Wednesday, March 31, 2010

new chicks in the bathroom = spring

Some new life is pumping into this small farm: a few laying hen chicks were picked up on my lunch break at Tractor Supply. Just eight—all scrappy and healthy—are currently taking residence in my bathroom. The sign at the store just said "Pullets: Laying" but I think they're production reds and whites (meaning Rhode Island Red and Leghorn hybrids) sold to small operations like mine. They waited for me in the front seat of the truck with a hand warmer shake packet under them while I designed web sites. I was in a cubicle workspace while eight chickens waiting in my truck. My life is a constant combination of office life and farming. I enjoy the dichotomy.

I called local suppliers about poultry today. Looking to raise turkeys and chickens this year on the new farm for some side income. Cornish Rocks and Bourbon Reds should be the star players. Right now, however, it's just these young ones. 22 dozen an eggs a year each is the possibility in each of those little peepers. It never stops amazing me.


he's one of these!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

an announcement

The dog pictured above is Patrick Shannahan's Riggs. Riggs is an Idaho stock dog and International Trialing Superstar. He's the grandson of a dog imported from Wales and was on the US team at the World Trial in Ireland. He's gorgeous, gentle, friendly, and a fine working dog. Riggs is exactly the type of rough-coated border collie I have always dreamed of owning. It just so happens that on March 16th Riggs fathered a litter of four puppies. One of those pups, a little boy, is mine.

Gibson, my partner in starting my sheep farm, will be coming home to Cold Antler in May. I'll pick him up at 8-weeks-old at the Albany Airport. Together, we will become shepherds, and bring lambs into this world.

Finally. It is really starting.


Monday, March 29, 2010

paying attention

Walking around the farm on this wet, dark night in Southern New England I realized—despite the heavy clouds—that tonight was the full moon. The rain clouds were thick and the sky was dark, but it felt like the full moon and that is the only way I can really explain that. I suppose the best way to describe it is if you walked into a black tent in the middle of a pro football Stadium at night. Sure, inside the heavy tarps it's pitch but you know, you feel, the stadium lights outside even if you can't see your palm in front of your face. I came inside and checked my Washington County Farm calendar and saw that tonight was in fact the full moon.

I can't remember what it was like to not be aware of these things. For most of my professional adult life now I have been outside nearly every night, in all weather, watching the cycles of the moon go from bright to dull alongside my livestock or with the padding trots of my dogs. I don't pay attention to it in any serious way, but tonight I realized I missed the glow, and was expecting it even though it was absent. Make a wish, I thought...Tonight might be special.

Moon talk aside, on the way back to the cabin I tripped over the metal spike in the field that ground the electric current for the electric fences. I fell flat on my butt, getting it soaked as if I dipped it in a creek. Let's her it for me. I cursed under my breath as I went back indoors. I can sense the cycles of the moon on spec but I can't see dangerous lawn obstacles that have been in the same place for nearly two years? Pocahontas, I am not.

Folks have been asking for a Jackson update, and I am nervous to report there are none. I am still waiting for a closing date, but the USDA mortgage was underwritten and signed off on by all parties lawyers. Now it's just twiddling thumbs and hoping nothing falls through before the big day I finally sign those papers, hand over that giant check, and get handed the key. I won't really exhale until that day comes, so keep your fingers crossed and carry a bit of wood in your pocket to knock on from time to time. This girl in Vermont is still livin' on a prayer.

I have other news though, do I ever. Some of it I am waiting to share, but tonight I'll fill you in on Saturday's plans to visit a local rabbitry and learn about meat rabbits and composting red worms. Bruce, A local farmer I know through the Shushan feed store (who caters to all the local restaurants) has invited me to see his operation and, if I am so inclined, take home a few animals to breed on the farm and sell back into the local menu scene. I'm excited to learn about meat rabbits, and to see how his giant operation (over 200 does) functions as a lucrative, neighborhood farm. A student from Green Mountain College may join me. She cold called me this week because her homesteading class brought me up in some college lecture. This blew my mind, but also had me swelling with pride that local schools have homesteading curriculums. Talk about knowledge being power: a class that gets students to learn how to literally feed themselves, and not just get a degree that pays for groceries, has all my respect. I tell you, sometimes this nook of the world just makes me smile like an idiot.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

pods and strings

In my short years of experience with country living I have learned to pay attention to how experiences affect me. Before I even start the season I can tell you how much breaking sod that first weekend out of winter hurts my shoulder—or the amazing feeling of a two-day-old chick's heartbeat in my palm. I understand the economy of gardening, how the patience of growing things wears off and yet that intense joy still comes when that first spring salad hits your fork. I also know what combinations of activities or items can cure loneliness, or anxiety, or fear. A snap pea sprout and a banjo are one such combination.

