Saturday, July 30, 2011

how's that, CJ!?

Spent the past two days cleaning out all the boxes and storage from the barn and putting it to proper use: stacking haybales inside it. I only got 36 in there so far, but techincally, it's not even August yet and I'm not so behind. Per CJ's comments in the last post, I thought about it and decided he was right. Get more each time, save on trips and your own time. I went back and got 29 more bales this weekend. I'll need at least a hundred stacked in the barn by snowfly, and another twenty or so stacked in the loft. While I'm not far from that goal, it feels pretty good to have this big job started, and now the entire lower part of the barn will be put to use as hay storage and winter quarters for a herd of rabbits, horse, and a feeder pig. Pretty standard use as far as barns go, but this early 1900's barn hasn't been used in a few decades.

No new turkeys are strutting under the maple trees. Bourbon Red pickup was moved to later in the week on account of yesterday's rain. Okay by me, since I am in full farm maintenance mode right now. Last night I had dinner at the Daughton's and Tim talked about having our coworker Brett (who repaired homes for years) come to see the damage. It looks like I will have help on the homefront afterall. He told me this while showing me how to use a vacuum sealer for veggie/meat preservation. (I am totally sold on the Foodsaver front now.) While we sealed up airless, plastic bags with wax beans we talked about their farm plans, my own stove and farm issues, and as we sat down to the table for dinner a cool wind and gentle rain blew through the room. Tim said grace, the summer squash crawled up their fence outside, and thunder rolled over the valley. It was beautiful.

Everything's going to work out just fine.

Friday, July 29, 2011

dangerous money

I was getting a headache. Something I would usually ignore (or remedy with a glass of iced coffee), but I was hard at work in a place without a barista handy. I was up in the hay maw of the Common Sense Farm, bucking down bales one at a time to load into the back of my truck. It takes about an hour to drive down to their farm, load bales, and drive back. I took eight this morning and if the clouds break and it doesn't look like rain, I'll go back for eight more tonight. I buy hay in short trips, a truck at a time. This year, I planned on calling a delivery in of 100-150 bales by August, but plans changed.

I found out this morning from the Pennsylvanian State Treasury that the $7,000 dollar savings bond I was supposed to get a check this week was actually a clerical error. There would be no check. That money was planned to cover the new chimney installation, fix the roof, fill the oil tank, order hay, buy supplies for the stable, and pay the second half of the new sheep shed construction bill. The rest would have gone into a pretty little savings account, in case the truck needed repairs or sitting for the next oil tank refill. Tough cookies ladie, best grab another bale and chuck it.

My head was pounding now, and I was covered all over with chaff and sweat. I decided to stop at Stewart's on the way home for some iced coffee to clear my head, but suddenly it felt like it would put me around $7,001.87 in the red. I drove home. I had ice and coffee I already paid for waiting for me to brew and clink.

I am realizing how dangerous easy money is. That out-of-the-sky check was depended on instead of real work, or words, or workshops or overtime at the office. I was banking on it, and it wasn't even real. It's okay though. I have enough saved up for the second half of the barn (first half was already paid for in cash), and the half-priced deposit for the Stovery, but hay would be bought fifty dollars at a time, loaded by me on bale at a time.

This isn't a sad post, it's neutral. If anything it has energized me to plan more workshops, write more freelance, sell more ads, and find some sponsors. Knowing that money was on the way stopped me from dogging editors or pitching new books. I was going into winter in a lull of contentment, and it was stopping creativity, resourcefulness, and drive. Today I'll find a way to get some of it back from Egress. I am certain the oil tank, barn, stove, roof, stable, hay, truck payments and mortgage will continue to be taken care of. Not certain on the particulars, but I was never into details in the first place.

Folks, it takes more than seven grand to put this girl under. To that, I raise my home-brewed glass of iced coffee. An as if there was some sort of celebration to my new baptism as a scrabbler, I am picking up three Bourbon Red Turkeys tonight, a trade that was already in the works for pork. Tomorrow will be met with ad inquiries and gobbles.

Time to hit the home office and get to work!

Farm Festival Updates!

The plans for the October weekend are looking better and better! I have been contacted by folks who want to do soap making and fiber demonstrations. On top of the already planned wood lot management, timber, cheese making, animal care, and canning workshops it seems like all things are falling into place. I should have fresh cider from pressing the farm's apples in time for this as well, and hopefully, my first silver fox kits. It looks like there will be several stations and workshops going on all at once, in a casual and down-home tone. I only have about 6 spots left, and it is first registered, first served, so if you are thinking about coming up for the October 15th weekend shindig, let me know soon so we can get you registered!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

magic beans

I am often asked how I manage to run a small farm alone while working a full time job. To many people it seems like a lot of work, or impossible. My answer is always the same but never seems to satisfy the people who ask it. I tell them two things: when I started all this I had one red dog in an apartment in Knoxville and it slowly built from there.

