Tuesday, June 28, 2011

greener pastures

i'm going to be a keynote speaker!

tired pride

Every single one of us snaps at some point. Stress, heartbreak, fear, rawhide—a trigger sets us off like buckshot. For Jazz and Annie it was a coveted piece of wet, masticated, slop they both desired to digest and the fur flied. Within minutes of bolting in the door from their morning walk, both dogs had their jaws clamped firmly on the other's left wrist, a wolfy version of No, it's MINE. Gibson, thinking this was the most exciting thing to happen since sheep, ran around them in circles, barking. The place was insane. I got Gibson out of the way (certain he'd be collateral damage in this war over natural resources) and then separated the snapping dogs. Not even into my first cup of coffee and the world is full of yelps, blood, and limping combatants. I threw the rawhide out, turned up the air conditioner, and told everyone to stop being assholes. Jazz and Annie slinked back to their respective places and Gibson held himself up like a sphinx, moon-faced in his crate.

I had no time to deal with Dog Wars. In a few hours my good friends Brett and Diane would be here from their respective homesteads to help me install 300 feet of fencing. It was past time for this work. The pasture needed expanding as soon as possible, since the half acre I did myself was eaten down to putting-green status and would be nothing but clay without some space and seed. So I bought all the t-posts and fence I could afford and Brett offered to bring his strong back and a come along. Diane offered the same, for her it was going to be as much a lesson in Fence 101 as it would be an opportunity to help a friend. I was armed, ready, excited for the day off work and in the field.

Brett showed up first, and within 45 minutes we had slammed in all the t-posts, and were (well, I) was huffing like mad. 83 degrees, full sun, heavy things to carry...I was feeling more out of shape than I felt all year. When we finished with the first phases, Brett said he wanted to pace out the perimeter to see how far we could go with the remaining supplies. As he hiked off into the waist-high raspberries and phlox, I tried not to throw up. 20-pounded posts and a half-mile uphill hike into the mountain forest wasn't exactly Jillian Michael's 20-Minute Shred. Jillian would've be ready to throw up too.

Brett came back with equally jarring and exciting news. "If you had another roll of wire, and another 20-or-so posts we could fence in this entire thing, the whole thing" he said, gesturing to every scrap of pasture I had left on my property. I looked up the hill at the acre and a half of open land, wild and un-grazed.

You're kidding me.

"Are you sure about that?" I asked, not really comprehending the work or land. We didn't have a tractor, or an ATV to haul things. Hell, I don't even own a garden cart yet. I thought we'd do a few hours of work, grill, clink beers and head back to our own farms. The sheep would have a little more grass, Jasper a little more room. But he was sure. he said in a month I'd be right back to where I started, and doing this all over. Why not just get it all done now?

He convinced me. With varying level of excitement we headed back in the Dodge to Tractor Supply for double the gear, my savings taking quite a hit. His motto was Buy Once Cry once—suck it up and get it all done while you had the people and plan to do half of it anyway. A little more money, a little more work, and the entire CAF pasture would be fenced. Two and a half acres for a dozen sheep and a pony to roam. Hot dang.

From 11AM till 6:30PM we ran over 650-feet of fence around an acre and a half of new pasture. I sweated in places I didn't realize could sweat, like between my fingers and the sides of my nose. Walking around was a test of endurance, since it is a brushy opening carved into a mountain side. Everyone worked hard, without complaint, and tempers remained calm and pleasant. I was amazed at their charity, and their kindness. If any of them ever need a fence, I will be there in a homesteader flash (meaning so as I find someone to watch the animals). The day was long. Between the work, heat, and landscape all of us were ravaged, Brett especially, who by default of size and woodland education was the one doing the hardest work of us all. My hero.

When we were done, we didn't release the flock and Jasper just yet. We discovered dumps of old nails, hardware, and long-forgotten projects and trash amongst the new grazing space. These had to be fenced off from the sheep and pony, less they die of punctures and tetanus. So that project was put on hold for my own time, and the three of us headed down the mountain back to the farm house. Dinner was well earned. I was so hungry I shook.

We ate grass-fed burgers, milkshakes, and I clinked those wonderful dark ales. Brett stretched out under the sun. I strummed a few clumsy banjo tunes and Diane enjoyed her shake. I couldn't pay them, but I did give her one of my roosters for her own flock, an Ameraucana named Upset. Brett would go home with a large Bourbon Red poult. I now live a life where farm birds are well-received gifts of thanks.

Diane and Upset drove off, and Brett and I headed up to give the herd a shot at their new world. After some fencing work around the danger zones, we opened the gate and Jasper trotted up, almost shocked at his luck.

He galloped as fast as he could, throwing his head. I had never seen a pony so damn happy. Brett and I watched him, both with joy and worry. We had all found a few trip-ups out there, and I had done my best to note and cover holes, but it wasn't perfect. But Jasper was fine, more than fine. He ran with such perfect pace he looked like a wild mustang in the Rockies. "This looks like some wild horse running around Montana?!" Smiled Brett, both of us looking at the wide space, and how much more now belonged to the farm. The sheep all around us ate mouthfuls with bliss, and would continue to do so for another hour before they returned to their pen to save them from bloat or lameness from gopher holes. I lead them all back to their night keep, swelling with tired pride. This place, was becoming more and more to be. More than a farm, more than Montana.

It was becoming home.

wait so long

a long day

Yesterday started with a dogfight and ended in Montana.

I will go to work with a body so sore, people will ask me who died.

It was wonderful.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

book swap!

Hey folks, I have an idea. I want to do a community book swap. The theme is how-to-farm. All the books shared in this swap should be useful information on how to grow food: be it animal or vegetable. It'll go like this. The first person to comment (with their email address) will be emailed by me tonight and I'll get their address. This week, I will mail a book from my library and it is theirs to keep. I'll include a letter about me and my farm, telling them about my own dreams and goals. They will in turn contact the second person to comment in this post and do the same for them. And so on.

Everyone who comments on this post with an email address, saying they are in on the gift-giving will receive a book and a letter from the commenter above them. It is your responsibility to email the person after you to collect their mailing information, and perhaps ask what they need information on? But all of us will take part in sharing information and our dreams. It's an exercise in hope, faith, and goodwill. The last person to comment, I hope, will send me a book. This way the circle is complete and all of us can look forward to a happy package in the coming days, a letter from a fellow sufferer of Barnheart, a friend. It's what the mail is supposed to be used for.

break a seal, hold a blossom

I spent most of yesterday in the kitchen. It was a warm, sticky day. Outside was overcast and calling for storms but inside the house was thumping with good smells and work. I was canning strawberry jam and dill pickles with Cathy Daughton and her three boys, who had driven up from their stead in White Creek to help out with the effort and stay for dinner.

I had made plenty of jam in my day—and have a killer fridge pickle system that produces crisp, sweet pickles overnight—but this was my first time making dill pickles and canning them in the water bath canner. I'd like to thank the people at Ball, who made a pre-mixed dill pickle packet which I picked up at the IGA for two dollars. I poured it into a saucepan with 6 cups of water and 2 1/2 cups of white vinegar and brought it to a boil. Then we simply poured it over the just-cut cucumber spears, sealed the tops with the metal rings, and let them boil for fifteen minutes. That was it. Mix, boil, cover, seal, and can. It made jam making sean like advanced chemistry.

