Tuesday, September 30, 2008

it's electric!

That's a picture of King Sal, inside a fence. Which is a new thing for my sheep, to be all contained and proper. Yup, after weeks of floundering on the subject, I finally electrified the fences. I wasn't avoiding it because I thought shocking sheep for a nano-second was mean, or because I wanted to save on my electric bill. Nah, the reason for balking at the set up was because it was a big fat logistical nightmare. I had to figure out where I would ground the charge, how long the extension cords had to reach, where I'd plug the bloody thing in - all those technical specs... And all of it had to be a movable vehicle. It was just a lot. You know what I mean. After ten hours at the office, the last thing you want to do is absorb a couple thousand watts to round out the day. So I've been putting it off.

And because of my procrastination, once or twice a week when the grass got short, the sheep (always egged on by Marvin) would break out, and me, being new to this business, would freak out and run outside in towels (why this always happened when I was showering, I don't know) and then desperately try to lure them home to their pen with bribes of grain. And that worked fine. I swear those sheep could be two miles away and hear the grain bucket and come loping my way like herion addicts hearing a junkie slappin' an arm. But I was tired of constantly looking out the window for them, or coming back from walks with the dogs to see them landscaping the driveway. So I finaly caved and set up the electric netting. I'm glad I did. The sheep have been staying in their pasture and I know if I leave for a short 2-mile walk with the dogs they'll be there when I get back. Grant it, it hasn't been perfect. I learned that Marvin still escapes if the charge is low but we'll figure it out.

In other news, I saw Jon Katz twice last week at two local book readings. I went to his book tour opening at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge NY, and then again Saturday night in a Manchester bookstore I love more than nonfat creamer (Northshire Books!) when our hayride plans were rained out. Both readings were interesting and insightful. I got to pet the famous Izzy and Lenore, and hear about his life as a hospice volunteer/writer/hobby farmer. All of which was engaging and interesting.

I like Jon Katz. I like his writing, his stories, his unapologetic and kind view about dogs and their roles in our lives. He honestly admits the holes they fill up emotionally and the surprising things he learns living with them. His writing says what many dog lovers feel and for that I'm grateful he shares his life with us. I actually haven't read any of his stuff until recently. My friend Heather suggested him to me this spring and I read his books while I was getting used to Vermont. So it was a fun shock to realize I wasn't just reading about a person with a similar lifestyle - but he lived a few towns over. Neat. (I also just read Kingsolver's book this summer too... something I should've read a long time ago! That' another blog post.)

Since I'm both involved in border collies and writing - the subject of Jon Katz has come up many times. It seems border collie people either love him or hate him, and I've heard the whole gamut. I even emailed him a couple times, hoping to get a sliver of advice. I usually would never bother a writer, but how could I not give Katz a shot? I mean come on, he's a local writer that works at home, runs a small farm, and lives with herding dogs. Pretty close to what I aspire to be. So I emailed him, introduced myself, and asked if he had any advice for a new young farmer getting involved in sheep and border collies.

Katz did reply, which pleased me. He was cordial, but distant. Which is exactly what he had to be. Being a best-selling author he must get thousands of emails a year from people telling their own small farm stories. Out of the few emails we did share he wanted to stress that he was a writer with some sheep and farm animals, not a farmer. Which was a polite way to say "I'm not your farm messiah, kid." And that's fine. My long term goal is the opposite of Mr. Katz. To be a farmer first, and a writer second. I'm certain I'll be better at managing sheep than I am at managing sentences. (Which is best observed by the opening of the second paragraph of this post. All those commas could pile their assets together and take out a home equity loan) So while I doubt myself and Mr Katz will ever be chums or sharing a beer at a sheepdog trial, seeing him read and meeting his dogs was a downright treat. And I strongly suggest you pick up some of his stuff and give it a whirl.

Monday, September 29, 2008

on bees

Kathleen, who hails from Lancaster, PA commented in an earlier post with a question about bees. She asked about my philosophy on why I have them and my relationship to them. She said she went to a local beekeepers' meeting and the other members seemed to be more interested in beewatching then keeping, and she wasn't thrilled with the idea of spending an inordinate amount of time with bees but still wanted to have them for honey and wax.

Well, Kathleen, my sentiments are exactly like your own. I am not a bee-coddler. I set them up, give them what they need to be healthy, and then let them do their thing. I come from the Gene Logsdon school of beekeeping (which is basically the "leave them alone because they know what they are doing and you're a schmuck in a white clown suit" school.) While they constantly amaze me with their world and society - I observe them from a distance. My only interaction with them is the occasional check-in to make sure they aren't dead or infested and when I am either adding layers to their hive or collecting honey. We keep a distance. It's working out.

Don't get me wrong. I like bees and enjoy beekeeping. Putting on those giant canvas gloves and walking out with a loaded smoker has evolved from an effort of tempered anxiety to one of rural nobility. But even as someone without allergies and used to them - I don't think I'll ever be relaxed in a swarm of bees. They just aren't animals I feel comfortable with. Put me in a pen with teeth, hooves, horns, and paws and I'm fine - elated even. I'd take a barn full of angry Shetland Rams over a barn full of bees any day.

With that said, I still would never go without a hive. Bees are wonderful to have around. They help the garden, they entertain the chickens, and they seem weirdly exotic compared to the sheep and poultry. The most work they entail is just assembling the hive and installing the colony. Something I used to dread but this year I did this with not only my own hive, but a friends as well, and it went fine. I only average one sting a year, and usually when I get too lazy to bring a smoker along (actually, it's always when I'm too lazy to bring the smoker along...)

So would I encourage beekeeping? Hell yeah. It's the cheapest, easiest livestock you can have. They are ridiculously simple to keep and the rewards for having them far outweigh my annual sting. If you have two spare hours next spring and enough cash to buy an iphone - you have all it takes to get started on the path to becoming a fine beekeeper. Beekeeping suppliers like Dadant sell beginner hobby kits for under 150 that supply all you need (minus the bees and queen - which you order overnight via UPS for around 60.00) Just find a club in your area to help you get started and hopefully, if enough of us keep it up, we'll help out the declining populations and reverse some of this scary business we've all been reading about.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

the pumpkin litter has arrived!

