an adult. Was that intimidating?
I don’t know about being an adult, but I know I was surely getting on. I finished that newspaper job two years ago when I turned 70 and figured it’s now or never. I just leaped full bore into banjo and mountain roots music, spending an intensive year studying, visiting banjo camps, jamming. Yeah there were some intimidating parts. I got started playing bluegrass where, beyond learning the rolls and repertoire, there’s a whole routine of lead breaks and backup that you have to know before feeling reasonably comfortable in a jam. Plus bluegrass is a lot more of a performance.

Old time music is mostly people sitting in a circle, putting their heads down and playing together. When I found my way to old-time music banjo playing kicked into a whole new gear for me, more soulful, rhythmic, communal. I’m lucky, living in the heartland of old time music, to be surrounded by great old time musicians. For now, that usually keeps me at the edge of the circle at fiddle conventions and the many old-time jams around town, but I can play along and get into the groove and be part of the music.

Do you think making your own music can be considered a form of self-reliance?
That’s a good question. The flip side of picking with friends – and strangers – is your relationship to your instrument and to music. What I love about the banjo is its transformative power, the way it can jack me up or calm me down, keep me company on the road.

With my banjo, I don’t have to depend on MP3 players or CDs, on an electrical hook-up or batteries and ear buds. I love music, all kinds of music and, play lots of instruments… somewhat. Most any instrument, for that matter, most any way of producing music or rhythm gives us the ability to create an environment. The open back banjo, to me is alone in its range as a solo instrument. It can be mellow or insistent, ring out or just sing along softly on a single string. It’s a drum on a stick with stringed intervals that encompass all musical forms.

Why do you think old-time and bluegrass music feel so kindred to living close to the land?
Old-time music, country music whatever its form, is really folk music, music people make when they come together. Sometimes the music is about current events but often it’s a variant on old tunes passed along in families and communities. This is music that sustained people working long hours on the farm, when maybe the only refreshment was picking up a banjo at the end of the day or coming together with others for a fiddle and banjo dance.

Handmade music as the accompaniment to rural life is the natural way it has been for many centuries, long before cities and concert halls arose All that living history of folk music only started being collected in recordings and published and passed along recently. It’s great that that work has been done because now we have some historic record of folks who are gone, music we might never have

Returning to the roots or roots music is not a big leap. We may take our Blackberries and other electronic gear for granted, but the World War One was less than a century ago and at that time radio didn’t exist. Television, in any form, has only been around for 60 years or so and personal computers only go back a little more than 25 years.

You did mention to me you recently picked up a fiddle. Are you saying mountain music has some inevitable side-effects
When I was researching Banjo Camp! I interviewed many old-time banjo players who also played the fiddle. Maybe it’s not right to say “also,” since you’re talking about some of the best old time fiddlers in the world, like Brad Leftwich. Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham are good old-time examples of the nexus between fiddle and banjo. When the fiddle bug bit me, I understood immediately why these instruments are so bonded together. Of course they’re both light and portable, but their voices just naturally blend. When played together, fiddle takes the lead and banjo provides the beat, but it’s more complex than that since rhythm is an important part of fiddling just as dropping melodic and harmonic licks into a solid frail is part of banjo. It’s a conversation and now that I’m past that first squealing sour note stage of fiddling, it’s a conversation that’s fun to listen to . Bob Carlin and John Hartford made a fiddle/banjo CD called just that, “Conversations” that’s worth listening to if you get a chance. An old-time musician, playing fiddle and banjo is a little bit like Pinetop Perkins playing boogie woogie on the piano, the parts just come together.

What has been the biggest reward since you played your first tune on your banjo?
Hard to say. There have definitely been some highlights, long sessions with David Holt showing me the clawhammer ropes, conversations with Pete Seeger and Tony Trischka, listening to Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn at an Obama fund-raiser, the Carolina Chocolate Drops with Joe Thompson on fiddle at the Swannanoa Gathering, weekly Shindig on the Green events in Asheville or the Wednesday night jams at the Jack of the Wood Tavern. For all that, I’m pretty much a loner. The biggest rewards for me have been the break-throughs, the empowerment, feeling close enough to my banjo to make the music I hear in my head, or maybe even close enough to let the banjo lead into the music.

