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 - 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 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!