So big news. Friday when I got home from work and was checking on the animals, I noticed Bean Blossom, my Angora doe, was looking like someone shaved her wool. I know that sounds crazy paranoid, like I think people are roaming rural New England and shaving people's fiber rabbits, but she was less definitely less hairy. But it was her own doing. She pulled out over half of her wool to make a nest. So... (drumroll noises please) It looks like we have four new members of Cold Anter Farm! A new litter of French Angora bunnies are here and just in time for the holidays. I am a little worried, four is half of what her last litter was. But everyone seems to be doing fine. I think I'll keep a female from this litter to add to my little herd here.

The new bunnies came just in time. I just sold the last two males from my first litter (which I called the Lettuce Litter, since that's what was in the garden when they were born.) This new litter is adding fresh life to the farm for Fall. A time when generally all the animals are either well into their spring-born lives or getting ready for processing (gulp, turkey.) Anyway, I'm calling the new kids the Pumpkin Litter, and if anyone in the area is looking for a gorgeous new farm animal - I don't mean to brag but my rabbits are beautiful and gentle guys. So consider a wool bunny for your homestead. Okay, that's all for now. Hope your weekends are going well. When I write again I'll talk about my Jon Katz weekend (saw him read twice, only once on purpose) and his new book as well as updates on mine.

Friday, September 26, 2008

a rainy weekend

It's going to pour all weekend. Usually, that's a good thing. I am a big fan of rainy Saturday mornings. I get to get up and face the wet and cold and then after all the animals are fed and I'm back inside and all is right in the world, I don't have to rush to work. I can relax. I can cook a breakfast of champions, light a fire in the living room, and curl up with the dogs to read or watch a movie. It's the best.

But this weekend, rainy Saturday mornings aren't a good thing because my parents are driving up from Pennsylvania to visit for an official Vermont Fall Weekend. We had all these plans to go to a hayride and bonfire at Adam's Farm, see the countryside foliage, walk downtown Manchester, you know the works. My mom was even excited to meet the sheep and get pulled around the woods at night by a tractor (if you knew my mom, that's a big deal.) But it's going to pour like the dickens. And I'm scrambling to figure out what to do with them besides feed them in restaurants.

This morning, before the rain came, I let the sheep out into their pasture to chomp on the sweet green stuff a little. They have my routine and body language down now. They know what walking certain ways means, or what "home for grains!" means. They answer when I yell out from the porch "Hey Sheps! You Still livin!" and I hear back a chorus of "BAAAAss BAAA baaa BBAAA!" Which kills me every time and I crack up. We're easily amused around here. You guys have a good weekend, stay dry.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

the long view

The road to Vermont was a long one. And none of it happened on purpose. A lot of my addresses and jobs have all fallen into place by luck, or chance, or a random job search online with resumes emailed on whims. But for those of you interested, here is the abridged version of the last few years. And how a Pennsylvanian college grad ended up on six rented acres in Vermont with her current menagerie.

I went to college for design, and that's what I still do today as my day job. I don't think it's a secret that I'm not exactly rich. Like most Americans, I live paycheck to paycheck and try to budget a life around bills and college loans. I save what I can, but I'm not about to buy a house or a new car anytime soon. So I am (and probably will be for quite some time) a 9-5 working middle class American. Which I assume most of you are too. We definitely have that in common.

In 2005, I graduated from Kutztown University, a small state school in southeastern Pennsylvania. I spent four years studying graphic design, antiquing with close friends, taking trips to New York to putz around Chelsea galleries, and spent too many late nights in diners talking about our 'big plans'. I loved college. And it was a bittersweet time for me, full of saturated memories and friends I am still in touch with today. However, when graduation came I knew everything would change. My friends were splattered all over the country in random design jobs. I thought I'd end up where many of them did, in Philadelphia, DC, New York, or possibly even around my homeland of Carbon County (my favorite town in America, Jim Thorpe, is in said county) But what happened instead was I got an email from HGTV.com. They wanted to hire me as a web designer for them down in Knoxville.

Holy crap. Tennessee.

I knew nothing about Tennessee. I had never been to the South. I only had the worst Yankee-imposed stereotypes about it. But what did I have to lose? I didn't have a boyfriend. My family was supportive. The job was great. So I did it. I moved 800 miles south to the smoky mountains. It was the greatest decision I ever made.

Tennessee was nearly two years of falling in love. I scrambled over wet mossy streams and smashed mountains. I learned to play the dulcimer. I adopted my two beautiful dogs from Tennessee Sleddog Rescue. I made amazing friends who worked in letterpress shops or hiked barefoot through the hills. I drove on beaten old southern roads to amazing places like Hot Springs NC, Asheville, and the like. I learned to love my city neighborhood, and escaped every weekend to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I loved, loved that I resided in a place where you could by a plasma tv screen and be eaten by a bear in the same hour. I fell hard for the food, the music, the whole damn romatic state. Tennessee has become a magical place in my heart. A place I miss horribly. I blogged about Tennessee fervently, on a site much like this called Dogcoffin (named after a little wooden box I found on the side of the road in PA that I took with me to Tennessee). That blog is now a private blog for friends and family. But sometimes long-time readers will mention Dogcoffin here, and that's what they are referring too. Mystery solved.

But by my second Autumn in Knoxville I was barking for a real fall. I loved the southern mountains so much, but missed crisp hooded sweatshirt mornings and 30-degree October nights of PA. When I went home for my sisters wedding in the fall of 2007, I visited a small family farm I grew up going to every Halloween. Being on a hayride in the personal correctness of a North East got my restless self stirring again. So when a job was posted online for a web designer in Sandpoint Idaho, my mind bugged me till I applied. Within days of clicking 'send' on my resume, I was setting up an interview in the small mountain town in Northern Idaho. I got the job. Packed up my Urban life and moved into a retired cattle farm off Highway 95. And that, is how all this farm business got started.

