Saturday, April 23, 2011


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.

Friday, April 22, 2011

sugar hill, son!

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!

photo from

playing doctor

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.

scratch it, sal!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

this is not a hobby

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.


Every. Sheep. Escaped.

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.

ten miles past normal

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.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

under aries

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.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

the bun baker has landed!

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

wah, wah, bok....

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

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

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


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

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

-Grapes of Wrath

photo by tim bronson

Monday, April 18, 2011

dinner and sweaters

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

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

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

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

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

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

if looks could kill

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

the buck starts here

Sunday, April 17, 2011

shepherd's dozen

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

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

an off-grid morning

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

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

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

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

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