Saturday, October 8, 2011

the hidden farm

I started my day yesterday morning in my father's blaze orange deer hunting jacket, walking through the nearby NY state gamelands with my shotgun. I had on knee-high rubber boots, extra-denim padded brier field pants, and a flannel shirt. I had not had coffee, or even fed the sheep yet. This early dawn was for me, and the forest, and the hope that I could put a pheasant in the bed of the truck and make a pot pie for dinner. I walked through the woods, listening, breathing slowly, senses on fire, my desire focused. The world was beautiful, and I was a part of it then. There is no sitting on the bench when pursuing game. You are on the front lines of the way things are. Your hackles are raised but your mind's a haiku.

I adore hunting, the whole process. I love the silent times waiting for turkeys in the blind, or the high stepping conversations and laughter and loping dogs of the upland fields. I love knowing that I am engaging in one of the oldest activities humanity has ever known, and how it brings me back in time to feelings and anticipations rarely equalled anywhere else.

I didn't get a pheasant. I didn't even see one. But I did spend an hour hiking, tuned in, and not worried about missed emails or office work or hoof rot. My mind was in pursuit, which is when I am at my best.

Us humans are carnivores that hunt in daylight and live in community groups. So are dogs. It's why scientists believe we paired up as early as we did. Long before horses were pulling carts or cats curled up in our laps: people and dogs were a team with a common goal of living another day with the other's help. If you watch a shepherd and his dog work sheep, you see something not too different than early man and their wolfish kin working together to gather a different meal.

I never thought this would be a passion of mine. I never thought I would be the pickup pulled over on the side of the road where the state land begins with a deer sticker on her truck and a gun in the back seat. I'm ashamed to admit that I used to think, not that long ago, that trucks, camouflage shirts, blaze orange hats, and guns were things for dull minds without anything else to do. I am ashamed I looked down on hunters, hunting, and the important role we play in managing wildlife and promoting local food. It is one of the endless changes in how I see the world that farming and rural life has granted me. Now I own a blaze orange hat. I dream of venison in my freezer. I feel safer, more prepared, and more alive in the world because of it. And now there is little that rubs me the wrong way more than hunter jokes or assumptions. Some think hunting is man playing dominator of nature, a rampage of ownership and carnage. Hunters are not above nature, we are simply participating in it.

A few years ago I was a vegetarian.

But now, hooooo! Lord, do I love the food! The forests offer here in the North Country. I adore rabbit, pheasant, venison, duck, goose, elk, moose, and stag. I think the best piece of meat I ever ate was at the cookout after last summer's Hunter Safety Class where the Orvis staff cooked up some red stag from Europe that made the best beef steak I ever ate in my life taste like a hockey puck. It's true.

After my hunting adventure was over, I came home to the farm and put my shotgun away. I grabbed my trusty .22 long rifle, a good friend. The gun I know inside and out, that I have used to put down livestock and hunt small game. I took it with me back into the wilder places of my property, not so much to hunt as to retain that sense of vigilance I had when I was dreaming of pheasant pie.

The forest at my place is magical. It is a system of ravines and paths that lead to long forgotten orchards and groves, stone steps that lead to where a barn once stood, circles of fieldstone, running streams, old stone walls and a history of people and farmers who were here since before the American revolution. I walked back there in awe, stopping at a steep ravine that looked down on the stream running to my pond. That is where that picture was taken, the hidden farm.

I spent so much time on my farm in the domesticated places. Working inside fences and open spaces. But yesterday I walked past the wing of a dead chicken, the giant fox's latest meal (He is the size of a labrador, several people have seen him. His tail is as long as my arm, white as snow on the tip). I found deer scat, and then, with shock, bear scat. I had to double check my tracking books but it was bear scat and it was fresh. This was not the backyards of my hometown, this was a wild place. A place of monsters and crime scenes but also a place of dappled sunlight, and old barn steps, and groves of orchards long forgotten. There are eaters and eaten here. I am one of them. I am not above this system, and find peace knowing my place inside it.

I'm a carnivore. I hunt by daylight. I seek community.


Friday, October 7, 2011

sled dog reviews: wood stove pie

Just In Case!
Exclusive Author Interview and Giveaway!

