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!