While we chatted and the canner bubbled in the hot kitchen (nearly 80 degrees compared to the rest of the farm house's 68) I slid some bread in the oven to go with the meal I had started preparing at 7AM. After morning farm chores I had set a pork loin in the slow cooker with apple juice, bbq sauce, and honey and let it go all day. For ten hours it simmered and the meat went from red to white and then red again from the sauces and juices bathing with its own fats. It is almost July and I am still enjoying that winter pig who lived a happy life in a warm barn while the worst winter in years slammed the north country. We butchered her here at the farm on a mild January day under the big maple tree. The white snow was stained with blood and gore, but now it is a green, lush place where I sit with Gibson and read. You might think you slipped into another dimension, seeing those two scenes side-by-side. On this small farm it was nothing more than a sharp, cold gasp followed by a sigh. Life and death are what keep a farm's heart going.

So Pig cooked while my homemade bread rose in the oven. The kitchen smelled like heaven. Butter-topped loaves, simmering pots of sweet strawberries and tart dills, and a porker bubbling under a glass lid. When the work of putting jars up for winter was done, we cleaned up the kitchen and then handed out plates. Now it was time to dig in. Cathy had brought lettuce from her garden and made a salad of her Buttercrunch that was good enough to be a meal alone. We sided our plates with the so-tender pork it fell apart under our forks. We buttered bread out of the oven, slapped some jam on it for good measure, and drank down cold well water or iced tea. It was an amazing combination. Slow cooking a tender piece of pork at low heat had made it taste so amazing right then and there I decided for certain I would be getting another Yorkshire come fall. I went back for seconds.

It was worth skipping lunch, and without realizing it the meal spanned three seasons of work on a small holding of land. It included all the people who were part of the life and death of one Pig I scratched on the head every day. It included Cathy's garden, which she raised from seeds on her own land. It included hand-picked strawberries and cucumbers from the farm stand just down the road. There was King Arthur bread, Cabot butter, and honey in that pork from local bees. I am savoring and adoring this local food month. It has stopped me from ordering Chinese or Pizza in town, even at my most-weak moments. It has included more meals with friends, more time refining skills, and trips to farms and dairies all over my adopted county.

We talked and laughed, then when all were breathing a little deeper and hunger gone, the boys helped clean up and then we all went out for evening farm chores to the sound of distance thunder. We fed the sheep and Jasper, took care of all the souls in the rabbitry (now 7 adult rabbits and 7 kits), fed and watered the chickens, and came inside just as sky started seriously considering a storm. We ate warm strawberry pie (collateral damage from having extra defrosted berries and some pie crust from last weekend's quiche in the freezer). As wind picked up and the hour hit 6 (late for a family with a flock of chickens— garden, a hive and a beef steer to tend too—we said goodbye and I thanked them for their help and company. The Daughton's left with ruby and green jars and some young sunflowers I planted from seed.

Put up food and the start for a big yellow flower... talk about optimistic gifts. Those of us who grow food expect to be around a little longer. Every canning afternoon or seed in the ground is a prayer for time, silent in voice but screaming in action, a happy, little desperate plea to stick around this place long enough to break a seal and hold a blossom.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Some nights it is one dinner that makes an entire year's worth of work totally worth it. Tonight was one of those nights.

five more are coming!

Swedish Flower Hens are becoming a favorite around here. Gentle, kind, quiet, and striking in their appearance, these medium size laying hens from the land of tiny wooden horses are just darling. Five more are coming to live at Cold Antler, a barter with Greenfire Farms down in Florida. So these imports are joining us in the North Country, and I can't wait to get the call from the post office. They always come during the work week to the Arlington Post Office near work. My boss is so used to me heading out at lunch for livestock pickups it no longer even raises an eyebrow. Not a bad trait for a homesteader's manager to have. Not bad at all.

Here's more on Swede's from the Greenfire Farms website:

At 2:35 in the afternoon of June 17, 2010, a jumbo jet from Stockholm landed at JFK airport in New York carrying in its vast metal belly a most unusual cargo: 15 Swedish flower hens. This breed, for more than half a millenium isolated in small villages in Sweden, had made the leap across the Atlantic for the first time as part of Greenfire Farms’ ongoing program of introducing rare chickens to America. Until now, very few people in the world (including most Swedes) have ever had the opportunity to see living examples of this breed, let alone the ability to own and raise them.

Swedish flower hens emerged as a landrace several hundred years ago, the product of a now forgotten mix of primitive breeds that were brought to Sweden by settlers and conquerors. As a landrace, this breed was not intentionally created by a breeder carefully selecting birds as part of a structured breeding program. Rather, this breed was created through natural selection and random pairings as the breed adapted to the climate and conditions of the Sydskånska Plain in southern Sweden...Read the rest at GFF

i loved these books!

There are a lot of different directions you can take homesteading, but all of them require some sort of livestock. To me, it is the animals that turn backyards into farms and suburban back lots into homesteads. Without the heartbeats you have a garden, and that is a beautiful thing in itself, but a homestead is a little scrappier, a little louder, and it comes with feathers, hooves, paws, and fur.

The Backyard Homestead's Guide to Raising Farm Animals is becoming a favorite around here. I got it because I wanted to see how it would be different than the original Backyard Homestead (the book it's a spin-off of) and was so happy with it. I think it's a fine introduction for anyone jumping into this life and already has a crate of chickens in the back of their sedan. But who I really suggest it for, is you dreamers out there—folks who have never held their own chicks or put on a bee veil. This explains in friendly detail exactly what goes into starting with poultry, cows, goats, rabbits, sheep and pigs so you have a really good idea what you're getting into. Illustrated, charted, and with plenty of easy-to-read sidebars it's what the beginner needs to digest information in understandable doses. Also, you can read it as several smaller books by animal. Not into pigs? Fine, skip to the sheep chapter. Allergic to bees? No problem, you don't need to read it to get what it takes to raise fiber rabbits. Grab it.

Another book I want to mention, for those of you who have near-Amish dreams of off grid living is Back to Basics. This book has been around forever, originally a Reader's Digest Compendium, but now it's back and better than ever. When I was ten-years-old my grandmother had a copy of this in her house and I used to page through it totally enthralled at people making maple syrup and working with horses, but after a while I would put it down and join her for tea and The Golden Girls. Flash forward a few decades later and my editor finds the same book at a book sale, and sends it as a gift. My heart melted. I made black tea the way my grandmother made it for me (two scoops lemon, two scoops sugar) and sat down to page through it again. My heart then beat like crazy. This book I read as a child, like a picture book, was now showing me things I was doing everyday of my life...

Back to Basics is out again, a newer version but the same rectangle and illustrations it always had before. This is a big ol' bible of serious homestead living. I mean, it teaches you how to make roads with a draft horse and an old metal barrel. Roads!?! I mean, what back-to-the-land book covers road construction via horsepower? It explains searching for and buying land, building a dulcimer from scratch, and how to chop up a lamb shank (and a lot more). It's another seriously great book for those of you dealing with a very primal diagnose of Barnheart. It's not anywhere near as detailed on animals as the title above, but if you're just looking through it as a catalog of inspiration, you gotta have one. Check it out from your library, or better yet, just check your grandmother's bookcase.

Friday, June 24, 2011

ashes to fences

Last night was one of those nights that work rolls off you and just happens. You start one task, then another, and then in the middle of task A you see a bucket and start filling it with water so you can add task C (bring Jasper fresh water) to the original two. Before you know it, you've gone through several alphabets and it's dark.

I came inside muddy and sweaty, but ready for a beer and some time to unwind. I was tired, just a couple hours of sleep the night before and a full day of office, ending with a fever of effort. Time for bed.

I was in that blissful state of "almost", not awake or asleep, when I heard my least favorite sound of June...


