Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Milk Pail Diaries:
First Milking at Cold Antler Farm

Bonita arrived at 6AM, delivered in a large dog crate in the back of a pickup truck. The man who delivered her, a brother named Zyrah, at Common Sense was heading to pick up her replacement in Bellow's Falls. He helped me walk her over towards the barn and get her milked. It took two of us, since I had no way to contain her, no stanchion of any sort, and she was nervous being in a new place. We tied her collar and leash to a tree and I help a grain bucket while Zyrah milked her in about 5 minutes flat. I could not believe his speed, three times as fast and forceful as my beginner's hands. I thanked him, grateful just to get the chore done. He walked the full and foamy pail to the side deck where no one could hurt it.

I stood there with Bonita, who was gently nibbling my black sweater. I had not anticipated the importance of a stanchion, the stand that secures the goats head in a loose vice while they eat so they can't move while the milking is done. As I went about morning chores I tried to figure out an inexpensive solution. I didn't want to spend money on a trial enterprise and I didn't want to have a horrible experience either. As I racked my brain I set her inside the pasture next to the sheep. It was where Jasper spent his time when he wasn't in the stall. I figured I'd give her two acres to explore with the strange new sheep a fence away so no one could bust heads, start with the nosing and smelling first. Instead of checking out the pasture, or the sheep, or drinking her water or eating her hay she simply whirled around and in one motion tore down the woven wire fence.

Then I had this stupid moment of panic.

This was a mistake. What the crow was I thinking? I can't contain a goat here, that's why there was a goat kicked out in the first place. And what the hell where you thinking when you took on a goat without anything but a borrowed steel pail? How are you going to milk her when there isn't someone here to hold her? You really aren't capable of this....

I let my inner panic last another few minutes. I walked around the farm frantically doing chores, fuming at myself and my mistake. With one hand full of eggs I grabbed the metal milk pail off the deck by the lip and it splattered out of my clumsy, distracted hands. I wanted to cry, and I didn't care how cliche it was. I was in over my head. I didn't have the right tools or know-how. And I just ruined the first ever pail of Cold Antler Farm Milk....

I let my stupid inner anger last another 45 seconds and then snapped out of it. Why put myself down? Why be angry? You want to change your circumstances, change your attitude about them. I opened the gate and removed Bonita from the place she was destined to fail in. I tied her off at a tree and then took Jasper out into the pasture where he could both have more space to trot and run, and open up a goat-containment zone. I placed her inside the horse paddock and she simply walked out under the latch chain in one deft squeeze. I added a second chain lower down on the gate so she couldn't do that anymore and she started knocking around Jasper's woven wire fence. It had a top line of eclectic already, but that doesn't stop a goat till they've already climbed a fence to get to it. So I grabbed some more t-post insulators and a roll of wire and added a second goat-nose level of electric shock to the inner fence. Now I was cooking with gas.

I got her some fresh hay, clean water, scratched her head and went inside. And she stayed.

My day between milking was ideal, almost sounds fake when I write about it. With the goat secure and her bag empty, I had Gibson help me wrangle those chickens. We ended up taking eight to Ben Shaw in a crate in the back of the pickup with the new Chocolate Drops album blaring. I picked up their CD and the newer Sarah Jarosz album (haven't gotten to that one yet). I love that I bought both of them in Cambridge. Battenkill Books carries some killer CDs and The Village Store does too. I get the whole digital age, but I love holding LPs and CDs, looking at the artwork, setting it on a shelf. Anyway, I digress.

I sang along with "I Am a Country Girl" and dropped off the birds. Then with my crate of birds heading to their fate, and a dog tired from the work that boils in his blood, I took us both home. I put Gib in for a nap and changed into breeches and half chaps. Time to see a horse.

I had a good ride with Merlin, the arena was all ours. We had a rough trail ride on Easter Sunday, he didn't want to cross water. But this ride was great. He did all I asked and I am starting to feel comfortable and natural at a posting trot. We didn't push it, a short and productive practice. And when we were done I tussled his mane and kissed his forehead and asked him if he was getting all the love he needed? He nosed my pocket and I gave him a cookie.

The afternoon was dedicated to chores and errands. I cleaned out the meat bird chick haybale brooder/coop. I checked the bees (thriving!) and I watered the baby plants of greens, garlic, and peas popping out of the first raised beds planted just a few weeks earlier. I put off writing (shame on me) but what the hell, I was ridiculously happy. I even had a plan to make the sorriest excuse for a stanchion ever. Get this: a flag pole holder.

While picking up grain at the hardware store I saw a wall-mounted, swiveling, flag pole holder. Something clicked in my head and I bought it on the spot. It was made so you could mount it to a wall and stick a pole at any angle you wanted, basically a lever you tightened at will. I got out my cordless power drill and mounted it at goat-head height on the outside barn wall. Instead of a flag, I stuck a plunger dowel into it and tightened the screw that would hold my "flag" in place. With a grain bucket hanging in front of it I could do the same thing the fancy metal milking stands did at Common Sense.

When milking time came at 5:30 I was a little nervous. This was it. There was no one here to watch or help, and I was counting on an $8.99 aluminum flag pole holder with a toilet sucker handle on it. I washed my hands, rolled up my sleeves and grabbed the stainless steel pail. It was on.

I filled a plastic bucket with sweet grain and walked over to Bonita. Her bag was HUGE and she seemed happy to see me, all bleats and head bobs. I set the milk pail down and opened the gate. I set her in place over my rigged stanchion, her body against the wall, and I clamped it comfortably shut, using a piece of baling twine to close the top from her lifting her head out. She didn't flinch. She just went to chompsville. I set the pail under her teats (just two!) and started going to town on those suckers. Milk squirted into the pail with a happy force, and I realized I didn't have to be dainty. I went faster and harder and she just ate. It took till the pail was half full before I realized it was working. My head pressed against her side, my arms working one at a time like little pistons. In about 10 minutes the work was done. I set it aside, hugged her, and helped her out of her head lock. Mission Accomplished!

I grabbed the pail and walked it inside, we weren't home free yet. I still had to strain it, bottle it, and do the dishes. I didn't have a strainer, but I did have some gadgets I bet would work. I grabbed a small mesh metal strainer and a coffee filter from the vast collection I inherited when I bought the farmhouse. They had been sitting in a box unused, waiting for a purpose to call them by name. I set the filter paper in the strainer, slowly poured in the foaming milk, and watched as every goat hair and fleck of hay stayed out of the Pyrex bowl below it. I smiled. I could not believe I was making this happen. I poured it into a recycled bottle from Battenkill Creamery and shut the lid. I set it on the kitchen counter and gawked for a while. I just made milk happen... Me. I had never held a container of milk that I was entirely responsible for, ever before. It felt like it was worth an unspeakable sum. After a few moments of quiet revelry, I set it in the fridge. From walking outside to finishing the milking dishes it took 25 minutes. I was impressed. I always thought a milking chore would take an extra 3 hours a day, but one goat wasn't bad at all.
I guess tomorrow I'll find out what goatmilk coffee creamer tastes like...

Milk Pail Diaries:
Meet Miss Bonita

good boy

I would just like to take a moment this morning to thank my panting, filthy, exhausted, and wonderful dog, Gibson. Together we just wrangled and grabbed six frantic Freedom Rangers (and hope to catch a few more still). They were well down in the forest, hard to catch. But Gibson managed to gather and hold a few in place so I could scoop them up and put them in the crate in the back of the truck. It wasn't a pretty, but it sure was teamwork! In a little bit we'll both be driving over the mountain to Greenwich to deliver the birds to be slaughtered for the table. I took today off as a vacation day, so I have time to figure out this goat and meat bird business. So far its been a little hectic! More later!

Milk Pail Diaries Teaser: I did not cry over spilled milk.

