Sometimes I feel like this entire world is split into two groups: the people who are working towards something good that makes them happy, and those who are not. It's not that I dislike the latter, content people keep this ship on course...
But I am falling in love with everyone of the former.
I don't think I had ever driven under more stress in my life. While drifting at a painstakingly conservative pace down Route 67 into Bennington, I kept looking into the rear-view mirror with wide eyes. The 80-year-old green farm trike was falling out of the back bed constantly. Not falling into the road, but knocking down the tailgate with a bang. I wanted to drive faster, but couldn't. If I sped up the old bike might fly into the road and the small cage of pullets might go with it. It was too early in the morning to have blood on my hands. So I just white knuckled the steering wheel while another angry driver passed me on the windy two-lane road. I was going 35 in a 55. People hated being behind me.
As I got closer to the state line I passed a large horse farm and took in a happy sight. A woman was driving a single pony in standard cart. They were coming down a dirt road at a trot, and against the green pastures and bright mountain it looked wonderful. I kept looking, wanting to pull over and ask the woman if she gave lessons, and another German car whizzed passed me. I don't think the people in the BMW saw, or cared about, the pony on the hill. I guess they don't worry about free-falling 1930's tricycle shrapnel either.
I was running late, really late, for merchant set-up time at the Walloomsac Farmer's Market. I thought it started at 11, but when checking the website at 9Am in my bathrobe, I realized I had it all wrong and it was starting in an hour. It must've been my post-turkey hunting doldrums that messed up my times. I stared at the screen of the kitchen's Emac. I was to be set up and at my table in half an hour. Oh, shit. It takes a half hour just to drive there. There was no way I could make it on time, and there was certainly no way I could make myself look presentable either. I through my hair up into a hat, braided my pigtails, through on a cowboy shirt and jumped into the poorly-loaded truck. I had an old folding table I found in the attic, an ancient EZ-UP tent, and my books and wool already loaded. For blatant showmanship and chick-book advertising I had planned to set up the old farm trike by my table with a small cage of pullets loaded in the back. I hoped people who stopped to see the chicks (or the bike) would consider a book.
I pulled into the train station with 15 minutes till the opening bell. In a panic, I searched for the market coordinator to ask where to go? She told me where to pull up my truck and I backed it into the very last spot. Talk about poor positioning... I was on the edge of the market, the spot for, well, the people who show up late. I sighed and ran to the truck to unload the tent and table. The table was easy enough to get upright, but the ancient tent (which had not been used in ten years), was stuck and myself and another woman who came to my rescue from the next booth, could not get it open. Disgusted. I threw it into the back of my truck. I should have tested it at home first, but had not. By this point I had missed a turkey, been late to the market, and now I was breaking the must-have-tent rule. I set up my sad little table fast as I could and ran to the truck to get my bike. In the rush I grabbed it wrong and cut open my hand with the old fender. Blood poured and I silently cursed, almost wanting to cry. I had been up since 4 and starving. Besides one thin slice of cold pizza I had nothing to eat.
The Joe showed up, who I knew from Izabella's in town, and as husband to my coworker Lucinda at the office. He saw this frumpy misfit trying to unload an old bicycle and in an act of kindness so selfless, he set down his snack and helped me get it out of my truck. It was an extremely decent thing to do, and in my state of exhaustion and frustration I was moved to canonize the man. I thanked him, and my mood instantly changed. Just like that. If there are still men kind enough to help a Hobbit woman get her stupid tricycle out of her pickup truck the world can't be that crappy of a place: dead turkeys or not.
(I think this is the only blog you will read that last sentence on...)
I was set up soon enough after that. I was handed a bandaid and then spent the next three hours taking in the scene. One of the woman from Polymeadow's farm brought a goat kid along. A little LaMancha cross with a black coat, tiny ears, and white socks. Kids played with the ten-day-old goat and asked me about my chickens. I saw some local folks, coworkers, and met a few vendors. The rain they were calling for held out, and for that, this tentless girl was grateful. I took the six dollars I had brought from home for change in my blue mason jar and spent them on a cookie and a croissant. I might be broke, late, and bleeding: but I wasn't going to be hungry. I ate them with gusto. People would just have to have correct change.
It was exciting to be sitting at my first outdoor market. Until that morning I was always on the other side of the table, walking around with a dog and a shopping bag, buying things. Now I was the one in the camp chair hoping someone was thinking about chickens or liked to knit. Sitting at a market table is a constant mantra of c'mom, c',mon, c'mon.....
The market was well attended, their largested opening day ever, but darn slow for me. I made a total of fifty-five dollars in book sales, but fifteen went to my table fee and the other 40 fell out of my pants pocket loading the truck. I realized this when I was at long gone from the grounds at the Tractor Supply check-out line, trying to pay for t-posts and 330 feet of field fencing and realized the cash I planned on putting towards it had slipped out of the pockets of my sister's hand-me-down jeans. That poor luck had made the entire day of work a monetary wash.
Well folks, I can tell you this, after yesterday will never aim a shotgun wrong or put cash in those shallow pockets again. Lessons come easy for some, and harder for others. I'm the later, and if you don't believe me just ask Sal how many times I got zinged by the electric fence. He won't answer you, but he will smile.
It was the perfect hunt. Everything went for us as if written in a script. All of it, beautiful and exciting: the pre-dawn drive to the forest-edged field, the hike across the navy blue world of moors and scruff, soldiering uphill with a shotgun over your shoulder, the forced silence of stalking prey. Hunting is a feral hope. You go out with a prayer and you come home blessed or forsaken. It's the closest to the Old Testament I ever really get.
This hunt started well before dawn. My alarm went off at 4AM, and within twenty minutes I was covered from head to toe in borrowed camouflage. I had never gone turkey hunting before, and it could not be more opposite from the upland pheasant hunting I took part in this past fall. Pheasant hunting is a chatty jaunt through the woods in bright orange with a happy spaniel flushing explosions of feathers in your face. You point a shotgun and take home dinner. But turkeys are clever, sly, and can see you move your hand to scratch your face from fifty yards away. You need to become part of the landscape to hunt them, and trick them with calls and decoys. If you're lucky a Jake or a Tom come into your line of fire and you get a chance.
So my friend and mentor, Steve, was with me. He leant me an automatic 12-gauge and his hunting clothes. He would show me what to do, how to act, and how a hunt should go. The plan was to sit still, call in some birds, and see what happens/hopefully shoot them. So in the black of an old farm pasture we set up our blind by a fallen log near an old property-line hedgerow. I sat like a toddler in a car seat while he set up the decoys at the base of the field, just 25 yards away. After a few minutes of his gadget calls we heard gobbles. (What a rush!)
After an hour of zen-monk stillness paired with turkey calling, Steve called in two jakes and a hen. I could see them 300 yards away and my heart stopped. My already numb butt shot up into me with pain. I barely moved. Steve got out a slate call and mocked the hen's sharp chirp and like as if we just advertised free turkey-orgies the two Jakes ran right too us. The saw the decoys and fluffed up into their strut. They looked wonderful, like cardboard Thanksgiving decorations taped to elementary school walls. Steve told me to take my shot soon as I was ready. The moment could not have been more perfect. The shot, a gift from New York herself, and two birds dancing not an end zone away. I sucked in all the air in Washington County, pointed my shotgun, and fired...
