Tuesday, June 7, 2011

and i ran back to that hollow again

This is going to be an interactive sort of blog post. I want you to click this link here, and push play. Minimize that window and just read the post to the music. Turn it down a little if it makes it hard to register the words, but if you do this you will better understand this entry. You'll be there too.

I have a riding lesson every Tuesday night. I come home from work, do some light, necessary, chores and then head out to Riding Right farm to tack up a Chestnut Mare named Mystery. I look forward to it all day.

And while I enjoy the challenges and small victories of the dressage saddle, it does push the night chores back at the farm well into dark. I get home around 8PM, and only have a few deep breaths of light left to get everything done. I go through my mental checklist, starting with rabbits and chickens down by the barns and then working back to the pasture to refill everyone's water stations. It takes around an hour now to go through the exhales of this place, the things that get it ready for bed. Come dark I am still watering tomato plants and dividing the hoofstock from their weeknight pastures to their weekday pastures (a job of grain bribes and general jim-trickery). It gets done. The work always gets done. I do it with gratitude.

Soaked through with sweat, in old muck boots, riding breeches, and a straw hat I must be quite the sight. A confused sort of agriculturist wearing Country Radio headgear and English riding pants admist a flock of sheep in the dark. My iPod runs a soundtrack as I do all this fuss. For night rounds it is always calming, usually the selected songs of Sam Beam, Wilco, or the Postal Service. Tonight it's Gregory Alan Isakov, and the Stable Song was playing. A song I have not listened too much, but it used to haunt my old truck summer nights last year. I would let it fill up that beater Ford and it gave me the uncanny ability to focus 100% on two things at the same time: my passions and the lyrics. When this happens you are one lucky bastard. You are praying without realizing it.

Fireflies had descended on the pasture. I stood there, entranced for a moment. The Blackfaces and Jasper all around me in the near-dark, silent. Just myself and swishing tails and lumbering bodies. In the grass, the sole two-footer, among all this whimsically insect-lit quadrapedia. It's meditation and enlightenment at the same time.

I stood there a while. I closed my eyes and listened to the music. Jasper's wet nose hit my shoulder and I reached to touch it, but kept my eyes closed. A smaller lamb let out a weak bleat and it opened my eyes. A farm lit all over by my one of my favorite things in the whole world: fireflies. I gasped.

When you are alone in a large place, chubby, scared, uncertain, and worried about what will get you through the next month—and yet find a way to open your eyes in a pasture and realize you don't want to be any other person in any other place in the whole world—your soul turns around three times and lies down.

this just in: girl grows sunflower

CAF videos!

Hey folks, just a quick PSA. Did you know I have a youtube channel where you can see videos harking all the way back to Idaho and Tennessee? I also post things there that don't always make the blog, you can subscribe to video feeds there and never miss a banjo tune or rooster crow.

Cold Antler Farm Videos.

roll call

10,000 Honey bees
12 Sheep
24 Meat Chickens
24 Laying Hens
14 Meat Rabbits
6 Bourbon Red turkeys
5 Raised beds of vegetables
3 Roosters
2 Tolouse Geese
2 Mallard Duck Hens
2 Siberian Huskies
6 Apple Trees
1 Border Collie
1 Bass pond
1 Large potato patch
1 Cart Pony

1 28-year-old woman

How about you?

Monday, June 6, 2011

backyard butchering workshop

Just a warning for any sensitive readers: This post goes into detail about the meat bird workshop I held this past weekend. If you don't care to read about the subject, just ignore it and wait for tomorrow's post. But for those of you interested in the how-to of eating your own chickens, read on. Instructions will be in full detail.

Friday night while Brett and I were finishing up work on the barn, I scrambled around chasing chickens in the yard. A triumphant moment later I walked over to him with a Cornish Rock in each hand, suspended by the legs. I held them up in the air at my eye level. "Which of these, you think? Both?" He gestured to the fatter, white bird on the right. I agreed, and set the left-handed bird free to scuttle off for bugs. He would need some more time to fatten up, back to his happy job of eating and chasing crickets in the grass. But the chosen bird… for him it was Solitary Confinement.

All chickens destined for the roasting pan have a 24-hour fast prior to their demise. The workshop bird went into a comfortable wire cage with fresh bedding and water. He was safe from sunlight and stress in the shelter of the coop. While he threw back water I came to terms with the fact that the next day I would be showing eight people how to kill and eviscerate him. This is a new thing for me.

I have now been raising chickens for half a decade, and eating my own meat birds for two seasons. I feel very confident about my reasons and my skills, and was excited to do the slow-motion magic trick of turning a live chicken into a perfect roasting bird just like you’d see at the grocery store. That moment when the headless bird goes from wet feathers to drumsticks and wings: people start to put together the "TA DA" notion that chicken the product is also chicken the animal. It sounds weird to have admit that understanding sets in, but it does. Even for me, who lived on a farm in three states — raised laying hens for years before I ever ate my own birds—to me this realization did not engrave into my cranium until that first squawking rooster turned into a perfect grocery-display ingredient. The process still surprises me.

I’m ridiculously careful now about bacteria, and my precautions are almost laughable (like always wearing rubber gloves, and Clorox wipes on doorknobs after I walk through a room I handled raw chicken in….), and between my Chicken Safety OCD and my trusty Dexter boning knife: I was looking forward to a full day spent with new friends. For the rare occasion my farm would be full of folks who understand why I do all this, and who want to learn how to do it too. It's a whole afternoon of conversation I can doggie-paddle in till I'm drunk on it: composting, fence testers, raised beds, pea varieties, chicken breeds, and wool carders come up as often as the Red Sox do in the office. For me, it's revelry.

By 10AM folks from Maryland, Connecticut, New York, and Maine were in the kitchen enjoying farm quiche, coffee, and friendly introductions. People who were just jpg avatars and comment names became faces and hugs. After everyone said their hellos I explained the certainty of electric fences and the dangers of letting a Siberian Husky outside, then we were ready to start.

We started near the brooder. (A proper beginning station if there ever was one.) Everyone’s chicks were waiting for them. As part of the workshop, every person who signed up got five meat birds (25 eventual pounds of healthy chicken meat!) for coming to learn the dirty work. We talked in detail about brooder care, heat lamp safety, supplements and signs of illness. Everyone got to pick up a chick and get a feel for the animals. Those tiny yellow fluffballs will be white giants in just 8 weeks, ready to meet their makers as well. You know, It still amazes me how efficient and cost-effective raising your own backyard meat birds is. I ordered those chicks for $2.50 a piece and with two dollars of feed each, time, and a little messy effort you can be the farmer, chef, and quality control officer all in one. I’m not sure you save tons of money, but you save some, and you get both the skills and understanding of the task. You get to realize that what’s chomping in your maw was the intentional work of your own hands. I won't set a price on that.

Throughout the workshop side conversations and stories were shared, everything was casual since all of us felt comfortable. Mike and Rachel from Maryland just seemed happy to be around people who didn’t think they were crazy for raising their own food, and Bridget explained her coop plans to them while Angela asked questions about the different classifications of harvested chicken (i.e. Cornish hen, fryer, roaster, etc). The whole mood was interested and kind. I was really happy with the group. These people were ready to get their hands dirty. More than one recipe was swapped.

After a lunch break of pulled pork, salad greens, and leftover quiche we headed outside for the big event. I had already put the big canning pot on the stove to hit the magic number (145 degrees) and prepared a folding table with the knives, sanitizer, a plastic sheet, and other tools. Soon as all was ready I headed to the coop for our bird.

I brought the chicken out by the legs (inversion calms them) and showed the workshoppers how I bind the feet. It's a large loop of baling twine cinched around both feet and then tightened off so no amount of thrashing can set him loose. Soon the bird was hanging from the tree branch (Thanks to Connecticut Mike, who so kindly broke it for my new backyard abattoir).