In Sandpoint, at that new job (designing emails for Coldwater Creek) I came to meet a women named Diana who was a part time farmer. She had a day job but also had a small herd of cattle, laying hens up the wazoo, and her husband made his own homebrewed wines. They became mentors and friends, and with Diana's help I was able to get my own chickens, rabbits, hive of bees and so on. My year in Idaho learning to farm is what the book is about. Basically a year of learning about the good (and bad) things the simple life teaches. It mentions Tennessee and Kutztown in some respects, but largely Made From Scratch is about that magical year in the Rocky Mountains. I miss Idaho often. Mostly because of the people. I didn't fall in love with the wilderness of the west like I did with the mountains of the south, but the people and friends I made in that little town on a big lake are so sorely missed it could crack a rib. I bet if you x-rayed me you'd see a little Gem-State-Shaped scar.

So one state left me jonesing for it's landscape, another one left me pining for it's people. Life is mean like that. Sometimes happiness is dissected around the whole world, in people or memories thousands of miles away all at the same time. A beautiful horrible thing to know.

I left Idaho because of job security. There was none. The company I worked for had downsized, a lot, and in a scared and worried attempt to find stability I found a new job in Southern Vermont. I still do the same thing, design for the web. I aslo still do everything I did on the Idaho farmstead (and more!) I've grown more confident in my abilities in gardening and animal husbandry and expanded my chicken-and-kitchen farm to a full blown poultry and shepherd-in-training life here in the Green Mountains. And That pretty much catches you up to this blog.

The story from here will hopefully include the struggle to change careers, to learn to herd with a working dog, to somehow buy my own land and start my own farm business. The long view is to be self-employed and work my ass off to become a full-time shepherd (here in VT or back in Carbon County with my family.) If I'm lucky a man and some kids will trickle into my life in the decade ahead. If I'm really lucky, a man, some kids, and some open trialing border collies. I don't want to be rich. I don't want to be famous. I don't want to want anything all that fancy. I just want to wake up, feed the sheep, send my dog away to them, and come inside and write to you. The one thing I really want to accomplish besides my farm is publish a novel I've been woriking on for over three years, and if the world lets me do this, I will be beside myself with gratitude.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

come in, sit down

So I've been writing about my farm for quite some time. And since I started this site I've come to meet a lot of fine people along the way. People from all over the world who take part in all the little triumphs (and troubles) at Cold Antler. I want you to know I really appreciate that. To say something on my little electronic soapbox and get a reply from the ether is a good feeling. Readers are what turn this blog into a community, and not a self-absorbed newspaper. Thank you. I think you're neat.

Now I want to ask you a favor. If you read my blog regularly, please respond to this post with a comment about yourself. Tell me where you're from, what you do, and what your favorite book is. Let me know if farming is also a future dream of yours? What would you like me to write more about? Is there anything I can explain better? The more I know about the people reading up on me, the better I can write stuff you'll be interested in taking time out of your busy lives to read.

But beyond content and criticism, I'd just really appreciate getting to know more of you, as you've all come to know me. So please come in, sit down, and say hello.

Monday, September 22, 2008

vermont's got mad culture

the big city, the bigger picnic table

Boston was great. It was a 24-hour breakneck tour of downtown. I was in the city for a book signing with the New England Independent Booksellers annual trade show. But I used the event as an excuse to tour the bay state's finest town. I got to walk around Harvard yard, enjoy a Guinness in a smarty-pants bar, and take part in the joys of mass transit.

I was with my friend Erin, who I was my college roommate just a few years ago, and now designs for Reebok, and therefore walks around the city in fancy sneakers. And I was grateful for those fancy sneakers because my much slower chacos followed her around in an awestruck daze. I had forgotten how much I can love cities. The people, and the food, the buildings and sidewalk culture, the fact there was someone playing a Chinese Erhu in the subway – all testament to the joys of an urban life. Part of me was jealous. But it was smaller than the part of me wondering how the sheep were fairing under their maple tree at the cabin. It was a weird feeling to have as a single 26-year-old in a place she should want to be.

Erin showed me around her whole town, from the reflecting pool at the Christian Science Center to Grendel’s Den in Cambridge. She also helped me drive through the city, and paid for my subway pass. She was a vision. I was really proud of her too, because just a few years ago she was sitting with my in a college diner, neither of us with big plans or clear direction. Now she’s working in that fancy city, traveling the world, designing logos for people I watch on DVDs. She’s done well. Thank you Erin.

The NEIBA book signing was a classy event in the Prudential building. There was great food, dark beers, and loads of people I should probably know and don't.(It was a heck of a show to someone who schlepped out of bed that same day to feed chickens.) It was also kinda exciting to go to sleep 23 floors above the back bay. You know, I don’t think a 23rd floor exists anywhere in the state of Vermont? So yeah, fancy.

After Boston was through and Erin helped me find my way back to route 90, I had to take a small detour. I always wanted to go to Salem, and the autumnal equinox seemed to be the perfect time to take a tour. So I visited the Witch Museum, and walked through the town green and perused classy shops. All around me were dogs and trees. Two things I love that Boston severely lacked. If you adore concrete and volume, you can’t beat that city. But if you need to hear someone bark, and know it’s okay to take off your shoes and walk around - Boston is not for you. I wondered how many people commuted to the city from Salem every day? It only took me about 45 minutes to pull up to the museum parking lot from downtown. If I worked in Boston, I think I’d have to. How could anyone live so close to a place with such history and magic about it and not live there? It was a problem I was glad not to have.

After two days on the road, navigating a metropolis, visiting museums, listening to audio dioramas and all that – I was grateful to drive home to Vermont. I did it with the music turned up, excited to be going home in the mountains. The ocean is a beautiful thing, but I am not an ocean person. I belong on cliffs and rivers, driving through swirling fog, rolling past loping deer behind birches, and my tires kicking up piles of yellow leaves. I wanted my dogs back, which I had dropped off in a kennel and would pick up on the way home.