Monday, April 9, 2012

CSA Update - New Shares Open

Shearing Day for the second year of the Wool CSA is underway on Saturday. The wool sheared will be skirted, boxed, and sent off to the mill for the people already paid and signed up for their share of wool. Folks from the very first year have been mailed their shares. Due to just three sheep and a limited number of longwools turned into skeins of yarn the first year's share turned out to offer 2 or 3 skeins of wool and 2 or three sheets of felt. Everyone who signed up has either got their packages or has them in the mail this week. It took longer than I anticipated, and for that I apologize, but not a single investor went without a return. Some farm CSAs aren't so lucky. I am am sorry the mailings took so long but am happy I have product to send. If anyone is frustrated know that I did not end up making a single dollar of profit. The wool, sheep, feed, shearing, shipping costs and milling cost three times what the shares paid. But, thanks to those shares paid I was able to buy the flock to begin with. So I consider that first year breaking even. What I lost in cash I made up for in lessons.

If you signed up for the second season of the wool CSA, your yarn is starting its journey this Saturday. If you could please email me to let me know your current mailing address and involvement in the program I would really appreciate it. I'd like to send out a postcard with some updates and dates you can expect your shares. You can expect it by late summer, and I am hoping everyone gets 2-3 skeins, felt, or roving. We may do a raffle for some extra value products like a wool rug from the pieces of blackface wool not fit for felting and such.

As tradition holds, every shearing season spots open up for the following year's CSA. If you are interested in the 2013 season of wool (meaning your shearing date is NEXT year and your wool is NEXT summer, email me for a spot). I decided to only take 12 members for 2013. My flock is too small to make 25 people content. But I can really make 12 people's year who want to both support this small farm and the entire Cold Antler Dream. It is first come, first served, so email me at Jenna@itsafarwalk.com if you would like a share in the warmth.

photo by 468photography.com

listen to this

The Milk Pail Diaries:
First lessons in milking goats...

I arrived at Common Sense's giant two story barn a little early. The folks assigned to tonight's milking had not arrived yet so I made myself at home with Smudge, the black and white barn kitten. I scooped her up in my arms and walked down to the goat pen where Bonita was waiting for me.

And there she was... Bonita's a French Alpine doe, 3 years old with a black face and back and a brown body. She's the largest doe in the herd giving a gallon and a half of milk a day. The farm is happy to loan her over because they are getting a new doe from the community in Bellow's Falls Vermont and want their herd more uniform in size and production. Bonita is a great producer, but also larger than they prefer as far as children and families handling her. So they are happy to let me give goat owning a test drive. So am I.

I walked right into the pen and said hello to the fine lady. She did this thing were she showed me her upper plate and bottom teeth, lips curled back. I have no idea what this means since sheep only do this right before sex and I hardly know this woman. But she didn't try any moves, she just did the weird lip thing and sauntered around. I shrugged and scratched her ears. Then I checked out her teats. Two can play at this game.

Man, where they swollen! I started to feel a little doubt rise up in me. I mean, that entire fleshy milk container was packed with 2/3rds a gallon of warm milk and its my responsibility to get it all out in a quick and gentle manner in a way that doesn't cause mastitis or Lord knows whatever other goat-milking vapors I might cause through my clumsy hands.

Soon Yesheva and her children arrived, along with some other community members I know well. I've lived three miles away from Common Sense farm for two years now, sharing equipment, meals and conversations over hot mugs of tea. They've become good friends and farm co-conspirators over the years. We've bartered livestock for hay, built my sheep shed, and their landscaping team plows my driveway and has shoveled snow off my roof.

So when they ran this goat idea not only was I excited, but felt like I was in on something special. Bonita isn't just any Alpine, but a doe from a farm that cares for its animals so well their barn is usually in better shape than my living room (WHEN I have company over) so I feel both excitement and a little fear. I don't want to do anything wrong, or cause any harm.

Before I knew what was happening, a man opened the goat pen and let two out. Bonita and her pal Iris. They both bee-lined for their milking stands with such excitement I was shocked. Then I realized they were so used to the routine, the grain in the stands, and the relief of the empty bag...why wouldn't they run? It's like one wild date night in hyper speed. They get dinner and felt up in ten minutes flat.

With Bonita locked and loaded in the metal milking stand my lessons started. I was handed a warm, wet rag that smelled like lavender. It was a castile soap they use to clean and gently massage the teats before milking. This "lets down" the milk into the teats. It was a quick massage, and then on with the drying towel. Now that Bonita's swimsuit place was cleaned (and my own hands washed) a metal pail was set under her udder. I tried to recall the woman at Byler's Farm in Slatington Pennsylvania who taught me how to milk a cow on a family outing when I was. I used my thumb and forefinger to make an okay sign around the teat's base, pinched it off, and one finger at a time closed my fist.

Milk squirted into the pail!

Holy crow! I was doing it! I kept at it, and quickly learned how little pressure I was using. In the time it took me to get an 1/8 of an inch of milk in the pail my partner at the other stand was done and onto his next doe. So I have it some moxie, and a little more gentle force, and it came out faster and thicker. Okay, okay, I'm getting the hang of it. MY arms weren't used to it though. I got tired quickly, and had to switch hands. Eventually as the pail filled up I could feel her emptying out. When nothing came out of the back left teat I focused on the back right (which had plenty left). Yesheva praised my work, even if I was slow, because I wasn't causing milk to go "back up into the bag" a bad no no. This is what causes that scary mastitis disease.

In about fifteen minutes I had done the job. The milk pail was foaming with a happy half gallon of fresh milk and I felt like I just won a game of chess. I did some complicated and timeless, something people have been doing for hundreds of years. A dance between hunger and style. And the results were right there in front of me. Checkmate.

Tomorrow Cold Antler Farm turns into a micro-dairy!

P.S. Bonita will arrive early tomorrow morning. I'll get her milked outside the barn with a pail of grain and a tie out, and then walk her into a pen where she can meet Jasper through the safety of a closed stall door. I think having them side my side for a little will be good, in a way that Jasper can't hurt her if he is anti-goat. I don't think there will be trouble but better safe than sorry. Wish us luck and drama-free equine/caprine love.

Milk Pail Diaries, starting tonight!

Today I'll be heading down to Common Sense Farm to learn the proper way to hand-milk a goat. I'll be learning as part of a short-term experiemnet here at Cold Antler. I will be bringing home Bonita, an Alpine Doe in milk for a few days to see what it is like living with a dairy animal. I'm excited to see if it is something that fits into my life. She'll be keeping Jasper company, since his stable built last summer is a fully goat-proof space. It has wooden high fences inside and a strong electric fence outside. Goats are supposed to be fine companions for horses. too. I am excited to play with some recipes and share what I learn here. Get ready folks, because The Goat Diaries start tonight!

I had a little wether here once named Finn. I adored raising that sprite. But he had the poor luck to come into my life between moving and before I had any space suitable for a large and capricious animal. I'm in a far better place now to handle a goat, and if this trial period proves good for me, Jasper, Bonita, Common Sense, and I enjoy her she may stay. I'm not entirely sure it is what I want, but if the Universe throws you free goat milking lessons and a trial doe...I'm going to bite. I would be lying if I wasn't a little excited about living in the land of milk and honey...

P.S. The bees are doing amazingly this spring! Honey for sure this summer!
P.P.S. Comments are now moderated by me before they go public.

Kathleen Stoltzfus, you WON!

You won the recent book giveaway!
Email me your address and I'll send it off to Deb!

that time of year again....

photos by 468photography
Freedom Hangs like Heaven Over Everyone: Iron and Wine

good news!

So I am 99% certain that at least one Blackface Ewe is pregnant! She has a bag on her big enough to feed twins! She would be due in the next week or two if Atlas did the job. Fingers crossed for lambs!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Henry David Thoreau On Facebook

I read this last night on Jon Katz's blog. I just had to share it...

