Saturday, July 16, 2011

border collie ice cream machine

celebration day

I woke up this morning around 5:37, which is sleeping in. I took my time getting out of day bed, and Gibson (who is never in much of a rush at first light) stretched out his entire body next to mine. His head by mine, his tail at my feet. For a Border Collie, Gibson is huge. 52 skinny pounds, and taller than Jazz at the withers. His coat is starting to really fill in, and what was a scruffy boy at a year has started to grow a mane, doggy facial hair around his ears. He hears Joseph's wet bleat and Jasper's whinny and standing on me thigh looks out the long window to the field. I don't know what he's thinking, but I like to think he's just checking that farm is still out there.

After the dogs were walked and fed their breakfast, I headed out for a three mile jog. Jasper heckled me as I left, but he just wanted apples or grain. He had so much pasture it was ridiculous, and big containers of water. The sheep must have just come in from their dawn breakfast, they were all silent on the hill, chewing cud. And that hill, was slowly healing up. Over grazing had turned it to mud and hard dirt, but with expanded pasture and some seed and rain tufts of green were returning. The last hard downpour didn't move a single slurry of topsoil down into the level spots where I refill their water tanks.

I jog down the mountain, across 22, and over to the dirt roads that pass corn fields and meadows. Deer, tractors, and the rare car pass me by but I barely wave. I get lost out there. My head belongs to recent writing projects, personal strife, music on the headphones and other mental riff raff. By the time the run is over I don't care about any of it but the music. Running is a screening process of priorities. If it doesn't matter as much after three miles it probably didn't matter much at all.

I came home to chores, everything from everyday animal care to mowing the lawn, but I wrapped it all up before 9. They wanted the sun high and hot today, nearly 90 degrees. I wanted all this self/home improvement business out of the way so I could focus on today's real work: books, naps, and a bbq at dusk.

I plan on enjoying this weekend and celebrating it. This past week was the end of the 5-day work week. Starting Monday I will be working 32-hours and being self-employed on Fridays. It won't be a day off, but a day to focus on the farm, workshops, writing, and the business. A full day to focus on home. Now that, deserves some hamburgers and ice cream.

P.S. I'll post a video of Gibson making ice cream later today!

danvers and dragons

Thursday, July 14, 2011

burton's morning

I was on the road before first light hit Washington County. by 4:30 Gibson was riding shotgun, a truckbed was full of critters, and the after-midnight show was still playing on WGNA. We had to get the truckload of chickens, rabbits, and ducks to Ben Shaw's farm by 5:00, so I could be back home, showered, dressed and ready for my sanitized job by 8. That's a lot to get done before you crank open your inbox. (It's not the usual schtick.) The ride to Shaw's was a rolling circus of mist. Every turn looked like a Tim Burton movie set. It made me miss my hometown.

Now that it is nearly 9, I am ready to call it a night. There ten skinny chickens in the freezer (note that Cornishes are no where NEAR the meat of the Cornish Cross) and I will learn some might stew and pot pie recipes this year. But still, ten birds in the freezer, a duck, and a few animals to take into work for coworkers tomorrow. Not a bad haul for an early morning.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

he's on the way

Tomorrow morning I'll be getting up before dawn to sneak into the coop in the dark and pull out all the animals going to slaughter at Ben Shaw's farm in Greenwich. I'll load them into the back of my pickup, and by 5AM be on the road with Gibson to drop them off. A dozen chickens are heading for the crates as well as the two ducks and a few rabbits. I have folks already asking when they'll be delivered and space waiting in the chest freezer for what is staying here.

I used to feel this sort of excitement before I got on planes.

I seem to be better at this animal side of the food spectrum then the vegetable side. Sometimes I wonder what that says about me? That I am better at birth and death than I am at slow growth and harvest?

By the time I turn in tomorrow night I will have chickens, duck, rabbits, and some pork in my freezer. Not bad for 6 and a half acres and a full time job. However, besides a thriving potato patch, I don't have much to offer my larder on the vegetable side. My small gardens are once again being eaten down by deer. Sunflowers were chomped in half, pumpkin vines tarnished and bent, and the sole survivors seem to be the Italians. Tomatoes, basil, onions, and zucchini. While it is a 100% better than last year's vegpocalypse, it's nothing to brag about.

I dream of a large garden, a "put-uppers" garden. 50x75 feet with good soil fed with compost from my other adventures here, a sturdy fence, fake plastic owls, electric tops, and netting. A vegetable jail from all the critters that once again might just ruin my Halloween pumpkins.