When I was a kid, we’d drive to the Jersey shore for vacation and my parents told me when you saw sand along the side of the road you could get excited because we were close. Well, as I rolled through the Berkshires towards the green mountains and the license plates started to turn from white to green. I had that same feeling. I just wanted to return to my regular life.

And so I did. And I did it with a true Fall Equinox celebration much subtler than anything on the cobble streets of Salem. It happened on a red picnic table off route 9. At the southern end of Bennington there is a small restaurant called the Cider Mill House. I pulled in too late to enjoy a meal, but I bought some pumpkin coffee and a gallon of cider and then sat outside to watch the Saturday Sun set over the green mountains. The air was warm, even for late September. I kicked off my sandals and sat on the table, sipping the coffee, watching the farm across the street. I smelled dairy cows, not gasoline. I looked at mountains, not skyscrapers. With my world back in order, I happily drank the best thing in the free world and sighed a happy tired sigh. Since I was alone, and wouldn’t bother anyone, I got my fiddle out of the car and played a small concert for the view. To sit with pumpkin coffee, know my dogs were minutes away from my arms, and play old tunes to trees that will still be tapped for sugar long after I’m dead and gone is a very very good feeling.

I do not think I’ll be moving to Salem anytime soon.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

gobble gobble

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

boston and a turkey on death row

Friday morning I go to Boston for the New England Independent Booksellers annual brew-ha-ha. I'll be sitting an an author reception, which I think is a glorified way of saying "you'll be sitting at a folding table at a small convention that you aren't allowed to leave." Which is fine by me! These things let me meet booksellers from all over the region who might want to carry or promote the book. It's a fine oppurtunity, this. And I'm excited to have a small vacation in the middle of a big town. My good friend Erin lives in Boston, and I'll be meeting her to show me around her city. On the way home I hope to swing by Salem to visit the witch trial museum. If you're in the Boston area, sell books, or just like them - I bet you could swing by and say hello. I'll be the girl in the hat.

Back at the farm things are trotting along right into fall. The last bits of the garden - corn and pumpkins, seem to be bulging and turning colors. So are the Sugar Maples all around the cabin. The sheep are learning their new routine, and mastering new ways of breaking out of their fences.(Which isn't really a big deal because they never leave the property anyway.) The poultry are all fat and happy, and the spring chickens will start laying their first eggs in the next couple of weeks. I also recently found a qualified poultry butcher to help with TD, and we'll be making his appointment to "go to Miami," as the locals call it, sometime in late November. I'm really proud to be presenting my family with my own farm-raised free-range turkey this Thanksgiving. It's a big personal milestone for me to contribute like that. But let me tell you something, the Huffington Post readers weren't so thrilled when I shared my bird's story. If you want to check that out, click here.

jazz and annie make front page news!

Monday, September 15, 2008

a pumpkin story

Readers of this blog know about my love of October. They know about my lust for apple cider and my appreciation for an old fashioned Halloween. But one thing they don't know (and am ashamed to admit) is how crappy I am at growing pumpkins. It's not for a lack of trying. I have planted many, read tips, asked growers... but every time I fail miserably. Last fall in Idaho I got pathetically close. My vines grew one small starter squash that I treated like the Christ child of the garden. At least until the night I pulled a Pontius pilot and stepped on it in the dark. It made the worst popping sound I had ever heard (followed by the worst string of curse words the garden ever heard.) So folks, I love pumpkins. I just can't grow them.

But this year dear readers, the winds-are-a-changing! This year I planted six hills. Three hills of organic pie pumpkins and three of jack-o-lanterns. And I am proud to say half a dozen small round green and orange orbs are coming along. None of them will be giant, but a few will be respectable carving size. And for that, I am thrilled. One of the pie pumpkin vines however, was a casualty to the rain, and it's lone baby pumpkin was going to rot with the vines if I didn't pick it early. So I did. And I carved it Saturday after the sheepdog trial and set it on the living room coffee table as some ambiance for watching movies. The seeds are drying in the kitchen, and will be saved for next year. It's not the exactly the full backseat-of-the-Subaru I had my mind, but it's something. And the first real homebrew organic pumpkin I ever carved. You got to start somewhere, right?

a shepherd's apprentice

I pulled up to the farm that was hosting the trials around nine AM. An iron weathervane of a stalking sheepdog told us were were at the right place. So did the line of cars lining the dirt driveway up to the house and barns. I left the dogs in the car with shade and some water and headed up the hill. As I crested it, the trial came into view. A big white tent, folding chairs, black and white dogs milling about, women and men in wellies and muck boots chatting, the occasional bleat of a panicked ewe in the field. In other words - a perfect Saturday morning.

That's Gracie in the top picture, a young border who was entered in the Novice trials this weekend. Gracie comes from the lines of Warren Mick's great dog Glen, and has some big paw prints to fill. Her handler was younger than me and seemed confident that Gracie would work her way up. I didn't see her run, but I did get to sit next to them while I watched the end of the novice novice (yes, two novices) class.

Sheepdog trials for beginners, like this one, are split into three sections. Novice Novice (inexperienced handlers and inexperienced dogs), Pro Novice (experienced handlers with inexperienced dogs), and Ranch (a mid-level course you need to place in before going into the big boy Open classes). This being a Novice Trial, people were patient, expectations low, and everyone was happy to be there. So was I. This was my second time visiting a trial, and my third time at a NEBCA event since the Merck Forest Trials. I wanted to be more active, learn what was going on behind the scenes. So I volunteered. Putting myself at the mercy of the officials.

Which landed me in the sheep pen. At the top of the field there's a series of pens that let three ewes out at a time. Each dog had 4 minutes to get the ewes from us penfolk (about 100 yards or so away) and bring them back to their shepherd. To be fair, every dog gets three fresh sheep and they are released by people in the pens. It was more complicated than it sounds. We had to make sure a lamb and a Mondale were in every trio. We had to keep an eye out for the bad sheep (with a red mark on them) and try to get them over to Tot (a younger male border collie bursting with power) to take out to the course. It didn't always go as planned. Some sheep figured out how to escape us and the dogs. Others were reluctant to even step out of the holding pens. Talk about being in the thick of it. My lungs have a coating of wool in them now.