The second part: I fell in love.

I attended my first sheepdog trial in the summer of 2008. Less then two years later I had 6.5 acres, a white farmhouse, and a border collie puppy in my arms. What made this happen? It certainly wasn't an inheritance, marrying rich, or because I gave up my day job and found unclaimed dirt. There's certainly nothing wrong with those twists of fate, but they just weren't mine. I'm not from wealthy lines, haven't had any luck in the love department, and everyplace I lived since college I had to pay to take care of. But my point of telling you this isn't to point out shortcomings, it's that you don't need to be a wealthy, lucky, partner-in-crime to have a farm. You need to be resourceful, and stubborn, and believe in sheep.

That's what I did. After that sheepdog trial I was certain I wanted to be a shepherd. I didn't know if I could have sheep on rented land or how to take care of them. All that aside: I got serious about it in my heart. I bought books on sheep care and stacked them in places I would see them everyday. I went to Sheep 101 workshops held by my local extension. I joined the North East Border Collie Association. I bought the Storey's Barn Guide to Sheep (even thought I had no sheep or barn) and hung it up in my kitchen like a calendar. Every day I flipped through facts and charts. I bought a shepherd's crook online. I believed in this possibility with all my heart. It was a spell and a prayer, all of it.

Sheep came a few months later, a surprise trade for fiddle lessons. My landlord allowed them and neighbors and friends helped me build the shed (which is still here in Jackson, and now will house my first ram, Atlas). Supplies to build that first sheep house were less then 200.00. The wood was a kind gift, the t-posts and fencing cheap as they could be. But it lasted long enough.

When it came time to figure out a new home, things were scary, but I never doubted for a minute that there would be a farm. Thanks to you readers, a random USDA homeowners' program, desperate sellers, and buyer's market, and dumb luck—I bought a farm in the spring of 2010. There are now a dozen sheep out there, two new ewes on the way, and a thriving CSA in its second year. People in two countries have knit warmth from the animals I share my morning coffee with. Today a coworker told me about the rabbits she had for dinner, and how her son Jackson even ate the heart and liver. I am a web designer by trade, but a web designer that feeds and clothes people too, even on a small scale.

It fills me with such simple happiness. The work to make it happen has been constant, but it is a warm fog I overlook. The end result—a passing conversation in the women's bathroom or an emailed picture of fingerless gloves—resets my heart.

The list of things I need to do on a daily basis, the animals, chores, gardens, blog and books grew organically over time. If you took that girl from her first sheepdog trial and landed her in this Civil War Era farmhouse (with Civil War Era problems) it would not be the same story. I worked up to my current workload, be it farmwork, officework, and writer work over years of steady addition. What was once a few hens in a backyard in Idaho is now a sheep farm in New York. It happened one small project at a time, over years and across a nation. I am used to my life and what it asks of me. I am grateful for it.

When I moved to Vermont, the idea of owning a flock of sheep was on par with owning my own television network. It was something other people had, sure, but they had some sort of magic beans or knew the right people. My understanding of making dreams happen was confused with money. I thought that as long as I could earn enough, or win enough, or save enough I could make just about anything I wanted come true. This turned out to be absolutely false. Money plays its part, no question about that, but around here all money does is perform tasks and keep the banks happy. It comes and goes in small numbers, exchanged constantly in this community for goods and services. Local carpenters got a chunk today for the building of the new sheep shed. The Stovery needs a down payment for the new chimney. There is a roof to repair, hay to buy, a stable to build, and wood to stack before September comes. If I waited around around till I had 25k sitting in the bank, I still would not have my farm. To me, waiting for lump sum to start playing in the dirt is ridiculous. Starting a farm doesn't take cash, it takes will. If you have enough of the second, the first will find a way to you.

I am telling you this because I want you to see that a breeding flock of Scottish sheep started as a book about sheep care near my toilet. The result you see on these pictures only happened because of that slow addition of hope and force. One weekend it was a book by the toilet. The next there was a potted snap pea in the kitchen window. The next weekend I learned to bake bread. Later that week I'd rent a movie about the Amish from the library and take notes about their canning jars. Nothing happens fast, though it must appear that way when you see it as pictures and posts, or read it all in a few days. Please, never compare your own farm dreams to a weekend read through this blog. This is nearly five years of whittling magic beans out of credit card bills, paycheck-to-paycheck living, long days, and a savings account a 99-year-old could not retire on.