But not tonight. Tonight I can write down and sketch out those future pumpkin patches, but right now a girl's got to be happy about a chicken roasting over her own carrots and potatoes on a crisp fall Sunday. Which will come. I can almost taste it. My October is on the way.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

a really good sigh

I have started running again, and I do it every night. I don't go far, just a mile or two, and on the weekends if I'm feeling mighty, three. It's so good to feel my heart pounding again. And on some of these hot, muggy nights I can get in my struggle before a storm breaks. I love this. All that heat and energy working up to a relaxing and refreshing end. By the time the first drops start to pound the clay in the driveway, I'll already be cooled down by a mint soap shower.

Definition is coming back to my calves, and tanned skin is replacing the pasty, bug-bitten, splotches on my gams. It feels like the ritual is fixing things, healing me. I come home heaving, but I also come home smiling. I no longer feel like I've been punched in the stomach walking up a few flights of stairs at work. Extra weight is shedding off, unnecessary on an animal in motion.

After my run last night, a guy came over to price a new sheep shed on the hill. While he was up there with measuring tape and a notebook (Jasper following him around as Quality Control) he looked down at the farm and let out a long, ominous, whistle.... "That roof looks bad...."

It did. The back of the house above the kitchen had been heavy with snow falling from the roof above it. I knew it was a little lumpy, but had never looked at it from this vantage point. Melts and freezes caused it to buckle over that ferocious season. All the damage was caused by the elements, so I am certain the insurance will cover the repairs. I am grateful to be addressing it in the dog days of summer instead of late fall when snowfall is a gasp or two away.

In bigger news: after a few discussions with my office's HR department and my manager, I am going from a 5-day work week to a 4-day work week. I will be responsible to earn that piece of my paycheck on my own through the farm and writing gigs, and I now will have a three day weekend every week. It is one day back in my own hands, and I am thrilled to share that with you (even if it does make me a little nervous). But I have no doubt I will pull it off.

Fridays will be days for writing, with breaks for the farm. Just wait till winter when a snowstorm blows in and my commute is ten narrow stairs of the office....

I just let out a really good sigh. I guess that's how life goes. Some days you find out you need a roof, and other days you realize you just got 52 days of your life back in your own dirty hands.

Monday, July 11, 2011

let's play a horrible game!

Guess which one of your favorite homesteading bloggers needs a new roof?!?!

supper club giveaway!

When your grow your own food, join a CSA, or eat from local farms: you start spending a lot more time in the kitchen. When you start spending less time in supermarkets, it is bound to happen. Going from take-out to eating at home forces you into the transition from the land of processed into the land of ingredients. This is a wonderful fall out.

Cooking has become a huge part of my life now. Something I enjoy almost as much as farming the ingredients in the first place. When you pull a roasted chicken out of the oven you raised yourself, crackling over homegrown potatoes and carrots... you taste everything, you savor that meal in such a bath of gratitude it becomes a 6th taste.

And all this stuff I grow, the majority of it gets cooked in cast iron. I use my skillets to seer steaks, scramble eggs, bake bread, and melt butter. I use it for everything dang it, and when the power goes out, that skillet goes right on my wood stove. I'm a fan.

So in celebration of cast iron (and cooking at home) we're going to have a recipe swap. I'm calling it the Supper Club, because hopefully we'll all be copying each other's skillet recipes to enjoy all through the year. Share your favorite skillet recipe for summer—from meat rubs for the grill to fancy desserts—in the comments section of this post. Once your comment is in you will be entered to win a brand new limited-edition Lodge Skillet. And not just any skillet. You're getting a CAF approved Tennessee Flat Top biscuit baker. That's right, a guitar skillet! It's small, but cool. And not a bad thing to bake a potato in or heat up BBQ sauce over the stove. A second runner up will get a year's subscription to Cooks Country magazine (not a bad second fiddle).

Winners will be picked Friday at Supper time!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

take a look around

thrive and carry on

I love sitting with the spectators at a sheepdog trial. I think I have as much fun explaining the course and teaching the lingo as I do watching those teams run. It is not a complicated game, so within a few dogs even a first-timer can start commenting on a nice outrun or a decent pen. They learn what to clap for, pick up the jive. I get shivers when a new fan is born, explaining to her husband the difference between a fetch gate and drive gate, how scoring works, and what the Judge is looking for. It's a drug dealer's high, seeing people eat up the thing that makes you tick and come back next year begging for more.

With my dog by my side, my NEBCA pin on my shirt collar, and my eyes on the field I must look like a competing handler to the new folks in the crowd, but I am nothing of the sort. Gibson and I are rookies in training, just learning the basics and soaking up the conversations by proximity. But damn if it doesn't feel good to sit with your border collie at a sheepdog trial.