I was up there for a while, getting pushed around by the sheep, hopping over fences, herding in my own way. When I messed up or did something stupid I was harshly corrected but for my own good. Mostly I was told to slow down, that I needed to be calm around the sheep because it was unfair to send them rattled to a new sheepdog. After a while I caught onto the vibe and routine and when people realized I wasn't going to ruin everything they stopped correcting me and started giving me pointers, explaining things, pointing out why one sheep was panting so much or why that dog wasn't doing something right. I learned a lot. The sheep around my legs seemed dissonant, which was fine by me. I didn't get butted once.

Every once in a while when things were in some sort of order in the pen, I'd jump out and walk to the clearing in the Hickory trees to watch the dogs herd the course. I'd watch them lope out into the fields on their initial outrun. I'd watch them pick up the sheep in what the trialers called the lift. And then bring them back to their handler, in the term most of us already know - fetch. It sounds simple - outrun, lift, fetch - but it wasn't. It sounds boring, but it was far from it. Standing on a hill, under the shade of broad leafed trees, watching a good dog work sheep, covered in mud and wool from the flock behind me... it was a proper feeling of dirty and happy. I didn't even notice the humidity.

After my pen time was over, I checked on my own dogs, and made sure they were okay. We got fresh water, and a short walk in before I went back up the hill to watch the next class (Ranch). The rest of the afternoon was spent spectating and talking about club duties. I offered to help with the newsletter and this year's calendar. I got business cards and met some new people. Handlers gave me hints about upcoming litters and told me what they would do if they could do it all over.(Mostly everyone said get a started dog, a multi thousand dollar investment I can't make but they were earnest in their opinions.) All in all it was a fine day. I drove home tired and happy.

The rest of the afternoon was spent on my own farm chores. Relining the coop with fresh bedding straw, moving the sheep out to new pasture, cleaning rabbit cages, and baking an apple cake. By sunset I was barely still on my feet. When I went out to bring the sheep in for the night, I gabbed the livestock cane my friend Diana mailed me as a gift. I now know why people without bum knees or week legs bring these canes into the fields at sunset. They are so tired by the end of the day they need something to keep them standing up. I rested my palms on it and called Marvin, Sal, and Maude in for some grain and minerals. They trotted past me into the pen, they seemed happy and healthy so far. It's own reward to a new shepherdess. I walked back to the house ready for bed. It was a grand day at Cold Antler Farm.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


I was on my way to the sheepdog trials when I realized one resident of Sandgate didn't want me to leave. When I turned the sharp corner by the town sign, this young angus steer was just hanging out in the road, minding his own business. I slammed on the breaks. (Even in the country you don't expect livestock to play stop sign.) Annie and Jazz were thrilled that I stopped for burgers, and almost trampled me in the front seat to get a better look. The steer however was unaffected. He just stared at us chewing something from a spare stomach. After a few moments I slowly drove around him (like he was going to move) and headed down to the Wayside for some coffee. Which I now needed, more than ever.

While I was in the country store pouring some, I told the guys sitting at the back table there was a stray black calf up the road. I think it livened up the morning conversation. Because they happily debated who's it was (possibly even one of the guys present.) It was getting interesting, but I couldn't stay. I took my coffee to go and left for the trials, which within minutes of my arrival had me thigh-deep in a sheep pen sorting thirty-odd surely (and horned, might I add) Scottish Blackfaces. Which is what you get when you volunteer to help at a Border Collie party. I had a blast. More later.

Friday, September 12, 2008

sheepdog trial weekend!

I have a busy weekend coming up. Early tomorrow morning I'll be hitting the road for Esperance, NY. It's a small town about an hour and a half south of me. I'm going to the Wooly Winds Novice Sheepdog Trial to watch beginner shepherds put their dogs through their paces. I've only ever watched open trials before - which are for really experienced dogs. This trial will be more my speed - green dogs and greener handlers tripping over sheep and running around frantic to catch up with themselves. Pretty much what I'll be getting into when a border collie find it's way into my life. For now, I'll be watching from the sidelines, talking with other NEBCA members, and finding out what I'll be doing as a volunteer at the big fall trials in Cooperstown New York. I offered to help with the backstage work at Fall Foliage 2008 - a big fall trial/ I offered to help scribe or hold sheep while the pros worked their dogs. After the adventures of the morning are past, we'll take the scenic route back home and hopefully pass a cider mill where I can get some fresh press. I love apple cider, and come fall it might even trump coffee (okay, that's a bold faced lie.)

I have a busy weekend coming up. Early tomorrow morning I'll be hitting the road for Esperance, NY. It's a small town about an hour and a half south of me. I'm going to the Wooly Winds Novice Sheepdog Trial to watch beginner shepherds put their dogs through their paces. I've only ever watched open trials before - which are for really experienced dogs. This trial will be more my speed - green dogs and greener handlers tripping over sheep and running around frantic to catch up with themselves. Pretty much what I'll be getting into when a border collie find it's way into my life. For now, I'll be watching from the sidelines, talking with other NEBCA members, and finding out what I'll be doing as a volunteer at the big fall trials in Cooperstown New York. I offered to help with the backstage work at Fall Foliage 2008 - a big fall trial/ I offered to help scribe or hold sheep while the pros worked their dogs. After the adventures of the morning are past, we'll take the scenic route back home and hopefully pass a cider mill where I can get some fresh press. I love apple cider, and come fall it might even trump coffee (okay, that's a bold faced lie.)