While at the Mother Earth News Fair I got to know Kathy Harrison, an author and blogger just a few hours south of me in the Berkshires. She was a hoot, quick and clever, pragmatic and welcoming. I adored her. My mother and her hit it off during the Fair, often sharing meals and conversations. They met for the first time when Kathy, my Mother, and I were sharing lunch after our morning workshops at the hotel bar. We were talking as a trio when my dad called to say he was unloading the van with their bags. My mom lifted up her sunglasses off her face to explain to me, seriously and slowly, to make sure I got all five of her bags (for a one night stay) out of the van with my father, and not to forget the black Saks bag in the front seat with her pillow and book on the Kennedy Family. Kathy looked at this put-together woman in heels, and then back at the chubby little farmgirl in a blue tee shirt and straw hat across from her, and asked, politely, "Are you two related?!"

My mom looked her dead in the eye and replied with a sigh, "You have no idea. It's an uphill battle.." And put her sunglasses back on.

We all broke out laughing. And I made sure all the bags got to our room.

As the weekend went on, I got to talk to Kathy more and more, learn about her life and books. She's a mother, a homeschooler, and a serious homesteader. She gardens, puts up most of her own food (1,000 canning jars loaded in the pantry!), heats with wood, and wrote the best seller Just In Case, a few years ago. It's a new guide for families about basic preparedness for weather events (hurricanes, blizzards, storms, etc) and social events (pandemics, economic collapse, power grid failure, etc). It is a beacon of honest hope for coming emergencies. I bought the book and read it. It's conversational and engaging without making you want to buy MRES and stock your basement with bullets and composting toilets. It's not some scary end-of-days book, but a guide on how you and yours can ride out any storm, in the country or city, safely and in comfort. Common Sense and clever writing guide you home.

I asked Kathy if she would mind doing an interview on CAF about basic preparedness. With winter coming, this is the perfect time for all of us to get ready for coming storms, blackouts, or any sort of trouble. Read this exclusive interview below and then write a comment about it to be entered in a giveaway for a copy of Just In Case. I'll give out three copies to readers who share their own thoughts (any and all welcome) on the topic. Enjoy the interview, check out her wonderful blog, and enter to win a free book!


1. Your book Just In Case, helps families prepare for possible disaster and hardships (weather events, blackouts, etc). But I also know you are an active homesteader and gardener, who puts up most of her own food in a house heated by wood with an active community of like minds. Why do you think self-sufficiency and community  is so important in the 21st century when so few people have much of either?

I think the idea of self-reliance is misnamed. We are interdependent and we each have an obligation to contribute to a wider community and that means learning how to do the real work of living a more sustainable and productive life. If we really don't have time to stick a shovel in the dirt or volunteer for the fire department or bake a loaf of bread or something, anything that isn't about consuming or being electronically entertained then we need to make some serious changes in our lives. For me, the whole idea of preparedness is not about a stash of #10 cans of dried food. It's about recognizing that the way of life we consider "normal", the life with water and power and healthcare and food available 24/7 and requiring nothing from us but cash is a very new phenomenon and it's only here because we have cheap energy and a functioning infrastructure. We are all one ecological disaster, one geo-political event, one natural disaster, one terrorist attack from being hungry. Most of us can't imagine what life was like 150 years ago. That life is nothing more than a piece of fiction in a history book or something Hollywood imagines for our entertainment. It was a very real place in history.
2. In your experience, are people generally prepared for even the most mundane problems, such as multi-day power outages or broken down cars? 

Preparedness for most people means grabbing some canned ravioli, bottled water and batteries on the way home from work because you hear a storm is coming. The belief has been that the "they" we hear about will come rescue us before things get really uncomfortable. "They" will fix the lines or plow the snow or repair the bridge or bring us food. But we have all seen examples, and we see more each year, of when "they" are confronted with events so big and so overwhelming that it can take weeks before things return to even a semblance of normal. I think it's irresponsible to be so dependent on any "they" At the bare minimum, you should be able to remain home and provide yourself with a way to stay warm, lighting, food, water and basic medical care for at least a month. Longer is better but a month is easy to do and a good start.
3.  What items should we have on hand to be prepared for the short-term? Do you think people should have GOOD (Get Out of Dodge) bags ready? Or focus more on making their homes prepared? 

