Saturday, November 5, 2011

sunrise on a cold morning

Friday, November 4, 2011

does anyone know...

Where I can get a good quality, wall mounted, glass container, coffee grinder?

Sheep Lawn Mowers, and Other Go-Getters

Several readers sent me this story, and thank you for doing so because I got a kick out of seeing other freaks with sheeps driving across the landscape/ Read this Times piece about Sheep as Lawn Mowers and Other Go-Getters, it's a gas. And thanks to all the Jar entries coming in! Farm's warm tonight with good friends, cold beer, and hot stoves. May you all have a great Friday night! And please get back to me if you asked to come to a workshop, waiting to hear from a bunch of you about reservations. Night!
In this verdant lawn-filled college town, most people keep their lawn mowers tuned up by oiling the motor and sharpening the blades. Eddie Miller keeps his in shape with salt licks and shearing scissors.

Mr. Miller, 23, is the founder of Heritage Lawn Mowing, a company that rents out sheep — yes, sheep — as a landscaping aid. For a small fee, Mr. Miller, whose official job title is “shepherd,” brings his ovine squad to the yards of area homeowners, where the sheep spend anywhere from three hours to several days grazing on grass, weeds and dandelions.

The results, he said, are a win-win: the sheep eat free, saving him hundreds of dollars a month in food costs, and his clients get a freshly cut lawn, with none of the carbon emissions of a conventional gas-powered mower. (There are, of course, other emissions, which Mr. Miller said make for “all-natural fertilizer.”)

“They countrify a city,” Mr. Miller said of his four-legged staff. “And they lend a lot of awareness about how people lived in the past.”...

Read the rest here at

sloppin' pigs with gibson

the working pony: part 2

Antlerstock had been moving at a full gallop since 9:30 AM that October Saturday morning. Brett had done an amazing job introducing people to backyard forest management and explained the essentials with a burly grace. BY 11AM trees were falling down in the woods behind the barn and cheese curds were forming in the kitchen. The house had become a school, the farm a campus. Between chicken 101 workshops and the sounds of a sharp axe splitting firewood: the announcement for lunch was more of an internal clock telling people it was time to eat than a clanged iron triangle (though I do have one of those in the kitchen). We ate and talked and everyone seemed content with their fresh-pressed cider, pulled pork, and pie but even as I ate my stomach was doing backflips. I knew that Brett had arranged for a few smaller logs from the recently downed Cherry tree to be hauled up to the splitting team. I knew that Jasper had been patiently waiting in his stall, watching the whole event unfold. And I knew I had not been granted the time to work him as much as one would before a large demonstration.
But when Brett asked me if Jasper would be ready, I said yes. I said it like we'd been pulling logs out of the woods behind the farm for weeks. I said it like I was more like Brett, a skilled woodsman with a plaid pattern of arteries around my heart. Brett seemed convinced and I told him Jasper would be harnessed up in twenty minutes...

For the first time since buying jasper this spring, I decided to harness him inside the stall instead of outside it on a tie out in the field. What a difference this simple act made. Instead of being bossy or anxious right out of the gate, he calmly walked out to a crowd of people with flashing cameras and children running around. I was shocked at this change in attitude and then realized this horse was probably always harnessed in a stall or barn before being lead out to work every day of his life as an Amish hand. All I did was return to his normal routine, and he responded as anyone would who realized into the familiar.

He walked calmly out of the gate, his bit calm, his eyes curious. I had ordered everyone to stand back, and explained he was known to be "spirited" Everyone cut us a wide berth, but no one seemed scared. Folks like Lara who had ridden mustangs out west were not skittish around a Hobbit-sized cart horse, but I had been kicked in the back of the thigh by Jasper once (I got between him and some sheep who were running towards his grain bucket as he was eating and he kicked back to scare them off), and it hurt for days. 600 pounds is a lot of animal when a hoof hits your ass. Everyone signed a waiver, but that doesn't mean I wanted someone's memory of this farm to be two cracked ribs.