P.S. I sold the book in the farm fundraiser, but if any of you are in any position to make an offer on any of the signs or the mask, or the painting. Please do! Just email me (now in the right sidebar is a link to my email. I also do custom pet watercolors for about 75.00 a painting) Help Cold Antler get ready for winter 2008!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

hay-lined revelations

Realizing you're becoming a farmer comes in tiny revelations. You'd think unloading a station wagon full of sheep or writing a check for 200-pounds of animal feed would snap that into place for you, but those grand gestures don't. Maybe because they're too obvious or your mind is so busy trying to figure out how to get them into pens or carry 200 pounds when you're 5'3"? No, It's the little things. Like realizing that you tracked goose crap all over the house because you're used to a life of lawns, not pastures. Or when you pull hay off your jeans when you sit down at your office's desk chair. Or watching movies with chickens running around period film sets and yelling at the screen "What!? Why would a Plymouth Rock Rooster be living in 16th Century Japan?!!" And then getting angry at the film crew for their obvious lack of poultry research. That's when you realize you've slipped into the dark side of the barn. That's when you understand you're becoming a farmer.

This morning at the office was one of those moments. A couple of co-workers were chatting about the colder-than-usual morning. One said to another "Weren't you surprised when you walked outside this morning?! Hello Winter." And I realize how completely unsurprised I was. But had this been a morning back in Knoxville three years ago, I would've been shocked. Back before I planned my life around a garden and livestock, I let the weather happen to me. I didn't live a reactionary life towards it (unless you consider putting on a sweater reactionary.) But now I stalk weather.com and haunt weather.gov. I have a garden full of corn and pumpkins and sunflowers to keep going into October. Between the fear of early frost, and planning how much work I want to do outside at 5AM, I check the weather report all the time.

I knew for over a week we were going to have a frost advisory last night. So after work I did all the morning chores in advance. I carried and refilled all the water stations. I loaded fresh feed into everyone's bowls and feeders. I forked straw. I set things up. I did it so I'd have an easier and more comfortable morning. So come the dark blue light of 5:34AM I would only need a few flakes of hay under my left arm and a lantern in my right hand. Which is all I did need.

This morning I walked outside in a heavy fleece coat, a ridiculous fur musher's hat, and my father's old red-and-black plaid hunting jacket. I looked silly, but I was warm (and the sheep could care less how I'm dressed.) Work went quick and by the time I was back inside with the dogs the coffee was ready. I was never surprised for a second. Which comes with my wooly new territory, I guess.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

pack dogs extraordinaire

farm fundraiser kick off

So below I have some items, descriptions, and such for the Fall Farm Fundraiser. If you are interested in purchasing any of these items, please comment below with an email address I can reach you at. Or email me personally at jenna@itsafarwalk.com. From there we can work out the details. I had prices listed before but it seemed crass. If you are interested, make an offer, and we'll discuss.

The reason for the fundraiser is threefold. The first to take care of winter farm costs, which include (but are not limited to) hay, feed, bedding straw, reinforced fences (snow damage), water defrosters and heating fuel. The other reason is to save for my future farm, which is seems so far away but maybe with the help of the book and readers I can get a little closer to paying off student loans and start saving for a real piece of land. The third is charity, which is where a quarter of the money will go. With the help of your donations our goal is to buy a few goats or sheep for the people of Heifer International. An agriculture based charity that helps people through livestock grants. (The teach-a-man-to-fish school of charity) Please read below for items.

The Spirit Mask(50.00 S&H in the USA)
By far the biggest ticket item here. But this completely hand-crafted Native American inspired spirit mask was made while writing Made From Scratch in Idaho. Using a hand molded paper mache frame, I used real antlers, fur, and coyote teeth (along with fake horse hair, hawk feathers, and glass wolf eyes) to make this headdress in the Native American Tradition. It took about twenty hours to make, from the original newspaper and glue on the kitchen floor, to hand trimming to rabbit fur around the muzzle. It weight about ten pounds, and rests on top of your head like a hat. It would be an amazing costume for any Hallows event! Which is why I made it - it was used at a Halloween bonfire last October, and we had a grand ol' time. But since then it has just sat in my bedroom. Please give it a nice home.

Eat Local Farm Sign (20.00 S&H in the USA)
Hand-painted garden sign. Has Cold Antler Farm written below it. Was propped up in the garden and featured on the blog a few times. Painted on old Vermont floorboard!

Wolf on Hallows Original Watercolor (10.00 tube S&H in the USA)
This is not a print! It's an original large watercolor on 12x14" paper! Painted when I lived in Tennessee (possibly PA). The signature wolf with antlers dancing fireside. the wolf with antlers is an unlikely animal, but one you see all over this site because I feel the ability to transition from a corporate employee to a full-time sustainable farmer (and farm writer) is an equally unlikely animal. So it's an avatar of hope through nature. Plus, let's be honest, wolves look better with antlers anyway.

Signed Advanced Reading Copy of Made From Scratch (5.00 S&H in the USA)
It's not as fancy as the upcoming hardcover. But it's signed and here at the cabin waiting for you! I'll also make sure it has a goose feather bookmark in it!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

colder days, warmer hearts

When I left the office last night, the Subaru's thermometer read 76 degrees. In the valley the trees were green, the sun was out, it felt like the high end of summer. Twenty minutes later when I drove up the mountain and turned onto West Road I looked at the temperature again. It was now 66 degrees, shady, and my car rumbled over a bed of brown maple and oak leaves. It really is more like fall in the hollow. This is where I belong.

Fall is the greatest. It's my favorite holiday - the most exciting time of the year. I thrive in crisp weather. I am beaming in hooded sweatshirts and beat jeans. I was miserable in the 80-degree Octobers of Tennessee (Its only true downfall.) Halloween is hands down my all time favorite holiday. Which sounds like I adore slasher movies and tacky faux zombie lawn decorations. I don't.