Using my trusty hedge clippers, the chicken’s head was quickly removed and the animal thrashed as it bled out. I use the hedge clippers because it is a foolproof and fast method. One quick snap and his neck was instantly broken and main artery sliced. Another quick snip and the head was gone. It took possibly 5 seconds and the only person to get bloody was me, being the closest in proximity and even then, only a few splattered drops. No one screamed or looked horrified. Diane commented on how un-bloody the whole event was. She was expecting a horror show and all she got was some wing action. This is good. The act of taking a life, chicken, rabbit, pig, or cow should not be gratuitous if done quickly and humanely.

We waited a few minutes and a few of the men headed inside to grab the large pot of heated water. I untied the bird from the tree branch and then dunked him into the 145-degree tank for one minute, holding him down from floating (I guess he wasn't a witch) with a stick. This is the perfect combination of temperature and time. When the wet chicken was removed by his glowing-yellow feet he was already shedding feathers. With gloved hands I started removing the breast feathers first, and they came off easily. Within a few moments he was nearly naked, starting to look like those rubber chickens from 1960's gag shops. Most onlookers were happily surprised at how fast this whole business was going. From beheading to near-featherless was just about 5 minutes.

We walked over to the table where I could get a bucket of colder water for cleaning the bird. I use a 5-gallon bucket of cold well water refilled every time it gets too red or dirty. It's easier to do a clean job of final feather removal, and keeps the meat and skin pristine. By this point rigor mortis has set in, but it will relax after a few hours in the fridge or at defrosting.

When the bird was plucked, it was time to show how to remove the feet. Showing them the perfect point in the joint in which to cut, I used the boning knife to easily snap them off. I also cut off any part of the neck left with clots or mess. What is left is almost pretty in that cookbook way. But the next task wasn't as pretty...

After removing the gland right above the chickens bum (untasty as all get out), it was time to remove the entrails. Next I removed the anus and any leftover feces, which was minimal, and washed the whole bird again carefully in the cold, fresh water. To do this right, it takes almost half an hour a bird without a plucking machine. Factory chickens come out about 6,000 an hour and several bleach and chlorine baths. I have no interest in eating bleach or pool supplies anymore.

I showed them how to cut the bird low, under the breast bone, and shallow enough to not puncture anything inside. This is your biggest safety concern. You do not want anything inside those intestines or gall bladder getting into yours. Trust me on this. There's a reason I Clorox doorknobs, folks.

When the rear of the chicken was opened, I did the big trick. You reach all the way into the cavity and using the eyeballs on your fingertips, remove the organs from the spine and pull out the guts in one big pile. Slow and steady, you don't want that magical green sack in there to burst. We looked through the gut pile, seeing the green grass still in the bird's crop. It must have been some of the hay it was resting on. It looked as fresh as it must have been before it was cut last summer on Nelson's farm.

When this final work was done, the bird was cleaned again, the cavity flushed with water, and then held up. A modest applause. I brought it inside to rest in ice water in my steel kitchen sink. While it chilled we sat on the grass chatting, laughing. It was as if we all just put in a fence or mucked the barn. It was as it should be.

The last step was sharing how I prepare the birds for the freezer. Once out of the water, it was towel dried with a clean, cotton, kitchen towel and then covered in a generous layer of plastic wrap. Once it was coated, I wrap the bird in freezer paper and secure it with freezer tape, and then place the whole thing in a Freezer gallon bag. It should hold in there for 6 months in this sarcophagus.

And that, dear readers, is how you get the job done.

If you think you want to give this a try at home, I found this great online tutorial!

The afternoon was mostly conversations and folks leaving with their little Jumbo Cornish Chicks in cardboard boxes. I was proud of them all, for coming, for supporting the farm, and for literally taking the plunge with me. I'd like to say we ended the day with a calm shaking of hands and thank yous, but instead Brett, Mike, and I raced around like idiots trying to catch ram lamb number nine so Brett could load the firecracker into the back of his Tacoma. It was his fair payment for the door he built, and his shoring up the barn with posts and beams. He was excited to have him, but I don't think he realized how hard it would be to collect.... Catch a 3-month-old ram lamb is like trying to catch a marble with chopsticks in a flushing toilet. We darted and dashed like idiots. Diane, a seasoned hand at this place, laughed kindly with Mike, who was not wearing lamb-scooping footwear. "You should wear your boots if you come here. You never know what you'll get suckered into..." Damn right!

Teamwork paid off and we caught the sucker. I carried him down to the gate and handed him over to Brett. We loaded him into the truck's wooden crate, gave him some Safeguard to deworm him, and set him up with a bed of hay and a bucket of water. We thought all was well until he nearly jumped five feet in the air and escaped it. Brett nailed a plywood cover to the top. It would be a hard situation to explain on the Northway if a copy pulled him over for a ram escape.

The night ended with hotdogs on the grill, a campfire, fiddle and banjo music, and smores. Not a bad day, folks. Not bad at all.

And just wait till you hear what we have planned for the fall Backyard Farming Workshop. Here's a hint: Jasper is going to be helping Brett log some farm timber!

photo from efowl.com.
And folks, don't freak out, everyone agreed to the waiver.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

rose of bedlam farm

Just back from a visit to Bedlam Farm in Hebron, which was celebrating the opening of Maria's art gallery in the Pig Barn. It was a big time and Jon invited me to join him up in the field to watch his girl Rose work during the herding demonstration. Look at her go!

jasper's door

A few weeks ago this was a tree. It stood on Brett's land, near his log cabin, and it was a pine. But Brett cut it down, and using his portable mill, turned that fallen tree into planks and post. With some tools, hardware, and his time and effort: he created this door which he delivered and installed Friday. Come the first snowfall it will take me back in time. I traded it for a ram.

I think it's the prettiest thing I own. Thank you.

dutch doors and dirigibles

This morning when I was outside letting the chickens out (and watching Gibson stalk and chase them into the ferns) I heard what I thought was the release of a shotgun far away. It puzzled me. Turkey season was over, wasn't it? What other need for a shotgun around here until fall gamebirds open up? I shrugged it off as target practice down the valley, and was about to go back inside when I heard it again. I knew exactly what it was this time: a hot air balloon taking off a mile away.

This was not a sound I would sensory-recognize any time before this past Friday night. Brett (my lumberjack friend from the Adirondacks) and I went down town to the Cambridge Balloon Festival to watch some of the giant dirigibles take off. We got to stand 20 feet from those wicker baskets and watch the flames shoot right up into the maws of those whales. They took off and hovered around Washington County like something unworldly. Like a slow, happy, alien attack when all the aliens wanted to do was float down and deliver Labradoodles and cupcakes. We watched the sky like ten-year-olds.

Both of us were pretty tired. We (read: he) build a dutch door on the barn for Jasper and shore up the beams inside. The barn here isn't exactly "stable" but it's getting there. All summer small weekend work periods like this of pouring concrete foundations and setting posts and beam supports in the loft helped keep the barn from collapsing. As of yesterday's effort, well, I think we got a few more years out of her. The next project is to build a stall inside for winter housing.

So when I realized that sound I was hearing from a chicken coop was that same burst of flame and hot air, just far away, I yelled to Gibson "TRUCK UP! TRUCK!" and we bolted for the Dodge, barely remembering to run inside for my camera. We peeled out and headed down the mountain to the lower fields and farms where I had watched these giants descend yesterday morning. Brett and I were heading to Stewart's for coffee and workshop-supplies when we drove by a few balloons landing right at the base of my mountain. The same place I let raccoons out of their traps and watch deer run away from my truck into skylined silhouettes. Yesterday, there was a 5-story balloon.