Thoreau finished his dinner soon after moving to his cabin on Walden Pond – fried rat, wild cat, roots, berries, raw fish, mushrooms – and he sat down to record the meal. He wanted to share the experience of living alone at Walden Pond, to demonstrate to himself and the world that he could live near nature, make his own decisions, shed some of the fears and restrictions of society, live a life of self-determination. He saw his page as a living “Walden.” When he finished eating, he clicked on the “Publish to Facebook” button and went outside to gaze at the stars, stretch and relieve himself in the woods.

Thoreau, committed to a life of simplicity and very little use of technology, was at first reluctant to bring a computer into his tiny cabin, or to get a Facebook Page. He didn’t like the Internet, and had refused to do his banking online. Of course, he had no money, so that wasn’t a huge sacrifice. But he really disliked social media, the idea of all these strangers coming into his life. Writers should work alone, be mysterious, he complained. He didn’t want to meet his friends from childhood, and he hated the idea of e-mail. His publisher persuaded him that waldenpond.com would help him market “Walden Pond,” and sell more copies of this dubious project to people who did not want to live on a pond in the dark and hunt and cook for themselves. You know, his editor said, brand yourself.

When Thoreau came inside after swimming naked in the pond, and capturing a frog for dinner, he was surprised to see more than 100 comments on his Facebook posting. “Fried rat!,” said one comment, “you better get yourself to a doctor now. You will have parasites and worms in the morning.” There were more than 20 comments from animal lovers horrified that he had eaten a cat...

read the rest over at bedlamfarm.com

Cold Antler Farm Joined!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

chickens in the road

I've been paying attention to Suzanne McMinn's Chickens In the Road blog lately, its quite the website. Not just a blog but features, recipes, the works. She recently got a horse and boy oh boy, I wanted to walk down to her farm, sit on the porch, and talk manes and tails. I confess I am not up and up on the farm blog scene but it is enjoyable to find someone that resonates with you. Suzanne seems to have achieved the life I strive for, a self-employed family farmer in this new farm economy. She makes a living sharing her passion and her family with other new and determined farmers, and what could be more fulfilling than that?


Yes, I'm looking for an immersion blender, a tabletop espresso machine, and a chicken coop, thanks.

Friday, April 6, 2012

it's fancy time, people

I have no idea what kind of chicken that is. It's one of Tamine's crazy cross breeds from his jungle fowl stock. That hen with the blue face and white feathers sure is a looker. It's fancy time, people. Look at that bird and treat yourself to something nice. She would.

I can't rest the night before a workshop. I'm so excited. I baked a giant cast-iron pan of apple pie from New York's finest, and a braided egg bread with butter and sugar crust the size of a basket ball. Tomorrow is all about chickens here at Cold Antler. The meals are chicken (eggy breakfast of bread, quiche, and pie) and a lunch of chicken tacos. There are 45 little chicks awaiting their future homes in the brooder and a houseful of new chicken owners coming to meet them. Jazz and Annie will camp out in the bedroom upstairs. They "like" chicken.

By like I mean eat.

...if it all went away?

I loved reading everyone's responses to the technology post, what we require for daily sanity (and in some cases, survival) all over the world. But today I have a new question, and it is something I think about fairly often: What would you do if it all went away?

What do I think? Well, I'm walking a thin line. I don't think we're going to see the world change quickly and harshly, like some do. But I do think rising gas prices and a shifty economy will make our future far more local and less energy dependant. I would be lying if I said my interest in equine transportation, food storage, clean water, backyard chickens, seed safes, etc was about prepping for the end of the world. I just like this lifestyle. It makes me feel safe and useful. I am not creating a fort against the Zombie Hordes.

I do think our current lifestyle will go from being cheap and normal to very expensive and abnormal, and in the next few years. It is foolish to think otherwise. I don't think we'll run out of oil or electricity, but I do think if we don't make strides towards more energy independence we are looking at serious trouble. (And I don't mean as a nation, I mean as individuals.)

The best protection against rising food and gas prices is a safe source of food at home, and a strong community ready for anything. I am for every American learning to use less energy in their homes, driving less in their cars, and producing a substantial amount of food at home. I'm for it not because I'm afraid of the future, but because it seems sensible. I want pantries and larders to be as normal again as walk-in closets. (Come to think of it, walk in closets can hold a lot of food!) I want my readers to have enough set by that if anything scary ever did happen: from ice storms that take down the grid over night to $9-a-gallon gas price spikes: you are all okay. I think expecting everything you need to be at a store and an outside source to home to your rescue is both irresponsible and dangerous. I don't think this is about fear, but about sense.

On May 19th the most well-attended workshop in this farm's history is going down. It's called Plan B, and it's a full day entirely dedicated to the future of energy, peak oil, and preparing your family and farm for uncertain times ahead. It is not a tin-foil hat meeting of conspiracy theorists, but a group of concerned homesteaders and citizens talking with three authors. It will be quite the event. Featured speakers are:

Myself - Homesteader working towards a transitional farm
Kathy Harrison - Community organizer and disaster prep expert
James Howard Kunstler - Peak oil lecturer on the future of energy.

The workshop is mainly about two things: Preparation and education. It will start with getting ready now for any sort of disaster, pandemic, food shortage or economic collapse. Kathy Harrison will talk about her communities efforts to create a place ready for whatever the future throws at them. (She's well known for this subject, too. National Geographic did a spot on their new show Doomsday Preppers. about them!) And the second part is about larger national and global issues, focused around a conversation with JHK (I also got him to bring his fiddle, which will be a treat) about what is actually going on out there. What to expect. He lives just over the mountain in the next town and is a good friend.

No event at this farm has gotten such a response, people are flying in and staying at local hotels to talk with myself, Kathy and James. Two couples are staying here at the farm, one from Philly and another from Canada. Others are traveling from around the Northeast. Young couples are making the trip, so is a group of five seniors! All of them coming to learn and discuss. Kathy will be teaching us how to use a pressure canner and food dehydrator to store a garden's bounty. Others are more interested in hearing JHK's views on what is ahead. Everyone is very engaged and excited, which makes me think there are a lot of people thinking about this? Are you?

Do you think change is in our future? Are people talking about it being negative and foolish? Do you agree, and are taking steps toward a more sustainable life? Or is it all too scary to even think about?

most boring herding job, ever

everyday, regular, totally normal excitement

I just got back from delivering a truckload of chickens to Ben Shaw's farm. I must admit, it was a wonderful drive. Gibson and I in the front seat watching the sun welcome our county to the day. Near my thigh was a happy little cup holder hugging a hot cup of coffee. It wafted waves of delicious mist in the chilly morning air. Behind us, in various ramshackle cages, covered with an old blanket for wind protection, were nearly twenty fat chickens. I easily caught them by dumping a pound of feed at the parked truck's tailgate and one at a time lifted them like tubby tabbies into the back of the truck. There was no rush, no stress. I just picked them up from the buffet one at a time. All of a sudden a bird would be eating next to his buddy and then I would gently scoop him up. He'd be gone, like an alien spaceship teleported him to his next incarnation with nary a fuss. His buddy, still eating, would look to his left for a second and cock his head "Hey? Anyone see Mitch?" and then go back to eating the feed with gusto. (Chickens do not mourn their MIA friends when there is food to be eaten.) The sheep watch all this and bitch the entire time. They assume anything in a Blue Seal bag is for them, and since I dared to empty its contents into another animal's maw, I was a heathen monster to be heckled at. And boy, did they heckle.

"Gibson, Sheep." I say, and the dog who was circling the flock of BBQ wings shot up to the sheep gate and everyone scattered or shut up right quick. Well, everyone save Joseph, who thinks Gibson is as harmless as a tuft of quackgrass. I think the only way Gib and I will ever move Joseph is if Gibson crouches behind him and I push him over. Oh well. Some times the sheep wins.

Today is a busy day. I have to clean and cook for the workshop tomorrow, but I also have a farrier appointment with Merlin (his feet are overdue) down at his stables, an oil change for the truck in town, and I have to pick up those same birds and write Ben a check late afternoon. I think about how busy I am these days, and how my "days off" are a hundred times more full and thriving than my days in. That's a good feeling and I'm sure many of you can relate to it, too. Certainly is you're as crazy as I am, running a farm and a day job at the same time.