I keep a combination evacuation pack/car kit in the back of my car. I travel on back roads in bad weather a lot and a bit of food, some water and foul weather gear, as well as some tools and a way to communicate distress is a good idea. I don't go overboard but I sure don't want to be stuck in a blizzard with nothing for my feet but a pair of divine little heels. (Not that I wear a lot of heels but you get my point.) I don't go crazy with GOOD bags. My house is in a good spot and pretty self-contained. My goal is to stay out of a shelter so, unless the place burns to the ground, I'm staying put.

4.  What items should our homes have to be prepared for more serious problems?

When I talk to people about preparedness, I urge them to think in terms of systems and the plan for likely events. It makes little sense for me to invest in digging a deep well and a hand pump when a year-round river borders our land. It makes more sense to have a means to purify the available water and a way to easily transport it and put my money somewhere else. It did seem wise to have my chimneys rebuilt so I can safely heat the whole house with wood. For lighting, I have a large cache of kerosene lamps and a closet full of lamp oil. I have several hundred candles (I buy them by the case) and I store lots of wooden matches. It didn't put up a solar array because I wanted to use my cash to put in the permaculture garden with fruit and nut trees, berry bushes and perennial vegetables. I don't have much purchased food but I have 1000 canning jars, reusable lids and all of the non-electric equipment for preserving and preparing food. If I lived in the city I would be planning differently.  At a minimum, I hope folks have one month of food, a can opener, matches, a camp stove and some way to stay warm. If you rely on municipal water to flush, you need to have a way to manage your waste. I also think getting a hand-crank radio is critical. Information is very good thing. There's a big difference between a car taking down a pole and leaving you in the dark for a few hours and region-wide grid failure that might last for weeks. Have a way to keep entertained and don't forget animal needs. We keep a couple of extra bags of chicken and rabbit food around. It sucks to sit around in the dark and batteries run low pretty quickly. Get some lamps and lamp oil and have them ready to go before the lights go out.
5. Where can people go to learn more about serious issues that might give reason for some personal preparedness? Such as peak oil, economic collapse, or climate-related issues? 

There a a number of great documentaries out there and some fabulous writers who will inform you about the real issues of resource depletion, climate instability and economic issues. Anything  by Richard Heinberg is good. I like James Howard Kunstler too. Sharon Astyk is probably my favorite for giving facts, responses and hope. I think The End OF Surbubia is a terrific look at Peak Oil. The web site, Nature Bats Last is very good. Once you go to one web site you will find links to other sites. Just don't let the information consume or overwhelm you to the point that reading the blogs is all you do. Balance is good. I keep informed but we also play a lot of music, prepare and eat fabulous food, dance and have cider pressing parties. I plan for a very different future in an energy constrained world. I don't expect any economic recovery. I plan on having less money. But different doesn't necessarily mean worse. It's just different. It's our response that determines our happiness and our comfort. People were happy without big-screen TVs and cars for their teenagers. They were comfortable without AC and on demand hot water. They managed without Ipods and Ipads and 24 hour news and trips to Disney. We make our happy and we make our place.

7. Lastly, Do you feel that such issues are over-hyped and making people unnecessarily fearful? Or do you think the general public ignores such issues as much as possible?

That's it in a very small nutshell. Go to the Nature Bats Last site. I really like Guy McPhearson and he knows his stuff. He has video of a talk he recently gave and I think it sums up our predicament really well. We are putting our plans in high gear based on the climate economic models.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

driving home

Come to this Spring's Birds and Bees Workshop!

Come up to Cold Antler Farm this spring to meet the new lambs and enjoy a full day workshop dedicated to the backyard flock of laying hens and your first hive of honeybees. This is a total beginners workshop, no livestock or pollinator experience necessary. Class covers everything you need to know to take home and raise up a trio of your own laying hens and besides three chicks, it comes with a text book: Chick Days (my chickens for beginners guide)! We'll cover everything from the brooder set up to caring for sick laying hens. In the afternoon we'll change gears and learn what it takes to get started with your own hive, we'll go into the hive at the farm and learn about the rolls and uses of bees on a small homestead, answer questions, and possibly even install a new hive (if Betterbee gets them in that early). Either way, we'll go over supplies, the beekeeper's year, and costs. Expect egg and honey meals throughout the day, like cookies and quiche, and the company of like minded homesteaders who think a weekend at a farm with the parting gift of chickens in the backseat beats a day at the track. Sign up by emailing me at - first registered, first served!