And so my little black dog and I drove south at 6:30 AM to see if once again the balloon was replacing does and convicts. I expected to see it after any switchturn on the road, a huge rainbow blob just past the trees, but it was no where to be found. Was I going crazy? I decided to get out of the truck and walk up the hill, trespassing, but not worried. There's something about looking for giant multi-colored aircraft that makes property lines seem less important. And just at the crest of the hill I saw it, not thirty yards away and a hundred feet up was the beast I heard from the farm. I stood in the tall grass and watched it fly off.

Who else is up at 6AM on a Sunday morning but whimsical air-ship pilots and farmers? A few, I suppose but not many. An odd pairing—and one not a lot of people would assume make sense side by side—but I think we suit each other just fine.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Cambridge Balloon Festival is in Town!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Come to the Backyard Farming Fall Workshop!

Come to Cold Antler Farm this Fall for a Backyard Farming Workshop! It'll be held mid-October, Sunday the 16th, at the peak of Hudson Valley foliage, and should make for an amazing weekend of farming, fall leaves, and local sight-seeing. I'm announcing it early so folks who want to make reservations up here can (all hotels and B&Bs sell out by late summer). This workshop will not focus on any one thing in great detail, but cover what can be done in small spaces with backyard livestock, gardens, rain water collecting, canning (we'll make pasta sauce or jam and send you home with some!), and many other topics for home-food production. Everyone who comes will get a copy of Carleen Madigan's Backyard Homestead, and have time to enjoy the farm's food, music, and animals. We might just butcher a turkey and drink some home brewed Black Dog Stout, too!

Please email me if you would like details to attend.
Sign up soon! Limited to 15 people!

how to roast the perfect chicken

If there's one kitchen trick you should learn; it's how to roast a chicken. It's such a satisfying, savory, home-warming skill and the birds you roast can make up 3-6 meals spread out over just a couple dollars in flesh, potatoes, and carrots. Here's the way I do it: it's easy, inexpensive, and it always turns out wonderful. Prep time is just minutes, and you only need one pan, a bowl, and a knife to cut veggies with. Follow these directions and I promise you'll want to roast a bird every chance you get. I use an adaptation from the River Cottage Meat Book with brining options taught to me by Cooks Illustrated.

You'll need:

To Roast:
One small roasting chicken (3-5 pounds)
Olive oil (or warmed butter)
Rosemary, garlic, and sage (or commercial chicken meat rub)
Piece of tin foil
Roasting pan
Meat thermometer
3-4 medium potatoes
4-6 carrots

For Brining(Optional:)
Plastic gallon freezer bag
rosemary sprig
Bay leaves

Preheat your oven to 420 degrees. I know that seems high, but I'll explain later.

If you bought the chicken from the store, or if it was recently frozen, brining is the way to ensure your chicken roasts moist and savory, instead of stringy and dry. Take you whole bird and place it in a large freezer Ziploc bag (or saucepan if the bird is large) with about a gallon of water, 2/3 a cup salt, 3/4th a cup sugar, a sprig of rosemary and a few bay leaves. Let it set in the fridge for 2-4 hours (flipping it on its opposite side every hour or so). When you're ready to cook it, it'll be primed.

Take your fresh (or defrosted in the fridge) chicken and rinse it in cold water. I rinse out the cavity, under the wings, everything and then give it a few good shakes in the sink before I set it down into a large bowl. Set it aside and take out your roasting pan (I use a glass Pyrex pan) and cut up chunks of carrots and potatoes no larger than your thumb and make sure they coat the bottom of your roasting pan. (Besides cooking in the birds juices and fats, they'll act as a roasting rack, letting air under your bird and helping it cook thoroughly.) I always brush a light coating of olive oil and chicken rub spices over my veggies as well, but you don't have to. Set it aside and go back to your bird-in-bowl.

Take either room-temperature salted butter or olive oil and rub the entire bird over with the fat. When the meat is coated in one of these, take a knife and with the bird belly up, try to get your fingers right under the breast skin of the bird, sliding butter or oil into it, right over the breast itself. If the idea of an inner-skin massage makes you want to gag-then just use a knife and slide some cuts into the breast skin to allow air and steam to get between that skin and the muscles. (Trust me, it's worth it.) Last, take either crushed herbs (finely chopped garlic, sage, coarse salt, and rosemary) or a commercial chicken meat rub, and coat your bird entirely in this wonderful mix. If you want, tie the back drumsticks together with some butcher string (at your kitchen store), and then place it on top of your cut veggies. Now, open that oven door, baby.

Slide your herb-rubbed chicken into the oven at 420. This is the method of a flash of heat followed by a slower roast. Let it crackle and pop in there for 20-30 minutes and then lower the heat to 350 and cover the bird with a shield of tin foil lightly placed over it to stop the skin from scorching, but allowing it to get a little crispy. I then let the bird roast at least an hour, taking it out when the bird is a nice brown color to check temperature and other signs of "doneness". If your meat thermometer reads 170 degrees in the thickest part of the breast, you should be fine. Stab the birds skin to check that the juices run clear (not milky or red) and if you wiggle the legs they should be almost ready to snap right off in your hand. If your bird seems to have a lower temperature, just pop it back in for twenty minutes and try again later

If all the signs are good, let the bird sit for 20 minutes (the meat will keep cooking as it cools on your stove stop) then serve your white meat with a side of savory carrots and taters! Enjoy! And hopefully some of you readers out there can share some gravy and chicken stock recipes for what to do next!

Thursday, June 2, 2011


I walked into the barn tonight to check on the Palomino doe's kits (looks like seven: four black and three spotted) and was almost shocked out of my Muckboots by the unmistakable chorusing of chicks! peeeep peep peep beepbeep chirp chirrrrp chick birp click chirp cheep cheeep!

"I knew it!" I exclaimed in the barn, jumping in the air like I just won the lottery, sounding as vindicated as a crow on corn. "I just KNEW IT!"

For weeks I had been noticing less and less eggs around the barn, the Ameraucanas and Pumpkins weren't anywhere to be found. With the daylight hours just right and those hens in a safe big barn, I just knew that somewhere there was a broody hen sitting on a pile of eggs. I just didn't expect it to be ten feet in the air...

These six home-brewed chickens were found in the hayloft of the old barn. After a few minutes of pouring flashlight streams under rabbit cages and moving feed containers I realized all that chirping was coming from above. A Pumpkin Hulsey hen had made her nest right below the loft's front window. When I climbed that rickety ladder and saw six little poofballs running around, I scooped them up and put them in the egg basket. There was no water, no feed, and a ten foot fall to freedom for these little guys. What was their mother thinking? So I brought them indoors and let them join the 57 meat birds and 2-week old laying hen chicks in the now very-cramped brooder. But a tightly packed, warm, food-and-water stocked brooder bet the roomier outdoors tonight. A cold burst is swiping through Veryork, and they are even calling for frost in the northern mountains....These little guys didn't stand a chance outdoors unless their mama could wrangle them back to the nest. Not trusting her judgement, I took a few more of the eggs she was resting on and brought them into the brooder as well. Maybe some would hatch right here in the farmhouse.

The new loft residents are a mix of Pumpkin Hulsey and either Light Brahma or Ameraucana. These are the sons and daughters of Winthrop and Upset, and I hope a few make it right to the roaster or laying stage. I'm pretty stoked to know the bird population can find a way to sustain itself. Let's hear it for those fine people at Greenfire Farms, raising heritage birds who know how to get the job done right!

What a wonderful surprise. What a damn happy thing. And what a fine irony that right before I went outside to do my night chores I popped a chicken for the oven for dinner! One life taken, and six more welcomed in its place. You just don't get that kind of awestruck grace every day.