No, I'm an old fashioned gal when it comes to Halloween. At Cold Antler it's a celebration of a year well done. A true harvest party with a heavy focus on remembering those we lost. Old traditions like memory bonfires, storytelling, and serving a silently observed meal that was a deceased friend's favorite are all still celebrated here. The lurid stuff is not. I have no interest in a graphic Halloween championed by the horror industry. To me that modern interpretation is horrible, and makes a warm and beautiful Celtic tradtion a creepy mocking of mortality. (Honesty, I am more unsettled by spring, which is to me the creepiest time of the year). But Hallows is a happy time. A day to soak in memories, sit fireside, tell the kids about people they'll never meet, pet your dogs, and laugh with those who are lucky enough to be still among the living. It's nature's best last party before we all crawl under quilts and watch the snow confuse the hell out of the chickens.

So on that note, Vermont is really starting to feel like fall. Tonight they want the temperatures to drop into the low 40s, tomorrow night into the thirties. Which means I'll snuggle up by my fireplace with the dogs and read a cheesy mystery or watch an equally cheesy romantic comedy. Knowing that outside the sheep, rabbits, and poultry are all safe and warm in their keeps. I am looking forward to this so much it's making it hard for me to type a sentence without randomly adding words like PUMPKIN and FIREWOOD. Which apparently, I just did. Sorry, I am swept up in the magic.

I think it's important to look forward to the things that you know are coming. The guaranteed. To get pumped about the changing seasons, a sunflower's bloom, a holiday on the calendar. Putting stock in these simple things is healthy and rewarding because they can't let you down. If you put the proper levels on value on them it's hard to feel languid about life, or bored with the routine. I find that if all your priorities lay in things outside nature's control your certain to be disappointed. You don't always get promoted at work, or approved for that new car loan, or can afford a plasma tv screen without eating spaghetti for a year. But you can take fall to the bank. It's coming. And Vermont might be the greatest place in all of this small world to watch it unfold.

I am blessed over and over. I tell you there's no justice.

Monday, September 8, 2008

all my armour on

Preparing for Monday mornings is an ordeal. I need to put all my armour on. The coffee pot is loaded, and on the stove ready for me soon as I get up. My outfit for work is picked out, at grasping distance. I set the alarm extra-early (4AM) So I can hit snooze a jillion times before 5. All of this is required to mentally prepare me for the 40-hour corporate work week I truly don't belong in. But I am okay with. Because right now, I do belong there. It's what pays rent, bills, and feeds me and the animals. It might be years, decades, before I can afford to buy a farm and make that my full time job. It makes my stomach turn if I think about that too long. But let's be honest - working for an outdoorcentric company in Vermont is world's away from the same job in downtown Chicago. I am lucky. I know this.

Lucky or not - I still wish my workday was outside, with rams and lambs and a border collies named Knox and Saven. This sometimes tears at me. Am I asking too much when I strive for this rural life? Am I being foolish praying to foresake a comfy 9-5 job so I can work my ass off in the pastures? I don't know. Some people have been telling me to slow down. Not to expect too much. They have my best interests at heart, but their warnings make me lower my ears and run into the wind like Jazz and Annie do when we're mushing in the snow. I'm still finding all this out. I do know I'll happily work more hours, pour buckets of sweat, and come inside so tired I can barely stand if its what I know I should be doing. Farming and writing is the world I am clawing uphill into.

The coffee is perking now. Thank god.

I'm still somewhat tired from the weekend. I drove down to my hometown of Palmerton, PA for the annual festival. which was all but rained out. I still had a nice time. It's a small event with crafts and rides. Local community churches and girlscout troops selling their wares as a giant public fundraiser for dozens of clubs. Sadly, it fell the same weekend as the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival. But some priorities still soak in traditional waters. So The dogs and I drive the five hours to my homeland. My kind neighbors watched the farm.

Back in Palmerton, the food and familiar faces were there. My best friend Kevin drove up from Newtown to spend Saturday with the Woginrich's (his favorite thing, ever) and between Kevin (who, by the way, decorated an apple pie with a perfect likeness of Kermit the Frog, and make a human cel inpired pastry) and my family, four dogs, and deep fried twinkies. It was a grand 'ol time. I wish I took a picture of that pie.

Even though Palmerton was a nice break from farm and worklife. I kept wondering about the the chickens and sheep. Were they okay in the storm? Did Katie get them enough water? Did Dean remember to shut the coop's door at night? When you run a small farm, it's impossible not to take your work home with you. I have to go to Boston in two weeks for a book event and while I'm excited to see my friend Erin and her city, I loathe having to prepare. Having to ask the neigbor's to walk up here and care for the animals again, vaccinate the dogs for the kennel, and leave my animals. People do not get into homesteading to up and leave it every two weeks. I am excited and grateful for the book, I don't mean to sound like I'm not. I will happily promote it into the ground. But at the end of the day I just want to work hard and then relax harder, and that happens best where sheep chew grass, fiddles play, maple leaves turn red, and roosters crow.

When I came home to Cold Antler it had recovered from the storm. All the sunflowers that had yet to bloom (I planted them late) were now bursting with yellow from the rain. They seemed to say 'welcome back'. Marvin and Sal bleated a hello (Maude ignored me like usual), the chickens scurried about the yard. Jazz and Annie sat next to the car, waiting for dinner. Everything was fine. I don't know why I worry about them so much. I guess that's just how I'm wired.

Friday, September 5, 2008

farm fundraiser coming soon

There will be a farm fundraiser coming up! The purpose is to help pay for feed, fencing, and save for my own real piece of non-rented dirt. All the items will be either handmade crafts by me, in my personal antique collection, or original works of art. I'll post them soon. If I can do this without using an auction site I will. Whoever comments first under the post for a certain item, gets it. The "winner" will then send a payment that includes shipping and I'll mail you whatever it is you won. 25% of all items will go to the charity Heifer.org. So you'll be helping your girl Jenna out with her farm dreams, as well as people all over the world with theirs.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

media updates

So big news folks. I'll be featured in the upcoming issue of BUST magazine, which will be out in newsstands mid September. The issue I'll be in will have Sarah Silverman on the cover, which I am thrilled about. I don't think it's a huge article, but there should be a write up on my journey from suburbia to farmburbia. If you've been enjoying the blog, it'll be worth picking up the issue.