And I missed. I missed all three shots. At point-blank range I did nothing more than scare them. Truth is, I totally misunderstood how to aim a shotgun after months without practice. I was aiming too high. Following the advice to "look at the bead" at the end of the gun, I aimed true, but you're supposed to only see that bead on your site. I could see my whole barrel when I fired. I didn't realize that bead was the ONLY thing I should see. I shot feet over their head into the hill behind them. It was all my novice stupidity. I completely ruined the hunt for Steve, who was beyond polite and an amazing sport, but I was crushed. I wanted to make him proud. Instead I made noise pollution.
It could have been a perfect story, a beautiful meal, a wonderful moment. Instead we watched all three silly birds scuttle unharmed up the hill away from us. Not a tragedy, not by a long shot, but not a proud moment either. I will try again this month if I am given the chance.
Maybe I'll be hungry for turkey after I eat up all this crow.
Friday, May 6th No sore rump this morning. The Benadryl did the job, and I was glad for it. A Friday morning without a puffy ass is reason enough to celebrate. Another reason to celebrate: the rain stopped. It started Tuesday night, went all through Wednesday, and pelted into Thursday as well. But Today, glorious sun. 68 degrees by noon, one can hardly believe it.
Gibson and I cut out of work early to go to the vet. He's been limping, and while I knew the only thing the vet would do for him is tell me to slow down his physical exercise and watch the arm, I went anyway. I can cough up fifty dollars for a professional opinion on what to do with a sports injury on my working dog. Mostly, I was worried it was his hips and not some torn muscle. He's always been a little cow hocked and he runs a little wonky sometimes. So the doc looked him over and gave me some pain meds to use only if he is truly in bad shape. They are in the medicine cabinet, and Gibson is asleep in his crate.
My evening was an eventful one. My friend Wendy came by to meet Jasper, and to ride down to a book event in town. Our riding instructor, Hollie, was having a book launching party for her new English Riding book, and we went to enjoy the slideshow and snacks. Gibson stayed at home for this, and contemplated his shoulder while we ate pecans and basked in the effort of a woman's book. I bought a copy, and look forward to learning from it. Dressage is a secret dream of mine, something so non-pioneer, but so beautiful. Some girls get into ballet and boy bands...I want to wear a top hat on the back of a white horse some day and finally be graceful. Finally.
Getting up at 4AM to go turkey hunting. Me, my friend Steve, a 12-gauge, and good fortune. After that adventure I will be backing up for the farmer's market in Bennington (first outdoor market!) from 11-1PM and then back to the farm for a work party to expand the pasture. It'll be a full day, from 4-4 of constant motion and labor. I can't wait. I hope there's turkeys, wool, and electric currents involved. A girl's gotta dream.
Thursday, May 5th Came home from work. Stopped at mailbox. Put the wad of mail in the truck. Did not realize mail contained three yellow jackets. Sat on three yellow jackets. Damn, that's smarts. My ass turned red and puffy. I took three Benadryl and now am too tired to write. More tomorrow, promise.
Wednesday, May 4th This morning I wake up to rain. It is beautiful. Next to an open window the combination of birdsong, the rushing creek, and soft rain are the sounds that make my half-awake body curl deeper into my quilts. In bed, I do the same thing I start every morning with...the list. I read in a self-book once that if you begin your day—before your feet ever hit the floor—going through a list of things you are grateful for, it can change the rudder of your entire day, and eventually, your life. You're not supposed to run a checklist, but actually visualize and feel this deep feeling of luck and love for the things that matter most to you. I start out with a thankful prayer for the beautiful morning, for four-working limbs and a functioning brain to live in it with, for my family, my farm, my dogs, and I go through images of friends and moments from the last day that I was grateful for and ten minutes later I walk into the world feeling like the luckiest person in the world. Not because I have a farm, or a pony, or a truck outside: but because I have eyes and ears to use them with. And because (I hope) for the next few decades I get to hang around this world and see what I can learn. It starts today. May I be better at the end of it than I was in the beginning. Starting your day with a list of graces means you don't snap at the person who messes up your coffee order. You don't care if someone cuts you off on the way to work. You realize you're not the one who walked under the piano. You are still among the living, and will accept the soy substitute without complaint. Drink milk another day and revel in a new taste.
Outside I am armed with my cheap, plastic rain slicker, and am happy that the rain has called a break and I am just enjoying sounds of dripping trees and bouncing through puddles. I don't feel sick today. I think the 2 naps and long night of sleep healed me. I am thankful for this too and I call out to Jasper who walks to the gate. He isn't totally comfortable with me yet, but he knows I bring the hay and grain and that gets the happy ears. I feed him and say hello. While he munches I pull out my fence tester and stick the metal needle in the ground. It's attached by a long wire, like an outlet you stab into the ground, to a box with one red light and a wire hook on the end. I hold the plastic and stick the wire to the fence wire and watch in the still-blue morning dark the flash of red in half time. This fence, is on.
The sheep are fed, the chicken door opened. The young meat birds spill out like a tight plastic bag of quilt-batting was sliced open with a knife. They scatter at the feed and some run down to the stream to fill their beaks. The older birds come out next, much more dignified, engaging in regular acts of sexual congress (Roosters here start their day with their own reasons to be thankful), and last out is Cyrus: the gander. He comes out hissing and hollering because his woman is still on that nest. I hope the goslings come. They are overdue now.
Gibson jumps in the car and we are off to work.
I'm back in the gym before long and the mile feels like I am carrying dead weight. I dog it. I finish and am covered in sweat. The shower is longer than usual and once again, while shampooing my hair, I run through things more materialistic I am happy about. My truck flashes through my head, as does the new Chaco sandals outside. Plain black. I am blown-dry and dressed and only five minutes late to my desk.
At my workstation is a taxidermed deer head I named Clark (Gable is here at the farm) and I use his head and antlers to hold my vintage 1970's pioneer headphones and stack CDS on his prongs. This was interesting once, but now is as common an office fixture as the metal filing cabinets. I like my big headphones because they are the size of air traffic controller devices and say "Do Not Disturb" with force. I can put them on and plow through projects and designs. Today I have a conservation-based project based on a site I designed for the company, and a lot of html work. I look forward to Dog Lunch in the rain.
Gibson is out at lunch and pulls something, starts a small limp. It goes away by the end of the day but seems to come back after every half-hour sprint session with the other dogs. I decide to tone down the rest of the week. It is probably no more tragic than a sprain, but I side with caution when it comes to a working dog in training. I don't call the vet for him, but I do make an appointment with Saratoga Equine to come check on Jasper. He needs a list of shots and a farrier visit. We work out the details. I explain he was from the Amish Auction down state and the vet tech seems to understand exactly what she is dealing with. Just like the trainer I bought him from said: the Amish work their horses hard, and probably feed just what they require to run. I don't know if this is true or not, but would explain a lot.
That afternoon my editor emails me the cover of my next book and I squeal in delight. A favorite illustrator has been hired, the same who did a portrait of me for Paste Magazine back when I lived in Vermont. The type and images are wonderful. The title reads, like an old county fair poster "BARNHEART: the incurable longing for a farm of one's own. When I first discovered I had this disease I had three chickens in a 99 dollar hutch in the back of a rented house 2800 miles away. I am now learning to work with equine power to move firewood. I am on the path to my cure. I still have a while to go. People think Cold Antler as is, is a dream come true. What it is, is stubbornness manifested. My dreams are still a while off.