My fears were mine alone. He was steady as a barge on a canal path. I turned him around towards those unfamiliar woods, and together, me leading him by his bridle with loose reins, we walked to the area where the cherry tree fell. Jasper had no qualms with the uneven ground, the leaves, roots, and stones below him. A summer on a mountain slope pasture had made him unusually surefooted for a small horse. When we arrived at Brett near the log pile, he instructed us to walk a wide circle around the logs and wait as he attached the chains to the single tree and got Jasper and I locked and loaded. When all was set, he asked for the reins and I told him I wanted to lead him by the bridle, but said nothing more. Brett resigned to the less impressive, but functional practice. I knew Jasper was still green being driven from behind and why mess up the good thing we'd discovered here in the woods?

So holding those black reins in my right hand, my horse on my left-hand side, I took a deep breathe and said, "Step up, Gelding" and together we walked towards the opening in the trees.

What followed was minutes of work, just a short 50 yards or so from the forest to the wood pile. But it required Jasper to pull uphill, across forest floor, grass, and scattered logs and rounds, new people and equipment. Jasper remained calm, and when the first log was delivered, we turned around and did it again. I got Cathy Daughton's expression as we turned to get the second load, she seemed proud I pulled it off. So was I, so was I.

Now, to most people at Antlerstock, nothing fantastic happened at all. To the general attendee, they saw a pony pull some small logs out of the woods, easy as pie. The horse didn't act up, just walked around, doing what was expected of it. But that lack of flash and noise was exactly what made it so amazing to me. Jasper acted as calm and normal as if he was just another part of this farm, as predictable as pulling the cord on a lawn mower or starting up the truck. He just worked. It was as if that was how it has always been.

I had won martial arts tournaments, driven cross country, acquired an envious professional design resume, and bought a farm...but walking back to Jasper's hand-made stall and kissing him on the forehead was a feeling of winning I had never experienced before in my life. My heart was racing, my palms were sweating as I removed his black leather straps and buckles. I had managed to acquire, train, and heal an animal that just months before was leaping out of trailer windows and kicking sheep. As he lowered his head into a well-deserved scoop of sweet grain I ran a hand along his strong neck and told him I was proud of him.

I am no Buck Brannaman, my horse training skills are as rudimentary as they come. I make mistakes out there, many, and learn only by beating a situation into a corner until it is subdued enough to let another problem pop up elsewhere. But I am learning this working horse thing. Things that were alien to my hands and words foreign to my mind are now common place and understood. "Check his cannon, I think the singletree might have popped at it when you were working on the surcingle" was once Greek. Now I speak Greek, thanks to the translator that is experience and a dapple pony. I am stubborn enough to keep trying, and my horse knew enough to lead me the rest of the way. Thank you, Jasper.
In closing, I can not express how great it is having a working pony on this small farm. Thanks to him, there is a level of self-suffiency that Cold Antler could not obtain without his contribution. He is more than a log caddy, Jasper could be a second vehicle once harnessed to a light cart that could carry me easily the three miles into the center of town. Or, I could hop on his back for a short ride through the woods where carts can't go. He's also able to carry small wagons and packs, through all sorts of terrain, if that would ever been necessary. He protects the sheep in the pasture, making a second living as a livestock protector. Any coyote would have to think twice before taking on a flock with a 600-pound body guard with big hooves...

If you're looking for a sustainable solution to small loads and chores, and a second form of transportation, a pony might be a perfect fit for your farm as well. Jasper eats a half-bale of hay a day and a scoop of grain, he drinks about ten gallons of water. Knowing what I know now, my second pony will be a Haflinger or a Fell, something both suited to the cart and saddle, but still only around 13 hands. I'd save up and spend the money on a solid, bomb-proof, working animal around 10 years old who came with an education. Later down the road. I'd like to try training a foal, and hire and experienced saddle trainer to start him with a solid foundation as a riding animal. But regardless, equines are staying on this farm, and I can't think of a more reliable and wonderful way to get brute work done and move across the landscape. Maybe I'm a romantic, but that's fine by me. Horses, my dear friends, are good. Very, very good.