I'm looking forward to sharing my riches with friends today. Steve and Molly's (who are on vacation) will go in the chest freezer. Some will go in my fridge for tomorrow's workshop lunch (chicken burritos anyone?) and the rest will be delivered by the Poultry Fairy (read: me) today to Livingston Brook Farm, Shelly my Vet, and others. I asked Jon and Maria if they wanted one but since they are coming over to pick up living chickens tomorrow, they may not be interested in bringing home one of their dead roommates. Or maybe they'll surprise me?

Excited up here in at Cold Antler Farm. Much ahead, and much exciting news to come. I just need to arrange an equine pedicure and do a lot of Window washing first!

photo by 468photography.com

Thursday, April 5, 2012

happy feet meat

I look outside and see two Freedom Rangers in the side yard, scratching in the new spring grass, puttering about in the sunlight. They seem content in their chickenhood. Tomorrow a bunch of them will be rounded up, caged, loaded in the pickup, and delivered to Garden of Spices Farm in Greenwich. That's Ben Shaw's small farm where they will be processed for my freezer for $3.00 a piece. They will feed me, workshops, and my friends. The original trial thirty from Mr. Fox (I love that my chicken stock farmer's name is Fox) did so well I have another twenty chicks in that haybale barn right now. I donated thirty to Firecracker farm. I'm just so dang happy with them. In three months they went from chirping fluff to eight-plus pounds of happy meat. They are thriving, and I am proud of both their size and the meals they will create. Steve and Molly get the lion's share, but I get a few, and I will share some with friends. For the most part, these birds will wait in Freezer Camp to be called to dinner as I see fit. It's a a good and safe feeling. The chicken tastes amazing, too.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

technology and the farmer

I have been thinking about technology a lot lately. My relationship to it, and the amount a person needs in their life to be happy. In contrast to the home I was brought up in, my lifestyle is very low tech. I don't have the TV and movie playing devices (in their earlier incarnations or current) and there are no video games here either. I ditched my microwave in the kitchen, and I am fine with not repairing or replacing the dryer. There are no auto-drip coffee makers, Kitchen Aids, blenders, or toasters. There is no cable, no air conditioning, and the conventional heat system has reverted to a backup barely ever used. I do not use my broken dishwasher.

I do not I do not miss these things. I do not feel I need them.

What do I use? My ten-year old computers, my iPhone, my electric stovetop and oven. I watch documentaries and the Daily Show on Hulu to unwind. I run this website and fledgling business of workshops and writing through the internet and my home. I am not, as I have said before, anti technology. I just don't want to use the parts that get in the way of my own goals and well being. A cable television in my house and a stack of video games and DVDs mean I would not be writing into the night. I don't have an important and busy life with three kids or an executive job that requires me to save as much time as possible in the kitchen. I love to cook, do dishes, and ponder while I listen to audiobooks and putter. Again, I have no qualms with technology, efficiency, or convenience. But I use them all as tools. The life I chose requires a kind of utilitarian presence, and I want to give it my full attention.

I understand my choices may seem contrary, and I understand they won't work for everyone. I am sure there are plenty of people who think a smartphone is the Devil's hands but would wear armor into battle for their dishwashers. Everyone has their vices and favorites. I am curious what things for you are must-haves and what you would like to give up? Do people in your family demand television even if you want to give it the boot? Would you rather go to prison than live without AC? I suppose geography, abilities, and family all tie into this. What is your relationship to technology? What would you do if the power grid broke down? Or if all those machines and distractions didn't work?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

lilly the (not so) brave

Every night I spend some time with Lilly, the shy Maine Coon that is slowly learning me and this house. George, her brother, made himself at home that same day and pretty much runs the show around here now. Lilly stayed hiding, making a realm of the crawl space under the farm's kitchen you get to from her magical wardrobe. (Okay, it's just the space behind the washing machine.) She is sweet, and gentle, and seems to enjoy human contact but is afraid to go out into the big bad house and seek it. So I make time for her, and hope she grows some stronger heartbeats.

In other (slightly related) news: my dryer died. Good riddance. I now have clotheslines outside. They work in all seasons and when they are loaded it feels like a stream of prayer flags, waving from a little electrical independence. As it turns out you can air dry, heat dry, wind dry, or freeze dry clothes.

i made a decision

Today is about making decisions. I made some very serious ones since breakfast, and one of them was made just now. I have made the decision to no longer argue on this blog. I will not be responding to people looking for arguments or demanding answers to personal information. This blog is one woman's personal story, to work towards a creative and independent life. It will constantly be in a state of change and personal growth. It will go through periods of struggle, success, fear, joy, and goals hard set.

I welcome advice, conversation, helpful comments and criticisms. I even welcome all out anger if the comment or email comes from a person willing to share their email address and real name with the world as the person they are judging has. But I am not going to join in the fray anymore. It makes me sad, and tired, and makes me lose focus on my real goals.

This blog is watching one person trying to life the life she desires. I hope to do so honestly, and to encourage those people who share in similar dreams. That is all it is. I choose to stop arguing.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Just recently watched this beautiful documentary, one of the few new ones, about the Amish. A year of seasons, church, tragedy, and family issues in three states. It is so beautifully done, and the tone very even (some pro and very anti-Amish opinions) but worth every second of watching. These people intrigue the hell out of me.

You can see it here on PBS's website.

thank you, friends

Thank you to everyone who helped me make the down payment towards Merlin! I sent a check on Friday, it was for well over half of what I owed by June 1st. People donated from all over the country to help make this fine boy mine, and I do not take it for granted for a second. It is the community here that is making him possible, and as a thank you I will auction off my early 1900's fiddle as a thank you for that to the folks who were a part of the story. Some people said they wouldn't take it, but I hope the winner does. I don't want Merlin to be a gift, I want him to be a combination of sacrifices, sweat, work, friends, and hope.

You can read the conversation and controversy here, and of course the event goes on until I pick a winner on the Sunday after Shearing Day, April 15th. Stay tuned, and thank you again for all you do for this farm girl. I will write as long as you read.

(Merlin thanks you, too)

my full attention

Someone recently posted this online, and their comment struck a chord with me. There are no cell phones, iPads, smartphones, bottled water, blackberries, or ear pieces. Just ashtrays and a carafe of water.

I am not anti-technology, but I do loathe my addiction to my smartphone. It has become my annoying personal assistant carrying my bag of meth around. It is my alarm clock, camera, notepad, and map. I am constantly checking email, weather, reddit, blog comments, facebook, etc. If there is a down minute where someone steps out of a meeting, or before a movie starts I see myself and everyone else sink into their devices. We are all alone together.

I understand the value of this tool. I understand my abuse of it doesn't make it a bad thing for anyone else. But for me it has gone too far. Starting today, my phone is just a phone. IF I need to check email, I will do what I would do if I need to make a call - excuse myself and go somewhere private. I'll be 100% at attention for the world around me today. The cats on reddit don't need me. The weather isn't going to change in 15 minutes, and my business can be attended to at my choice of time.

I don't want to miss the big show anymore.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

merlin and me: one month into training

This house is chicken free for 72 hours!

I just moved the twenty young Freedom Ranger chicks out to their big cousin's straw bale barn. The big ones still sleep in there, but mostly it is empty while the Rangers, well, range. It is nice, having a house without poultry for a while. I love chickens—I can't imagine a home without them—but it is nice to let them become part of the outdoor farm chores and share the big birds water and space. They still get the right feed for their quickly growing bodies, but besides the heat and feed they are regular ol' farm birds like everyone else. No more indoor pampering. You grow up quick around here, kids.

But there is no rest for the wicked, as 45 new laying hen chicks will be in the mail later this week. The brooder will get fired up in no time. But at least now I have a few days to clean it, bleach it out, and refill it with clean pine shavings and feeders.