I come home from work in more rain. The sheep are all in their shed, but the horse is out in the rain, trotting to the gate to greet me. I hop over it and look him over. Besides being wet, he seems fine. I give him some extra grain anyway.
I am home just long enough to walk the dogs and feed them. I need to run down to Common Sense and grab some hay. We have a casual relationship when it comes to hay sales. I handed them three ram lambs for their farm and in exchange I get their dollar worth in trade for baled hay. I haven't paid for hay in months. It is glorious. My name is on a wipe board in the milk room. I am up to 64 bales. Almost the price of two rams. Inside their beautiful old barn (the cleanest in Washington County that actually hosts animals, I am sure) is a small pen with my three sheep. I see them and scratch their heads. They are all being bottle fed and weaned to grain and hay. They look so clean compared to my muddy scrappy four still on my farm. I tell them to keep their noses clean, load hay, and drive three miles back.
Night chores belong to the rabbits. I walk inside the barn and refill all the feeders, water crocks and bottles and look them over. The rex doe I bought knocked up should be kindling soon. The other two does I bred (one of my own homebrew: a palomino cross) and the new giant New Zealand/Chin cross are given new hutch tags with their breeding dates and personal data. When they are all attended too I collect eggs and come inside. I eat take out, and I feel full but bloated and unhappy at the choice. I decide tomorrow to make some serious dietary changes. If I want a quick meal, scramble some eggs and butter a slice of bread you baked the night before. I am done feeling full. I want to feel satisfied.
My night ends with this fortune cookie. It reads: The path of life shall lead upwards for you. I laugh at the scrap of paper between my scared hands. I'm scared of heights.
Sheffield, Mass On a sunny Sunday just before the vernal equinox, Rich Ciotola set out to clear a pasture strewn with fallen wood. The just-thawed field was spongy, with grass sprouting under tangled branches. Late March and early April are farm-prep time here in the Berkshires, time to gear up for the growing season. But while many farms were oiling and gassing up tractors, Mr. Ciotola was setting out to prepare a pasture using a tool so old it seems almost revolutionary: a team of oxen.
Standing just inside the paddock at Moon in the Pond Farm, where he works, he put a rope around Lucas and Larson, his pair of Brown Swiss steer. He led them to the 20-pound maple yoke he had bought secondhand from another ox farmer, hoisted it over their necks and led them trundling through the fence so they could begin hauling fallen logs.
Mr. Ciotola, 32, is one of a number of small farmers who are turning — or rather returning — to animal labor to help with farming. Before the humble ox was relegated to the role of historical re-enactor, driven by men in period garb for child-friendly festivals like pioneer days, it was a central beast of burden. After the Civil War, many farms switched from oxen to horses. Although Amish and Mennonite communities continue to use horses, by World War II most draft animals had been supplanted by machines that allowed for ever-faster production on bigger fields.
Tuesday, May 3rd I wake up feeling achy and nauseated. I am beginning to think that these sore mornings might have less to do with physical labor than they have to do with three days of labor followed by a full work day when you're already feeling iffy. My cold finally was forcing me to slow down. So I called in sick to the office, and decided as soon as morning chores were done I would not leave the daybed. I'd spend the day resting with vitamin C and cold medicine.
But I ran out of chicken feed. Crap.
I thought I had a spare bag in the barn, but apparently the crumbs in the bottom of the barrel was the spare bag. So on this achy, vomitty morning I would have to hop in the truck and go the 7 miles north to the Salem Agway to buy chicken feed.
I get in the truck with Gibson, un showered and with my hair held back by a hat, and head north. While at the farm store I see a roll of electric netting insta-fence and snatch it up. It's what need desperately to stop the pony and a dozen sheep from destroying the little grass left on the pasture. I come home, and even though I am dedicated to rest, I take the 15 minutes it requires to unroll it and clamp it to the remaining electric. The sheep and Jasper walk out onto new ground and I save a bale of hay. Thrilled I pulled off a newly contained salad bar I go inside and sleep through lunch.
I sleep for four hours. I was dogged. I wake up to the sound of rain and instantly look out the window. Did the sheep tumble through the netting? Did Jasper plow right through it? Nope. All was quiet on the hill.
Being home sick when you're me doesn't mean you get to spend the day inside on the couch with some Kleenex and a remote. It means you have the luxury to spreading the chores out between rest and long naps. Everyone still needs to be tended too. Just like I mentioned a few weekends ago that farms do not observe holidays? Well, they don't respect sick days either. And so I did the things that need to be done. But extra things like mile-long dog walks and lead-rope hikes with Jasper were out. I read Michael Perry and slept. I plan on heading to bed by 9 and then setting my alarm for midnight. If these downpours are coming that the weathermen have been so stern about: I need to make sure everyone on the hill is sheltered. I know for certain that Jasper is aware of the sheds because he walked right in on Maude napping and she butted him right in the snout. She was so angry that he didn't move that she left. Diva.
So my Tuesday was a Sick Day, but still a Farm Day. I'm calling it early on account of my need to recline, but if anything goes on worth gabbing about, I will certainly check back it. This farm is your farm, too.
P.S. I will pick a winner for the book in the comments of Tuesday's post, check back there tomorrow at noon! P.P.S Bennington Farmer's Market opens on the 7th, stop by! P.P.P.S. Come visit me next weekend at Northshire Booksellers in Manchester (9-10:30AM) or Red Fox Books in Glens Falls (1PM). I'll have chickens!
Monday, May 2nd I woke up at 4:40AM, still sore, but less so. Either my body is used to all this farming business or simply giving in. Weekdays are a routine of their own, and I can only lay there in bed with Gibson for a few minutes. There is much to do.
I get up and change into work clothes. This morning it means a pair of cotton thai fishing pants, tied at my waist, and heavy wool socks over much boots. I throw on a thin cotton sweater and head outside with my dogs. They go about a quick morning relief and then come inside for breakfast. Dogs come first on this farm, always will. They are seen to and fed long before any sheep, chicken, or pony sees a flake of hay. Family always comes first.
When the dogs are settled, I load Gibson's plastic crate into the back of my pickup cab and let him wait at Shotgun until I feed all the hooves and claws, and then head inside to grab my gym bag. I leave for work an hour early to hit the gym. I run a mile on the treadmill every weekday, then shower in the gym before I sit down at my desk chair. My friend Geoff joins me, and unless someone from marketing beats us and puts on Sportscenter, we watch the Science Channel and gab about our lives.
The workday is split into a morning and afternoon, and today I enjoy lunch outside with the dogs. I say dogs, not meaning my three, but with Gibson and his work friends. An English Setter named Ellie, an Australian Shepherd named Jackson, and a cast of other characters (mostly gun dogs, this is Orvis, after all). Some days I run home to the farm to check on things, specially if it's rough weather. But it's a mild day and all was quiet and well stocked with hay and water when I left at 6:45. It would be okay until 5:30 when I pulled back into the drive. Gibson runs and barks and play-growls and wrestles with his friends and the new puppies this season. A little black lab named Hattie tries to join in, but pretty much just barks from the sidelines with his tail wagging. She is such a sight. Me and the other owners sit on the grass and take in the show. Before long Gibson sprints down the hill to bother a well-bred Labrador Puppy named Murph from his lessons in being a gun dog, and then slams into the water of the pond, scaring the young trout and bass. Jackson joins him. Murph goes back to retrieving his plastic dummy. He doesn't mess with that sort.