Here's to new life. This place is lousy with it!

come in, sit down

Every once in a while I like to do a roll call. If you would be so kind as to comment and introduce yourself to the comunity here, we can all catch up with one another. Tell me about your own farm, or future farm, or your city apartment and lack of a farm because you just like reading about this mess. Say where you're from, and what your own goals are.

If you don't mind, please let me know what it is you'd be interested to hear more about? More recipes? Essays? It helps me produce the content you're interested in. It also helps other readers out there realize they aren't crazy for wanting a Shire horse or Swedish Flower Hens in 2011. And you never know, perhaps someone will read through these and realize there's another urban homesteader right in their neighbrohood, or that your goat farm is literally down the road. I hope you'll all chime in. I'll start:

Hi, I'm Jenna from Jackson, NY. I'm in my late twenties, single, and spend my days as a web designer/author/blogger/shepherd. I have a little sheep farm here with my border colllie, chickens, geese, rabbits, turkeys, bees, and a cart pony in training. I'm an average gardener and just planted 85 potatoes. Some day I want to grow up and be a writing farmer for a living. I want this so much it hurts.

happy feet

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

this just in!

My little Palomino doe just kindled the first kits of 2011!

let's waltz, darling

Here's my version of Down in the Willow Gardens, our first Waltz of Banjo Equinox. Feel free to post (or repost) your videos here. Has everyone stayed with it? Has anyone up and quit? For those faithful players out there, have you had a chance yet to play near your gardens after a long day, or with friends at a campfire? I played some fiddle this past weekend at a campfire and let me tell you, it wasn't pretty. I'm out of practice and needing rosin, but I could still saw out an Irish Reel and it made a few hands clap. That's reason enough to order new rosin. These instruments come and go in waves of passion, I know. BUt I hope some of you have a steady marriage started with your drum pots. Let's hear some updates and some 3/4 time!

mushroomin' the ozarks

Via Tara on CAf's Facebook page


I have been getting emails about workshops, and when they are coming up. I have a Meat Bird Workshop This Saturday, June 4th, and a Sheep 101 workshop Sunday, June 19th. Meat Rabbits is in August, and I am considering a general Backyard Farming for Beginners Workshop for late July, and again in August and Sept. The Backyard Farming workshop will be an overview of growing food in small spaces and cover a basic overview of everything from beekeeping to butchering rabbits. If you're interested, let me know?

And another reader email brought up a suggestion I thought I would share. If you would like to come to a workshop at some point, but not sure when, but would like to pay a fixed tuition rate now to be used any time in the next three years? You can do that as well. Just email me for the details. Some folks like knowing they have paid up front and when the timing is right they'll just buy that plane, train, or bus ticket to Cold Antler.

an equestrian giveaway

I never intended to get so involved with horses, but I can't say I'm unhappy with the turn out. Last night I caught a sunset glimpse of my shadow on the pasture hillside. It was me all right, in a straw cowboy hat and standing next to this gray ghost was the shadow of my work horse, Jasper. Our silhouettes on the ground looked like rubber stamps of the wild west. Outlines of a time and place neither of us knew. We were both born and raised in the Northeast. Both of us started in Pennsylvania and ended up on a farm in New York. But in that waning light we looked like something as tough as rawhide, and I had to laugh out loud at the puppet show. I was a Hobbit, and Jasper was a pony. A barefoot farm girl and her pint-sized steed. We had been just working on the hill, weaving through the hillside and trees on a lead line, stopping and starting. Soon as I have the cash set aside I'll order him a proper harness and then I'll get him dressed in that and do the exact same thing. Eventually we'll start pulling light drags, and then I'll start ground driving from behind. It's a process, and while he might not need this slow training, I do. A first time driver and her first working cart pony...I'm taking it slow.

But last night, hoo. Last night I was at my weekly English riding lesson and I felt like I was trotting on air. After months of tense shoulders, fear of falling, and general stiffness I am starting to ride proper. Last night was my first lesson totally off the lunge line in a long time. Hollie had faith in my abilities, and for the first time, so did I. I felt so comfortable asking for that trot from my mount, taking her around the who arena. Working on my corners, my 20-meter circles, my seat, my hands and elbows. For a woman who spends so much of her time being coarse this is pure grace. The day before I was sweating bullets in the garden and a night later I was gliding like a seraphim. There's a reason little girls beg their parents for ponies. They want to fly.

Hollie's first riding book just came out. I'm so happy for her, and lucky to be learning to ride as an adult with such a patient and easy-going instructor. The book comes with a DVD too (It's the first English riding book to come with a video section for each chapter, explaining exactly how the words look from the saddle). The whole thing was filmed and written in the stables I am learning in, Riding Right Farm in South Cambridge, NY. I have a copy to give away here on the blog, which I will in this post. I just want to hear your thoughts on this:

How do you think horses will fit into our future? Do you think they will become more prominent as oil prices soar and peak and return again as our main source of travel and farm labor? Or do you think they will remain a hobby and sport? Do you live in an area where horses are in nearly every backyard as I do (1/2 acre trailer home lots have pony sheds around here) or do they seem to be the play things of the super rich in your neighborhood? Comment with your thoughts on horses in our homegrown future and you'll be entered to win a copy of Hollie McNeils's 40 Fundamentals of English Riding! Winner will be picked Thursday afternoon, check back to see if it's you!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

living out a colloquialism

There is something special about living out a colloquialism: which is exactly what I was doing. Barefoot in the potato patch sounded like a phrases said a million times to imply something, but I wasn't exact;y sure what? Going Six ways to Sunday day means a rushing effort, Lifting yourself up by your bootstraps means a self-imposed work ethic. So what did being barefoot in the potato patch mean?

It meant it was damn hot outside.

87 degrees and muggy as all get out. I had been unshod for most of the morning, liking the better grip and cool dirt under my hot feet. The bare feet gave me balance, and stepping over mounds and seed potatoes I even felt a little primal. It's a good thing, too, for a corporate employee to be sweat-stained and shoeless in brown earth as often as possible.

After five years of homesteading I still don't have a rototiler, so all sod is broken with a single hoe. I raise it up and then slam it down into the grass and lift up the earth's pretty covering of green to search for earthworm castings and dark earth. I hoe deep enough to bury each spud (or half of a spud, depending on how many eyes it had) into a grave and then cover it with dirt. They will be covered with compost and more mulch as the summer continues. I'm thinking about my summer commitment to this small backyard patch and wondering if I'm over my head this time. How will I store them all? Can I use the basement or will it be too damp? Should I use the closet under the attic stairs, or will that be too warm by the woodstove? After a while all these considerations got folded into the rows as well. Soon it was just the heat, my rhythm, and the voice of Barbara Kingsolver reading Prodigal Summer over my headphones.

When the first 65 were in the ground, I was beat, just plain whooped. I went inside to replenish some fluids and instead of walking back out to my hoe and sack I grabbed my drug-store spin reel and rod and headed for the pond. Sunday night I watched the Daughton boys reel in bass after bass from my little pond and I wanted to land one of those bigguns myself. So I headed down there with my twenty-dollar tackle and a package fo worms from Stewarts. The irony that I'm an Orvis employee was not lost. But when a girl spends the day working for her food, she doesn't want to hunt via dry-fly airstrike. She wants to trick some fish with live bait.

last night I realized something wonderful. Fishing is the one thing I need no distraction from. Everything else I do alongside something else. I hoe with headphones. I surf the net while watching a movie. I read in the bathroom...but fishing. I am 100% there. Hours flew by and I caught panfish and smiled. No bass yet. Just a girl in her straw hat with dirty feet, chucking worms and praying the snapping turtle isn't hungry for my lowest digits.

