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 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?