In the afternoon nothing of great consequence goes on, but I do take a lot of joy in the Obama Chia Pet our E-commerce department has set up in the window. Someone posted his birth certificate next to it. I love my coworkers.
On the ride home Gibson and I crank the radio. Talking Heads And She Was blares and we sing along. (Well, Gibson pants rhythmically—I sing.) We drive west on route 313 into New York, and past Shushan and Cambridge. They are our new stomping grounds. I am falling for Washington County, hard.
I get home to a laundry-list of things that need to be done. I plan on introducing the sheep to the pony tonight. Mostly out of necessity. Heavy rains are coming and I want Jasper to know he can walk right into one of the sheds for shelter if he wants to. I have a feeling though, in this warm weather, he'll just stand in the rain. But he needs to know he has the option. So I let him into the sheep's mostly hard-packed dirt pasture and they run onto his side of greener, softer, ground and continue to munch it into oblivion. I need more pasture, and fast. I plan on assembling a work party soon. A role of Red Brand and some t-posts and I'll be back in business. I just need the manpower. That 1/8 of an acre saturday damn near tore my arms out....
The sheep and Jasper meeting is totally anti-climatic. Lisette tears out there with her lambs, and soon everyone else is out there too. Jasper ignore them all. With the fences hot and the horse shown his optional shelter. I feel like I did all a shepherd can do. So I spend some time with Jasper, trying on his new bridle. It's dark leather and silver conchos shine. He takes the bit and I adjust straps and the throat latch and decide the bridle is fine but the bit is too large. He should have a smaller, swivel bit. But he looks fine in his new headgear, and leads calmly. It was a quiet thrill to see him in his headdress, me holding the reins. I take it off and let him back to sheep time. He's so patient and I am deeply grateful.
Eggs and collected, chicken feed scatted, and the rabbits are seen to. I use the Silver Fox buck to service the two does that need to be bred and he does a heck of a job. This is his second day of whoopee (I had him on the does yesterday between tree pruning and concrete) and now have three probably pregnant does. If each has an average litter of 6-8 kits, that dress out around two or three pounds, then those small hutches have nearly fifty pounds of meat from a few small animals. That's almost half of what raising a pig put in my freezer. Anyone who thinks raising meat requires a huge space in the country needs to read Storey's Guide to Raising Rabbits, or Farm City (or both!). They are an amazing introduction to home-grown meat. Between them and a hutch of meat chickens you could fill a chest freezer in a Brooklyn summer.
It's getting late. I have a chapter to write about my first turkey (TD) for my editor, and I'm feeling lucky to have it ahead of me. Tonight the farm seems okay, no drama and no danger. I call it a night early and kiss Jazz on the head. Just four more days until the weekend and this one should include my first outdoor market. I'm excited for it!
Oh, and for those of you kind enough to read all the way down to this point. Leave a comment to be entered in for a drawing of Frances O'Roark Dowell's novel Ten Miles Past Normal (A young-adult novel inspired by CAF). I'll pick a winner Friday for the hardcover, and mail it your way. And if you are wondering if you won a recent giveaway, check the comments on that post. The last few winners never contacted me to claim their prize!
P.S. I will be at two book events up here soon: from 9-11 at Northshire Books in Manchester Vermont, and then 1PM at Red Fox books in Glens Falls, New York. Come over and meet me and some of my chicken friends. Get books signed, talk turkey, the works.
I decided to share a week—in great detail— of what it is like living on Cold Antler. How it works, what I do, and how the farm and my 8-5 job work together under the effort of a single person. Starting with yesterday, here we go.
Sunday, May 1st I wake up in pain. A lot of pain. The combination of sunburn and aching muscles is what wakes me up before the alarm. It's 4:40AM and for a Sunday, that's even early for me. It's still dark out, mostly. I roll out of bed and at my feet is Annie, a living stuffed animal. I whisper a good morning and she tucks in her front paws and rolls onto her back for a belly scratch. Jazz is on his bed downstairs and Gibson is in his crate. Since he still thinks this house is his buffet, he has to be crated at night. He'll poison himself eating AA batteries if I let him.
I'm so dang sore because yesterday I extended the sheep's side of the pasture an 1/8 of an acre, and put in a new raised bed garden by myself. Sometimes I can wrangle help, sometimes not. Saturday: not. The whole afternoon was spent slamming 15 pounded posts, stringing electrical wire, and hoeing a new raised bed. I started at 1 and ended around 6PM. I was proud of the full day of work, but paying for my lack of sun protection (straw hat or somesuch) and choice of tank top instead of a button down. So I am red as Brandywine on the vine. Outside the kitchen window I can see Jasper on the hill, laying down. He looks so small when he's laying down and so very large when he is running. The sheep are still curled up in their crumbling shed. It need to be rebuilt or shorn up, soon. It's not about to fall on them, but it won't make it through another winter as is. Panic quickly shoots through me at the thought of this.
I don't even have time to make coffee. I need to scurry through morning chores (test and repair any faults in the electric fence, feed 12 sheep, chickens, geese, mallards, a full-rabbitry, and three dogs before I can head down to my neighbors farm. We're going together to the annual Poultry Swap, which starts way before 7AM. I am only bringing 15 dollars cash because I know myself well enough to limit my ability to buy animals and animal supplies. All I need is a hardy buck for my breeding meat rabbit does in the barn. The rex is too young to do the job, and the Silver Fox buck delivered yesterday by Jennifer hasn't been tested yet. I decide right there to not buy a rabbit until I plan on breeding with Gotcha, that new SF buck. But I need a working buck on this farm, three does and no kits yet. I am hankering for rabbit meat. It's a favorite. Something I didn't even know until a few summers ago.
I get dressed in worn jeans, a blue cowboy shirt, a five-dollar Salvation Armani men's J Crew wool sweater, wool socks, brown beaten Hi-Tec hiking boots, a leather belt with a TENNESSEE buckle and head outside. I laugh to myself quietly. This outfit just a few years ago felt like a costume. Now it's most of my wardrobe. My clothes went from hipster to wrangler pretty fast. Mostly because you can't buy American Apparel hoodies in Tractor Supply.
The indoor weather station reads 38 degrees and I am happy I covered the new broc garden last night with plastic. There are two stupid-impulse tomato plants in there. I hope they made it. I put the potted basil in the passenger seat of my truck last night. Trucks make great overnight plant protection if you roll up the cab windows.
After the dogs have been fed and walked, I head over to check on Jasper. He's standing where he always seems to stand, right under the big old apple tree on the hill. In the dawn light he is beautiful, so much bigger than a small pony to me. He puts his front hoofs on the tree stump, I think to seem even bigger. I open the gate and he walks down to me and takes some hay as I pet his neck. I still don't really believe he's here. For kicks I run away and his ears shoot up at my sprint. He runs right behind me, both of us chasing nothing like fools. I like that he stays beside me in the pasture, trotting next to me in play. I stop because my soreness isn't interested in pony jogging. And Jasper enjoys his breakfast of hay from down the road.