What advice do you have for the timid-wannabe-banjo players out there?
It’s called playing the banjo…and that’s the attitude to take. If you just sit down and mess around for awhile, get some good old-time banjo music in your head and learn a few basic chord positions, it will all come together. You’ve got to just do it, knowing it’s about the music and playing and having a good time. You can work hard at it because it’s fun but if you start getting all grim about it, might as well take up insurance sales or something.

Think you'll ever stop picking?
That’s my epitaph: “Finally stopped pickin’”

Thanks Zhenya, 'preciateya.
So… you ready to break out your banjo and pick a couple of tunes?

Monday, March 28, 2011


Little Ashe is a firecracker! Like their respective cities, Knox is laid back and curious and she's all color and action. When Knox and his mom were let out of the jug he clomped out like a drunk clydesdale. But little Ashe bolted out in a joyful noise and then zigzagged all over the pasture, bleating like an idiot. It was quite the site. As of my last check, both lambs were on the hillside by their mothers with round bellies and brass numbers on their ears. Tonight might bring them more playmates, as both Liset and the yearling are due any moment now...


photo by tim bronson

Sunday, March 27, 2011

smoke, cider, and a roasting chicken

It's Sunday night and the dishes are done, the floors are mopped, the brooders are cleaned, and the wood stove is lit. The dogs have been walked and are asleep in their favorite places. The sheep have been fed—the chickens have too. Saro is asleep on a pile of eggs so large she can barely cover them. (I am certain little goslings will be lumping around here soon). The rabbit doe from last year's litter (the lone rabbit for a few more weeks) is on a bed of fresh hay with clean water and pellets. Outside on the hill the newest member of Cold Antler is curled up in a ball next to her mother, who is chewing on her own flake of Nelson Greene's 5-star hay and sipping from her bucket of molasses water. My sheep have a good life, and they deserve it.

Outside little Knox is running around the pasture ahead of his mother, then turning back to make sure she's still there. I can see this from my window. It's almost dark and the heat lamp in the lambing shack looks like some safe haven from another time and place: like a place people walk all day to come to at dusk, and then go inside where their bellies are full, thirst is quenched, beds are soft and dry, and safety and exhaustion combine into the best sleep of their lives. It's the sheep version of a log cabin in the middle of the woods that welcomes weary travels with hot food and warm fireplaces. You know, before the world was scared of everything we made.

There's a chicken in the oven and the house is filling up with the crackling, warm smells and it is heavenly. I have hard cider waiting for me in the fridge and I can hear my banjo whispering to me from downstairs, asking me to play Old Molly Hare at least five more times before I sit down to eat. I think banjos sound better when you can smell wood smoke, cider, and roasting chicken. Scratch that "think". I'm certain of it.

I know that this school night will be interrupted with 12-degree hill checks after midnight and before dawn, but that's okay. For the next few hours this farm is at peace. I can rest and know that there is nothing out there my head, heart, or long rifle can't deal with.

Life is good.

photo by tim bronson, but cropped and colorized by me without his permission!

knox makes a friend

it's a girl!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

triple hs treatment

Have you noticed I don't post as much during lambing?

I'll be back into my routine again soon, but right now my life revolves entirely around these four things: farm, sleep, office, lambing. The downtime I do manage to wrangle is used to add a few extra minutes of sleep, and even then I wake up a few times a night from my very-loud alarm to go out and check for any new charges. If it was 30 degrees at night and I had all my sheep in a proper barn I would sleep through the night like a rock. But when you're shepherding with an 8x12" shed and a lambing jug shack with lows in the southern teens...you need to get up and get those babies on warmed hay under a hot bulb. So I get up from nightmares* (bad sleeping patterns puts me in full-color, graphic end-of-the-world dreams) and put on all my wool armor, heavy Muck boots, canvas vest and a wool hat and search through the pasture for placenta.