Since I'm talking about media, I might as well plug my Huffpo and Mother Earth News archives, which can be found on the right sidebar of this blog. (By the way, if you need to scroll all the way to the bottom of the blog to see the links, your screen resolution is set to low.) Huffington's bits are usually a little more about green living and sustainable farming in modern culture. Mother Earth News articles are more about farming and farmlife. I think the most recent ones are about the future of farming in America, and sheep, of course.

I am also considering having a farm fundraiser on the site. I have some homemade crafts and paintings that I might sell to make some extra money for the farm. Things like hand-painted signs, a real-antlered wolf mask (our farm mascot), and water color paintings and original drawings. The cash would go right into feed and hay and paying off bills I need to wipe clean before I can buy my own farm. So if anyone would be interested in owning a piece of Cold Antler, and helping me get a few steps closer to my farm, let me know and I'll post some items!

Also, if this whole post was obnoxious let me know and I won't do anything like this again. I'm not sure if outside-the-farm news should even be on here?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

the animals we chose

Whenever people ask me what kinds of animals I have, I shoot off the list (sheep, chickens, geese, rabbits, bees etc.) When I finish they always seem confused and say something like "Oh, but you seem like such a dog person? I'm surprised you don't have a dog?" and I am taken aback. Of course I have dogs! Why didn't I mention them? Then I remember the initial question. They asked me what kinds of animals I have. My dogs aren't animals. They're roommates.

Of course that's not true. Dogs are animals. Happy, blissful, dependant animals I couldn't live without. But my own dogs are so removed from farmlife I forget about them when I rattle off livestock in my keep. Probably because they aren't sheepdogs or free-ranging farm mutts. They are housedogs, hiking dogs, car dogs, sled dogs. They are either with me on the couch, riding next to me in the car, or out in the middle of the wilderness hiking under pack or pulling me on a sled. Ever since I adopted them from Tennessee Sleddog Rescue in 2005 - Jazz and Annie have been with me for three states, two cross country road trips, and one book. They've tolerated Tennessee summers and Idaho winters. They've walked on crowded southern city streets and endless New England dirt roads. They've eaten chickens, broke into National Parks, and ran away at weddings. They've kept me warm on cold nights, gave me an excuse to flirt with guys at dog parks, and helped me meet so many interesting people in the mushing world. I am humbled by all they give me.

A home without a dog is a dead cell to me. A place you sleep and eat inbetween work and little trips you think are more important than they are. But having dogs changes your address (and life) in a way cats and goldfish can't. I'm sure cats and goldfish are perfectly fine pets, but let's be honest, anyone can feed your cat and goldfish. Those animals really could care less where their food comes from.

Dogs however, need us. I once questioned this, assuming most dogs would happily shack up with other owners that treated them well and fed them on time. That is until the dark day I saw a Siberian Husky waste away and die in a rescue volunteer's arms. It had been perfectly healthy a few weeks ago, but when it's owner died in a car accident it stopped eating and drinking. It committed suicide out of misery. As the withered girl's head dropped, all the other sleddogs howled together in one mournful song. It shakes me up to remember it. I can still hear the 40 other malamutes and Siberians in their runs, all wailing in unison at the death of the little girl. Never again would I see these amazing dogs, certainly not Siberians, as pets. They are the animals we choose to wander through life together. We created them to live with us, bred out their wildness, made their ears floppy, and now they need us.

And I need them.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

david bowie covers and escaping sheep

The weekend delivered on its promises. All three evenings had me in front of campfires playing music well into the night. Saturday night being the greatest night of all. At a Hebron bonfire there was a full string band assembled by random participants from all over the Northeast. I had my fiddle, another gal had an upright bass, and other folks had brought a mandolin, guitar and banjo. We played for hours till the kids went to bed and embers burned in the grass. My favorite musical moments were bluegrass renditions of Leroy Brown and Bowie's Under Pressure. I laughed and laughed.

Sean was also there, the friend from Illinois I had mentioned in an earlier post. He seemed to have a fine time Saturday night, and had a front row seat for all the music and festivities. Sunday morning we had a giant brunch feast of farm omelets (thank you chickens and garden), pancakes with Vermont maple syrup, and copious amounts of coffee in large mugs. The morning was far from ideal though, the B&B style breakfast was interrupted when we realized I was out of milk (yay me). So we jumped into the station wagon to pick up some at the Wayside store. Upon returning into my driveway, I was instantly greeted by an unsettling site. A giant wooly body entered into frame and trotted across the lawn to the cabin. Oh shit. All three sheep had escaped.

Sean and I reacted quickly, like a decent brace of border collies. He ran one way and cut them off at the pass, stopping them from walking down hill into the neighbor's property. I ran back to the sheep shed to grab the coffee can of grains. soon as their giant ears heard the rustling of grain in metal they turned on a dime and ran at me at a full charge. Sheep aren't cows mind you, but seeing three 140-pound animals running toward you, eyes locked on the can in your hands was intimidating. I slowly walked backwards into the pen. All three followed. When they were back inside heads deep in the grain bucket, I checked out the escape route. They had learned that one side of the gate rested on hinges. So they simply lifted it off them till they were free. Whoever says sheep are dumb animals doesn't live with them.

Sean headed back to the Midwest on Sunday, and the rest of the weekend involved smaller scale neighborhood cookouts. But I found the most enjoyable time at home was spent out in the pasture with the flock. I set up movable fencing in the field closest to the pen, giving them an extra grazing room. I'd bring my fiddle, some books, and my alpaca wool blanket and lay out with them for hours at a time. I'd play a few tunes or read a few chapters, sometime I'd doze off or sip a mason jar of lemonade. It was relaxing as it sounds. Every now and then I'd be interrupted by Marvin's nose if my elbow or fiddle was in the way of his foraging. When the sheep had eaten for a while, and I was ready for something a little more active, I'd get up and call them inside the gate. They'd come trotting in, expecting grain for their amazing diplomacy. I delivered.