After all the animals seen too. I heat up day-old coffee in the microwave and pour it into a dented VPR travel mug (AKA adult sippy cup so I don't spill half) and turn on the truck. Ice covers the windshield. I sigh, and scrape it. I keep the plastic sheeting on the garden bed I covered, and hope for the best. It should be 70 degrees in a few hours.
I head down to Common Sense Farm, which I am seeing a lot of this weekend. Othniel, Yasheva, and their three children are in the barn with a french WOOOFER named Mitch. We're loading up goat kids in my truck, and their mini van along with plant starts, hanging baskets of berries, spelt, and meat chickens. When all is loaded, we drive south into the sunrise and Oth knows some secret shortcut to the fairgrounds. We float over hillsides and farm, passing a herd of deer so sprite and far away it looks like the goats escaped into the horizon.
We arrive early enough to have our choice of prime spots. We unload and build a small pen for the goats, set up plant stands, and hang strawberry baskets from the tent. The sun is out in full force now, but we're still cold in our sweaters. I walk the rows of vendors and am surprised how much the swap has grown since I first came to it four years ago. Now there are donkeys, ponies, and highlander calves. I see a man selling wooden Adirondack chairs (handmade and painted!)for 45 bucks and the folks across the road from us are selling horse tack for a dollar. I get a saddle pad, bridle, bit, reins, and a used western saddle for a song. I walk the thing back to my truck and have a flash of being part of another time and place. Cowgirl and her saddle...
By noon five of the eight goats are sold and Othniel is haggling over the market price of the Highlanders. I just keep thinking about getting home to the farm to refill water stations. Dog alive, it is hot out. My sunburn seems even hotter on my shoulders. All of us are growing sun-weary. We pack up and head home another secret way, past farms from storybooks. I listen to the CD mix my old friend Leif mailed me, and laugh when the song "All for Me Grog" comes on sang by a troupe of 11-year-olds. Classic.
I'm beat, but happy to know that my friend Brett will be over in a few hours. He'll be stopping by on his way home to the Adirondacks to help me shore-up the barn. We've slowly been repairing it, making it more sturdy and expanding the space inside. That afternoon we poured two concrete slabs for future posts and beams to rest on, and took measurements for a stable (needed by winter). We take a break to enjoy the coffee porter he brought and talk about our unusually similar pasts. Both of us worked in television and now take care of chickens and heat with wood. The beer is amazing. So smooth.
By now it's nearly dinner time and I am famished and tired, very, very tired. So is brett, but he sticks with the game plan. There is still much to do, and the fact that I had help meant I couldn't put it off and miss the oppurtunity of having someone who competed in logging sports aid in the lifting of heavy things. So Brett kindly helped me straighten and repair the weak sheep shed, prune the giant maple, and carry 80-pound bags of Quickcrete. I offer him a hanging basket of strawberry plants and one of the ram lambs. He accepts the barter for his efforts and I feel a little debt repaid. Without the talents and skills of others, this farm would not run. And thanks to them, I now now how to pour slabs and mix cement. Take that, design college.
By the time he leaves and hugs and plans are exchanged, I am too tired to even make pizza at home for dinner. I order Chinese (sorry, idealists out there) and while I wait for it to wok up, I go about evening chores so that when I return with it, it's just me and three dogs and Jamie and Adam on Mythbusters with my lo mein.
I set my alarm for 10PM in case I fall asleep. I'll need to go out and shut the chicken coop door. I saw a fox last weekend the size of a coyote slinking around the far pasture. His orange and white poof-tail gave me the finger as he trotted off.
I watched him in the rain. His black mane tussled, his brown eyes focused. Why is it that when any horse moves, and I mean really moves, he looks larger than life? To me, this 11.2 hand pony was as magnificent in a canter as a Fell Stallion. He was being demonstrated to me. On his back a ten-year-old who had little experience with horses slowed him down into a walk and then picked him up into a trot again. I was impressed. Not so much with how he moved (though he seemed easy and well-paced) but the fact that on this cold, rainy, and miserable Saturday morning this equine saint was letting a nervous child prance him around a yard. This was after he had spent the entire night in a small trailer, away from his herd. Green grass was everywhere around him, yet his head never lowered once that bit hit his mouth. And I had to keep in mind this was after he was walked around by a stranger (me) on a lead line, and then tacked up for a demonstration ride outside in a high wind. If I were him I would have bucked off the kid, and had a snack in the nice green grass, and then joined my herd in a dry shelter. But he just trotted. "My 16-year-old daughter rides him bare back with just a halter." said Rob (the trainer and seller).
I was there because of a series of emails we had shared that sprouted from a Craigslist post. I saw a chunky little white draft pony and emailed him (what is more harmless than an email?) to ask if the "draft" horse was actually was trained to drive. After finding out the pony was never in a harness and 20-years-old, I told him I wasn't interested. He asked me what I was looking for and said he had a small Welsh-like pony from an Amish Auction, which I dismissed outright. At first.
But after a while my ears were perked. Rob explained how patient and even tempered he was. That his children rode him bareback, that he was trained and raised by the everyday-driving Amish downstate. And the price we agreed on over the phone was less than half of what people spend on a decent guitar... So I went out to see him (what is more harmless than a trip to visit a pony?) I would drive out into Belcher to pet his brow and watch him work.
Which I did last weekend, in a downpour, and through all the stress and fuss he was Temperance embodied. Then I said something that even surprised me.
"I'll take him."
A handshake and deposit later, I owned a horse. Holy Shit.
We agreed he would be delivered that following Friday. I had a week to prepare. There was new fences to run electric top wires on, pasture to expand, supplies to buy, hay to stack, and more. So I did what I could during the work week and decided to take Friday off to set up the new gate and wiring. I could also turn my weekend into three days of pure-farming. A joy to this scrappy shepherd, and a change from the usual routine.
A hour before he was delivered, I ran the truck three miles down the road to Common Sense farm to pick up hay. Othniel and his family were all inside the barn, doing the chores of a working dairy. Two kids were born at 6:30 that morning, and Yasheva was bottle feeding the twins when I walked into the barn's main door. We chatted about the Poultry Swap on Sunday, and then I headed up into the loft of their ancient dairy barn to thrown down hay to the truck. When ten bales were secured in the back, and I was heading down the ladder to run home to meet Jasper (!!!). I was climbing on air, so thrilled to run back to my farm with a truck full of hay to temper the maw of a small horse. My cart horse. But I stopped walking halfway down the ladder. Othniel told me to be still and look up.
I looked up.
"That's for you." He said, smiling in his voice.
High above me in the rafters of the 19th-Century barn was the skeleton of a single pony cart.
Last night I was on my way to meet some friends for a party in Saratoga Springs when I hit a series of flashing lights and police lines outside a quiet village. I soon realized the crime, wasn't, but that the Hudson River was pretty angry. While this is in no way a comparison to what is happening in the South, here in the Upper Hudson Valley the entire town of Schuylerville (Skyler-Ville) was road-blocked because the river was taking it over. I'm not used to seeing police lines in Washington County, and when I saw the giant cement bridge over the Hudson lined with people and cameras I jogged up to see see what was happening. I saw a familiar face, Ben Shaw, my chicken processor with his wife walking fast to the bridge. I waved hello, jogged up, and asked them what was going on? They explained that deep snow in the Adirondaks had all melted too quickly and it was too much for this part of the river to take. See that picture? Whew.