I might be worn-thin but I am crazy-happy. A coworker told me after we got coffee one morning that "lambing looked good on me" and I had to ask her what the hell she meant by that? She told me I was glowing, like a new mom. I couldn't have put it better myself. Bringing these little muppets** into the world has been bliss.

And yet, the lack of REM while keeping up with the 8-5 full time job and running the farm has created a woman in serious need of a triple HS treatment. For those of you who have not tried it, it goes like this.

Hot Shower.
Hot Sugar.
Heart-warming Show.***

For me this means a twenty-minute steamy shower with lots of stretching of sore muscles, followed by a hot mug of cocoa, and a favorite television show on DVD I have probably seen seven times before, but am guaranteed to soak it up like comfort food. Something like Buffy, the Gilmore Girls, or Felicity. I have no qualms admitting to you I have probably seen these entire series four or five times each. Some people get stressed out and go for a drink or cigarette—I opt for Sunnydale or Stars Hollow.

*Did you know that the word nightmare comes from the belief that seeing a female horse before you go to bed caused bad dreams? Night Mares.

**Unlike normal lambs, Scotties come into the world with horns, shaggy hair, and spots. They look like something Jim Henson stuck his hand up.

***For men and extreme cases the shower remains the same, but the hot sugar can be replaced with High Spirits (whiskey, gin, name your pleasure). And the last one.... Well, use your imagination.

Friday, March 25, 2011

06-07 is ready to pop...

Breath is bated. More lambs soon. Maybe even tonight!

run gibson, run!

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

banjo equinox: lesson one

First off, congratulations to all of you who signed up! Choosing to learn an instrument is quite the accomplishment in itself! I'm going to ask that everyone out there holding a banjo in front of your computers stop and take a minute to comment on this post and introduce yourself. And if you are someone thinking of joining in a few weeks, say hello too! Tell us your name, about your banjo (or future banjo), and why you want to learn? Tell us where you're from, about your life, etc. If folks see other working parents, teenagers, or retired folks taking on the banjo it might inspire them to drop all excuses and doubts and start making music as well. If we all know each other we can support each other along the way. I also am interested in how many of you are going from complete beginner to old-time frailer!

Parts of the Banjo
Tonight we're going to start with something really basic: anatomy. Before we start talking about what goes where, we need to know the what. This image here shows you the basics, and the names associated with them. This image differs from most old-time banjos because it has that big resonator on the back of the pot. It's a popular addition in Bluegrass banjos, and some of yours may have it, others not. It doesn't matter either way. Both will play music! Get familiar with the parts of your banjo. Go over this list, or the listed illustration in your books, and touch them as you speak their names. Feel the tuning pegs and say "tuning peg" run your hand down the neck and say "Neck, frets, strings, bridge.." etc. Learning an instrument is also learning a whole new language of terms and phrases. And it's important you are familiar with them.

After you felt up your banjo, let's get it tuned. I can't stress enough how important it is you get your banjo tuned perfectly well. So much of this method of playing is by ear, and you need to hear on your own banjo what the videos and CD sound like. We're going to let Wayne take it from here and show you how to get it into our beginner's tuning: Double C. P.S. If you have an electronic tuner, it will be a huge help. Between your ear, the the gage on the tuner, you'll be able to get your instrument pitch-perfect. Here's a link to a video on using your electronic tuner on your banjo. Thanks Youtube!

Frailing!Once you're in Double C tuning, play each note. Hear them. Get to know them. And when you have that little gal ready to play, it's time to learn the meat and potatoes of Old Time Banjo: The frail!! I strongly suggest you go through with the book and CD first and give it a try before you watch the video. It'll just make more sense to you as he goes through the steps visually after you give it the ol' college try. One you gave yourself a lesson in the Banjo Lick, watch and listen to Wayne!

P.S. Julie gave me a tip I'll share with you: when practicing the clawhammer frail (frail is another word for lick), make sure your hand is in a proper "claw" by playing with an empty toilet paper roll in your right hand. As you strum, it forces you into that position.