I came back to the farm an hour or so later. I had the guilt as heavy as a sack of seed potatoes calling me home. I hoped to plant 65 more, but gave up after 20 to return to the pond. Between the heat and effort, 85 poatoes was nothing to be ashamed of, and that's not counting the ten already in the raised bed with bushes high as my waist. One woman can get through a winter on 400 pounds of potatoes, for sure. So I fished until dark, still only hooking sun fish, and then eventually walking up the road to the house. I was so tired from the sun, planting, and angling I felt like I had been slipped cat tranqs. Just totally used up by that happy day.

I was sound asleep before dark.

Monday, May 30, 2011

there's no shame

...in planting 85 potatoes—all in newly-broken sod.

the garden

This weekend is on its last leg, and the four days off from work have soared past me in a heat of road trips, television celebrities, workshops, bass fishing (biggun's in the farm pond!), chickens and campfires. Today is my last day of freedom. I'm planting as many seed potatoes as my little body can handle planting. Also, some sweet corn and pumpkin seeds to join into the started pumpkin vines I already set. I'm not showering until at least one or two grocery bags of spud seeds are in the ground. I know it seems late, but we wait here until early June to pass the life cycle of local potato beetles. Something I heard second-hand from Othniel who heard it from an old-timer. I suppose we'll see. My one row in a raised bed isn't going to do it for a meat farm. I am a hardy gal. I like mine mashed, fried, baked, and hashed and there is nothing more comforting going into winter than that primal smile that comes from a backyard full of livestock you can roast, a few stacks of cord wood, and bins of potatoes in the root cellar.

I've added a young hive to the arsenal, and hopefully it will help the garden and all the flowering trees and buds around the farm. They seem to be settling in, and working hard to get their new home furnished with comb as fast as possible. They are directly next to a giant honeysuckle bush so the drive for take out isn't too far. They don't seem to both anyone else: not the sheep, me, or Jasper. I am hoping to order him a proper harness soon so we can move from lead line training around the pasture to actual harness work, light and simple. But our time together is proving good and I'm comfortable with the pony faster than I expected to be.

Okay, off to plant those taters. Anyone want to guess how many I'll actually get in the ground? Whoever gets the closet will get a giveaway prize: a signed copy of Made From Scratch with a chicken feather bookmark. So let's hear those chance guesses!

P.S. I have laying hen chicks for sale if anyone local wants some. Five dollars each: Ameraucanas, Buff Orps, and Rhode Island Reds.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

beekman 1802

Yesterday I was too tired to write, and that's saying something. The day started with my annual pickup from Betterbee in Greenwich, and then ended shutting my neighbor's chickens in their coop for the night. Between those two things I: helped a friend install her first hive of bees, loaded the truck with 13 bales of hay, unloaded 13 bales of hay, expanded the pasture by 15 pounded t-posts and woven wire fencing, mowed the lawn, and then visited friend for dinner.

My days off work involve the hardest work of my life.

Today was a lot less stressful. I headed south to Sharon Springs to tour the Beekman Mansion and enjoy the town's Garden Party weekend. I got to meet Josh and Brent, buy soap, see their amazing accomplishments, and enjoy the best hamburger of my life at the American Hotel. It was quite the day. Polka Spot says hi.

More soon. Laying hen workshop tomorrow!

Thursday, May 26, 2011


cartons and girltalk

When the man behind the counter at the cafe handed me my takeout box, I couldn't help but smile. He wrote BAAA! in black marker. Knowing the guy's name who made your chicken wrap makes for a more personal touch when it comes to doggie bags. It helps of course that he knows I'm a shepherd, and that I traded three of my ram lambs at his farm for 90+ bales of hay. I thanked him and put the carton in the truck before running across the street to Battenkill Books where Connie, the shop owner, was sitting behind the counter. She was just back from the big Book Expo in New York and said she was reading my new book! I asked her if I could see it? And she ran back to pick up the paperback Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) from her travel bag. I held the glossy thing in my hand and turned it over. It's my third time seeing a book of mine in print and it still feels like make believe. We chatted for a while and then ended up in a bit of girltalk over how dreamy Michael Perry is. She talked about doing a book launching party and I just nodded an okay. Why not?! As I drove home my neighbor Shellie (CAF vet and new chicken owner) asked if I could watch her birds and gardens a few days while her family headed out of town. I got my marching orders and told her I had it under control, enjoy the weekend.

A scribble on a carton.
A conversation in a bookstore.
A message on a cell phone.

This is becoming my town.

putting off mowing

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

ravens in the corn

Driving home after my herding lesson was wonderfully anti-climatic, fantastically boring. For weeks I had been fretting about this particular ride, certain it would be a disaster. I knew I’d have an energetic border collie and a ram lamb inches away from each other crammed in the cab of a pickup truck for a two-hour transport across three states. I was expecting bedlam. Gibson would be howling and clawing at the crate, the ram screaming, truck swerving, me praying as I slid down sketchy mountain roads. I tried to prepare. I had a car-seat harness for Gibson. I had a first aid kit packed. I planned to stop often. When I doubted the transport, I started pricing stock trailers on Craigslist…

It was all in vain. The ride home was like driving in an Edward Hicks painting. Gibson curled up in the front seat, exhausted from his lesson. He was sleeping like a babe of Eden. The ram lamb bleated here and there, but generally resigned to his lot as cargo and laid down. (I would find out later he was "calmly" filling the dog crate with liquid feces, but that's another story for another day). With my back to the crate, my dog at my side, I was in a blissful state. My new-to-me truck was chugging through the Green Mountains like a champ and I was almost home. Just a few hours prior to crossing the Washington County line my business-partner-in-training had moved from the round pen to the high field and was starting to show real progress. I had come out of lambing and was now focused on summer projects. I had a rabbitry to start, a cart pony to train and outfit, turkeys to raise, and now I was driving home with next season's sire. He was a beautiful boy. I carried him in my arms to the truck myself from Denise's farm—a young Blackface ram. He's the breed I chose amongst all others to feed and clothe me. I named him Atlas, because a new ram is a sheep farm's whole world while he thrives. New blood, new lambs, new hope and all of it tangled next to my chest as I loaded him into the truck. Two hearts separated by wool, skin, cloth, and blood.

Picking up the spring lamb that would, in turn, become the fall ram was a new thing for this particular farm. New, but instantly ritualistic. It was one of those things you do as a new farmer and immediately understand you're taking part in the first of endless annual occurrences just like it. You are nostalgic in the present moment, (which I think, might be the closest to enlightenment this girl will ever get). My first Shearing Day was like this too. As was my first apple cider pressing, lambing season, and that first spring hatchery order years ago in Idaho. They are holidays, you see.

Holy is the proper word, too.

I am not a religious person, though I respect and appreciate what religion is. It's a way to live, and something to live up to. It's a year marked with observances and festivals that—if celebrated earnestly—make us understand the world better and our place in it. As a child my holidays were full of magic and great import. As I grew older I lost that. Holidays became Hallmark and faded back into numbers on calendar. Soon after, religion and I parted ways. We still meet up for coffee on occasion, but it’s a platonic conversation. No commitments from either side.

But farming is changing this. My life is entirely about commitment now, and I find myself praying more than ever before in my life, mostly out of sheer gratitude for my land and the air in my lungs. My prayers aren't to anyone in particular, but they are constant and honest. I have a lot of Evangelical friends and sometimes I sit down with the Bible. Other times it's the words of teachers and writers wise enough to crack the farm house's foundation. I make more time to meditate now, and read through the sutras that make my head sing with good things. The Heart Sutra, and the Diamond Sutra, which has a line I want engraved someday on my tombstone if I ever get a say in such things.

Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

So the farm is bringing out a more spiritual side, and it's varied and happy. This life of soil and lanolin is my choice and my dream and it makes its own holidays. My year is now marked in new ways now. It is marked with days novel to me, but timeless to the human animal: Planting, Breeding, Shearing, Canning, Lambing, Harvest, Honey Extraction... the list goes on and on. Most of these holidays are casual observances. You don’t need to dress up, but you do need to be mindful. There’s a good reason shepherding holidays fall in the order they do, and each one is just a part of the annual cycle that is ewe and ram, fleece and lamb. Care of the flock breaks up my year now the way old school and church holidays did, and I find myself as wound up and restless before Shearing Day as I was as a child waiting for Santa. The next day brings something magical, something traditional, something tangibly wonderful and a part of me and endless people before me. What a thing. What a thing to relearn again. At nearly 30-years-old I feel like an authentic string of traditions as old as fire and song are wafting back to me again. I need to learn all the particulars, but I have a lifetime to do it in, and if I'm lucky that's a few more years of cider and wool, eggs and piglets. What more dare I ask for?

And you know what's truly beautiful about these agricultural holidays? They belong to everyone. Regardless of your creed, race, age, gender, location, wealth, or sexual orientation, hell species: we are all united in the Great Religion of Food. We all need it to survive and if it wasn’t for grocery stores, we would all be ordained instead of lapsed practitioners. Which is exactly what we are because just a few generations back your family probably grew (or personally knew the farmer) who raised the food you ate. We once knew how to eat in season, how to cook dinner, how to string up a bean vine, shell peas, and dress a Thanksgiving turkey. Our children were not scared of dead pigs, but clapped their hands under the hanging hogs. Because they liked bacon, and because they weren't shielded from the whole story as if it was a favor. I want to go home to that mind that sees the world as a hundred pieces of one life, complicated and forever, like the growing season.

All this time I thought I was becoming a farmer, but the farm is becoming me. It turns out I'm a seminarian here. A little monk on a little piece of land learning how to not mess it up, over and over. It makes me glad.

P.S. If you read this post thinking I am replacing religion with agriculture, then you have it all wrong. Farming isn't a path that drives me away from faith. It is a way to cultivate it all over again, and maybe someday find it amongst the ravens in the corn. Maybe not. Like said, there's not commitment here. Just a lot of observation.

But we can still meet for coffee.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

thanks jasper!

Monday, May 23, 2011

chicks in the house!

The chicks for this weekend's workshop arrived this morning! All 45 are doing well, and spending their time with the three poults I bought at the feed store. They are from Mt. Healthy Hatchery from nearby Pennsylvania—Orpingtons, Reds, and Ameraucanas (just like in Chick Days). If you're coming this weekend and need directions, please email me at jenna@itsafarwalk.com and I'll hook you up. And for those of you wondering how to get these guys home safe? A small box with wood shavings and a heat source will do the trick. A hot water bottle, a breakable heat pack from the drug store, or a plg-in heating pad should be fine. Just wrap it in a towel under the shavings and you created a pullet spa. If the ride is over three hours, have a small dish of feed and water and extra heat packets for the roadside stops. They'll do fine.,

Looking forward to this weekend, a lot. Starting Friday with the annual bee pickup and hive installation, Saturday is a trip an hour south to Sharon Springs to take a tour of Beekman 1802, Sunday is the chicken workshop, and Monday is a day of rest and gardening. It's officially the beginning of summer here at Cold Antler. I'm just waiting on the fireflies and wishing on pairs of crows.

herding lesson: in pictures

Sunday, May 22, 2011

200 watts

If you sprinted behind sheep for twenty minutes straight—you'd appreciate a tub of cold water too!

Gibson had a herding lesson today down at Tanstaafl (There aint no such thing as a free lunch) Farm in Greenfield, Massachusetts today. Between lambing, Jasper, cash flow, and the work weekends of pasture expansion: herding lessons have been on the decline. This isn't such a big deal, as G is only a year old and still a baby in the world of working sheep dogs. He has plenty of time to learn the ropes.

Today was a warm, muggy, overcast day. My lesson was in the late afternoon, and I was expecting my pup's usual amount of tom foolery. Gibson did not disappoint. He was so excited to be around sheep he lost most of his sense and was all high tails and bravado for the first fifteen minutes in the round pen. We work on a long line, with flags on sticks and training staffs and do our best to get him to calmly balance sheep between my movements. At a fast walk, if I move left, he should move right. If I turn last, he should turn to always match my choice and balance the stock between us. We do our best.

Gibson's 49-pounds, was no match for the little, prick-eared, 35-pound, sprite Emmy, who has three-years under her hide and takes commands practically at a whisper. When Denise sent her up the field to gather and fetch the three hair sheep we would be training with, I watch in confused awe. How do you get from Gibson to Emmy? From Jenna to Denise? I have no idea. I just listen to my teacher, and trust in the process. Like a car can drive cross country in the dark with only seeing the 100 feet of headlights in front of it—I train my dog a step at a time.

I have a clunky way about me, and a clunky young dog, and watching me in a herding lesson is watching a confused woman with a stick yell "LIE DOWN" 70-jillion times. But then by some point in the lesson Gibson calms down and moves sheep like a proper dog and I beam like I'm made of Tiffany glass and my heart's 200 watts of pride. Denise thinks we can start working on our out run next lesson. Just the idea makes me a little weak in the knees.

I have more to update you on. I brought home my ram lamb from Denise's farm tonight, and he is gorgeous. He'll be this fall's ram (and possibly this winter's roast). And three Bourbon Red poults are chirping away in the brooder box. (They were on sale at the Salem Agway, at a price too good to turn down), but that needs to wait till tomorrow. I need a hot shower in ways you don't want to understand, but let's just say bleach-scrubbing the ram crate for an hour and you get the picture. I know a lot of people say they put up with a lot of shit in their lives, but few of them have the laundry to prove it.

Also, I named the Milk snake Trevor.

what kind of snake is this?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

folks in town

My folks are visiting from PA (it's the reason the posting has been thin). All is well though. They arrived yesterday afternoon and when my mother met Jasper he tried to eat her beaded bracelet (that wasn't the best introduction), but it was all uphill from there.

I had friends over for some charcoal grilling and beer. It was a night of pond-bass fishing for the kids and chatter for the adults. A beautiful night, too. A thunderstorm rolled over in Vermont but only a shower reached us. The Daughton boys came back in the house wet from the shower, but proud of the fish they caught and offered no signs of the big fat snapping turtle.

This morning I'm making a breakfast of eggs we may head over to Gardenworks to look at bedding plants and the art gallery. If the rain hold out it should be a banner day. Here's to Washington Count putting on the dog for us! More photos and updates later today!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Chicken 101 Workshop Next Sunday!

Hey there Chicken Workshop Attendees. Can you please post here and let me know that you're coming over next Sunday, and if you are taking chicks home with you? I have thirty chicks on the way Monday morning, so they will be about a week old when you pick them up. You'll be taking home the three breeds featured in Chick Days, and a copy of the book.

Is anyone a vegetarian? I was thinking about pulled pork for lunch and hard cider and mountain music in the evening (for those who might stay a little later for a campfire). And if you attended a workshop earlier in the year and just want to come by and join in, you are welcome.

pullet and hen

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

grass stains

You got to walk a special walk in my chicken yard. If you don't you might sick a chicken under foot. When you strut out there with a 50-pound bag over your shoulder they know what's inside and they clammer all around you. Wings flapping, beaks chirping, you'd think you were carrying a sack of meal worms and not cracked corn and mash. You can't step down, and don't you dare stomp. You got to shuffle. Feeding 30+ chickens here at Cold Antler takes some serious dance moves. You slide your feet just a half inch over the ground and push them forward, gently (but swiftly) removing the hoards from the path. Kind of like the old steam trains pushed cattle out of the way with their shovel front ends. You do this and no one—omelet and roaster alike—is worse for the wear.