It was Ashe, the ewe-lamb born this spring right after Knox. She's one of the two ewe lambs here, and not anywhere near as savvy as her peer, Pidge. I knew it was Ashe soon as that bleat hit the farm house window. Ashe has somehow learned to open her mouth before baaing, which removes any sort of "B" sound to the beginning of it. Instead she belts out a long, alto, cry with a light middle eastern accent. It's her voice. No one else's. I know that flock. And I knew she was stuck. "Get yourself out this time" I mumbled into the covers, exhausted as sin. But the bleats kept on coming, each one more desperate.

She's at this weird age where her head and horns fit through the fence, but she doesn't know how to back out. So she sticks her Cocker Spaniel sized head through to eat grass, and then tries to back out and her horns won't let her. You're left with a confused, moaning, sheep. She needs me to walk up there and pull her out.

So I get out of bed, get dressed, and look for a flashlight. I slide on boots and tell the dogs to relax and walk over to the first gate. There I unplug the fence, vault over, and walk up the steep hill to the high gate, where I walk through and Jasper comes trucking over. He has watched me do this so many times with Ashe he could do it himself. I gently pull the horns through the wire and let her go, what a racket.

So tonight when she got stuck again (and this will happen until she outgrows it or finally gets zapped from the charger) I decided she would have to pay for her bail out. So when that loud AAAHHK came in through the window I went to the fridge for the dewormer and an oral syringe and after her rescue dosed her with the first of three days of worm treatment. I'm rewiring and building more pasture area Monday, so timing is everything. Three days of stuck heads and three days of deworming. So it goes.

P.S. If you're in the Veryork area and have time to spare Monday, there will be a work party that day for certain. Fence building, pasture expanding, electric wiring...come learn all that stuff from the person who's already made all the mistakes. I'll cook a chicken dinner with Saranac beer and serve ice cream with my own strawberry sauce. Email if you can help, from 11AM-4PM.

moths and mud

Discovered this fine Luna Moth when I stepped outside this damp morning. Last summer it seemed as though moths were legion around here, but this was the first large moth I've seen this year. Where did they go?

I have a lot of news to share, all of it good, but I need to wait to make it official. I have plenty to keep me busy till then. I have to start some serious work on the pasture, which is starting to worry me. Yesterday's rain storm was so violent it sent streams of mud and topsoil down the hill in the sheep pen. It needs to be reseeded, and while I know it's too late and the wrong time of year to do that, I don't need grass to feed a nation: I need grass to keep the soil in place. So the only option I have within my budget is to move everyone out of there, set up a fence and portable shelter, reseed HQ, and expand the pasture even more to allow more grass to keep their minds and mouths busy while nature heals up. This is a monumental task. I'll need help pounding fence posts and setting up the new fence, not to mention at least $400 dollars in supplies. To me, this is a huge amount of money. I have it, but it comes out of the chimney fund.

This post sounds heavy, but don't think grim thoughts. It will happen, the work always gets done. Slowly, surely, one task at a time. I can buy the t-posts this paycheck, and a big bag of seed, and have it paid for and ready to use as soon as tomorrow morning. When some more cash comes along: I'll buy the 300 feet of field fence and have it forklifted into the back of the Dodge. Strong hands will come out of the woodwork to make part two happen, or maybe Jasper can drag it for me to the top of the field and I can do it all myself over a full weekend instead of three hours with three grown men helping...

Anyway, it's not a matter if this big pasture project will happen, but how.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

i've got worms!

My red composters came in the mail today! Yes, you read that correctly. I ordered a box of worms (500) mailed from a worm farm for the purpose of turning food scraps into soil faster. Time to set up my Worm Factory and get them working on some kitchen scraps. More soon!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

a community of wet

I left work in a hurry. It was pouring rain, the steady kind that had no plans of letting up. I drove home, Gibson standing at shotgun, and did my best not to speed. A big red truck in front of us was so impatient it sped up in a roar and passed two cars ahead of him in an angry jaunt that made me nervous. He was passing them on a sharp turn he could not see around in fair weather, much less a downpour. I looked over at Gibson, who was amazed at the noise and splashing ahead of us. "Someone better be dying or being born in that truck...." was all I said. Gibson lost interest as it pissed ahead.

I got home and pulled into the driveway, greeted by my two mallards. They were splashing in the big pool puddle they love so much. A place I suppose many trucks parked over the years. I honked the horn and they waddle-bitched away.

Wanting to get my hands dirty, feel sweaty, and be of physical use after a day of sitting at a computer—I went inside for my boots. I was wearing Chacos, my three-season footwear of choice, but I learned a few years ago that rain chores in Chacos just left you feeling the definition of squalor. Inside were wool socks and Muck boots. First good decision of the day.

I walked the dogs, fed them their kibble, and headed back outside to do the rounds. The rain kept slamming, but in a windless, empty way that didn't make you move any faster than usual. So I fed the wet pony, dumped more feed into the chickens' big feeder, and refilled all the rabbits' water and pellet holsters. I checked on my first doe's litter, the kits were about ready to be weaned. All seven were plump and happy, looking wonderful. I had some brand new WARE metal cages to move them into a pair at a time, and would allow them to range on grass soon as I figured out a movable contraption. Here, it is the best way to raise meat rabbits, on grass. I'd figure the logistics later.

I turned around in the barn to check on the Pumpkin broody hen in the wooden baskets. She was sitting differently, hovering? Chicks....Has to be chicks. I thought to myself and lifted her up as she snapped at me. Under her were two just-born babes, still damp from the egg. One light and one dark. The fact I was finding them after a day in an air-conditioned, sterile, office was not lost on me. Balance is everywhere if you take the trouble to notice it.

Chicks under wing of their mother, it was time to feed the stars of Cold Antler Farm. The sheep would get a bale, of course, but I wanted to walk it up the hill and feed them in the shelter of their shed, which is now falling apart in ways I can not repair. I think I will have to build a new one, or get an expert on hand. But for now, it stands strong and I hoisted that bale up over a shoulder and carried it to the flock. Using my own technique of removing twine without cutting any, I freed the hay and scattered it in civil piles. The front wall fell down, the particle board rotted off the nails, my double coat of paint was useless. It was covered in mud and sheep scat, but I lifted it up and set it against the back wall anyway. The chompers didn't even crane their heads to watch me vallet their new three-sided shelter.

I was soaked, but smiling. My hands covered in mud, hay shreds, sheep poo and dirt. I had accomplished my sweaty goal, and took a minute to look outside the barn door at the rainy place I was not only living in, but a member of. We were the community of wet. I was happy. I had waited all day for this.

I thought of coworkers coming home from the office and making that silly sprint indoors to avoid the rain. Rain was an inconvenience, something that ruins plans and makes for bad hair. I was thrilled the already over-grazed pasture was getting some water. I needed the grass to not turn to dirt for just a few more weeks till I could buy the supplies and start pounding fence posts. I thought about this as I wiped the sheep crap on the pants that not an hour ago rested on an ergonomic desk chair. I was more than embracing nature. I was practically compost.

Going through this list of repairs, witnessing births, planning deaths, and building fences in my head: I thought about a few recent conversations me and my friend, Jon, had been having. We've been talking about who we were, and how we're perceived. Jon thinks that above all, I am a writer. That if the farm was gone, I would still write, always write. I insist I am a farmer, and that if given the task to write forever and never raise food again, I would shrivel up into a miserable snakeskin in the fetal position. "Farmer" regardless of your stipulations or definitions of the term: was who I needed to be, who I already was. My happiness is tied to self-reliance, growing food, and raising animals best I can. But how I sing about it, is writing, and he's got me pegged there. If thrown into a jail cell I would write about that.