It is impossible for me to not smile when I look at a spunky spring pea shoot and an openback banjo. The two are strong medicine, and no matter where I am or what's going on—if I close my eyes and picture white pea blossoms and vibrant green vines curling around a banjo neck—I forget whatever has been troublesome to me. The image reminds me why I got into homesteading in the first place: to let the simplicity change me. To allow basic human needs to start and end here, and fill emptiness wherever it growls.

I see a pea sprout and a banjo and I know without a doubt in my mind that tomorrow holds the possibility of good food and good music. The evolve from pods and strings into hope. They are food and music I grow and play myself, which makes them not only hope, but hope I cultivated my my own volition. Meaning the human animal has the ability to not only feed and entertain herself but to understand the perspective and value of waiting for future happiness. I get that from snap peas and banjos. I really believe if more people could tap into their own combinations of basic things they can control themselves, they might find happiness there too.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

meet some of the new kids

Friday, March 26, 2010

a new rabbitry starts tonight

Tonight I'll be driving into the town of Shaftsbury to pick up the four young rabbits Bean gave birth to this winter. I'm not sure if I shared this with you guys, but when I had to get rid of my Angora rabbits this past December, they were in the throes of their own drama. Bean was carrying kits, and while away from Cold Antler, gave birth to six bunnies (four survived). Now the young ones are coming home. For the meantime (possibly indefinitely) Bean Blossom and Benjamin are staying with the folks they are currently with, but the new kids are going to help me start a brand new breeding program at the new farm. The two does will become the new den mothers for my future rabbitry, and the pair of bucks will be given to my homesteading friend Shellee (she's just getting started on raising fiber animals in her urban homestead). I'll be on the look out for a new buck as well, hopefully up at the Long Trail Rabbit show in Rutland in May. I'm happy with the fact that rabbits are back on the farm again. I've missed them.

photo by t. bronson

Thursday, March 25, 2010

hurtin' for a haircut

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

good grief

I woke up to a farm covered in snow. What a slap in the face. See, this is exactly why I hate spring: it's a fickle bitch. I like the miserable predicability of a humid summer, the graceful decline of autumn, and the comfort of a long winter... But spring is all about torture. As April gets closer I find myself getting lost in thought, all the time. I spend the ride into and home from work trying to figure out my life, and fill all the empty spots. This post no longer has anything to do with snow. See what I mean?

They want real snow tomorrow night. A few inches and back in the 20s. Good thing I am moving, 'cause if I was living here I'd already have three raised beds in the ground and be scrambling to save them. Every year I know better, and yet every year I am out there in March planting like a moron with an addiction to top soil. I suppose there are worse addictions.

I'm all anxiety tonight. I wish it was May.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

night farming

Night farming happens by accident, and often in the spring. The warmer weather and extra sunlight trick me into staying out way past sunset. Early in the season I'm just outside because I can be, and later as planting time rolls around I'm out because I need to be. Tonight I was raking the lawn and stacking firewood and I didn't realize how dark it was getting. On days like this I let the hours fade into events. Starting with stopping at Wayside on the way home from work.

I stopped in after the office to return a rented movie. (New Moon, don't judge, I adore werewolf films...) Nancy and Nicole were at the front desk and handed me a big white envelope. "Here, this came for you today." was all the explanation Nicole gave me. It is not often I get mail at Wayside, usually only when delivery guys feel the notch is too scary for their trucks in the winter. (They just assume all locals end up at Wayside every day or one of their neighbors will drop it off. Which is true.) I was somewhat puzzled as I took the package. "No return address. Intrigue..." I mumbled. Inside was a large green handmade card with a deer, photos of the Jackson Farm, and "Congratulations!" written across small flags. It was darling but without a note or name? I think the postmark was Germany? Regardless, I was flattered. Somewhere on the other side of the world some one is following this life, and thinking about me enough to mail a card that took them some time to glue and mail. Shucks. I was a celebrity for thirty seconds, but then I had to move aside so the people behind me could buy milk.