The chicken shuffle is one trick of the trade. There are other moves you have to pick up to keep time around here. There's the grain-bucket two-step with the pony, and the field-fence break dance over the meta rail. You have to hold a bucket a certain way when carrying sweet feed into the sheep pen or they will jump up and dive right into it head first, pushing you to the ground in the process (I know this well). So instead of just strolling in like a chump, you march in the pen like a 1920's movie-script prison warden, all purpose and bravado. You got to carry that bucket with the same son-of-a-bitching swagger Jasper gets when someone ovine gets to close to his pile of hay. He glides like a lion, swishes his tail with his ears are pinned back. Body language is universal between all animals, human and otherwise.

They know when I will pitch a fit or scratch their backs.
I know the same looks in them.

Tonight between chores I grilled burgers on my little black charcoal grill and mowed the lawn. First real mowing of the season and when it was done I was covered in grass stains and sweat. The farm looked like someone switched it out with a golf course while I was unloading garden soil from the back of the truck. Taking it all in from the bed of the pickup I beamed with pride. Talk about instant gratification. Mowing the lawn is a zen koan crushed into PBR cans. Amen.

When the work was done, I leashed up Jazz and Annie for a short night walk. It was almost dark, the slightest bit of blue left in the overcast sky. If it was a normal summer day you would have called the clouds above us thunderheads, but the mild rainy week here just meant they were...well, clouds. No storm was coming, but it looked like an angry teenager painted the sky. From just a little down the road the farmhouse looked make believe. Behind it, far away on the hillside white spots the size of my pinky nail were lambs. My lambs. Animals that knew of one home: my farm. I say that not to boast, but out of near disbelief at the fact there are living creatures in this world who only know of Cold Antler Farm as their entire world. A little over a year ago this was nothing but a pipe dream and today it's grass stains and sweat. Watching from this lower viewpoint down the hill, my farm house looked so huge. 1100 square feet have never looked that big to anyone else in the world before. I tried to gasp, tried to say a small prayer, but was interrupted by a slam poet. I caught a yellow flash out of the corner of my eyes. A firefly? Could I be that lucky? Can the world be that beautiful all at once on Tuesday?

I'm not sure. I think it was the house lights caught in my glasses. But my heart stopped and a smile so wide it needed a tailgate spread across my lips. Summer is here.

And so am I.

Monday, May 16, 2011

dulcimer for sale


Sunday, May 15, 2011

willow gardens and wet ponies

I am sorry to report no gardens got planted, and no pasture got expanded. I went to all the trouble of braving the wilds of Bennington for ten new t-posts, 4 1.5 cubic feet bags of organic garden soil, and 6 2x4s cut in half: but the cordless drill is staying on the charger today. That rain is too much, and too often. When I pulled into the farm's driveway I didn't see a single animal with a hoof. But when I honked the Dakota's horn I saw Jasper and Sal poke their heads out of the sheep shed. If it's too wet for Scottish Sheep and an Amish pony: it's too wet to plant taters. Isn't that how the saying goes?

So the dogs and I are waving our white flag from inside the farmhouse, roasting a chicken over carrots and potatoes, and watching Braveheart. My coworkers are learning to call chilly, rainy, days "Braveheart weather" because they have gotten used to my habit of watching that movie every time I am home during a downpour in the daylight. Fog, rain, wind, and muted gray daylight to me say it is 1993 all over again and you are watching Braveheart. Till this day, even if it is just on in the background, I have probably watched it 600 times. I can't help it. All I can hope is that to some sort of man out there, a woman who watches war epics based on the weather is a sexy quirk. If not, heeeeellllllooooo cats.

Tomorrow I'll post a video of myself playing Down in the Willow Gardens on the Banjer. This is our groups last Double C song, we are now moving into Sawmill tuning and for our first group recital we'll play Cluck Old Hen. So that's your next song to practice. How is it going for you banjo folk? Are you still practicing? Is it something you are excited about or loathe having to dedicate time to everyday? Are your friends and family impressed or annoyed?

Tonight's a night I want to strum a guitar, eat carrots and potatoes, and maybe take a few moments to slide into some zazen. Being quiet at the end of a rainy day is a good thing, especially when tomorrow will throw you into a whirlwind of a work week. I have five days of work and then my folks and my sister are coming up to visit for the weekend. I'm excited for them to meet Jasper and the lambs and see how the farm has grown in just one year.

planting hope

Garden fever is setting in. It's mid May, there's a gentle rain outside, and my spring-planted crops are coming up in spades. Hell, the Arrowhead lettuce actually looks like spades. With peas, garlic, lettuce, potatoes, carrots, onions, rhubarb, and strawberries planted: this place is starting to look more alive than ever.

Today (if the rain stays light and steady) I plan on putting in another 4x4 bed dedicated to future tomatoes and then hoeing up a long bed for pumpkins and sweet corn. (I have bags and bags of potatoes yet to plant, but I will get as many in this week as possible.) I think once I start getting the heavy guns like squash in the ground I need to start really upping the ante on garden protection. I'm going to put an electric fence around the top sections, and hope the raised bed wood with some small ground fencing will help with the rabbits and groundhogs. Hope, being the operative word. Last year in May I had a great garden started as well, and it didn't take long for those dreams to die.

But what is vegetable gardening if it isn't hope? You spend all this enegery creating this plan, and even at its most basic level: is a pretty brassy ordeal. A garden is telling the whole world "Hey, I'm going to be around a while, and probably get hungry eventually." It affirms life in a proximity to your own home and that sure is a beautiful thing. Even with the soil so far caked into the cracks of my hands I can't wash it out, it is beautiful.

What are you guys planting?
And any advice for saving my garden from the animal army?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

the good life (border collie edition)

Soon as I returned to the farm I had my bag ready. Inside the plastic three big rawhide bones rattled like osteoporosized antlers. My dogs had been stuck inside the house on a Saturday since 8AM and it was nearly 4. I owed them.

When I got inside the door Annie instantly knew I had the goods, and sat down in front of me like the lupine cherub she isn't. I tossed her and Jazz their bones and then took Gibson for his walk. Together we padded down the road in a light rain storm and when his bladder needs were satisfied I let him off his leash to romp around the property a bit. He plopped down under the big maple that guards my house and panted a happy pant. A tired border collie on a sheep farm is certainly one version of the Good Life.

The day of book events went well. The plant swap at Northshire was a scattered, light crowd but a few folks braved the bleak weather to pet a chicken and talk landscaping. A fiddle and guitar due played some fine tunes, including Unger's Ashokan Farewell and for the 17-jillionth time I regretting having missed the Civil War. After running inside for a cup of strong coffee, I loaded up the Dodge and headed north to Glens Falls on a series of back roads. After a quick stop for feed (and a badass straw cowboy hat) I was on my way to the big city.

The crowd at Red Fox books was wonderful, a nice showing of chicken owners, chicken thinkers, and chicken lovers. It was an informal Q&A and my three chicks were fairly well behaved. At one point my white Ameraucana flew from the wire cage onto a customer's shoulder, but it came across more like theatrics than chaos. A point I was incredibly grateful for. Red Fox sold a lot of books and I met a lot of kind and interesting people. The folks who run the shop even suggested stopping by the farm when they drove down to Gardenworks and I told them to swing over anytime, just email ahead so I'm not out getting hay or working in a corporate office. I do hope they stop in.