He's right. I am a writer. I'm right, too. I'm also a farmer. In that cell I'd also be hoarding food scraps to make compost, drying tomato seeds on the windowsill, and making pots out of plastic cups. I'm both, and will remain both long as I have any say in the matter. And I say that with a big ol' swollen heart, barely kept inside if it wasn't for the fiddle strings, baling twine and crow feathers keeping it politely behind my ribs.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


I think it's equally fitting and sad that Microsoft Word did not recognize the word farrier.

checking in on eating in

Not a bad crop of potatoes on the way! My late-spring afternoon of humid-weather hoeing and planting has brought quite the bounty of happy little potato plants popping up. Their garden is crude. A chicken-safe boundary of leftover electric fence posts, chicken wire, and a piece of old metal roofing for a door: but it is serving me well, aesthetics aside. By late summer/early fall the leaves will start to wither and below ground will be a bounty of fresh taters. I can not wait to enjoy them new and put the rest up for winter. Not a bad outcome for the spuds I bought in the grocery store and forgot to use and left to seed. Harvesting these will be a good day!

My month of local eating has been quite the experiment for me, and so far I'd say it's a success. I have been happily busy planting, growing, and harvesting my own vegetables and animals as well as making trips to other farms and farm stores for things I can't/don't produce. It is taking more time, money, and effort than conventional eating, but worth it. Hands down, worth it.

Hell, it just plain tastes better!

I haven't been a purist. The things I "cheat" with are exotics like coffee and spices, or basic condiments. Also, food presented to me by guests or hosts. For example, I ate some homemade mac and cheese with local cheese and non-local pasta when friends brought it to a cookout at the farm Saturday night. I had organic veggies at a friend's BBQ that were not from around here. I will never turn down what the guest/host offers based on proximity, but these events are few and far between. So for the majority of the food I have eaten has been from Washington County, and I am in awe of the variety and reasonable prices if people are willing to seek it out and cook it at home.

This week I made a small pizza with onions and garlic from the garden, Cabot cheese, and artisanal sauce from New Hampshire. I made free-range beef burgers last night on the grill. I have fallen into the habit of making double everything, so that I can stock the fridge with leftovers for the work week. When I forget to do that, I'm left eating local jerky and a piece of local cheese from the gas station for lunch, (not the healthiest option). Today we're doing some rogue grilling outside the office, and I brought a big burger I pattied up last night with my own onions, garlic, eggs, and some Veryork breadcrumbs. It should be pretty tasty. I'll eat it between two pieces bread I bought from Wayside. The ketchup will not be homemade, nor the mustard, but the bulk of the meal will be. I'm not into the details, but the spirit of the venture is to make the main course as local as possible.

So why am I doing this? Jumping through all these food hoops? Because seasonality has become sacrament to me, and it is how I want to live my life. I don't want to import my meals from far away, I want to savor what home tastes instead. There is honesty in eating the food that is produced around you, that rises and falls with the turning of the year. It is an agricultural economy that needs our help, and supports our neighbors and landscape. It is how our grandparents ate before the world filled with fluorescent-lit supermarkets selling contrived food. (That's not too strong a word either.) It is wholesome in a world who bought the lie that convenient was more important than anything else. In truth, convenience is killing us.

I like getting my haul from the farmers market and cracking open cookbooks or combing the internet for new recipes. Some things are becoming ritualistic: like the love/hate relationship I have with zucchini and the inevitable batches of Zuc chocolate chip cookies that come out of it. Same goes for the pumpkins on the vine in July turning into jack-o-lanterns at the great Holiday, Halloween. I want to know the stories, history, and folklore around the food that fed the people of this part of the world and soak in it. I want to be a part of the heritage. It's mine now too.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Finally inside from an evening of work that started at 5:30 and kept me going nearly four hours. Nothing of great import went down, but it sure was a lot of maintaining and everyday business. Hay was taken off the truck and set by the side of the house, out of any possible rain. The fence was acting wonky, so I walked the line looking for places where metal might touch electric wires. Water was taken to nearly-empty tubs, lawn mowed, hedges trimmed, dinner was cooked on the grill. I have been getting into this routine of non-stop work in my waking hours, and it seems to be the only time I truly focus when I'm not writing. I do the work, and when I step back onto the road and look at the place, it looks like sheep eating by a fence, a truck parked, and a normal lawn. I wonder if people driving by know it takes an army inside a woman to keep it from tumbling into a wreck.

Very sore and tired tonight. Looking forward to a good night's sleep with my black dog.

P.S. Thank you Brett, I must say that was the most unique gift anyone has ever sent me for a pre-birthday present. I'll put it to good use, eventually!

Come to Sheep 101 this September!

Sunday September 4th, the Sheep 101 workshop will be held here at Cold Antler. It will be a full day on the farm, from 10AM - 3PM to talk about the basics of starting a small flock for spinning, meat, or both. It will be geared towards the small scale shepherd, and really help those of you just considering a small flock. Come and learn about first and second cut hay, feeding, housing, fences, and resources for livestock guardians and herding dogs. We'll talk about our own farm goals and dreams, swap stories and recipes, and you'll get a chance to grab some wool, learn to trim feet, and learn about the shepherd's year. All meals are catered here at the farm with fresh, local, foods and the environment is casual and friendly. I hope you can make it! Sal is waiting to meet you.

Coming from out of town? Contact the Cambridge Hotel for lodging!

For details, email jenna@itsafarwalk.com

Sunday, June 19, 2011

working with jasper

When people find out I have a pony, I am always asked why I have him. As if owning a pony is as ridiculous and random as telling people I just made my first down payment on an underwater trampoline. I happily reply, "He's a cart horse!" and while I'm standing there, beaming like a new mother, the person who asked me what the hell I was doing with the haysucker in the first place just has more questions... What do you mean by "cart"? Does he drive you around town? Is he like one of the Amish buggy horses? Are you one of those Peak Oil Survivalist types? Do you still have a car? You do know you don't have to feed a garden tractor, right?

I stopped telling most people I have a pony.

So what am I doing with a small horse? Jasper is here to be my equine ATV on the farm. He'll haul firewood and help with some mild logging work. He'll cart sheep manure and other unsavories on the back pasture to be turned into new soil. He'll be a way to drive down the mountain into town on a Sunday, maybe. But above all that he's my introduction to working with real horsepower. Someday I will be plowing and harvesting behind large Shires, but I'm not there yet. One day I'll drive my own horsey version of an F-350, but right now I need to learn now to drive stick on a used Geo. So it goes.

Jasper was great. He let me fumble through the harnessing without complaint. He stood still while I buckled and snapped, noticing what needs to be tightened, re-tooled, or replaced. He's an odd shape. Taller than most ponies but slighter in frame. So I did my best to mimic the book open on the grass next to us. Farming with Horses, which tried to explain how a basic driving harness should fit a pony. You know you're new to driving when your how-to books have hoof marks on them...

After a few trips walking on lead in his halter under the weight of the harness, I attached a light weight to it. (A small log held to his traces with baling twine.) He drug it like it was nothing at all. Feeling brave, I ran the reins through the loops in the surcingle (new vocab word for me too) and walked behind him. I clicked my tongue and asked him to walk.


To stand behind any horse in harness, feel the leather reins in both hands, and be pulling any sort of load was nothing short of magical. A comfortable, oddly-familiar, magical that felt normal to me. Like something I was always supposed to do. We walked straight across the pasture a few times until Jasper realized he didn't have a bit in his mouth, and then walked pretty much wherever he wanted. So I stopped the lesson shortly after this video was filmed. No need working on bad habits. But hot dang, what a rush all that was. There will be more to come, and when I can save up the coin for a work wagon, you'll really see something!

easy strawberry jam

Yesterday morning I was out in the fields of Clearbrook Farm in neighboring Shaftsbury, Vermont picking berries. U-pick operations are fairly popular around here, and for localvores there is nothing better than hopping in the car and ripping your produce right off the stem. It was a muggy, overcast morning, but a lot of folks were out. All ages and shapes were among those red rubies, some filling their baseball hats and others like me loading up cardboard flats. I had plans for jam. That afternoon I'd take these babies and cook them over a sweet-smelling stove top. Mmmm.