photos by lara thomason

Thursday, November 3, 2011

jasper: the week he arrived

the working pony: part 1

Around here ponies are considered children's toys, pasture mates, or the butt of jokes. They are either a stepping stone for young equestrians, or a companion animal for a "real" horse. Company that eats less hay while keeping the Warmbloods, Thoroughbreds, and Arabians less bored. Few people (if any) around Washington County employ regular-sized ponies for logging and cart work. They either use ATVs, garden tractors, or some other form of motorized tool for small jobs. If they are into working horses they use Drafts or Standardbreds. That's the MO for most farmers and ponies around here. But I am not most farmers, and Jasper is definitely not like most ponies.
When I was looking into getting my first horse, I wanted an animal at my own eye level. I rode 16+ hand mares at my riding lessons (which have since stopped since I went from 5 days of office work a week to 4), but I only felt comfortable because of the amount of education of the mares and the amount of professionals around me. It also eased the mind to know we were in a locked arena, so even a mad dash could only last a hundred yards. But on a farm, out on my 6.5 acres of land and the thousands of acres of not-my land around us on the mountain...I didn't want a 16 hand horse bolting into the woods dragging a plow. I wanted something I could control with my own hands in a pinch. Something larger than a Shetland but smaller than a Haflinger. A Pony, sure, but an animal I could still jump on the back of for a ride to the back pasture to check on the flock. A horse calm enough to learn with, strong enough to be of use, and patient enough to put up with me, a greenhorn like me. I wanted the animal more educated in driving than I was, and willing to take me on as his student.

I also wanted a gelding. Boys make sense when it comes to working animals. I wanted Gibson to be a male before he was born, and I wanted my horse to be a male as well. At the office, I have two girl friends and one of them took 3 years to shore up. I am comfortable around all the men. My closest friends are all guys. Not sure that is sound horsemanship, but I went with my gut.

 When I first met Jasper he was thin, ratty, and had not seen a brush or bath in months. The night before I met him, he was removed from his herd and stuck in a 2-horse trailer alone. In the morning, in a rain storm, he got freaked out when the trader tried to open the back hatch so he leaped out the side window. BOOM, just gone. "Well, the auction flyer said he was "spirited"..." the seller smiled, knowing this was not looking good for his bank account. Jasper trotted over to some grass near his pasture mates and without a second thought, I just walked up to him. He watched me, and let me grab his halter. I lead him back to the trailer where the Trader was getting him tacked up for a demonstration. It was starting to really rain now, and Jasper's eyes got white with stress. I didn't know enough about horses to offer to come back later, and the trader must have needed the money to ask his son to hop on board. I watched him walk off with his small passenger.

He let a 10-year-old boy saddle and ride him around an open field without qualms. Walk to Trot to Canter, then backed up easy.  Which meant in a strange place, away from his comfort zone, after a night along, he let a child push him around in a backyard without fences. This was an equine Job. Knowing nothing beyond the fact that I would have bucked out of there a long time ago if I was that horse, I agreed to pay $500 over two months and he would be delivered with his Coggins in April. I shook hands with the trader and became an owner of my first equine. I felt rich.  
Jasper came with his name and I did not change it. It suited him, and me. He's an 11.2 hand Pony of the Americas (POA). A dappled gray horse with dark brown eyes and a black and silver mane scruffed in a permanent mohawk. He's ten years old, and comes from a working Amish farm down state where he was trained to drive. He came to me from that scrappy dealer in Hebron, a town a few miles north of Jackson. (I have since learned buying a second-hand auction horse from a backyard trader might not have been the best way to get a working animal.) He was delivered and let loose in a half acre paddock and he ran, bucked, and kicked like a bronco. "Just settling in..." was what the man said before shaking my hand and leaving. As the trailer backed out of the drive, Jasper let out a cry only heard in movies. What was I getting into....

That's his backstory, our backstory really. Over the spring I didn't train with him at all. We just went on halter walks together, learned each other as peers. Summer came and we learned to trust each other a little more. When I bought him a harness he let me put it on him and soon we started working in the field together. It became a regular thing. I learned so much in such a short time. How to understand the confusing puzzle of leather straps that is a horse harness. I figured out his body language, bit size, farrier needs, and dental appointments.  I got a few books, had a driving trainer visit, and over time gained some confidence that this animal and I could work together someday, get something of import accomplished. After all, that was his purpose: To be both my second vehicle and my farm hand. I had dreams of us pulling logs out of the woods together, or hitching up to a sled or cart to make a trip into town. I secretly wished I had the confidence to jump on his back and ride up into the pasture, like the Lairds did in storybooks in Scotland, hoping on the back of ponies in waxxed cotton coats to see how the flock fared. I was in a story book with this horse. I liked it there.
The weekend of Antlerstock was getting closer and closer, and I knew I wanted Jasper to be a part of it.  I had written in the description of the weekend about backyard lumberjacking, with Jasper pulling logs, but wasn't entirely sure that we could or he would. He had worked in the open field pulling around tires and weights, but I had never walked him into the woods, hitched him to a log, and walked him out through low branches and uneven ground into a clearing. So I wasn't sure I would risk it, not around other people. If He got scared and bolted on me, a horse in harness dragging a log is a runaway train. It would be the event everyone remembered, and not in a good way.