There are also six healthy Silver Fox cross kits in Big Momma's Pen, which is what I started calling my best breeding doe. A doe that was born at the old cabin in Vermont and was brought here to Jackson in her kindling nest. She grew up, started having kits 8 months later, and has bred the healthiest litters in the group.

Easter is next weekend and this farm is pretty darn well suited up. Chicks, bunnies, if I only had some lambs. And you know what? I might just. There are some pretty low hanging udders out there under the Scotties wool. I don't know if they are all pregnant, but some may be. That would be a grand thing, and would make me feel a lot better about the whole Atlas debacle.

Here's hoping!

let freedom (rangers!) ring

meat birds and convertibles

There's a lot to do this week, it's going to be a busy one. I have a lot of big food production plans to get started, and they involve chickens and a greenhouse.

I was asked why I am taking my birds to be processed by another farmer? Don't I butcher them myself? The answer is yes. I do butcher chickens myself, but without the fancy pluckers and outdoor propane burners, it isn't practical to do more than 2 at a time alone. It takes about half an hour a bird to do it proper, and it costs 3.00 a bird to take it to Ben Shaw in Greenwich. There I can deliver a crate of live birds on a Tuesday morning and pick up a cooler of plastic wrap, weighed, and ready-to-freeze or barter birds for 3 bucks a pop. It costs 30.00 to have ten birds done in what would take me fifteen hours of bloody work. So it makes a lot of sense. While I still work a full-time job, that 15 hours is a big deal. But I do plan on doing one in today possibly. It can rest in the fridge over night and be an amazing Monday Night Roast that will last me all week in reincarnations like salads, sandwiches, soups, and taco filler.

I could not be happier with the Freedom Rangers. They grew into beautiful, LARGE, birds. They didn't have issues with fighting, disease, or so much as a sneeze of a bug and they were raised in winter! A very abnormal winter, but still. They did amazing and I bet they will taste amazing. I am a convert from the Cornish Cross. Long as Kendal Fox will keep going, I'll keep buying his birds. My only complaint is they are eating me out of house and home right now! So it is time to see our friend Ben and write one check for the freezer instead of several to the feed store!

I also have an amazing new greenhouse to install! It's not huge, it's not even free standing, but it will make such a difference in year-long greens production at this farm. It's from a company called Convertible Greenhouses and its a model called the South Sider. You buy this kit and it attaches to the side of your house, making a solarium of sorts. Then you can fold down the plastic walls like the back of a convertible for times of full sun and summer heat. Come fall, winter, and early spring you have a heat-saving and veggie growing hot house right next to the building you are already paying to heat anyway. Might as well use some of that heat to feed into a greenhouse attached to your living area and grow some kale and spinach all winter long.

This morning I am meeting Tim at the Barn for more photos with Merlin, to mark our progress as a team working towards better riding and fitness together. Then the afternoon will be dedicated to archery, house chores, errands, and finishing up the latest webinar on wool working. It's a full day, lots of plans, and good things ahead.

Hope your weekends are going well!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

we did it!!!

Over four miles of roads, hillsides, horses, tractors, birds, steep inclines, walking and trotting. I was nervous about it all morning, worried how he (how WE!) would do as a pair out in the farm field wilds. Merlin did amazing. I felt amazing. He and I were a team, and our first trail ride with Patty and Steele was a total success. Merlin had four Haflingers run by him, a 4 ton tractor harrowing a field, a strange new horse, cars zipping by him on the road.... nothing phased him (not much, anyway). It was such a thrill to be moving across farmlands on your own horse. We rode to a vast overlook Patty called "top of the world" and it felt like it was. Team Cold Antler pulled it off!

Thank you Patty and Mark Wesner of Livingston Brook Farm!

dragons, dressage, and our first trail ride

I am trotting with Merlin in a circle around my instructor Andrea. If you are watching us from a distance it looks like a boring activity. All you see is a chubby gal on a chubby black pony making wobbly turns around a suggested center point of Andrea's red hair. Looking at me from above, the circles are even more convoluted. As Merlin and I trot around our teacher, the circle bends and extends, shortens and cuts across as mistake after mistake is made. My mind is trying to remember everything I have been told. I am mentally crossing off a checklist of what I should be doing, and I am managing to correct each body part or posture just long enough to forget to do something else. It's not about finishing school, it's about staying alive. A horse is a 1,000+ pounds of power and if it decides to bolt, rear, or hop a jump there is a reason my weight is back in my seat and my heals are down in my stirrups. Because this posture will keep me on a horse in nearly any situation on the ground. In a dressage saddle there isn't a lot keeping you on the horse. It is smooth and thin over his back. It is up to the rider to stop being a passenger and start being the cockpit.

English riding reminds me of how the characters in the movie Avatar rode those flying dragons. See in that picture how tight his hands are on the "reins"? How high up in his seat he is? How his entire body has to bend, flex, and adapt to the animal below? He looks exactly like a jockey in a sprint, or an eventing rider about to take on a high fence. I try to keep dragon riders in mind as my lessons with Merlin progress. Andrea is trying to get me into the right frame of body and breathe to ride well. As prim and proper as it looks from the outside this style of riding demands total commitment of mind, body, and presence with the animal below. And all my riding lessons are doing is teaching me the language to tell this horse exactly what I want to do. Merlin isn't a dragon, and I'm not a blue warrior, but you can understand this is more than a a trail ride. It's the hardest thing I ever tried to learn...

This video above is where I learn to ride, the arena (indoors and outdoor) Merlin and I take lessons in. It's called Riding Right Farm and its just 10 miles south of Cold Antler. Hollie recently published THE BOOK on the fundamentals of English riding. That's her in the video, and that is her voice too. Her and Andrea are my instructors (started with Hollie, but now am with Andrea since Hollie has off Fridays). Here's a sample of the trot, and how such a basic style of movement can be broken down and explained in various styles and uses. Amazes me.

So back to my lesson: I ride. Andrea reminds me to rest my whip near my own thigh, and I remember this wild card of a 3-foot-long metal rod in my left hand. I try to shorten my reins without dropping the whip, but in the effort to have the proper tension (conversation with his bit, as Andrea says) I start forgetting to close my fingers. Open fingers aren't just sloppy, they are dangerous. If the horse freaks you don't have a lot of time to regain control, and if you get thrown your open fingers may get wrapped up in the leather reins. Imagine a horse taking off at full blast and you being dragged by the reins with three fingers....Bad things have happened to novice English riders with loose fingers. I close my fingers. I try to concentrate.

"Shoulders!" Andrea comments, not unkindly, and I realize how tense I have become in the trot. We are working on leg yields. This means I am using my butt, legs, and heals to move the horse and not the reins. In dressage reins are a last resort, and when used they are used subtly. If I want Merlin to trot in a circle I do have a bit of tension on his inside rein, to offer the flex I need in his neck to retain both his attention and his forward direction, but that is the extent of my suggestion. With his eyes always pointing where I want him to go, my legs and butt are the real commands. Horses move away from pressure, so if I ever-so-gently suggest with my outside leg I want to make a turn inside, he gives to me. I keep doing this and the circle we are making grows tighter around our teacher. "You got it!" exclaims Andrea. But now she wants me to do the same thing with opposite parts of my body to move him out into a wider circle. Oh boy...

My shoulders are still tight. I am reminded to loosen them. I am being explained how to relax without her actually telling me to "relax", which of course, no one does when told. Merlin is a better equestrian than I am, and puts up with my clumsy attempts to communicate. But while I get the leg yield thing for a second, I need to remember 30 other things. My mind reels...Are my heals down? Is my weight balanced? Are my stirrups even? Is my diagonal right? Are the reins the right tension? Is he trotting evenly? Is my butt squeezing the right part of the saddle to match my leg on the other side? Is my whip sinking down to his shoulder? Oh, and I am trying to think all through this while staying on a 1100 pound animal who is more interested in the mule Ashley on the opposite side of the fence, so while I am trying to keep all this in mind while a pro evaluates my competence I am in a mental wrestling match with Merlin, who is far more interested in the possibility of Mule sex than listening to me tell him to turn in a circle. Merlin is bored and horny. Andrea is patience. Ashley is over it. And I am trying with all I've got.