Making Strawberry Jam is easy. You just need a package of powdered pectin (you can get this at the grocery store), lemon juice, sugar, and 2 quarts of strawberries. You fill a saucepan with the de-stemmed berries, and mash them with a potato masher till you have a lumpy goop. Turn on the stovetop and add in your package of pectin, 1/4 cup lemon juice, and stir it together. Let it rise to a rolling boil (stirring occasionally as you get there so nothing burns to your pan) and once it's boiling add your sugar a cup at a time. I add 3 1/2 cups and mix it in till it feels dissolved.

Once all ingredients are in, and the sugar got a good minute at a full boil, I move it off the stove and ladle it into sterilized jars. They are boiled in the canner for ten minutes and then pulled out to cool on a cloth on the stove. When you hear that loud POP of the lid sealing shut, you know you did it right.

The whole process takes about 40 minutes, and I made 5 pint jam jars with those 2 quarts of berries. That's a lot of jam, folks. That's like picking up 5 jars of smuckers at the grocery store and putting them in your home cabinet. I bet you wouldn't go through that all in nearly a year. Not a bad deal for $6.50 in organic U-pick strawberries!

For detailed instructions, go to freshpreserving.com, or pick up a copy of the famous Blue Book of Preserving, at any hardware or farm store. It covers everything and only costs less then a box of jam jars. Enjoy!

what a haul!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

faking it

Ben Hewitt, the homesteading author of The Town That Food Saved, posted this on his blog yesterday and it is wonderful. A perfect example of the kind of perception many small-scale food producers get from larger operations. I liked his take on it, and wanted to share it.

Faking it By Ben Hewitt
Not so long ago, I was at the home of a real farmer. I know he was a real farmer, because he told me so. The implication, I believe (though I can’t be sure) was that I am not a real farmer, because I do not earn all or even the majority of my living from a farming enterprise. For what it’s worth, this is not the first person I’ve heard articulate such a belief. Or even the third.

Leaving aside the question of why it even matters who is and who is not a real farmer, and why anyone would feel compelled to claim such a title for him or herself, I couldn’t help but ponder what factors must be present to make a farmer real.

I’m pretty sure our neighbor’s definition is income-based. That is, if you make your living “farming,” then you are a “real farmer.” Fair enough, I suppose. But I know this person’s enterprise pretty well; I know that his family purchases the vast majority of their food at a retail outlet. I know that they don’t keep a garden, or process any of the milk they produce into butter or cheese or yogurt. They don’t raise their own meat. What they do, basically, is specialize in the production of a single food (milk), which they primarily sell in bulk. This arrangement provides them with the money necessary to purchase the essentials they do not produce for themselves. This is, in his mind at least, real farming.

Last year I was at a book talk, and someone asked me how much of my income is derived from our farm. “Oh, not much,” I answered, because it’s not. Most years, it’s not much more than 15%.

“But did you include the food you grow for your family in that figure?” He asked.

Well, no, actually. I hadn’t.... Click this to read the rest on Ben's Blog

eating in, while eating out.

Dinner parties in the country are a little different, at least in the circles I frequent. Today after work I was picking up my host's gift for the kind invitation, but instead of staring at a wall of merlot, I was standing in a drizzle outside the Stannard's Farm stand looking at dwarf fruit trees. See, the Daughton family famously abstains from the hooch, and for the same price as a 2009 bottle of wine I could buy them a Cortland Apple. A bottle of wine lasts a night, but an apple tree is something their grandchildren could scuttle up into and eat in pies. What can I say? I'm in it for the longevity. Sold.

I loaded the tree into the back of the truck with some help from the woman running the market that day. We got the tree in, in no time, but stood back and watched the storm rolling in together. Chatting about weather, her kid's school field trip, watching the low clouds swirl into the valley...gorgeous Eventually I wiped the scruff off my hands onto my pants and said something about feeding the animals. She gave me her blessing "you better rush home before they're all to scared to eat from this storm" and we parted ways with waves and thanks. I bought a pint of Battkenkill Valley's chocolate milk for the hell of it. Delicious.

The Daughton's live on five acres in the nearby town of Whitecreek. Their home is nestled in a series of rolling hills along the Vermont border that make it look more like Western England in 1876 than modern America. They live across the street from State Line Hill Farm, a sunflower, corn, and alternative energy farm where the man who runs it works on various Biodiesels. I'm making none of this up. In their backyard are gardens, a beehive, a barn, a beef steer, 14 chickens, and they recently had a horse until they sold it. Quite the enterprise!

Tim and Cathy, and their songs Holden, Ian, and Seth have become close friends. We met last fall when Tim, Holden and I went with our mutual friend Steve out to go pheasant hunting along route 313. After that, I babysat their cow Tasty when he was just a small calf. From those two encounters, a mutual love of farming brought us together. Since then Seth has taught me how to play marbles, Ian and I have traded livestock tips (Tasty is after all, his project), and last night Tim and Holden helped show me how to load and fire a 12 gauge shotgun safely. Next pheasant season I will be using my own gun.

I didn't ask, nor certainly expect, that they would prepare a local meal based on a girl's internet promise, but they were entirely into it. In celebration of my local food month, they put together an amazing early summer meal. We feasted on grassfed beef kabobs from steers that ate pasture the next town over, spinach salad from their garden, strawberry's from Clearbrook Farm, Local bread, and a summer berry pie from Grandma Miller up in the Green Mountains near Londonderry. It was amazing. Cold well water was the only drink during the meal, and it was perfect too. After dinner we sat on the porch with coffee and Tux (their neighbor's cat) and took in the day. A perfect way to start the weekend. I'm so grateful to have these people just a truck drive away.

Today the Eating In challenge continues, and the mission of this lovely Saturday is Strawberries. It's the first true fruit of the Upper Hudson's season and there is a U-pick operation literally two miles down the road. I plan on getting a haul of fresh berries off that farm, and then taking a trip into town to get some new glass jars for canning. I'll be canning enough jam to last the year and still give away to friends. For a few dollars a pint (of berries, cents per jam jar) I'll have my fruit preserves set aside for long as I can stand them. (More on this easy recipe and canning later today.)

I will be explaining all the reasons behind this, but first I wanted to suggest some group reading/listening. Either by paper or audiobook: Barbara Kingsolvers Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is the story of one family's year of living entirely local. (Makes you think very differently about bananas...) and the other is the famed Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, which follows the story behind four meals. Both of these books (which I listen to on my iPod all the time still, while outside on the farm or in my truck) have been huge influences towards starting this farm. I didn't read either until 2009, but have had them sitting near me on a shelf ever since. If you haven't read them, start, you'll be glad you did. And if you're like me and have about 40 minutes a day you can actually sit down and read, load them into your MP3 players and take them on your farm chores, runs, errands in your car, or whatever. Barbara and Mike know their way around a garden, that's for certain.

Friday, June 17, 2011

my haunted farm house?

I live alone, and that usually that doesn't bother me. I like it. But living alone in an 1860's farmhouse can sometimes be creepy. I am a fairly superstitions person, and a lover of all things myth. I own more books on folklore than I do on dogs. It's in my blood, too. I hail from a Gypsy/Slovak bloodline. As a kid I devoured ghost stories. My brother is a professional Horror Movie Critic.