All that said, I am happy. And if a farm is what you want, and you do something (no matter how small) to get there everyday, then you will create it. I know this to be true and I know it from those of you who started reading this blog without land or chickens or cows and now you are running ranches or getting laying hens in your backyards. It is as normal as rain, happiness. You just need to decide it belongs to you and love it with all you've got.

get the stick!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

ahead

I stood outside and watched for a long time. I didn't see a single firefly. I went from curious, to worried, to sad, and then a slow, happy, smile poured out. I came to one, certain realization: Fall just took his first, panicked, gasp of the year. He's been smothered so long.

I'll miss them, but a girl's got to learn look ahead.

all better then

I was just coming back from a bad jog (some are just bad) when I saw Ken's truck backing into the driveway. Ken's my new farrier, and he comes armed. His big metal truck has everything one needs to see to the needs of the equine pedicure. I called Jasper to the horse gate, and he came down the hill at a fast trot. (He's more reliable at a distanced recall than Gibson.) Jasper was fussy, but good enough to work with him. Ken said he could use more regular trimming on his feet, but his body condition was good. I asked him if he knew anyone else with working ponies in our county and he mentioned some folks with Haflingers in Dorset, but as far as everyday harness ponies go, no. His response made me feel scrappy in a good way. Like I was figuring out a little engine for a radio flyer so I didn't have to push it up hills. I like the idea of my ATP.

This morning marked the last morning of Pidge's Corrid treatment. She and Lisette are now back with the flock and the pen was shut behind them, waiting for the weekend to be mucked and prepared for Atlas. Lisette put on some substantial weight. Her ribs can't be seen anymore, her back hip bones no longer jut like folded wings. I was happy to see it. Long as she has plenty to eat and some more grain from here she should continue to heal.

Sal is no longer limping. Amazing, actually. He walked right up to me this morning and I scratched his head. I told him I was happy to see that business shaken off. Then he saw the oral syringe for Pidge, worried it was for him, and scuttled off. I shook a branch of the apple tree and a small bounty fell and rolled down the hill. He seemed elated, forgetting a world with sharp pointy things for a moment.

For just twelve sheep and one pony, my mornings and evenings are full. Keeping them well means regular visits from folks like Ken and, in some cases, special care. Last week I had one sheep getting antibiotics, another dewormer, another Corrid, and another extra grain. It takes equipment and the will to just give a sheep a shot, but also that first medicine: everyday observation. Know your flock, know what healthy is, and keep watch like a black and white dog would.

It'll be warm again today. Everyone has plenty of water and eats.
This girl is off to work to enjoy the gym and a hot shower.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

kenny rogers wishes he wrote this

i choose cash

Mornings on workdays are an odd routine. I get up between 4 and 5AM (depending on chore-load or weather) and am outside feeding, observing, and occasionally medicating the flock and fowl. Right now the place is in the end of summer long jog towards fall. This weekend the old lettuce will be ripped out and composted and new seeds will go in, a second round. I'll get my first big loads of hay (about 15 bales each) and start making room in the barn for them all. I think this winter I'll need about 200 bales total, and I'd like to have a quarter of that stacked and ready by September 1.

Before I shower and even consider coffee, I need to drench Pidge with her fourth day of Corrid. She's on this routine after vet's orders, and I am hoping it stops her runs once and for all. Friday morning her and Lisette go out of the pen and Atlas goes in. Hopefully she'll recover beautifully out on pasture and hay and be fine for fall breeding. If not, she'll be fine for a french rib roast.

That might sound harsh to some, but to me it is simply how the place has to run. Every day I look out on my flock and beam at the way Knox, Ashe, and last year's Yearling look. That trio is as pretty and strong as any ad in the 2011 Blackface Sheep Breeder's Association's Journal sitting on my coffee table. I know what breeding stock should look like, and I don't think Pidge will cut it. However, I'll do my best to get her there. And if I fail, Lisette will retire to be someone's lawn mower and Pidge will be in the freezer with her fleece in the farmhouse. Future border collie pups will roll on their backs, smelling their first shaggy wool. And if not Pidge, someone's will take that place.

There's no radio on in the morning, not anymore. I used to start everyday with NPR but now I turn on the record player. Johnny Cash is singing Ring of Fire and I sing along. I'd rather start my day singing. I think if Mark in Kristin Kimball's The Dirty Life, who felt the news was nothing but trouble. "It just makes you feel bad and you can't do anything about it anyway." He was right. He also stopped using the word "should" and doing so had made him happier. Yesterday Jon Katz wrote about the angry world of the media, and how it's a choice to be a part of that mess. Be informed, but don't be saturated in it. You'll end up starting your day making angry comments at the television and speeding to work. I can wait till I'm at the office to hear about what starlet has died, or how angry congress is about debt. The farm is too good for that, and my time on earth too short to start my day angry at strangers. I choose Cash.