As far as I know, only property was hurt. More here.
When you produce a raw product like wool, you see it differently. It goes from being a thing of yarn to a thing of sheep. I used to see wool in a clump and imagine the work of washing, carding, and spinning my own yarn to knit into fabulous creations. Kind of how someone who covets a high-end sports car would look at frame being assembled in the factory and imagine someday waxing it in his garage. Two people looking at effort with joy of ownership. That is how I used to see wool.
But now I see wool and I see sheep. I see breeds, and hay, and footrot, and lambing. I see the joys and frustrations of the animal and while it has certainly not taken away any love of yarn and knitting: it has certainly given me less time to do so. Kind of like if that guy waxing his sports car had to learn how to take apart the entire Porsche and put it back together again before he could drive it. He'll still imagine that wax in his hands and a beautiful vehicle taking hair pin turns, but he'll probably be wondering if he put the right type of screws back on the frame. And nervous about the seven still in his pocket...
Cautious optimism is the same in knitting as in farming. You go into a project with something raw, drunk with plans, and then after a lot of work you end up with something you can use. And when people send me photos like this: of their creations made with my wool—I am shocked back into those hair pin turns with pure delight. Teresa sent me a photo of these laced gloves. Janet mailed me a gorgeous winter hat. My boss knit me a tiny stuffed chick out of Sal's wool. Another reader sent along a Mod handbag, get this, made out of Maude....priceless! What amazing emails, gifts, and images! Thank you. You're getting this farmer to pick up her needles once again and maybe even take on that dream sweater!
Why is it that running a farm seems easy, effortless really... but knitting a sweater feels impossible?!
It was around 5:30 this evening when I found myself walking around the backlot at Tractor Supply in Bennington. I was shopping for a new gate, and as I walked around the chain-linked yard comparing different styles and sizes I felt the sun break out from the clouds and scatter the playground of metal and wire with light. An industrial place, all cement and steel, turned into quite the site. It caused pause.
All day it had been a blustery, hot, wet world. At lunch me and few friends sat outside our first-floor glass doors that opened to the Orvis backyard and let our dogs play in the rain while we sat on desk chairs under the overhang. We talked about the same things most people in offices across America were talking about: the tornados in the south, the rising price of gas (well over 4.00 a gallon in New York), The spring Turkey Hunting Pool (which I am in), and our dogs. Gibson played with other hounds and ran the 1/4 mile down the hill to pond for a swim with Lucie the Golden Retriever. Cathy, a coworker, stepped outside on the cement slab and took in the scene of high winds, humid air, playing dogs, chatting people, and bending trees and said "I feel like we're in the Caribbean." Southwestern Vermont, actually. Common mistake.
But now that the rain and storms had passed, I found myself outside the office in a farm supply parking lot loading a 6 foot metal gate into the back of the Dodge. I had plans to pop right over to Home Depot afterwards and see if they had basil yet, which I wanted to smell and hold as much as I wanted to plant it. I was going to put in some more raised beds this weekend and I wanted some basil to be amongst them. The early seedlings of lettuce, peas, potatoes and carrots were already coming up and so far my bamboo and bird-netting frames were keeping out all sorts of critters and chickens. By the end of this weekend basil, tomatoes, and broc would be in the ground for certain and three new Silver Fox rabbits would be at the farm. A rare American breed of meat rabbit delivered here by a reader from Maine.
I have some very big news to share, but I'm not ready to share it just yet. Hopefully by the end of this weekend I will post a photo that will make more than one of you smile, and some of you shake your heads. I'm excited to share the news with you first lot, and unfazed by the second. The more I fall in love with this farm, the less I seek the approval of others (but the more I value their advice).
Wind's picking up out there. I better close the door on the chicken coop and check on the barn rabbits and ol' Castro. No sign of goslings yet. I hope Saro manages to hatch a few. I feel like she's giving it her all. I hope any readers in the line of fire down in the south will reach out to us when you are able. I bet we could pass around the hat and help a few of you get upright. Or at least give it a shot. You're all in my thoughts tonight in Jackson.
The maple tree outside my house was swaying in the dark tonight, heavy with its new buds just starting to bloom. This same tree was covered in ice so heavy it bowed to me, just a few weeks ago. Now there's a blanket of grass around it, and little brave pullets pecking at its trunk. In the dark, against the black sky, that maple looks massive in an ancient way. Who knows how many farms and families it has watched over since it was sapling. In just a year it has seen so much. I played a banjo under that old tree tonight. I hung a dead pig from it when the world was ice. Children of friends (and I) have climbed it. Birdhouses hung like ursine pinatas. My brother in law pulled a chair under it to cool off last July, and a gray kitten called it home base. It's much of this farm and this loud farmer, far better than both in its silence.
Everything here is turning green, and nights are starting to roll into this hefty humidity of early summer. Last night a thunderstorm shook the house so loud that I actually thought the roof collapsed. I didn't know if I should get dressed to assess damage or just close my eyes and hope for the best. I opted for the later. Turns out the roof made it, but some tree limbs did not.
The sheep are in a safehold now. My Easter Sunday was not spent as planned. I was supposed to join the Daughton family for a big meal at their farm in White Creek (two towns south) and called them sad to cancel. After a week of escaping sheep, complaints (and help) from neighbors, and one ewe leaping right over the gate towards my truck...I realized I needed to use this last day off from work before the week started to secure my animals. Farms do no recognize holidays.
When I told the Daughton's this, they simply said. "Oh, well, we'll bring Easter to you then" and in a few hours they had set up (on a table they brought, since I don't have one yet) a full Easter dinner with ham, salads, pickles, cake, and finger snacks. They brought me a hand-made bluebird house and I almost wept. I have never had friends willing to uproot an entire family holiday to help me keep sheep off a road.
We spend the afternoon setting up wire and testing lines and by sunset my sheep were being shocked away from danger and my belly was full. Tonight while I walked the perimeter of the fence to pick up any pulled wires and reset it before bed, I thanked them again. I don't know if they heard it, but I said it.
Wind picked up all around me and the stars started to disappear into the black above my mountain. The weather report called for more storms this night, and the air felt humid, which I love. Humidity gets a horrible reputation because it makes people temporarily uncomfortable. It lasts a few months and then it's gone, and it leaves trails of thunderstorms, lush grass, fireflies and warmed working farmer bodies in its tail strands as it saunters through in hot gasps. I love humidity, and so does the old Maple. Who watched my clumsy farm's Easter in quiet. And knows more stories than I can bear.
Shearing Day has become more than a chore, it's a holiday. An annual ritual I look forward to more and more each year. A few weekends ago all eight of my adult sheep (six ewes and two wethers) were penned and barbered here on the premises. It took two professional shearers, the landowner, and a willing photographer to both complete the task and document the entire event.
I've been starting and stopping a shearing post for the past week and every time I get into it, it turns into more of an essay on the agricultural holidays created through seasonal work. A heartfelt and beautiful topic, sure, but let's face it. You guys want to see some naked sheep. Don't you?
So, I decided to save the farm holiday post for a rainier spring day and show off some great photos with some fun music, a real visual essay of the day. I'll make a big music video slideshow, I'll get some banjo music from Julie Dugan's website (with her and Tim's permission, of course) and put the day to music. I would have done it tonight, but I messed up burning the DVD and came home with a blank disc. Let's hear it for me...