My mother is the same way. When I was buying the house, my parents came with me to check it out, during the tour my mom leaned over to the realtor and asked, "Is this place haunted?" She was serious as a heart attack. To her, it was as practical a question as how old the roof was. He assured us he never heard about ghosts in the house. Pass.

Regardless, buying an old house means you inherit a lot of history, a lot of stories. One thing that bothers me in the room I use as my office, upstairs. Too small to be a bedroom, but too large to be a closet: I made this room my writing space. Just enough space for my grandfather's old desk, a drafting table, and a dog bed. The window from this room looks over the pasture too, so inspiration is a 18--degree turn away. But what creeps me out about this room is this: there's a boarded-up hole in the wall, poorly replastered, and a lock on the outside of the door....

So no, I have not opened the hole, and I have no idea why it was made to shut from the outside. I don't want to know.

One night I got the scare of my life. I was outside on the sheep hill, up by the sheds. It was too dark to do anything without a flashlight, so I was using a headlamp (tip from you guys) and grateful for my two, free hands to lug hay flakes. From that stately vantage point I can look down on my farmhouse and see second-story windows with ease, look right into them. While I was up there placing some fresh bedding in the sheep's keep, and the beam from my headlamp was panning around the small structure.

The headlamp made all the sheep's eyes turn into that eerie green animals eyes shine in the dark. I thought it was cool, adorable almost, to see those ghostly eyes and hear a loud BAAAHHH coming from them. Nothing that baas is scary to me. Nice try.

So I was feeling pretty content up there, and I liked moving the bright light from my head all over the place, like a little agrarian ray gun. Until I looked back towards the house. Up in the second story office, a 6-foot tall figure of a man, all black, was standing there staring at me. When you are a single woman in an old house, this is unsettling, at best. I tuned my beam to it, and the eyes glowed back. Holyshitholyshitholyshit I panicked to myself, grabbing a hold of Sal for some sort of stability. The man kept staring, and like a drunk, waved his upper torso back and forth, leaning into the windowsill. Was my place haunted? Whatever was in that window, it wasn't human. It was solid, but slinking, and easily six-feet or taller. I watched it slowly tilt its head, the eyes glowing as they turned at a 45-degree angle. I almost peed.

Then the ghost barked.

It was Gibson. He wanted to keep an execetutive eye on me watching his sheep. So he ran up the stairs to the office, jumped up so his feet were on the windowsill and his paws were on the sash, and balanced himself there like a creepy-ass acrobat. Without any lights on, save for a dim hall light, his upright position on two legs and black coat easily made him appear to be a dark, 6-foot-tall person. I felt like a moron, but laughed all the way down the hill.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

30 days of eating in: the rules

I'll be eating in, and writing about it, for the next four weeks. I'm doing this for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I would like to make this change permanent, and want to give it a dedicated jump start to see how much effort/extra money it might cost me. So for the next 29 days (yesterday was my first day) I will be The project entails the following rules.

1. Eat only local meats and vegetables.
2. Bake your own bread from locally-milled flour.
3. Drink only locally roasted coffee
4. Source local dairy products
5. No soda, candy, or any sort of junk foods.
6. Eat three meals a day.
7. Condiments, cooking oils, and spices are permitted.
8. Drink at least 60 oz. of water a day.

Today I had some granola for breakfast, a cookie and two VT beef sticks for lunch. Tonight I planned for pizza and was excited about it. I found sauce from New Hampshire, and cheese from Vermont, and the crust I would bake right here and cover it with basil from my garden...but the oven caught on fire.

I didn't have the energy to clean it, and then cook from scratch, so I am making a dish out of what's left of my homegrown new potatoes and leftover meat from last night. I'll drink it down with some Woodchuck hard cider, and call it a night.

dispatch from bedlam farm

Jon Katz, nearby Washington County author and dog man, wrote this about me and the farm last night. It's a friendship I hope will continue to grow. There aren't a lot of shepherding, blogging, authors around here.... I read this and I was touched.

He says I need to slow down, and I agree. I can't wait to slow down. But right now to get where I need to be I have to push a full canter. I'll trot and walk when I can see that pretty goal not far from my saddle.

The following is from bedlamfarm.com
. The photo of the pony is his as well.

"Stay Tuned” for a life affirmed. Cold Antler Farm, Jackson, N.Y.

Jenna Woginrich and I share the realization that in this country, you just have to be crazy to go and buy the farm.

I almost cried when I watched Jenna Woginrich’s beautiful little video of her year struggling to make a go of Cold Antler Farm and I would highly recommend it for many reasons. For people who dream of a farm. For people who struggle to live on one. For people struggling to live their lives and fulfill their dreams in a country driven mad by greed, fear, insecurity whose political system seems spent, whose spiritual life is drained, and whose national ideology is now protecting Corporate Profiteering.

I didn’t cry for the country, or even for Jenna, who will, I am sure, succeed in her dream – she has the strength, drive, creativity and craziness to do it – but also for me, because talking to Jenna the other night (she is a fellow obsessive and came over for dinner and to obsess on sheepherding with her rocket-dog Gibson) reminded me so much of my first years on Bedlam Farm that I almost couldn’t bear it. I too was alone, knocked on my butt by a brutal winter, broke, overwhelmed by a surplus of energy and a lack of common sense or sanity, and an appetite for chaos and drama that left with with a divorce and a world-class nervous breakdown. I can’t imagine how or why I survived.

I am surely not saying this will happen to Jenna who seems to have a near genius for doing way too many things well at the same time. That can lead to big trouble. Jenna’s experience – and her endless rushing around to more things than even she can remember – hit so close to home that I avoided her for a couple of years, I’m embarrassed to say. Everything I heard about her made me very nervous.

When she talks about her tough years, I just shiver. I mean, you just have to be crazy to do this. We both laughed at the idea that we have found Perfect Lives. People always say that about me, also, but I don’t see too many people bonkers enough to do it.

I’m glad Jenna and I got to talk. When she left, Maria and I both turned to each other and wished aloud that Jenna slow down soon. She is a treat to know, even though she makes me feel glad I am not young anymore. I am so glad we connected. She is smart, funny, and a really fine writer. She will make it. We share another trait: we are ferociously determined. I told her that I know there are many writers much more talented than I am, but not too many that are as willful. It matters.

Jenna has a crackling, popular blog – I heard about it all over the country on my book tour – and this she put up a beautiful video of her tough year at Cold Antler farm in Jackson, N.Y. handling sheep and a full-time day job and chickens and a dog and pony and being nearly done in by a brutal winter. She is a homesteader and a fierce advocate for the life of the individual. This is something that bonds Maria and I together. We both know that it is a hard path.

Jenna writes about a lot of things for a lot of places, has a genius for inspiring people and pissing them off (bless her) and has already cranked out two books (a third is on the way) about her life on Cold Antler Farm. So many people seem nearly dead in their lives. Jenna is alive.

Her blog will touch a familiar chord for those of you who have suffered me for more than a few years. Give me the shivers, gives me the chills. We are very different, we are very much alike. We have both brushed against that dark place that Joseph Campbell writes about, when people set on on their Hero’s Journey and head off into the wilderness and defy almost every conventional expectation about life in America. She probably won’t have any money in her retirement fund either. It’s a good thing. Looming disaster encourages productivity.

Good for you, Jenna. At 28, you are just getting cranked up, and you will learn to slow down and focus or you will not. I think you will. I will surely be nagging you, rooting for you, and giving a shout out to you for living your life, standing down some nasty fears, working brutally hard, following the great American tradition of Thoreau by showing that individuals can still live in America outside of the Corporate Gulag, and shining your light for everyone who hopes to live out their dreams in a world sometimes shrouded in fear and confusion.