If this sounds confusing, it is.

...But It is also why I ride English. I can't imagine an activity that devours your entire being in such a productive way outside farming. I can not think about bills or the sheep with the cut head. I can not worry about my relationships or the meanings behind texts and emails. These are luxuries of people not working on leg yields. Work does not exist. The Farm does not exist. There is me, and this horse, and this muffled and confusing infant of language between us. Every ride for me is a fight to better speak this tongue. We know such few words right now, and everything is primal. But if we keep at it, ride with teacher's fluent enough to get us to start talking it will result in such a beautiful thing.

Good English riding looks like the rider is doing the easiest thing in the world. But every single aspect, horse and human, has been developed. The saddle, the bit, all of it is minimalistic compared to Western or Driving tack. It's not because it is "better" but because the style itself is about subtly. About the horse doing exactly what you want. And when I say "exact" I mean it. The length of his stride, the curve of his head, the placement of each hoof. And the rider is supposed to be practically doing nothing, because all his chatter of asking commands is in his entire quiet body.

Watch that video above. There are no jumps, no barrels to circle, no cows to rope. There is a just man having a detailed conversation with a horse on solid ground. A conversation so complicated I can not even imagine how he is doing it. I think about how asking Merlin to make a 20-meter circle in trot (in a pace of ohis own choosing) and how damn hard it is to make it look natural and consistent. For me it requires such an effort of will. This man seems like a passenger doing nothing. He is actually asking for every single move. Now that I know what goes into it, the work to get there makes me want to cry. This is poetry.

I know cowboy hats, horned saddles, heavy bits, and woven blankets are what people expect me to be into. That may be exactly why I love this complicated dance so much, because it isn't something I should like. Everyone knows me as the girl with a dented truck, farm, and a cowboy hat but when I get to slip into breeches and high boots, a form fitting shirt and a black velvet helmet...well, I feel like a girl. I feel feminine in a natural and earthy way. and I am backed by all this history of communication and dicispline of a well-oiled machine. I like English riding. Some day I hope to pass as a rider. Right now I am a student.

Hollie, the head instructor at Riding Right here in Cambridge explained everything that is English riding in once phrase. During one of my really frustrating beginner lessons my hands were pulling on the reins like an extra in a bad battle horse movie. She explained that yanking on a rein was like shouting at a horse. "You don't need to shout, he is right there. " She said, and I started to understand her methods. "So breathe, relax, and understand that everyone starts out shouting, but after a few months you advance to talking. And as you start learning true dressage, you ask in whispers. And when you really understand this animal you will just think, and he will know what to do."


That is my M.O.

Toady is Merlin and my first trail ride. We'll be out in Patty's vast fields with her and Steele riding on this overcast and chilly afternoon. I've never ridden Merlin outside the arena so I am a little scared, but I am cautiohsly optimistic. I know this horse and how to handle him. I know how to read him. If I get worried and all we do together is walk a mile into her fields and back and he is calm and I am calm, then that's a wrap. But by this autumn we will be driving, riding, and trotting all over those highland acres, two girls and their horses.

Friday, March 30, 2012

merlin in his stall

bloody sheep

I came home bloody sheep. You can't know how unsettling that sight is. Sal's face was half covered, as if he was william wallace himself, in bright red blood. So was Maude, so were others. My heart felt like my lungs were squeezing it, stopping everything from working. I ran to the flock, panicked, and Sal walked right up to me and calmly nudged my pockets for treats. He was acting like an extra on a monster movie set, in costume, but in reality totally placid. My heart rate slowly returned to normal. He was covered in blood, but it wasn't his.

I scanned the flock and saw a Blackface ewe with more blood than the others. I got closer and saw the skin below her horn (but not the horn itself) had a wide gash in it. It looked like it got the bad side of another sheep's horn, or got slashed by a fence wire...who knows... I have no idea what happened and I never will. I did know it didn't look pleasant. So I went into farm-EMT mode and set up a comfy spot for her in the solitary confinement pen. I wanted her where she couldn't hurt herself any more or get into and more scuffles with the other sheep over grain, minerals or hay. I also wanted her where the vet could easily treat her.

If you think catching a bleeding sheep is easy, then you haven't tried it lately. And that is all I'll say about that.

She's doing better now, and the blood is off the other sheep. The vet said the wound was too old for stitches, but she should heal herself long as it gets proper cleansing, anti-toxin, and to be extra safe some antibiotics to fight infection. I think she'll pull through with one badass scar, but it sure was scary. It is getting easier though, dealing with this side of farming. It is 90% timing and 10% luck.

Has anyone experience with these open wounds on your livestock? Does nature heal well, or did you need to step in with butterfly clips and Neosporin?

April Cold Antler Events

There are quite a few events coming up, and I thought I'd share them here. If you are interested in chickens, movies, or naked sheep: read on! Workshops, Greenhorns, and shearing coming up.

April 7th Breakfast in the Backyard Workshop!
Held right here at the farm, learn the basics of chickens and raising your own flock. A full-day event starting with an egg-centric brunch of eggy breakfast foods and a visit to the brooder
(where your new chicks are waiting for you!) and then a whole afternoon of what you need to know to start them off right, raise them safe, and start collecting eggs of your own before fall!

April 12th Greenhorns Official Book Launch at Williams College!!
Come to Williams College in Williamstown, Mass for this film screening party followed up with a Q&A with the director, Severine. Free grilled cheese sandwiches from Cricket Creek Farm, get your books signed, and enjoy an afternoon of agricultural energy and creativity. Plus, the best Indian Food around at Spice Root (not related to the event but I'll be damned if I'm going to Williamstown and not leaving with some lamb masala!) If anyone is going, let me know!

Usually this is just a private event, but this year I'm making it a potluck. Come help wrangle, shear, and work the wool and bring a covered dish. Enjoy a day at the farm and in exchange for your help you can take funny pictures of me trying to turn my sheep naked. This is not a fundraiser. It is not a paid workshop. You will not learn anything, but you will get dirty. Guaranteed. Email if you want to come help out!

photo by 468photography.com

Thursday, March 29, 2012

skinny love

win a copy of homegrown & handmade!

Deborah Niemann and I met at the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania this past autumn. She introduced herself and we shared a meal during the chaos and frenzy of all the homesteader pornography going on around us. I mean, what could be more in our element than an event where Joel Salatin is talking about pasture rotation, a girl is making smoothies with a bike-powered blender, and baby alpacas are yodeling in a tent a few feet away?

I met her there and that was our introduction. I didn't know about her book or blog, and that is no fault or shortcoming on her part. I am so behind on the farm-blogging scene it is shameful. (I only read a handful of my neighbor's blogs), but it was nice as hell to meet a fellow farm writer gal in person.

Recently she asked me if we wanted to do giveaways on each other's blogs? She gave away a copy of barnheart, and I am offering a signed copy of her great book, Homegrown and Handmade today. To enter, just leave a comment in the comment section about your own favorite niche in homesteading? Tell us both about your farm, your animals, your cheese, yarn, seedlings, veggies, or dreams? Share some of your spirit and you might be the lucky random winner to go home with some new fine readin'

Here's a excerpt from the book! On a subject we all love!


Perhaps the biggest lie that corporate advertisers sold us is that our time is too valuable to make anything from scratch, whether it is food or clothing or anything else. “You deserve a break today” was named the best jingle of the twentieth century by Advertising Age magazine. Advertisers know they are not selling the most nutritious or delicious food out there. They are selling a lifestyle. You deserve to have someone else cook for you.

Almost everyone believes their time is “too valuable” to be bothered with menial tasks without even thinking about the logic of the statement. If you don’t cook dinner, how much will someone pay you to do something else? Normally, no one is paying me to do anything in my spare time. I can’t work every waking hour of every day, but by cooking from scratch, I can save money, which ultimately leaves more money in my bank account at the end of the month.