Thank you, random sender of cards.

After that the evening fell into the usual routine. I walk the dogs a mile or two, then return home to feed them a big meal and hit the backyard. I let the sheep out into their small pasture of movable fence and throw down a flake of hay (most of the grass is still dead). While they eat I run back into the cabin, grab the egg basket from the kitchen lined with hay and raw wool, and grab the day's eggs. There were only eight today. I blame the rain. For some reason wet days mean less eggs than sunnier ones. I think because everyone is stuck inside and the stress level isn't conducive to creating life. It's hard to give pre-birth with a goose up your ass.

With sheep fed, eggs collected, scratch grains scattered, and dogs chomping away—I get to other work. I chop wood and stack it. I get water boiling on the stove for rice and plan dinner as I head back outdoors. I started raking up the leaves to make the place look a little less like a windstorm just nailed it. I get lost in the chores, and do all this with audiobooks or music on the iPhone in my pocket. I didn't realize how dark it was getting. Before I knew it I was night farming.

I grabbed the lantern and my 60" shepherd's crook and headed to the sheep across the farm. They need to be back in the safety of their pen come black, so I walked a football field's distance to get them settled in. The crook's purpose is to gather lambs and direct sheep, but I was using it to feel a little safer as I walked through the dark. I knew my crook wouldn't actually do much harm against a bear or rabid coyote (forgive my imagination) but just holding a big stick in the dark is a placebo I'll gladly accept. I held the lantern in front of me, and soon met my flock. I caught Maude off guard. (She stared at me long enough to let me snap a picture.) And before long got them inside with a bribery of fresh broccoli. With the wools safe and the world dark, I was going in to eat, write, and play some music.

Just a few hours since the office, and certainly nothing of consequence, but a fine day. My animals are well, my stomach is full, and my fiddle is lonely. I hope all of your day's were kind to you as well.

do you have a favorite post?

I'm working on a section for the sidebar of reader's favorite posts. If you liked a particular post and think it should be listed on the top ten, please let me know?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

the vernal equinox—greenhorn style

From the moment I pulled the truck into the farm's driveway I knew this was It was going to be a Saturday to remember—a perfect way to spend the holiday. The forecast wanted the sun near 70 degrees, and even in the morning wind I was comfortable in a light jacket and plaid shirt. The crowd was growing as more and more cars with New York plates piled behind me. By 10Am there were nearly thirty people, all farmers, food producers, or professionals in attendance. The secret worry I had of protesters was unfounded. Instead of an angry poster, the chef's boyfriend pulled out a 150-year-old banjo and started playing clawhammer tunes. A local organic nursery filled the folding tables with flowers, vegetables, and greens. The Greenhorns banner flapped in the wind and the lamb was on ice. This was going to be an amazing day.

For those of you concerned about carnage, know that no animals were shot or bled out in front of us. While most of the people and in attendance (including me) thought the event centered around the death and processing of one animal, that wasn't the case. The two lambs that were being butchered that day in front of a captivated, question-hungry, audience had been slaughtered Tuesday (the meat properly aged for butchering time). So no writhing death was witnessed and no one needed to bring a change of clothes.

There was no question though, this was the main event. The master of ceremonies was the young, Brooklyn-based, butcher Adam, who took our questions with eloquence and humor. For over an hour he explained each cut and what it takes to get a skinned animal to our civil plates. It was fascinating, educational, and even the kids seemed to want to ask questions as they ran behind him to get scones and jam off the workbench. I liked that children were here, unphased, seeing where the supermarket starts. I wanted to give their parents a high five.

The demonstration was two parts: on the table and on the rack. The first lamb was cut on a steel and the second was hund from a chain on a big green tractor. The butcher would be slicing through the hind leg flaps and say something like "See how easy it gets here, you can really just ride the membrane...." I turned to the designer from New York City next to me and asked, half jokingly "Does your usual Saturday morning have phrases like "ride the membrane" in it?" She smiled back at me and laughed. This was my scene. If there was ever any doubt before, it was shattered as I looked around the barn at my peers, the tables of fresh vegetables and herbs, and the giant map of the United States that stated SERVE YOUR COUNTRY FOOD. Yup, I was a Greenhorn.