Experience aside, I was beginning to feel like a part of the club. I may have never entered even a practice trial yet, but I was no longer the new kid. I had taken lessons from people under that tent with me, drove to clinics, bought a ram lamb from one and was picking up ewe lambs from another. I talked with people I knew about sheep, dogs, and past trials. I knew a lot of folks' first names now, and had handlers I cheered for with gusto.

While sitting there, taking in the big show, I was trying to remember what brought me to herding? At what point did passing for an Open Handler to second-home owning tourist become a huge boost to my ego? I couldn't place it. Like mushing, dressage, and draft horses: this was working with animals. And I don't mean "working with animals" like vets and dog trainers work with animals: I mean physically laboring beside them, doing work a human can not do alone. That teamwork is timeless and perfect. It is what built and created civilization and culture. There is no place a road goes through that didn't once know wagon wheels. To do the work that connects me to my past, to animals, to other people: this was what I wanted to spend my life doing.

Wanted to, being the key phrase. I realized anyone with huskies and a sled could give that a go, and horse stables with lessons are all over the nation....but I didn't realize civilians could get into sheepdog trials. I thought you had to look like James Cromwell, wear tweed, and live somewhere along the Devon Coast. But as it turns out, you just have to be a little crazy and not mind driving. Last year at this trial a handler ran her dog wearing a maroon and gold Sunnydale High t-shirt.

It was at that moment I fell in love with the sport.

It's certainly not the competition that intrigues me. I could care less about winning, but entering, now that gets me going. It's the inclusion in that community, that feeling of being on the team bus again. Sheepdog Trials are a sport, however eccentric. It has its own subculture and quirks, but I adore the history, the individuals, and the variety of people it brings in. The parking lot has Mercedes and Mechanics in it. Hard Scrabble farmers, affluent hobbyists, and dreamers like me make up the scene. All of us dedicated to our dogs, agriculture, and dreaming of some day walking off that field with a smile so big on our faces no level of self control could hide. Today I watched a man score a 92 (out of 100) with his dog and leave the field calmly. I would have been doing a touchdown dance with Gibson circling around me barking. Then picked him up, hollered, and spiked my crook. Not because I wanted to boast, but because I can not fathom that sort of thing ever happening. If it did, the sky might open up and a war dance might be the only thing that could tame it.

I was asked to scribe today, and was thrilled to do so. For those of you unfamiliar with the parlance of the sheepdoggin' world: scribing is a fancy term for score keeping. It puts you in a folding chair right next to the judge. For me, this is like taking the wide-eyed kid with the giant foam finger out of the cheap seats and planting her in the announcer's skybox. While each dog runs the course, you run the stopwatch, mark down the points removed, and listen to the judge's comments. Sometimes they'll make kind conversation, and encourage you along your own path in the game. The judge this weekend was a woman from North Carolina and friendly as hell, explaining new terms to me like "ran across his work." She judged the trial with her clogs off, eating an apple in unshod glory under a big straw hat. Thems my people I said in my head, channeling the last Michael Perry book I read (which was also propping up my plastic chair on the unlevel ground). I had a fine time under that tent.

After scribing, lunch was a godsend. Pulled pork and cole slaw, fire-roasted corn brushed with a buttery herb coating, and vanilla ice cream with raspberries and maple syrup. If maple syrup does not sound like an ice cream topping to you then you are in for a pleasant surprise, son. The three flavors were perfect: creamy, sugary, and tart.

The whole day was familiar and happy. This sheepdog trial is mine. It is the first ever shepherding event I ever attended, and this weekend made it my fourth year. It's become a Holiday to this farmer, and it has always fallen on my birthday. I look forward to the Haflingers and big draft horses. I like catching up with Jim McRae who always does the shearing demo (and is also the CAF shearer).

Things have changed since it started, but all for the better. The crowd keeps growing and the food is now beyond the ol' burgers and dogs. They opened the Sap House to be a farmy craft mall. Come to a sheepdog trial and leave with artisan cheese, yarn, hooked rugs, sweaters and knick knacks. There was a silent auction, syrup tasting, and kids in a big field playing game outside. Not a bad way for a family to spend a Saturday.

During all this hootenanny I saw a pair of little girls run up the the sheep shearing demonstration—each with a stuffed sheep under their arms. Those toys might as well have been Mickey Mouse dolls as they scrambled to Space Mountain. It made me grin, seeing a bunch of kids psyched about a sheepdog trial like that. And let's be honest...Space Mountain only lasts a few minutes. This sheepdoggin' thing scoops up whole lives.

May those plush-sheep-toting rug rats thrive. Thrive and carry on.