Annie is spreading her furry stomach over as much floor space as possible in front of the living room box fan. Gibson is upstairs, being Gibson. Jazz is sitting by his dish in the front room. The new table in there has him off his game. He's not sure if it's a strategic coup of the enemy or a new fort to protect his kibble. Canine-ego control of this place is a non-stop battle. Jazz is winning by his riches in dignity. Annie too hot to care. I sing with Johnny.

I'll be out the door for work in about 20 minutes.

Monday, July 25, 2011

gashole

I'm watching Gashole, which is a movie about the American Oil Crisis, and quite good. But (get this!) Joshua Jackson is featured in it, which has been my number 1 celebrity crush since I first watched The Mighty Ducks as a little kid. I was THRILLED Pacey got Joey. I am totally weak in the knees, cause how often does your offbeat, random, movie star end up in a movie about Peak Oil? What's next? Is Demetri Martin going to fund a doc about backyard Chickens?! So here I am in my pj's, with a cart horse outside my living room window, in the middle of nowhere, 100% tuned in to that voice and loving every minute of it.

Sigh.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

smells great in this house right now...

As I write to you, strangers and friends alike, there is a little cornish hen roasting in the oven. It's one of the birds from early spring, small but plump. I defrosted it yesterday and then today while it rested in the fridge, I dug up what was left of the carrots. I also pulled a few small, new potatoes and a few little onions. I set them on the counter to be prepped for the roasting pan and then looked at the array. To see a white cloth covered with an entire feast you planted and raised is possibly the most beautiful thing you will ever look at on a stove top. That pink, dimpled chicken. The carrots and potatoes, still covered with a bit of dirt. The onions fragrant... I grabbed my camera so I had proof this day in July happened.

I'm feeling good. Just a bit ago I pulled in the driveway from a swim in the river. I was happy to swim when I arrived at the pull off. I had just finished constructing the frame of Gibson's new training pen for herding. In 85-degree heat (cool weather for this week!) I pounded fenceposts and strung woven wire fencing I hauled from the far-pasture to a flat spot behind the sheep shed. It's small, a diameter of 10 t-posts about 4 feet away from each other, but large enough to get started really working with him. After a frustrating lesson this morning with our trainer in Massachusetts, I realized he needed to work everyday here. He needs to practice with his own sheep, on his own farm, to learn the control and state-of-mind necessary for a working farm dog.

These weekend lessons were okay as a beginner, but now as a teenager with good instincts and too much enthusiasm: Gibson needs to learn control and discipline. So The first step it to get two or three sheep in a small pen and have him work outside the pen, following my commands and body. Then I'll expand it and have him work inside it. I stayed for an hour or so, but the barrage of tubers was a bit too oppressive. They weren't the serene, good-natured tubers of Friday. These weekend tubers were either loud, fit, tan teenagers in various levels of intoxication or vulgar, squishy people with sunburns.

One teenage boy realized his brand-new wheeled Coleman cooler was out of beer and didn't see the sense in tugging it down the river now that it was useless to him. So he just heaved it down stream. My mouth dropped. I had seen those coolers at Kmart and they were 39 dollars, perfect for transporting meat to customers or picking up rabbits from Ben Shaw. The decadence of this tanned narcissist astounded me. If there weren't 45 people behind him flowing down stream and playing pong with the "garbage" cooler I would have taken it home, bleached it, put a FarmAid Sticker on it and put it to decent use.

One woman was upset about something that happened at the drop off. She cussed up a storm, just a stream of four-letter words. Now, I am not known for my clean speech, but I do understand a time and place. She was toting a four-year-old girl. "You would think he would have some Mother- #@X%ing DECENCY!?" she yelled to her partner, who ignored her anger. There should be rules about angry cussing on a beautiful river...

You know, writing about other people in a negative way makes me feel both vulgar and squishy. I best stop this fuss.

I watched all this happen while I did my routine. I was on the side of all this action, the tubeless girl with the firefly necklace. I found this spot that is about 4-feet deep, in a weak current about 20-yards long. I can swim a lazy breaststroke with the water, and then fight back against the running water with a cross stroke. It's wonderful. I swim like my mother did (still does) at the Palmerton Pool, my head above water as I do a modified breast-stroke downstream. The view from that alligator position is beautiful. Golden light, green leaves, glistening water. Sometimes I turn on my back and float with the water. Who needs a tube?! My muse is Baloo the Bear, not some aquatic dirigible. When I feel the water pull to hard I stop and swim back. After about 20 slow "laps" I am puffing. Swimming has a way of tricking you into the same exhaustion as jogging. I scurry back to shore as a new boatel emerges from the bend. I had enough of the vulgar and squishy. I am ready to roast a chicken and read under the maple tree.

And so I will. This summer is trotting right through me.