Saturday, June 25, 2011

Amen

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...

AAAGGGGHHHHHHHHKKKKK!"

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

unshod

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

tired

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.

Wow.

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!