But when Brett asked me if Jasper was ready to pull logs on the Saturday of Antlerstock...

I said yes.

Photos by Tim Bronson

don't miss this!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

keep them jars a coming!

...and those are just a few!

Monday, October 31, 2011

the stone, the string, the bone and the ring.

It's Halloween Night, the oldest holiday we still celebrate together. Older than Christmas, Valentines, or St. Patrick's. Truth is, along before the St. Patrick, the Torah, or the Koran were even written there were the bonfires lighting the skies tonight in the land of my heritage: Europe. I'm only an 1/8 Irish (if that, possibly less) and that small bit comes from a man from Connemara who married a gypsy who lived in a boxcar. I'll explain shortly, but for now, listen to my story and why Halloween is the most important night of the year to this shepherd.

Most of my family comes from Slovakia. I am more Slovak than anything else. We come from a tribe called the Windish, a rural and nomadic people. We're Catholics as of recent, but we all know that's a fairly new religion in the history of our species. Before there was monotheism, there were gypsies and various pagan tribes. I know little about my historical religious roots but I do know that the gypsies had a way with fiddles and horses, and while I am just a raw student of both, they call to me. They feel like a place I belong, something I was born into. They call to me in the Autumn more than ever.

Some of my Christian readers do not observe Halloween, and I hope this post will not offend them. Honestly, with what the day has become over the last few decades I can hardly blame them. What was once a night to celebrate the end of the harvest, reverence for the dead, fear of the unknown, and welcoming the contemplative time of winter has since been twisted into an idol worship in equal parts of sex, violence, and high fructorose corn syrup.

That is not my Holiday. My Hallow's is a night of quiet realization that I am a dying animal, a part of a larger story, and made awake and aware of a beautiful chance to live this life following what feels real and meaningful. This all comes alive for me tonight. I have to take it easy to keep all the emotion in.

My October 31st is a quiet day of memories and reflection. It is a time to mourn friends and family lost over the past year, to death or other means, such as arguments and disappointments. I am quiet for most of the evening. I do chores to music, thinking. I come inside and eat dinner in silence. I carve a pumpkin because it's both a symbol of luck, hope, and light. A jackolantern to me is a lantern of the farm. Something grown and enjoyed to light a path or be eaten up in a pie. It is food and light, the two things us humans are most drawn too.

Here is a story for a cold night.

The only reason I am here today is because a woman named Anna Jumbar. She left her Czechoslovakian parents in the post-Civil War era of the 19th century, and she left alone. She came to America with no man, no money, and no real plan. She landed in eastern Pennsylvania (a mostly Irish occupied area—miners around Jim Thorpe and such—but with a growing eastern European flavor), and was shunned. No one would hire her for work. Frankly, they thought she was crazy. After all, what sane woman left for the other side of the world alone at 18?

So she stayed at the train station she landed in and when an abandoned boxcar made itself known to her, she asked if the station agent if she could use it. He was either apathetic or empathetic, but he obliged. She turned it into a restaurant, and soon it became a networking site for immigrants. She created a community, because she was alone. She created what she needed. One day a scrappy Irishman came into her diner car, and sat down to dinner alone. His name was Stephen Comer. She knew this would be her husband, so she joined him for dinner. They were married in the Lansford Church shortly after.

If I ever have a daughter, her name will be Anna. I will tell her this story in a dining car. Her father will probably come from a place not far from Connemara. Not everything is a straight line in this world. Some stories are circles, you see.