The Birds and the Bees
(comes with chickens!)
12 spots available
April 7th 2012

Click here to learn more about other workshops!

photo by Erika Thompson


Greenfire Farms down in Florida is sending me some chickens this month, and I'm thrilled to ad the new blood to my coop. Next week a dozen Swedish Flower Chicks will arrive, but this week they sent up four young Isbar pullets. They arrived yesterday. They came to the place most of my mail comes: the office. While at my desk working on "spend £100 save £25" promotion I got an email from the mail staff that went like this.

Subject line: Your birds
email content: are here.

They are used to my shenanigans, and I love them for it.

So I scuttled up to the mail room to get my box of chickens. Inside were four wild looking beasts, like as if a pigeon and a hawk had a night in a cheap hotel room and left me the evidence. I brought them down to the truck and Tim took these photos of the new gals. Not sure if you are familiar with the breed, so here's what the GreenFire Farm's site says about them...

Every nation seems to harbor its share of backyard biologists and mad monks who are irresistibly drawn to tinker with the chicken genome in the quest for a more perfect bird. Sweden is no exception, and its monk –literally in this case—was Martin Silverudd, a Catholic monk who in the tradition of Gregor Mendel before him plumbed the depths of genetics and created a number of chicken breeds in the 1950s and 1960s. Silverudd had in mind the goal of creating auto-sexing breeds that laid a high volume of unusually colored eggs. (For a more detailed description of the auto-sexing function, please read the description of the cream legbar.)

To a remarkable degree Silverudd was successful in his quest and along the way created breeding protocols that would later be studied and adopted by sophisticated university geneticists and animal scientists. But, perhaps his greatest achievement was the creation of the isbar (pronounced ‘ice bar’), a breed as practical as it is beautiful and the only green-egg-laying single combed chicken breed in the world.

Father Silverudd created a number of fancifully named breeds including the fifty-five flowery hen, the Queen Silvia, the molilja, and, of course, the isbar. There are a few varieties of isbar, and Greenfire Farms was lucky enough to locate one of the last remaining flocks of blue isbars, the most spectacular variety of the breed. Probably fewer than a hundred blue isbars exist in the world; a tragedy given the beauty and usefulness of this variety. Roosters have shimmering metallic hackles that overlay deep blue body feathers. The hens are also striking with their blue feathers, and splash color patterns are common within the variety. Because of the genetics of the blue coloring, the auto-sexing feather patterns in chicks are not as pronounced (and may be altogether absent) when compared to other auto-sexing breeds like the cream legbar. The chicks produced by blue isbars can be blue, black, white, or splash. These cold-hardy birds are thrifty foragers that will produce 150-200 moss green eggs a year. Whether speckled or pure green, the isbar eggs are as fantastic and exotic as the birds themselves.

photos by

proof on cold fingers

I felt the frost before I saw it. It was too dark outside at 5AM to see any of the grass, but my rubber boots crunched down and my breath circled around me like a force field when I exclaimed a little yip of joy at the discovery. Now, this was a proper fall morning. It was 31 degrees at the farm, the first frost. I was happy to note that while the house wasn't toasty as it was when I fell asleep—the fire went out around 2AM—it was 62 degrees inside thanks to the Bun Baker. No oil heat needed at all. I felt like I won something Tonight I'll plant garlic in one of the turned-over beds.

I walked with Gibson to the barn, and we went inside to feed Jasper and collect some hay for the sheep. The chores are now so ingrained they flow through me the way Great High Mountain does on a fiddle. You do something enough times it becomes a part of you, like driving, or putting on a pair of pants.

I was wearing a flannel shirt, a Carhartt sweater, a thick wool scarf and my fingerless mittens (you can fiddle in these). I was certainly feeling the weather. The percolator was already heating on the stove, but I wished I had coffee before chores. Some mornings, these new weather events, call for celebration.