In 2008, KFC aired a television commercial in the United States claiming that you could not make seven pieces of chicken, mashed potatoes, and four biscuits for the ten dollars that they charged for the meal. They showed a mom and her two children taking the “KFC $10 Challenge,” going into a supermarket and becoming exasperated as they see the prices of various ingredients. The little girl asks about the price of fried chicken at the deli counter, which is a far cry from homemade. Finally, the mom is tapping away at her calculator and is ecstatic when the total is more than ten dollars. She and her son give each other a high five because they are going to KFC for dinner now.

After watching the ad, I did a little math and calculated that a biscuit costs about eight cents to make from scratch, even when using organic flour. A pound of mashed potatoes would cost thirty to fifty cents, depending upon whether you buy a five-pound or ten-pound bag of potatoes. If you buy a whole chicken and cut it up, you have two legs, two thighs, two breasts, two wings, plus a back and neck. Add breading, which will cost pennies, and you have a bigger meal for under five dollars. In less than an hour, you have saved five dollars as well as the gas that you would have used if you had driven to KFC. Buy an organic chicken if you can afford to spend ten dollars on dinner, and you still will have saved the cost of gas for driving to KFC, and you will have had an organic dinner.

If you look at the makeup of any grocery store, it’s obvious that most of the aisles are filled with ready-to-eat food or mixes. The interesting thing about using mixes is that in most cases they save only a minute or two of preparation time. A simple cake recipe will use eight to ten ingredients. Most cake mixes require three ingredients be added to the mix. If you are not accustomed to cooking, it may take you longer to do things initially, but like anything else you do, you will get faster with time. When I first started making biscuits from scratch, it took me exactly the same amount of time to mix them up as it did for my oven to heat up, which was fifteen minutes. Now, however, the biscuits are mixed up, rolled out, and waiting on the baking pan in half the time.

Although a lot of people look at what we do and think it is a lot of work, I have to admit that a lot of it is just plain fun. I love trying new foods from our garden and watching baby goats bouncing through the pasture. Lots of people love knitting or baking bread. When I was telling a friend about how busy I had been lately, she asked, “When do you do anything for yourself?” I laughed, and explained that everything I do is for me. We do not have to do any of the things that I write about in this book. That means that if I am doing it, I love doing it. Rather than watching television, working out at a gym, or getting season tickets to the theater, I spend my time doing things that are practical and real.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

doin' their job

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

bears out there, son

It's Tuesday night and I do not get home from riding Merlin until nearly 8PM. I have seen to the dogs and their supper (fed the cats too) before I left to ride but the majority of regular farm chores were pushed off until I returned. The ride was chilly, around thirty degrees in the arena, but okay. It was just me and one other woman tonight, a coworker at Orvis named Kathy. I can't help but compare riders to their horses and Kathy and her Warmblood Divine were an elegant pair. Divine is over 16 hands, long, and trots like a Russian ballerina if she had four legs. Merlin and I are, well, Merlin and I. But we share the arena well. I am feeling more and more comfortable with this horse, more comfortable in the saddle in general. Patty, Steele, Merlin, and I might take our first field trip this weekend for a trail ride in Washington County. I'm nervous and excited. To ride across farm fields on the back of my own horse will be a treat. I have a western saddle here, an impulse buy at the annual Poultry Swap last May that was too big for Jasper. It is perfect for Merlin and I might use it. I'm more comfortable in my English irons and simpler saddles though. I can't ever really lose my focus in it. I am a woman who needs focus.

Anyway, I got home and dove into chores. I kick off my paddock boots and half chaps and side muck boots over my breeches. I throw a beat Carhartt vest over my riding clothes. I feel like Clark Kent, swooshing into my farmhouse phone booth to turn from mild-mannered English Pony Rider into Feral Farm Girl. I want to bring my ipod to listen to my recent audiobook (on the second Huger Games book) but resist the urge. My neighbor told me about the large black bear that toppled their feeders and trash the night before. They live less than a half mile up the mountain. And if bird feed smells good to that bear, imagine what molasses soaked sweet grains and chicken grower mash must smell like? Not to mention bee hives, eggs, and compost piles. So I leave the entertainment inside. I want my wits about me. I grab a lantern and head to the barn.

I dump and refill Jasper's water bucket and hand him a flake of hay. I refill the rabbit's waterers and feeders too, and see my chunky Isbar rooster on top of the highest haybale, a few feet above me. It amazes me that the scrappy half Americuana/half Pumpkin roo that is all snow white is the man in charge now. He was born here on the farm, raised from a chick, and now he rules the whole farm. His crow is classic, could be a ringtone if the Corn Flake's box had a cell phone. But the Isbar rooster is up and quiet, like a gray wolf in wait. He stares at me like I burned his passport and he can never return to the Old Country. I wonder if the bear would be half as intimidating in lantern light as he?

I collect six eggs and set them where I can grab them, and then finish up the rest of the chores. The sheep get 160 pounds of water (4 buckets), and their grain bins filled. The fat Freedom Rangers are ready to be slaughtered and I plan on calling up the farmer who takes them this week to set up a drop off time. The 20 new Rangers are in the brooder, and will remain so for a while until the 45 laying hens arrive in a few days for the Breakfast in Your Backyard Workshop. People come from all over to learn all they need to know about a backyard flock, brooder to brunch. It's a big time and they leave with three chicks! This year it is Rhode Island Reds, Dark Brahmas, and Golden Laced Wyandottes. Not a bad trio, those.

I wrap up chores and carry the half dozen eggs into the house in lantern light. For the rest of the evening every animal in my care has dinner and (hopefully quiet and bear free) sleep ahead of them. Inside the tea kettle is hot, and I crave my evening cup of Lyons. Ever since I started running and eating healthier, I don't crave alcohol at night. I don't want a big dinner. I ate hours ago and I just want tea, a blanket, and to hear about the 75th annual Hunger Games disaster on the speakers inside the farmhouse. Soon there will be warm tea, warm dogs, and a good story.

Not bad for a Tuesday night. I even remembered to bring in the trash bins from the curb. So take that, Hungry Bear.

P.S. Book giveaway tomorrow! Homegrown and Homemade!

P.S.S. The wool worked as a seedling protector!

Monday, March 26, 2012

you can hear it in the chimney

It's as if the weather just turned around and into the wind. Last week I was lounging outside on the green grass with Gibson, looking at the first wild violets pop up and the peonies shoot fresh from the wet soil. Lettuce greens are planted in the bed outside, the garlic next to still shooting into the sun. There is a galvanized laundry tub outside and already inch-tall little lettuce sprouts are poking up, just a week or so old. I covered them with a layer of wool, raw wool draped over them gently as to not crush them. My animals might be wolves, deer, and crows but the patron saints of my garden tonight are sheep.

Inside the wood stove is lit and you can tell it is nasty out there because you can hear the wind through the wail of the chimney's draw. I was just sitting there with Gibson, feeding some chunks of wood into the little Bun Baker. I'm proud of that stove. This winter I only used 100 gallons of heating oil and 5 cords of wood (three in barter!). Since last year I used 100 gallons a month, that was quite the savings in heating costs. Wood heat is a lot more work, but feels amazing. You have to earn the comfort, and for us sadistic homesteader types, it fits.

Outside I let the flock into the baby-green pasture. If we are getting the temps they are calling for this is the last night for a bit to gorge on fresh salad. It'll take another week or so of constant sun to get it all back. It's dark out there now, but they are far from the house in the back acres near the property line and woods.