On this night of memories and grace, I thank you Anna. I am shaking in thanks for what you overcame and accomplished: A crossed ocean, a community, new love, a boxcar, a family in a new world.... On this calm night in upstate New York, I will light the candle in my jack o'lantern for you because this is what my mother taught me to do. Every Sunday after mass we'd light a candle to remember the dead. This one is in a pumpkin on a sheep farm on a cold night. There are no priests here to bless it, you'll just have to trust me. Instead of a church, you have a wood stove on a farm that isn't really sure how the next mortgage payment will be made on time. But I have a feeling you would be okay with that. I have a feeling, you would like this place.

This is my Halloween. It is quiet and honest, tears and regrets, memories and hope. It is the holiest night of the year because f what is poured into my heart. I hope tonight you found some of that, too. Maybe not in a boxcar, but in your child's smile walking around the neighborhood trick-or-treating. Or maybe in old scrapbooks, journals, or emails from a lost love or old friend. Just know this day is more than candy corn and horror movies, friends. It is our past and everything we will be. At least to me it is. And it reminds me how short this fine life is. I should dance more.

I'll leave you with the song I listen and sing to every Hallows for the last few years. It is the entire meaning of the day in a few minutes. I hope you will listen to it with someone you love in mind.

A Happy and Blessed Halloween to you all.

one of my holiday favorites

Sunday, October 30, 2011

pablo in the kitchen

This is the last of the sunflowers. I'm not sure if it will bloom or not? It seems to want to. It sure has been through a lot. It was planted in May, grew up hidden by tomato plants and basil (thus its stunted size), and when a horrid frost was coming I cut it and brought her inside with the rest. The other seed mates have bloomed and died long ago, the leaves are dried and scattered. But this little bud seems to be holding out, and so I put it in a mason jar by the window. Makes me want to read Pablo Neruda and dance in the kitchen. How can you not want to dance with Pablo when there are sunflowers thinking of blooming on a 20 degree night with snow on your sheep's back.

Oh, the mad coupling of hope and force!

Max has been adopted!

Got this email just now, remember Max? The Lab who's owner passed away and he was sent to a shelter? He's got a proper home now, with a young family. Thank you to all who helped this boy get back on his feet!

Hi Jenna,
I got a call from my friend last night - Max the lab has been adopted! By a family in Maine with two children. Everyone is thrilled. I guess they had him for a sleepover and decided then to keep him. Thank you to you and the community for your posting, concern, and care.

I hope you're well in the snow!

not for the uninitiated

Heating was something I never thought about before this year, not really. It was a thermostat and a bill, something that simply happened. My whole life heat came out of oil, gas, or electricity. The fireplace I grew up with was for decoration, comfort, and emergencies.

Right now the farmhouse is 65 degrees. It's that warm because since 4:30AM two fires have been roaring in my wood stoves. As the early-season snowfall coats the world outside, here in the house my home is warm and lit with candles and jackolanterns. But it is my two stoves that are the true workhorses of this farm house—one in the mud room where all the house's plumbing pies converge and exist, and the other in the living room. The wood stove in the mud room is a 6-year old Dutch West box stove, a classic workhouse that doubles as a cooking surface for cast iron and metal percolators. The living room stove is a Vermont Bun Baker, a half wood stove/half oven contraption that creates a soothing fire that heats the living area of the house and can roast a chicken, rise pizza dough, or bake a loaf of bread in it's oven box. It is a genius invention. Both are assets, and they are the way I mainly plan on heating this farm this winter.

there is an oil tank in the basement, but the thermostat is set to 48 degrees. Unless I have to leave the farm for a few nights, I don't plan on raising it. Heat is now a pre-meditated act. Wood was delivered all summer, chopped this fall, stacked, and now everyday I carry inside dry wood to fuel the stoves. I tend them, and watch them turn the temperature up in the farmhouse to a comfy place where sweaters are shed and a cheap humidifier keeps the air in check.

I like this system. It requires presence. For some reason, being needed by our homes and families has gone out of fashion. Tell someone of the uninitiated that you can't go out to the bar after work because you have livestock to feed and a house to heat and they see a prisoner. Nothing could be further from the truth. This house on the hillside might require its human caretaker more than some, but it gives back an astounding amount for my humble efforts.