Check out her video. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

thirty days to howl

For breakfast today I had three scrambled eggs from my hens. I topped them off with a little bit of Cabot cheese. A dash of pepper and the bit of milk and I had a perfect start to my morning.

On the way out the door at lunch I grabbed a few strawberries and some snap peas from the garden and while at Wayside got a packet of Damn Good beef jerky and a small serving of cheddar.

Dinner was a small salad of greens from the garden, mashed potatoes, and skillet-cooked beef stew pieces with a salt and her rub. I used a little cheese on the potatoes too.) It was all delicious. I drank it with some cold, hard, cider and felt that buzz of protein and alcohol that wins highschool football championships.

So why am I telling you this?

Because today was Day 1 of my thirty-day eating local challenge. A personal challenge to eat all my meals (condiments and coffee excluded) from the Veryork area. It will involve a lot of cooking, gardening, animal harvesting, and more. I'll document it here, and be as honest as possible about the extra work of mid-week bread baking and garden panic (my lettuce has some sort of root rot from too-wet soil).

It'll also mean some sacrifices (good bye Diet Coke and Gummy bears). I'll be eating from my backyard (literally and figuratively) for the next thirty days, and not for the reasons you are thinking. local economies, peak oil, greener living, animal welfare...those are all good reasons to roast a backyard bird and plant a garden, but I have something else in mind.

More tomorrow.

stay tuned, darling.

A few photos by Tim Bronson, the rest are mine.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sheep 101 Workshop Has Moved!

This weekend's workshop has moved. I will not be going on this Sunday and instead I will host it in Septempber. If you would like to come to the farm and spend a whole day learning sheep care basics, wool processing, and catered brunch and lunch, let me know.

Only 10 spots left in the Fall Weekend Workshop. Please email me and make your reservation if you want to join in the party. I am going to try and collect musicians to play around the campfire Saturday night as well!

P.S. Ordered Jasper's harness today! Black leather!

Monday, June 13, 2011



Is anyone coming to Sheep 101 this weekend?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

eating out

This past winter was hell. But tonight it's June, and I got my chubby soul through the worst snow dump in a decade, through lambing, through a dead transmission, and a hells bells, I even de-wormed a pony today. A girl deserves to eat out!

Tonight I did go out, exactly 50 feet from my kitchen window. (I didn't feel like driving or paying someone for food.) Tonight's menu: CAF-raised accidental cornish hen with new potatoes, lettuce, and snap peas from the garden. Bird was defrosted yesterday, potatoes dug up from the raised bed at noon, and those greens picked and rinsed right before show time.

Next up: Pretty Saro will be fiddled to the fireflies. My favorite old time tune. I still sing it every time I walk Jazz and Annie through the woods. I have for years.

especially lamb masala

I got home from the herding clinic by 2:30, and that only left me a few hours to prepare for the party. A few weeks back my friend Wendy (whom I met at Riding Right) asked if she could have her birthday party at my farm? She promised me she'd take care of all the food and clean up, she just wanted to cook out and kick up her heels outside the city of Saratoga Springs. She said she'd invite a small crowd, respectful of animals and not bothered by sheep poo on their shoes, so could she do it? I was happy to oblige. It was kind of strange to become someone's celebratory destination, though.

So the party was that night, and with just a few hours till the decorating committee and musicians showed up, I had cleaning, cooking, mowing, mulching and other regular farm chores to blast through. In the rush I mowed the Crafstman push mower right next to the hive, thinking they would act as calmly as they usually do when I putz around the garden area. Instead of acting like a monastery, it became an aircraft carrier. a few guards shot out, and circled around my sweaty hands. I accidentally clamped down on one in my left palm as it squirmed between my fingers. It said goodbye to the world by shooting a stinger down into the tip of my middle finger. I cursed and grasped my left wrist with my right hand and shook it at myself. I held up the one sore finger to inspect it.

Oh boy...I couldn't help but smile at the prank. I stood there giving myself the finger on behalf of one pissed-off martyr. Talk about getting the last word...

By 6PM Wendy and Jim had set up their drink station, buffet, and people started showing up. Diane came with three Freedom Ranger chicks as a housewarming present and they went into the brooder with the turkeys. Folks took tours around the farm via Wendy. She seemed proud to be here, and was happy to show people around. It was touching to overhear.

We grilled burgers our Riding Instructor Hollie made from her brother's cows, and Jim made the kind of Mojitos you just don't forget. Diane brought a wheel of her 2-month-old aged cheddar she made herself. For this farm it was a high class time.

After we finished our dinner in the front room of burgers and jerk chicken, we all retired to the living room where Ed (fiddler) and Tom (guitar) were already playing some tunes. They were wonderful, and as the night got rainier, the conversation louder, and the sun set in the gray sky, we could still see the sheep outside the horizontal windows over the daybed in the background. It made all the preparations and stings worth it. Hell, Ed and Tom made this month's mortgage payment worth it! (If you click this link here, you'll get a to listen to a tiny bit of it) Wendy see,ed thrilled to have the friends, food, music and the farm all come together for her big day. Actually, everyone aboard CAF that night seemed to be enjoying the same relaxed grin.

Or maybe it was the Mojitos?

Writing this, I realize how perfect this life might seem to many of you. Some nights like last night, I get tricked into that too, but I promise you this place is far from paradise. I feel like a lot of you have been following this blog for years, and maybe you think this is the end of the three-part story? Girl gets in a tight spot, Girl freaks out, Girl buys farm. But I can't stress enough how far I need to go to get to my own goals, and how bumpy the ride is getting there.

There are serious problems here: issues with stress and anxiety, family expectations and support, financial woes, and also going through this whole adventure alone and not sure if that will ever change. It makes a girl tired. Very tired.

I don't write about these harder things as often, because honestly, I try not to even dwell on them. I learned a long time ago the only way to maintain this crazy dream is to inhale positive thoughts and ideal circumstances only. If I ever stopped to realize the risks, dangers, and irrational things that go into living this way: I'd never had done any of it in the first place. And I say that as a woman who has been knocked unconscious, rammed, sunburnt, cut open, and cried herself to sleep with worry more times than I care to admit.

But those bad things aren't the majority of my life. They're maybe a third? And usually I'm two busy with the rest of that fraction to give myself the luxury of much fear or stress. I learned if you stay busy enough, and put blinders on towards a goal, you will reach it and not focus too much on the possibility of negative outcomes. So I do that, and I pray that someday I'll stop working in the middle of the carrot patch, take a deep breath, and realize my twenties are behind me and I get over myself a little. Start lengthening my stride.

Cold Antler Farm is my refuge, my goal, and my motivation every day. It's my purpose and it's my responsibility, but you have to understand that as much as I love it, it isn't getting easier. But you know what? I don't think love is ever easy. Not if it's genuine and you're honest with yourself. Not if it's worth it.

Would I trade it all in to be back in Knoxville with just two dogs in an apartment? Never.

...But I do miss Indian food.

baby bunnies!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

rain, dogs, and music

This morning's herding clinic was a beautiful mess. Four hours round trip, pouring rain, novice sheepdogs, and beginner handlers. All of us there were green, with the kind of questions new herding enthusiasts have about the sport of sheepdog trials. Do I lose points if they circle back around the post on the fetch? Can I give a command at 11 o' clock on the outrun to slow her down? If I miss the drive gates should I keep going? What do judges do if I run out of time at the pen? It sounds like gibberish to normal people, but to those of us willing to stand in the angry June rain at 8AM, it was just conversation.