And a quick update on folks who took up the Fiddle Raffle, I am sending the first half of his down payment out Friday! I'll be lighting a candle in thanks that night. This horse is light to me, helping me in ways I haven't even realized yet. And your support has been amazingly kind. Thank you all.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

the original hunger games

merlin's brow

Merlin's tack is nothing to brag about. It comes from a discount online saddlery. We don't require anything posh to learn the dance steps. But I did spurge on this one item back before I even signed any contracts. This is something I do. When I wanted sheep, I bought books on sheep before ever touching the fleece. When I wanted a house, I drew a picture of it with a black dog by my side and carried it in my pocket. And when I wanted this impossible horse, I found a bridle maker to work some magic with me.

This brow band came from England, from a leather bridle maker who stitched beautiful tack around 300GPB a set. Out of my range, but I could afford this one special piece. It was mailed across the ocean to Cold Antler. It came in the mail the same day the cheap bridle did. It is soft and supple to the touch, and white thread shines with a Celtic 4-part knot. A symbol of no-beginning, and no ending. A constant and everlasting connection between two souls. I wear a Celtic knotwork necklace of Epona riding a horse, and he wears this. In Celtic lore there is this notion of Anam Chara, it means soul partners. It doesn't mean lovers, or soul mates like modern cultures talk about them. It means an advisor and mentor, someone to learn from and grow with. People think the term started around the medieval monasteries, when young monks needed guidance and consolation from more seasoned wearers of the cloth. The term has survived to mean everything from childhood best friends to soldiers fighting side by side. I like to see it the old way, as a student and a teacher who care.

If there was ever a Anam Chara for this scrappy farm girl...

it is this horse.

urban homesteading and good company

Last night I was sitting on a sheepskin in my living room when I felt an intense pain in the back of my left knee. It felt as if someone had punched that tender crook, and I kept shifting in my seat while the conversations and homebrew wafted around with woodsmoke and plates of homemade bread and local cheese. I didn't want to make a fuss, and was soaking up the good company of late-staying workshop attendees who came back for the evening's campfire, but due to inclement weather decided to settle for the wood stove and living room instead.

Dang though, my knee hurt.

I didn't think much of it though. The combination of riding, running, and farming created a trifecta of leg pain that week. Everything hurt! Sitting down required a force of will since I spent the morning before in a light seat on the top of a trotting horse for quite some time. A light seat, or half seat, or two-point position means you ride the horse, but your but doesn't touch it. Instead of sitting on your mount you use your thighs brute force and your heals deep in your stirrups to balance yourself over the beast, leaning a bit forward. This is how jockeys and jumpers ride horses, a position for action. However, I am new to this and it smarts. But this knee ache was sharper, different.

I decided to actually look at my knee and discovered a tick enjoying dinner. I headed to the bathroom to fish him out, and when I did was thrilled it was a dog tick, and a new one, and not some well-filled deer tick. No Lyme disease tonight, baby. I cleaned the puncture up and as I was applying some antiseptic I heard Meredith yell out from the living room. An owner of two giant black labs, she knew how tricky ticks can be to wrestle with and asked if I needed help. I told her I had it under control and thanked her, but when she said that my mind relaxed, unclenched. Just being asked by another person for help with such a basic problem was not the usual order of business around here. I didn't even think of asking for help, I just yanked it out and went about basic first aid. But just being check in on reminded me that there were people here, in my house, that cared enough to ask. Being asked if I was okay was such a simple brand of kindness, and if filled me up with a golden and warm feeling. The kind of thing you didn't realize you craved and missed, and when you had it finally let you relax a little. I grabbed an icepack, another cold Honey Brown from the fridge, and rejoined the revelry.

Yesterday was an event to remember. I got up to start baking and cooking at 4, and the last guests left around 10pm! It was a long day, but not in any way that could be considered bad. This is what I love to do, what I hope to continue to do for quite some time.

The workshop was probably the busiest to date. Since the topic was Urban Homesteading, it could cover a large swath of activities. We focused on a little bit of gardening work (planted early-season heirloom seeds) and the basics of starting raised beds. We talked chickens, and rabbits (Patty brought over some different breeds like her Chins and Flemish Giants) and I explained what to look for in breeding stock and handed folks a few week-old kits to hold in their warm hands.

Inside we went through the basics of starting a traditional loaf of bread, and how to prepare for super-easy, no knead crusty breads. We made cheese, and used some just-kneaded dough and pizza sauce to slice our fresh mozzarella over pizza. The day wrapped up while snagging slices of homemade pie and pizza and talking with two women from Albany about starting a vermicompost bin in their city home. I sent her off with a bucket and some red worms. You never saw a woman so happy to find out she had 400 worms in her car on the ride home.

It was a constant motion kind of day. We stopped for lunch and a prize drawing of books, posters, and a free workshop attendance, but besides the new idle moments of eating we were all running around—inside and out—to barn or kitchen. I feel like everyone who came got demonstration and inspiration, and (as usual) people seemed most happy to just relax around fellow folks with their same disease: Barnheart. People talked about their own plans and dreams, shared stories and advice. It always gets me excited too. Excited about the farm, the house, the future ahead. These workshops feed my soul.

Bev from Virginia stuck around after everyone else left to help with the afternoon farm chores. Usually after a summer or fall workshop there is a break period between 4-7 and folks can come back to a casual campfire and music, but Bev gave up her break to help me. What a blessing that was. To have a helping hand willing to refill rabbit water bottles and chicken fonts while I poured the whey into the meat birds grain bowls was such a time saver. It was not the first time that weekend I started to realize how much more could be accomplished, and how much easier it would be, with a roommate or community around. That isn't a complaint, but an observation. I'm not pining or lonely, and I'm too damn hard to live with if I was. But I could really appreciate willing hands.

When all the animals were tucked in for the night, Bev and I headed inside the farmhouse. She asked, as we were walking through my broken-glassed front door if it was weird having strangers over like this? In my home? Helping feed chickens? While walking inside and hanging my hat on my grandfather's coat rack (now covered with an array of waxed cotton jackets, wool hats, arrow quivers, and wool hoods and shawls instead of his proper hat and jacket) I told her no. It really isn't. People who come here all have the same exact interests and dreams. They want to scruff dog's ears while planting peas. They want to hold chickens and rabbits, eat good food. I smiled then, thinking of how the hay delivery came around noon, and Rory Whitman pulled up with 30 bales on the back of his pickup. Not one person didn't help move those bales. What would have taken me well over an hour with a single farm cart took us less then ten minutes. None of the hay got rained on. It is dry in my barn as I type.

I was tired, dog tired really, by the end of the day. But when I am tired and the day's work is done it is so nice to have people and dogs circling around with good food and beer. Last night there was two women from New Jersey, another from Boston, and two from Virgina in my living room. All of them found me online, and from that cold electrical box they found their way to a wood stove's glow in upstate New York. It never ceases to amaze me, how many connections happen with keyboards on lunchbreaks and end up toting hay bales for a character in a book. My leg hurt, my whole body ached, but the barely carbonated beer was sweet and filling and I felt happy as could be. Not a bad life, up on this hill. Not bad at all.

I can't wait to share it with more of you.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

merlin's lazy lunge!

A video from last week, getting Merlin warmed up to ride. Lungeing is getting the horse to walk, trot, and canter in a circle around you. Merlin is about 100 pound overweight, so getting him started to really move is a bit of a fuss. But he is getting thinner, stronger, and two nights ago was cantering under me and dropped 6 inches in his girth! I've only lost 3 inches, but hey, we are both working on it. Time and work heal things.

preparing for the day

In a few hours this house will be filled with energetic and excited people. We'll learn to bake bread from scratch, make cheese from milk, plant seedlings and discuss chickens and rabbits with chicks and bunnies in our hands. The house is filled with the smells of bread rising and baking, meat cooking slow, and a bit of wood smoke. I lit the stove and opened the windows, giving us all a feeling of campfires glow and warmth as the sheep face the rain on the hill. It'll be a great workshop, and I can not wait to start it!

Outside there are shoots of new grass, lettuce sprouting in the containers outside the front door, and a pony full of piss and vinegar. I'm about to head out and get everyone ready for the day, fed and happy. I hope I beat the rain. And I hope the 30-bale order of green hay I made does, too!