As it should, the event completely centered around food. Everyone had a task to help prepare the meal. Some people held the rib cage while the butcher sawed it open and others started making sausage. A few ladies sat out on the sun and cut greens and herbs and others mashed potatoes or sliced bread. I stirred the localy-grown butternut squash soup for lunch, which we ate outside while listening to a lecture on local marketting of farm goods. People without tasks wandered around the wool or tanning demonstrations, giving hand carding or scraping a try. Some paged through farm books or merchandise on display. Others walked around the barns, coops, and stalls. It was a scene out of Currier and Ives if Currier and Ives condoned iPods.

It is not often I am surrounded by so many like-minded people my age. That was the real feast of the day. To be able to lean back against a fence and talk to my peers about compost, greenhouses, or the livestock they'd be raising this spring was a joy I didn't take for granted. Tee shirts with phrases like talk soil to me or illustrating butcher cuts on an old pig illustration were the scrappy/hip clothing. Others wore less snappy, but correct farm clothes (I was one of these cats). Lots of wool, denim, and rubber boots. Our similarities didn't stop at farming and attire either, and this is what made me swoon. There were banjos and guitars all over the place, musicians randomly jamming whenever a free moment struck them. There were dogs running around, smiling and barking. I was silently thrilled at all the young guys everywhere, happy and excited to be around women who share their love of the land. Farming, bluegrass, dogs, coffee, men in beards, chickens clucking in the background....dear lord in heaven what had I done to deserve such a day?

The new lambs of Kinderhook were just born that week, and so every once in a while one made an appearance in the arms of a Greenhorn. I got to hold one of these Dorper/Texel crosses in my arms and bury my nose in it's new wool. Every one of us holding the babe in our arms knew its fate, but were beyond okay with it. Animals at Kinderhook had nearly a year of lush pasture and fields ahead of them. This lamb would know what sunshine and rain felt like, would lay under elm trees and chase ladybugs with the other lambs. It would live as farm animals should and die as they should. The contrarian sequence of watching a lamb being butchered and then holding one in my arms was not at all disturbing. In fact, it was vindicating, and gave me hope for a better future for farm animals in general. This was how things should be done.

We planned to feast that night in a large pole barn. The same place the animal was butchered earlier that morning, but was now transforming from a work station into a dining hall. Long tables were set out with glowing votives as the main light, with centerpieces of eggs and expertly carved onions and turnips dividing the table. The place wafted of spit-grilled lamb, cooking herbs, and hard cider. Outside the barn the bonfire blazed and local beer was on tap at a keg. As the sun went down a game of capture the flag broke out and these twenty and thirty-somethings ran around like children, smiling in ways I'm not used to seeing parents and lawyers smile. All of us had chosen to take a day off from the city, or work, or our usual chores to come together to share the work of a big meal. There was no movies, computer, or video games—just new friends and lots of sunlight. No wonder a random childhood game broke out, we all felt amazing. We felt alive.

As the sun hid I found myself near the bonfire and the band. Red Rooster was there, a folk fusion band from the city. The banjo player saw my fiddle case and asked if I wanted to play a few tunes? Did I!? We played Cripple Creek and State of Arkansas, and other old time songs. I loved that he knew them. I loved even more that the guy stoking the bonfire who owned an orchard close by and the dude from Brooklyn tuning his guitar knew them too, and we all hummed along as the spit turned. The band broke out into songs and played everything from Sitting on top of the World to their originals. I was a pig in shit.

Then someone came down from the farmhouse kitchen with appetizers, small reddish brown balls of lambburger seasoned with herbs and spring veggies. Without hesitation I popped one in my mouth and sweet jeeesus nearly fainted at the taste. It was remarkable how good it was. I had never eaten meat so succulent. It literally dissolved in my mouth, a dance of herbs and juices and pure energy. No part of me felt weird, or bad, or nauseated like I worried I might. It was the first taste of meat in nearly nine years and it was lamb I helped prepare myself at the farm it was born on. I loved it. I was in love with the whole damn day. The food tasted like I felt and I was glad.

Dinner was amazing. You just can't know.

We all stood and joined hands (probably 60 people) and started with a grace thanking (insert your god here) for the lambs, vegetables, weather and community. We were proud to be celebrating such an important agragrian event in such a traditional way. Before us lay the most beautiful spread, all food from local farms inseason here in the Northeast. We ate lamb, of course (crowned and French-boned), mashed potatoes, spring salad greens, and freshly baked bread with homemade butter. Focaicca, scones, jams and apples lined the end tables. As I stood in the banquet line to fill my plate, I noticed it was our hero, Adam the butcher in front of me, now dressed in normal clothes and looking totally different. I told him his lamb was my first non-vegetarian meal in almost a decade. He set down his plate and hugged me like an old college friend.