I thought about my day ahead. I thought about Steve jobs. I thought about how that gray/blue light of pre-dawn in October is still mine, even though people left the world yesterday, I can have this a little while longer. I said a prayer. Joseph, my black sheep started running down the hill to me and my grain, he had a bit of frost along his back. I suppose they all did, but his you could see by the trick on contrast, even in that dim light. I felt the ice on the wool and understood a small bit of real change in the world, proof on cold fingers.

I learn things slowly. If I don't want to learn something, I fight against it with all I've got. But when I realize them, like ice on a wether at dawn, they are accepted without fuss. Things are how they are. We're lucky to be here.

Enjoy this new day.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

the have more plan

The "Have More" Plan is a thin book. At a glance it is nothing particularly special, almost archaic by today's homesteading book criteria. It's the exact opposite to our bible, The Encyclopedia of Country Living, by Carla Emery. Unlike Emery's newsprint tome (which I think could single-handedly restart civilization if it had to) The "Have More" Plan is a thin book, almost a pamphlet. Yet this little book, with the adoring couple on the cover looking over a scale model of a few acres of land on their living room floor, is a gem and should not be overlooked. It is a great beginner's introduction to buying land, gardening, and small-scale agriculture. It covers hand tools and hard work. The advice is timeless, and the sort written about by those who learned the hard way, which holds a special place in my heart. It's a braver book than most.

The remarkable thing about this book was it was written right after WWII. A guide for suburban-minded families to go back to the land in the late 1940's, when the entire country seemed to be trying to sell them subdivisions and washing machines. This was possibly the bravest little book around admits all this amazing modernization and post-war wealth. Think about the couples who were reading it? Folks who had come through a war, who had been rationing sugar and working in factories when they though, just a few years prior, they would be on their third child in a peaceful world. Now they had seen great upheaval, sacrifice, and hardship and were still drawn to this little book, with duck pen plans and charts of dairy goat quarters, and choosing to find a different type of peace after the war was over. They didn't want a 1/4 acre lot in the suburbs, they wanted eggs and bacon, from their own chickens and hogs. This sounds practical, even normal, to many of us now but it floors me to see a family in 1950's dusting off a copy of this book and walking away from the supermarkets and streetlights so many of their peers had chosen, to live like their parents, or memories, or dreams of plenty.

I love this little book. The fact it was written in such a time concerned with consumerism and fiscal growth, thrills me. If you get the chance to read it, please do. And imagine paging through it in the back of an ol' L-120 pickup on your way to your 5-acres after having casserole at your friend Betty's place in Oak Grove Springs (Lots still available!) as the streetlights and lawnmower din fades into stars.

Here's the ones who came before us.

listen to a tale

Here's a treat for all of you, who like me, are sitting in your office chairs on this beautiful early October morning. Sit back in tht ergonomic desk chair with a hot cup of coffee, put on your headphones, and enjoy this free classic audiobook of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. And for those of you at home, watching the kids or planting your garlic, download it and put it on your ipod for your chores, or play it in the kitchen. Tis the season!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

cider day

As Sarah walked by me she asked what I had in my hand. She had just dumped a bucket load of power-washed Macintoshes for Sam, who was feeding the grinder one-perfect-fruit at a time. "Where did you get THAT?," she asked about the delicious fried dough in my clutches. I pointed to the workbench-turned-buffet in our friend's garage. "Apple cider donuts, Stewart's Finest!" and she snatched one up. She took a bite and said, mid-chew, "I love fall"

My sentiments exactly.

The cider pressing we held Saturday was the kick-off to my true Autumn. A new tradition here among all these peers who are mostly non-native Veryorkers. Sarah's from Ohio, Sam's from Connecticut, Chrissy and Tyler come from Virginia, and I hail from Pennsylvania. Others such as James and our host, Dave, are locals. But we all ended up here in this rural, awkward, corner of the world post-college and have found some community between the fieldstones. Thanks to this culture of misfits and locals: we're starting some new traditions, such as the annual hard-cider making weekend that starts collecting apples and ends with us sipping some of Dave's 24 proof knockyouback. Viva las tradiciones.