I'm better with dirt than I am with machines lately. I consider this a sign of progress!
It's near impossible to be involved in the homesteading or local food culture and not be aware of the topic of Peak Oil. It's something I never really talk about on this blog, as Cold Antler Farm isn't a post-oil survivalist website. However, the more I read about energy issues the happier I am to have chickens, gardens, and a wood stove....
I am very interested in what you think. Do you think Peak Oil is fact or fiction? Is it something you and your family base any decisions on? Do you think the majority of the homesteading community came into small-farming because of the worry about peak oil, food supply, and energy? Or do you think the current trends in DIY food are more about what's on the cover of Martha Stewart Living? A lot of questions but I am curious what all of you think.
Banjo Equinox Players Okay gang, let's hear it. Post your videos of Sugar Hill. All levels, speeds, and fingertastic adventures welcome here. And when all the entries are in I'll do another random winner for a skein of Cold Antler Farm wool. Which means that by our next challenge (and the last challenge in Double C tuning) you could be frailing in a hat worn by Sal this time last year. I'll post my video soon, I just need some more practice. I haven't played it in a while, but I that didn't stop you. If I remember correctly, I think you can use a hammer-on in this beginner version!
And here is the first entry, Maggie, who has been playing just since Banjo Equinox Started, and I am so proud of her. This sounds like it deserves a campfire, fireflies, and a warm summer night already. Keep posting videos!
Tonight I played doctor. One of my coworkers asked me to help his neighbor with some new babies and I obliged. It just so happened that a pair of lambs were born in Sunderland Vermont (and they were quite the faux-miracle). I guess the four "wethers" the ewes were raised with—weren't. So this past weekend when my coworker Mike was watching his neighbor's farm (while the greenhorn farmers were on vacation), you can imagine his surprise when he realized the sheep population had doubled! The two Jacob ewes in the pasture were suddenly joined with two little splotched lambs. Not planning to breed until this fall, their shepherd was equally thrown off by the new arrivals. And so, with only one recent lambing season under my belt, I was asked to come give shots, band tails, check vital signs and help the new shepherd learn what I myself had just figured out.
...Kinda soon to become a mentor, but it seems to happen a lot out here. When my yearling's weak ram lamb needed to be tube fed out in the lambing jug this past March, I watched my friend Yasheva slowly feed him the plastic tube down his throat and wait for him to swallow it before she offered any colostrum. She needed to make sure it was going into his stomach and not his lungs, and explained calmly how she needed to feel him sucking before she squirted the sheep's first milk into him. I said, in awe, "Wow.... how many times have you had to do this with your goats?" Yasheva, ever the professional, replied, "I've never done this before, but I read about it. Seems to be working...." And that little ram lamb is hanging out with her goats right now, doing magnificently. Winging it is a rule of thumb.
So I took a note from her book, and acted like everything was under control and I had done this a million times (and not, you know, seven). I told him what to buy at Tractor Supply: from needles to CDT to antibiotics (just in case) and I told him I would bring my docker and ear tagger and help get these little ones ready for the big world.
When I pulled up to Rob's farm I parked the Dodge with Gibson, grabbed my wicker "Doctor's Basket" of needles, bands, dockers and meds and walked out to the barn to show him the ropes best I knew them. He was just as nervous as I was watching Yasheva do it the first time. I asked him to give the shot and he said "I better watch you do it, I didn't see before" which is exactly what I said when I was asked the first time! (I had five ewes to go through, so I did get my turn. She only accepted my excuse twice.) I checked the second ewe's (expecting any day now) udder and it was HUGE. New sheep were on the way. I acted as sure as possible, like I've been doing this for years.
I think he bought it.
The little Jacobs are doing well—and thanks to a poorly castrated ram—tonight, I became a lamb nurse.
I am starting to cringe every time I hear the phrase Hobby Farm. I just hate the assumptions that surround the word, circling it like confused sharks. The idea that your backyard farm or small rural acreage is equivalent to your Tuesday night bowling team or bird-watching club really gets me. It is so much more.
Regardless of scale, growing food is a skill and a blessing. It is a timeless and honorable job that can do nothing but benefit the practitioner. This is true on every level: literally, socially, physically, emotionally. The work of raising animals, grains, fruits, eggs, fungi, fish and vegetables for your table is above the spinning classes and golf clubs. It is creating the source of your existence. It is learning to produce the energy to keep you alive.
There also seems to be a Caste system here in upstate New York. A different social ranking between the people who live and work full-time on their land and those of us who shuffle off to our off-farm jobs every day. The stigma is that those of us who need to earn a living off the land to supplement our farm are either:
A) bad at a farming and need financial help, or B) Doing it for fun and therefore, not serious. (aka Tuesday night wings and pins.)
Calling people who grow food part-time Hobby Farmers is like calling people in the National Guard Hobby Soldiers. Most people would never dream to peg the people who might give their lives to protect their country such an aloof term (even if they are part-timers) because the stakes are too high. Well, when it comes to creating food, I feel the same way. And while the accountant down the street with the two-acre dairy goat and vegetable operation hasn't quit his day job: he still is providing food for your community. He deserves a higher title than Hobby. He is a farmer, end of story. He may be other things as well, but if he is making cheese and squash, he is learning a skill and providing a product to help keep all of us alive.
The soldier might die for us, but the farmer lives for us.
I have sweat buckets and tore muscles. I have walked through snowstorms and heat waves. I have been rammed by sheep, bit by turkeys, and poisoned by ivy. I drive a truck and I own a gun. I am these things, and not because they are a simple pastimes but because not doing them makes my life feel like a fabrication, some sort of stage play. An act where I go through the motions of being a human animal while the stagehands behind the scenes pull the ropes and press the levers. But I don't want to be in the show anymore, I want to know how things work, and be a source instead of a consumer. I want to know what's behind the curtain.
So those of us with part-time farms, people who subscribe (as I do) to Hobby Farm magazine and grow food even though it's not our full time job...we need to either change our title or own it in a new way. Because, this is not my hobby, darling. This is not a phase. This is not a trend, or a marketing ploy, or a subscription to a magazine. This is growing food.
This is my entire life.
disclaimer: I am not saying people who use the word hobby farm without issue, or books and magazines that use it, are wrong. I am saying that I think the effort and energy of the work has outgrown the term. I do not care if people call Cold Antler "Hobby", it's not their opinions I care about, but what I do care about is that something as important as growing food at home is seen as an afterthought or cute lifestyle choice unless it is on a larger scale.
Update 8:26PM: All the sheep are back in the pasture. They escaped by lifting a weak piece of fence like a tent flap and shimmied through. A helpful neighbor, Sarah, and her two dogs helped me get them back into the pasture gate from the wood and after all the chaos was over I ran up to her place with a carton of eggs and a thank you. Tonight I did my best to secure it and dumped a whole bale of hay inside to temper any nightly escape plans. This weekend I'll run a line of barbed wire at nose level around the base. I am beat.
Gibson can't help yet with herding them. He's a year-old puppy who is too excited and he would just chase them right down the road into the highway if I let him lose. All I needed to do was call them and bribe them back inside with the promise of sweet grain. But hopefully by this time in the fall, he will have enough experience, lessons, and work with me to be working here. The trainer told me it takes a new handler with a new dog up to three years to become a team.