So from here you have plenty to practice! Honestly, this should keep you right busy till our next lesson later this weekend. The tuning and claw-ham-mer lick are the basis of everything we'll learn from here on out. So play it until you're cats are so sick of it they steer clear of your company. Play it till you can close your eyes and feel it. Make sure you practice at least 15 minutes a day, that is the deal.

Next lesson will be our first tune, and feel free to read and practice ahead. Also, PLEASE comment with posts of videos of you playing! The more music on this blog, the better!

banjo parts thanks to ezfolk.com
seeger's banjo photo thanks to pbase.com

an interview with wayne erbsen!

Banjo Equinox starts this week, and to kick it off I have an interview with none other than Wayne Erbsen, our instructor! Wayne wrote the book we're using for this course: Clawhammer Banjo For the Complete Ignoramus! I asked him if he'd answer some questions about how he discovered the banjo and starting a new instrument as an adult. Later tonight we'll get started with tuning our banjos to Double C tuning and the Clawhammer Lick. These two things will be fundamentals in learning our first song "Old Molly Hare" which we'll be playing by this weekend! Right now, all of you sitting at home with your books and banjos: make sure you read that entire book up to the first tune: Old Molly Hare and feel free to practice ahead. But for right now, let's welcome Wayne to Cold Antler and thank him for being a part of Banjo Equinox!

You can learn more about Mr. Erbsen, his books, classes, lessons, workshops and even instruments for sale at his website nativeground.com

1. Why did you start playing the banjo?
In the early sixties I was bitten by the folk music bug that was biting a lot of people back then with the popularity of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and all the folk groups. I started playing the guitar and was soon giving group lessons when I was just a fifteen year old wet-nosed kid. My sister brought home a banjo and when she wasn’t around, I’d sneak it out and learned how to play it. I was soon giving banjo lessons too. There is something about the tone of the banjo that really grabs hold of you and won’t let go. So far, it still has a grip on me.

2. Do you come across a lot of adults who want to play the banjo but have no musical experience? And have any of them had success?
I seem to be a magnet for older adults with the lust to play the banjo but with no previous experience. Maybe that’s because I advertise the fact that I can even teach a frog to play the banjo. A lot of people claim to be frogs and sign up for my classes. I am able to teach the vast majority of them to play. The only ones that are a challenge to teach are older people who have been harboring the urge to play the banjo for fifty or sixty years. By the time they sign up for my class, they’re often in their seventies and eighties. Although many of these people certainly learn to play, others have difficulty because of arthritis, or other physical limitations. In general, though, I’ve had great success teaching beginners to play. That’s because I’ve been able to break things down very simply in my books and lessons.

By the way, in addition to my clawhammer banjo book, I’ve written Bluegrass Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus, Bluegrass Mandolin for the Complete Ignoramus, Old-Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus and Flatpicking Guitar for the Complete Ignoramus. Right now I’m finishing up my newest book, Bluegrass Jamming on Mandolin. Other books in this series will include Bluegrass Jamming on Fiddle, Bluegrass Jamming on Banjo and Bluegrass Jamming on Guitar. All my books can be found at nativeground.com

3. What’s a reasonable practice regime? How much effort does it take to play a few tunes?
I’m sure most of your readers are busy people with jobs, families and many things requiring their limited time. If they can spent about fifteen minutes a day, they’ll be able to learn to play. If they can spend more time than that, it’s even better. In learning clawhammer banjo, the hardest part is learning the basic clawhammer stroke. Once they learn that, playing a variety of tunes is rather easy.

4. What's the best advice you can give to new pickers and strummers?
Choose an instrument to learn that you’re really passionate about. Some people are discouraged from trying the instrument of their dreams because some well-meaning friend has told them that they heard that the instrument you want to play is very difficult to learn. To that I say “baloney!” If taught right by a good clear book, video, or instructor, anybody with average ability can learn to play any instrument. Mainly, it all boils down to determination. If you are hell-bent to learn an instrument, then nothing can stop you.

Good luck to all the folks who are accepting Jenna’s banjo challenge and are going to learn to play out of my book, Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus. I look forward to teaching you to play the banjo.