And so I spent a day amongst friends and our joint desire to make booze out of fruit. My company was mostly human (a few canines) and mostly skirts and blokes around my age, plus a cider press from 1865. It was hosted by Dave and Sue who's land and home is just outside the New York borderlands in Shaftsbury, Vermont. You can get there by winding through this area called Ashgrove, which to me is like going to a hobbit village. You drive through this magical place where highland cattle and ponies are more common than cars. Horse-drawn vehicles pass you on the left. Monks and nuns who train dogs and make cheesecakes live in monasteries on hillsides, and all of it separates Cambridge from Vermont This is the land between my farm life and office life.

When I arrived at Dave's I had my friend James in the front seat with a big black Dutch oven of pork in his lap. Gibson was in the backseat with my fiddle and cider containers. We were going to press a lot of apples. We filled Sam's Tacoma's bed with drops from a local orchard that morning. Half a dozen of us braved the mosquitoes and rain to pick up what the farmer didn't want to turn into compost. It took an hour and James handed him the agreed-upon forty dollars. It felt like a crime, all that food for the cost of two large pizzas and beer...

The work of the day was split into stations. No one was assigned to any one task, but it was agreed by all to fill in where the chain was broken. If you don't see anyone replenishing the grinder pile, start power washing what was in the truck. If you don't see anyone filling carboys from the filter-keg, start locking and loading. The grinder did not stop for nearly three hours. With so many hands, the work party flew by. There was plenty of time to stop and enjoy the potluck and crack a beer. I made pulled pork but others brought chili, mac-n-cheese, and pies and cakes. Beer was plentiful. At one point I drank a Guinness pint in one hand while cranking apples with another. It brought on a lot of laughs, and a light buzz.

The day ended with 65 gallons of fresh-pressed, most of it will be turned into alchol through a few months of yeast and honey and tight airlocks. But some will be enjoyed fresh, or heated up over the stove on cold nights with cinnamon (they want it in the twenties here Wednesday night)! There will be some supping on cider, this week at the farmhouse.

At some point during the fray, I sat down with my fiddle and played a few tunes while the rest of the hive buzzed around me. Eventually I found myself in a folding metal chair, slumped back, Gibson at my feet and slower dorian drones coming from the strings. This was my favorite part of the entire day. Being a soundtrack in the background, while people I knew and cared about laughed over shared work. A dog at my feet, a full stomach, a promise of a future buzz on a cold night, and music in my sticky palms. That's my kind of tradition.

I can't

...start my day with the news anymore.

Monday, October 3, 2011

you're not supposed to know

Came home from work with a chemical tablet in my pocket and a package at the front door. The tablet—which looked like a little aspirin—was a small, white, pill of campden, used in this first step of making alcohol out of apple juice. You drop it in and let it kill excess natural yeasts for the first 24-hours in the carboy. Tomorrow I add brewing yeast, and four pounds of honey as well as an airlock top. As soon as I walked to the front door I had it ready to plop my tab in my plastic fermenter. The package, however, was in the way of getting inside. It was there in all its vulgar glory, a little more mysterious than my chemistry experiment... Inside that unmarked brown box was something I ordered last week from a catalog: and item I never thought I'd be seeing on an invoice for my accountant: a leather ram breeding harness with bright orange chest chalk inserts.

No, you're not supposed to know what that is.

Normal people do not buy their animals S&M gear, but apparently, us shepherds do. This brown leather harness is fitted over the ram with a colorful square of sticky chalk (AKA raddle) on his ribs. When Atlas "acts out the old urgencies", the lady will be left with a bright orange smear on her rump. Which means I can keep accurate notes of exactly when each ewe was bred and mark off 5 months down the line when I can expect my first lambs. Makes sense, sure, but you can't help but smirk at the product. The raddle is named MatingMark and has a logo of a ram winking on the packaging. A rib poke to us people pimpin' sheep. (Most rams wouldn't be winking if they knew their usual fate after a breeding season.) I'm not planning on letting Atlas loose with the girls just yet, but when I do he'll be wearing this beauty. There are going to be a lot of blaze orange sheep in my field. The deer hunters will not be confused.

Just wanted to share that bit, more on cidering and that wonderful day at Dave and Sue's place soon. Tonight though I am fighting a cold and in need of some chicken soup and tea. Gotta get my wits about me, the countdown to Antlerstock is ON!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

65 hand-pressed gallons in 3 hours!