For my next trick: I will be watching the rest of Gone With the Wind with a glass of wine.
When a CAF reader posted a comment a few days ago about how her favorite podcasting quilter wrote a novel inspired by the antics at Cold Antler Farm, I had to contact the author and see if it was true. Turns out that author Frances Dowell is a CAF reader herself, and felt it was time to write a story with chickens and goats in it, thanks to a little inspiration from this mess. Shucks.
Frances, welcome to the farm and thanks for taking the time to talk with us! Thanks, Jenna. I'm really excited to be here!
You're a quilter, a blogger, and also an author. Could you tell everyone here about yourself? For starters, I live in Durham, NC, with my husband and two sons, and when I'm not writing, I make quilts and play the fiddle. Making quilts has become somewhat of an obsession with me lately, and with the good spring weather we're getting here, I've been deeply into my garden. I also do a weekly podcast about quilting, called The Off-Kilter Quilt, which has been a great way to connect with a fabulous online community of quilters.
I started out my writing life as a poet, but after grad school I figured out that no one was going to give me a paycheck for poetry, so I started writing novels for middle grade readers (think 4th grade through seventh) about fifteen years ago. I'm eternally eleven in my heart and still a passionate reader of middle grade and young adult fiction (I've read Bridge to Terabithia about twenty times and I still cry every single time), so writing for young people has been a great fit for me.
I've invited you over for an interview because of your new novel, Ten Miles Past Normal. Tell us all about it! Ten Miles Past Normal is my first foray into young adult literature. It's the story of 14-year-old Janie, who is a high school freshman and having a rough time. She's overwhelmed by the size of her school and the fact that hardly ever sees anyone she knows. She eats lunch in the library. It's a bad scene. It doesn't help that Janie lives on a farm and keeps dragging bits and pieces of it with her to school. Her family has five acres where they're raising goats and chickens, and up until high school, Janie loved farm life. But lately she's found that being known as Farm Girl isn't exactly a social advantage.
It's really a story about figuring out where you fit in and what's important to you, which is a hard job when you're fourteen. At the beginning of the book, what's important to Janie is being seen as a totally normal teenager, but by the end, she's reassessing. Maybe normal's not all it's cracked up to be.
Rumor has it that CAF had a role in inspiring parts of the story? Yep! What happened is that I stumbled across your book Made from Scratch and just fell in love with it. It really spoke to my own dreams of living a more homemade life. Through the book, I found my way to your blog, which I have been keeping up with ever since. Like a lot of your readers who've been following CAF for a awhile, I feel that I'm on this journey with you, though of course you're doing all the hard work and I'm just cheering from the sidelines. I was so excited when you bought the farm, I could hardly stand it. And I was pretty worried about you this winter!
But to back up, after I read Made From Scratch, I was really in the mood to write a book set on a farm with characters who were trying to live a DIY lifestyle. I should say I'm also a huge Wendell Berry fan, and a farmer wannabe from way back. The beauty of being a writer is that even if you can't live out your dreams in real life, you can live them out through your books.
By the way, it was after I read Made from Scratch that I ordered a fiddle from the Internet, and started learning how to play. I pretty quickly upgraded to a better fiddle and started taking lessons, and fiddle playing has been a joyful part of my life ever since. It's so funny to think that if I hadn't picked up your book, I might not be having all this fun!
What draws you into the handmade life? I've always loved making stuff. It's just so deeply satisfying to wear a pair of socks you've knit, fall asleep under a quilt you've made, or bite into a tomato you've grown yourself. We've been putting in our spring garden, and some nights my husband and I just stand on the back porch and look at the peas and tomatoes we started from seeds. You feel like this is what we--and by we, I mean everyone--should be doing. If nothing else, it's therapeutic! But it's more than that. We just get so disconnected from our own lives. It's not good for the soul.
So who do you relate with more, Janie or her mother? That's a great question! I relate with Janie's desire to fit in, since I always feel like a bit of an odd bird in social situations, but I'm more her mother's age, and like her mother, I'm trying to live more of a homemade life. I find as I get older, and as my boys gets older, I'm growing more and more sympathetic to the parents in my stories!
Any plans for more from this fictional farm family? a sequel or series? I don't have plans for a sequel right now, though I've been playing around with the idea of a sort of post-peak oil book, where people find themselves having to acquire the kind of homesteading skills that very few of us have anymore. For one thing, writing this sort of story would allow me to buy a butter churn and write it off on my taxes as a research expense!
Besides quilting, do you do any other homesteading hobbies? As I've mentioned, I knit and garden, and this summer I'm going to finally learn how to can. We have a deep freeze and have preserved food that way, but I need to learn how to put stuff in jars. I'm also collecting supplies for cheesemaking, which is going to be my next big project. Essentially, it's my hope to become as self-sufficient as possible. We've got three-quarters of an acre, and you can do a lot with that amount of land.
I've even got a little plot of wheat growing. I'm trying to convince my husband that our front yard should be a wheat field. It's incredibly beautiful, for one thing, and for another, you only have to mow it once.
Thank you so much, I can't wait to read your book! Thanks, Jenna! Don't forget to check out the acknowledgments page, because you're there in a big way.
Tonight I sat on the tailgate of my truck with a lamb in my arms. It was dark. The little ewe, Pidge, seemed tired. I caught her moments before with my crook after noticing her move so much slower than the others. She seemed thinner too. Worried about a slew of issues, I decided to feel her over and check her out. I gave her some supplements and a bottle of milk replacer to pep her up with a light dose of antibiotics. We sat in the porch light streaming off the house, the crook leaning against the tailgate. I was using a clean beer bottle with a clear nipple on it to feed the little lass. In my arms was twenty-five pounds of wool and hooves. She seemed okay, but a little tired. I could relate.
I held her close to my face and smelled her head. The potion of baby lanolin and grass. The air felt like rain. The other sheep grazed above us on the hill, the occasional baa muffled by new grass mixed in with the sounds of tree frogs farther down the mountain. I sat out there with her longer than I needed too. Her weight on my lap, and wool in my arms, felt like my body had been waiting for it forever. To be this comfortable in the world. Not worried about my hair, or my skin, or my weight: just complete.
I'm not into astrology, but I love watching the stars. On this late April night I wondered if the ewe lamb and I were under the watch of Aries, up there in the heavens? It wasn't until I came in here to write to you that I realized we were. It was such a happy discovery. Here in North America so many shepherds are lambing, or tending to lambs, around this time. It took 28 years, but I finally understood why there's a ram in the sky. Someone's got to keep an eye on us.
I thanked god, luck, and a star ram tonight. I'm grateful for them all.
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...
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?
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
The blog of author Jenna Woginrich of Cold Antler Farm. Here she writes about her adventures following her crazy dream life as a self-employed writer, homesteader, archer, falconer, equestrian, martial artist, hunter, spinner, brewer, geek, and real-life Game of Thrones Extra. She loves movies, pop culture, running far, and eating animals. On twitter @coldantlerfarm
And when the children are safe in bed, at one of the great holidays like the Fourth of July, New Years, or Halloween, we can bring out some spirits and turn on the music, and the men and the women who are still among the living can get loose and really wild. So that's the final meaning of "wild"- the esoteric meaning, the deepest and most scary. Those who are ready for it will come to it. Please do not repeat this to the uninitiated. -gs