By the time I was ready to return to my farm for a Saturday afternoon nap, it was starting to rain. They want it to pour all day tomorrow and into most of next week. Fine by me, the pastures could use it. The farmer could also use a proper raincoat. All I have is a heavy, plastic tarp I got at an outlet sale in Manchester. But I am going to save up for a proper waxed cotton jacket like the great dog men wear in Scotland to farm in. It seems proper: on this hill with these sheep and my pup-in-training, shucks, a girl's got to be ready for a Scottish rain.

P.S. A dozen people have emailed me about the rabbit workshop, but so far no one has reserved a spot. So if you are interested, please email me and we can set you up with all the information you need for a day or overnight trip to Jackson.

photo taken from Red Fox Books Facebook page

yeeeeeehaawww! (2.0)

chicken tracks!

Today I'll be at the Northshire Bookstore from 9-10:30AM in Manchester, Vermont at their Plant Swap. I'll be the girl outside with the chickens. Right after that I'll be at Red Fox Books in Glens Falls at 1PM to talk poultry as well. Hope to see some of you there!

Friday, May 13, 2011

on that day

Sorry folks, Blogger (the Google program I use to run this site) crashed for a 36-hour period. There was no way to upload new blogs or see comments. But it's back again, and hopefully nothing was lost. Here's what I wrote last night but couldn't post. I hope all of you are doing well. I missed checking in and your daily comments; let's me know someone out there is reading.

Thursday, May 12th
So this is how it goes: after work I pull into the farm's driveway and let Gibson out. He pees, stares at chickens, and noodles around and when his series of dog tasks are over with, I send him inside and turn to my pasture. I unplug the electric and hop the fence. The sheep all bleat and carry on, expecting grain and attention. Sal struts right up like he belongs on the top of some 4-H trophy, coated in gold. I tell them the newest gossip from the office as we walk up the hill together. "Roger got a promotion!" I beam, "We got a brand new coffee machine, and I think it's top shelf." and so on. When we get to the gate Jasper stand on the other side. I open it and call my pony to my side, and he walks over to me. I throw an arm around his neck and tell him in a soft voice, "Hold still, son, we'll get them together"

As the sheep dart and run into the big gated pasture I look at Jasper and say at a shout, "Let's Get 'Em!" and I run at a sprint towards the grazing sheep. Jasper rears up and runs beside me. Together we're a brace of border collies off on an outrun to gather a flock. But the pony and I don't gather anything, we just chase the sheep a little and watch the lambs fly. They are so damn fast I think some of them can teleport. Within a few laps we're both beat and I tell my horse he's a superhero and then go fetch him his hay and fresh water. By the time I am outside the fence his neck is down and grazing too. He is not on a mission of sheep torture, just joshing. I laugh and grab the metal scoop.

By the time farm chores are done it is nearly dark. I had a solo cook out tonight, just a few burgers and iced tea. While they simmered in the little charcoal grill I ran the push mower around the front long. I love it. Even in the dark grass I watched the blades whip through the grass like a a hot knife in butter. I have a gas-mower but don't really feel the need to use it yet. Using the push mower means a little more effort and slower pace: but it is so pleasing to use I just do one part of the lawn a night. I am over the need for a lawn that looks like a golf course. I'm going for more of something along the lines of a one-cow afternoon pass.

This is how I get it all done: the farm, the job, the writing career. I combine my nervous nature with constant work. There is very little down time here. Even at an end-of-day cook out rabbits are fed between flipping burgers and water buckets are filled and carried to sheep and pony troughs. I do not sleep in on weekends. I do not stay out late on Friday nights. From the minute I get home till 9 PM I am a constant tornado of tasks and beasts. I slop buckets of water, race with ponies, collect eggs, check on mated rabbits, and plan a quick dinner from whatever I think is in the fridge or larder. I manage things in small spurts, keeping a log in my head of how the farm is working and what needs what. Then I throw a load of laundry in, turn on the dishwasher, and know that clothes won't be thrown in the dryer or dishes put away until morning. It's all done in stages, in order of importance. The ship runs tight enough that if I wanted to skip out a few hours no one would go hungry or thirsty or wither away: but I certainly can't leave the farm for a weekend jaunt to New York City. Someday, maybe. It's just a matter of planning and finding a sucker who wants to share this little world with me, but till then I say no thank you to Dairy animals and bottle-fed babes.

Mostly, running a farm alone is love. You put it first, and you learn to make due when the ghosts of perfection run off, and you sleep less. Along the way you make good friends, miss your mom and dad, and wake up with a border collie nuzzled into your chest. You dream about love, and take notes on turkey diseases, and you split your mind wide open to let in all the experiences and folks who hike on by.

Enough word magics. I'm going outside to play my fiddle on the porch. Some time soon fireflies will join me. On that day I'll sing.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


My next book is called BARNHEART, the story of going from a new Vermonter to a land-owning New Yorker. It covers three years of love and stubborness and the battle to fight my own disease. While it does go through a lot of the adventures I shared on the blog, it also goes deeper. Talking about loneliness, despair, failure, and being broke while trying to start a dream. It comes out late this fall, but you can pre-order this nice paperback any time. A couple dimes of each copy go to this little freehold, a constant work in progress, but never without grattitude.

Pre-Order a Copy Here!

rising out of beds

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

damn right

I had my first riding lesson in months tonight. I was on a lunge line with my trainer Hollie, who was seeing how I was shaping up after a winter out of the saddle. It could not have gone better. We were both surprised at how well I did! I was posting again, and with such ease. I felt relaxed, comfortable, in control. The 15 hand mare below me read my body, and I hers, and together we were a team. It was as effortless as sitting on the couch. By the end of my thirty-minute lesson I was able to take my mount from a trot, to a walk, to a complete stop without touching the reins. It was all done through my seat. Which is to say, my butt. I had never done anything like that before. I never made any coach that proud in a lifetime of childhood sports and college equestrian shows. It felt friggin' amazing.

Hollie McNeil is one hell of a trainer.

I owe a lot to Hollie, who took this tense, scared, and out-of-practice novice rider and turned her into someone who can talk to a horse with her butt—but I think I also owe my good lesson to getting through this past winter. It was rough. So much harder than the blog describes. The length, the damage, the broken down cars, the being broke, worrying about heating oil and fixing old trucks, scary nights when I was sure the roof would cave in or the barn would blow apart.... But now with this world bursting with green again and I feel like I overcame something big. I made it through my first year as a homeowner and never missed a mortgage payment, or ran out of heat. I kept the lights on, the internet working, and the trash pickup regular. Trains run on time around here.

Tonight I finally brushed myself off. I did it. I got through the winter of 2010/11 and came out the other end a lot stronger. Someone who can set up an electric fence, a sump pump, and has a plow guy on speed dial. There was no tension or fear on that horse tonight because I think I used it all up on far scarier things long ago. So tonight I simply gave into a black saddle. It was the best 35 bucks I spent in my entire life.

After my lesson I drove home to the farm in a blue dusk. There was still enough light to see the whole farm but still do chores under moving clouds and a half moon. I let the sheep from their day pen into the big pasture, where Jasper spends his day. Jasper always perks his ears up like a teakettle is going off when I open the gate and a dozen sheep rush into his turf. Then he rears up and runs with them. It's not herding, or cutting, or even a game of tag: just an equine and ovine romp to better grass. When I call his name he turns and comes right to me. Since he's only 11.2 hands we are nearly at eye level. His head is still above mine on flat ground, but he lowers it and rests it on my shoulder when I turn my back to him. If I walk away he follows and nudges my lower back with his nose. I pet his small head and tell him he's home.

Did I partially buy a scrappy cart pony because I wanted a bit of joy after this godawful winter? Because I was through? Ready to take back the reins?

Damn right I did.

Monday, May 9, 2011

two groups

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.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

the first outdoor market

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.