A home heated without the need of an electric grid, foreign oil, or fear of losing my pipes and warmth if in the case of a disaster. Fuel that is renewable, and local, and supports my local economy. IF I had too, me and my pony and an axe could harvest it ourselves.

A home surrounded by animals that provide meat, eggs, wool, transportation, work, and company. A home filled with three kind dogs, the CAF pack, that have pulled sleds and herded sheep. I love my working dogs. I am one too.

A home with a future in real vegetable production and preserving. My last few years getting fences and livestock in order have left me without much dedication to the garden. Next year I get serious. It will require a hoop house and fences to extend the seasons and keep out the critters, but a farm that just grows herbs, a few cans of sauce, some hanging onions and a small bucket of potatoes won't cut it. Not for me. I have a seed vault and I plan to use it!

A home that constantly strives to get off grid. This year was the heat for the home, next summer I hope to afford a small solar system for the hot water. Eventually more solar and wind power will be added as the farm grows. It will require more work and dedication to this blog, workshops, and books than I have the energy for now, but the growth of this dream is my biggest source of energy. I do what I can, and then some more, and it returns the favor.

A home surrounded by forests and resources. There is wild game, foraging, ponds, streams, and other gifts just beyond the fence lines. A whole other world of goodness I have yet to barely tap into. But wish me luck this deer season.

A home that educates and shares. I will continue to have workshops and classes at this farm. Teaching and inspiring beginners has been the greatest joy. I have folks signed up for sausage making, fiddle 101, and urban homesteading workshops already. The Chick Days workshop in the spring is a huge hit (come learn about chickens, and go home with three chicks and a book!), and I am already have a third of the spaces for next year's Antlerstock worked out, with classes expanding from folks down at Polyface (a goat raising intern might come with Nigerians!), candle making, pig 101, and more!

This post started about wood heat, and ended with an anthem. It's what happens when 6:24 AM on a Sunday already means you walked the dogs and lit the fires and have a pot of coffee on the way.


Dear Friends and Readers,

Yesterday I spent some time on the phone with my good friend Shellee down in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvanian. She told me about their 4-year-old daughter's recent emergency surgery due to her unique issue with absorbing calcium. The little girl had intense kidney stones, removed under the knife, and now has to be carried from the upstairs bedroom to play downstairs quietly. She's hooked up to tubes and bags. She's having a rough time. Good news though, she's on the mend, but only at the beginning of the series of hospital visits and surgeries to deal with this rare problem.

Shellee and Zach, her parents, are two of us. They're hopeful farmers and current urban homesteaders. In their 1/4 acre of town lot they have raised their family, amazing gardens, rabbits, and their rescued dog. They have two young girls Madeline and Sarah (Sarah was just born this past year) and no health insurance. Shellee is a stay-at-home mom and Zach works his own antique dealing business, along with several other odd jobs (like out plowing snow all last night) to help keep the family together. Times are tight in the best of times, but they are a happy and grace-filled family. Being highly involved in their church and faith, they are supported emotionally, but they still need our help.

Yesterday on the phone I asked if I could post about their hardship? I told them how the community on CAF might have a few dollars to donate, or good healing thoughts to send their way. Shellee was more concerned about putting me out, then anything else. I insisted. This blog's generosity was why I was able to get my farm. This blog's kindness has supported readers who had lost their footing before, and have donated over the years to help several small families. Some day, this blog might help you, too.

As for the Snyder family: with travel to Philadelphia hospitals, medical bills not covered by the state's child insurance, hotels, and work missed to take care of Madeline: they are in need of our support. If you could send a few bucks, say a prayer, or send them an encouraging comment here on the blog; it would do wonders. I know times are tight for some of us, but even if folks just sent out a dollar each, it could change this young couples world.

Shellee said this on the phone to me last night. She said that she felt this hardship and dealing with the health issues, stress and late bills was just God's way of preparing her for the stresses and trials of running their own farm some day. She said it was something to overcome, and something that would make her family stronger. To find such grace when your little girl is hooked up to tubes and wires, amazes me.

Please donate. Use this button here in this post, (do not confuse it with the similar one on the right side of this blog). If it says "Madeline Snyder" in the donation field, you have the right one. I made a small contribution myself, and will have the family in my thoughts as they face this winter with a new set of worries.