Gibson and I just watched. He's too young to be out there running a mock trial. Maybe someday. I went to watch, listen, and learn. There's just as much to absorb watching other people's dogs as training your own. We'll certainly be back for more. I can't wait to train with Dave Sykes again. I was at his clinic in 2008, without a dog, and I promised him next time I saw him I would have a pup. I doubt he remembers me—he travels all over the world doing these things—but if he does, I'll be there to share the smile.

I am so tired and happy. I just helped wrap up an amazing evening here at the farm house. My friend Wendy held her birthday party here, and invited friends from Saratoga to join in for dinner, drinks, and old-time tuns at the sheep-and-pony show. She also imported some omusician friends. Just a bit ago this house was thumping into the soggy night with singing, laughter, drinks, fiddles, guitars, and me dancing with Gibson by the chimneyless wood stove in the living room. Candles inside the Bun Baker helped light up the room.

More later, come morning. But here's a teaser for you: No one should have had to warn me about using the lawnmower too close to the beehive....

Turns out they should have!

Friday, June 10, 2011

a night in bedlam

I have a lot to update you on, but June on a farm (even one as small as mine) is a time of nonstop action. I have snap peas to pick, strawberries to can, potatoes to mulch and I just set six new turkey poults into the brooder. Four Bourbon Reds were planned, ordered weeks ago, but two were gifted to me today at the office. My coworker Matt ordered four Midget Whites and only wanted to raise two. Eight turkeys might make it here on Cold Antler Farm and come fall I can sell them and make enough off Thanksgiving to make a truck payment.

Last night was exciting, too. I was invited over to Jon Katz's farm for dinner and fiddling, and Gibson was invited to join his dog Rose and herd sheep. For those of you unfamiliar with the man, Jon is an author, photographer, and blogger just a few miles northwest of Cold Antler. His website, Bedlamfarm.com, has a blog as well and probably just as old (if not older) than CAF.

We started the visit with Gibson getting to work the sheep in his main pasture, and what a sight it was to behold! After Rose had them penned, Gibson had a chance to be let off leash and circle the pen. He seemed collected enough, and after a while the whole lot of ovines were were let out and off they sprinted. Gibson. Was Thrilled. He had never been set loose in a big open space with so many sheep before. Even in the heat, helped and sprinted and acted like, well, a year-old Border Collie, but I had never seen him so damn happy. But even in the fray he stopped and lied down 80% of the time. He and Rose had a calm time together in the field. Actually, I don't think either of them ever even looked at each other the whole time sheep were amongst them? A testament to their breeding, focus, and souls.

Afterwards Gibson gulped water and rested in his crate and I joined Jon, and his wife Maria, for dinner on their screened porch. We told stories, I played some fiddle tunes, and enjoyed the conversation greatly. It was wonderful to talk to another writer, specially one so accomplished. The shoptalk of promoting books, farm websites, facebook, blog videos, was a nice change of pace from my usual routine.

The view from his place is magical, and makes my little carved-into-a-mountain homestead look so very small in comparison to their 110 acres. (My whole farm is less land then their scrub pasture). But despite their great fields, summer flock, and Rose's ability to work sheep: Jon and Maria were humble and kind. Gibson and I were invited back to practice herding again, and next time I'll snap some photos of him with the big flock if I can remember to bring a camera.

I'm off to bed soon—getting up extra early drive to a herding clinic in Greenfield, Mass. There Gibson and I will watch novice sheepdog handlers go through the ropes of a faux trial. While we'll just be watching, it's always great to be around folks who love the sport, the breed, sheep, and share this crazy life. I'll enjoy being soaked in all that camaraderie.

photo of rose by jon katz

amazing backyard farmers in NYC

that's what i'm talking about

Thursday, June 9, 2011

they grow up so fast...

photo by tim bronson

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

go team

I was thinking tonight about my relationship to the animals on this farm, how to best explain it. While I love my animals, the term "animal-lover" seems incorrect for this particular situation. I don't think any Peta members would consider me as such, and the idea of wearing sweatshirts with paw prints on them make me shift in my seat...

I raise some animals as companions, some as work partners, some as entrées. Line up any three animals on this farm and one could be a business partner, the other a vehicle, and the next dinner. I also don't see any of my animals as pets. Even my dogs, all of them doing (or have done) what they were originally bred to do. Jazz and Annie pulled me across the Idaho tundra on a dogsled. Gibson works sheep. While they watch movies on the couch with me in an cool house, I see them not as faux-children, but as teammates. I see every animal on this farm as a member of team Cold Antler.

I do not have a particularly warm/fuzzy feeling about any of the other animals here. Even my dogs don't get much of a parental vibe out of me. I care for them all (and the dogs I love as close friends) but I'm not this place's mother: I'm the quarterback and choreographer. These are my people, this farm, and it is why I so often refer to Cold Antler as We. The royal we, as in "We didn't get the other four turkeys yet" or "We're building a stable before fall and somehow getting this chimney installed and and legal" I'm always asked who the rest of "we" is, meaning what man came into the picture? I explain the same thing every time. The Farm (capital F) is me, too.

Ever play a team sport? Remember walking into that highschool locker room and talking over plays and assists, passes and strategies? That same camaraderie and mindset is how I feel when I walk out my front door first thing in the morning. This is my sport. These are my players: my pony, my sheep, my dog at my side. We're all members of a team and the opponents we are up against are doubt, fear, and the slightest waiving from the long-term goal that fuels this place: to be a successful, sustainable farm.

We need jerseys.

P.S. It was not my intention to knock the notion of pets, or to say my dogs aren't. I was trying to explain how I see us as a team instead of a mother to a child. Some folks in the comments seemed to think I took umbridge with the idea of my animals as companions. I do not.

come on up to the house

Updates on the Fall Workshop

I'm getting more and more excited about this Fall Backyard Farming Workshop! Folks are emailing me with interest from California, Arkansas, Maine, and more. It's starting to morph into something larger than I anticipated and I think it will be two days now, the 15th and 16th of October. Both days will run from LOAM-4PM, and Sunday afternoon we'll take a field trip to Merck Forest to see their sustainability projects and heritage livestock operation. Brett and I discussed having a full woodlot management section complete with tree selection, felling, and the proper hand tools. He'll bring his equipment along for attaching lighter trees and Jasper pulling them out of the woods to be chopped down. I decided to add a basic cheese making class, and Carleen Madigan (Author of the Backyard Homestead) offered to sign everyone's copy of the book! Saturday night there will be an Autumn campfire with mountain music and stories.

Children are not welcome, I'm sorry. But with so many large animals, electric fences, rusty old barbed wire, and the fuss of the day: it's too dangerous. Same goes for dogs, again, sorry.

Here's the line up of classes so far:

Chicken Basics
Sheep Basics
Beekeeping Basics
Cheese making
Backyard Lumberjackin'
Hand Wool Processing
Pumpkin Carving (for saturday night campfire lanterns!)
Bread making from Scratch
Turkey Slaughter (maybe)
Book and Yarn Sales
Merck Forest Field Trip
Winter Greens/extended growing
And More!

To sign up, you need to email me (jenna@itsafarwalk.com) and make your donation to the farm. Once payment is received via PayPal you are confirmed. It's a first confirmed, first come system. The price will be $200 for the whole weekend, including all food. and if you already paid at the one-day rate, you are welcome to make the additional donation or not. It's a way to support this farm, and feed my dream and long-term goal, as well as learn a lot and enjoy the company of others of like mind. It might be the only place in town that weekend talking about Vermicomposting, too.

P.S. there are still openings for the Meat Rabbits August 7th and Sheep 101 on June 19th!, email if you are interested! And if you are coming to the Sheep Workshop, please let me know so I can start planing the food!

P.P.S. CAF updates come automatically via Twitter now, if you want to follow me there: twitter.com/coldantlerfarm

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.