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,, 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 ( 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:

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
And folks, don't freak out, everyone agreed to the waiver.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

rose of bedlam farm

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

jasper's door

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

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

dutch doors and dirigibles

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

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

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

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

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

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