We sat near each other at the table and I learned we shared similar backgrounds. Adam used to run a successful advertising agency in New York, but found it emotionally draining and pointless. So he gave up that life and went to butchering school at SUNY where he learned humane slaughter, anatomy, and chef-level cuts. Now he works at Marlow and Daughters in Williamsburg, hoping that by choosing to learn the trade he can now help local farmers process their animals outside of CAFOs and in their community instead. He explained he became involved in meat production to improve America's food culture and to help animals live better lives, sharing how the real bottleneck in healthy local meat is there aren't enough people trained in humane slaughter and processing reaching out to small farms, helping them do it right. He wanted to avail himself to those farms and fix what he saw as a dangerous problem. We were two ends of the meal's spectrum, a farmer and a butcher, yet had the same goal in our hearts and minds. I was floored. If he didn't have a wedding ring on his finger I would've stuck around that bonfire a lot longer, let me tell you...

It was the perfect Vernal Equinox. I spent the day with people who share my passion and appreciated their dinner in a whole new way. It was also the end of my life as a vegetarian, brought back into carnivory by the very animal I'm dedicating my life to. And don't worry, you won't see me running to any drive-thrus anytime soon. I vow to only eat meat I raised myself, or was raised the same way I would in my own community. So what does that make me? A Mortgagetarian? A nextdooravore? Anyway, this food choice may make dinners like Saturday's few and far between, but perfect and soooo appreciated when they do. Which is how people probably ate meat in the first place, before the assembly line was accepted as a way to end a life. I refuse to be a part of that. I also refuse to not be a part of what I think is the solution. I ate my lamb dinner happily. It felt right. It felt earned. I felt at home with my table.

Before I headed out the door, I stopped at Severine's table (Director of the Greenhorn movement) and said thanks. She thanked me for coming and waved goodbye. I then grabbed an apple from the bowl next to her for dessert on the drive home. She stopped her conversation with her neighbor, grabbed my hand, and serious as a heart attack said "Wash that. It's Conventional." I nearly teared up leaving the loud, happy, candlelit room as I walked out to the truck. Her words perfectly summarizing the entire day, our entire lives.

I found my tribe.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

it was amazing

Friday, March 19, 2010

almost a dozen a day

join the fray

Lots of scrappy talk going on here about the Hogget Cook Off!

just start

I found this photo from my first spring at the cabin. It was a weekend my friend Nisaa from Brooklyn came up to help me get the new chickens and first gardens ready. This photo is nothing special, a cardboard box with some started plants (mint and lettuce) and an empty carton of eggs. Yet what it lead up to was nearly three seasons of a working backyard farm. In the few years I lived here I grew gardens, raised sheep, bred rabbits, tended bees, lived with dogs, played my fiddle and banjo on the porch and fell in love with my guitar again.

Most of the time I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I learned as I went, picking up books and haunting web forums. I joined clubs, made new friends, learned to eat out of the dirt and farmer's markets. I cook at home now. Eating in is glorious. I can knit my hats, sew my bags, and bake my own bread and I still write about it all here. But the point is I made that first small effort, and it trotted me home.

Now, a few years later I'm nearly closing on my own 6.5 acre homestead and trying to figure out how to move sheep, a goat, chickens, and start a farmer's market garden. I get a dozen eggs a day. I know how to plant pole beans. I'm learning to shear wool and make lamb cuts. Every year I grow, thanks to the land I made mine.

A lot happens if you make it. And it all starts somewhere. Case and point: two plants and an empty egg carton on a cardboard box. Make this spring yours. Just start.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

jackson farm update

For those of you interested in how the new home of Cold Antler is coming along, all I can share is the mortgage was approved and is being underwritten. All the paperwork is filed and I am waiting to hear from the lawyers when the closing date is. Right now all I can really do is clean, pack, carry loads of stuff to the dump and start planning the move. My Sister and my friends the Snyders (homesteaders and future farmers) are coming up from PA to help me get the flocks settled and build shelters and fences. I'll let local folks know when that is and we'll have a work party at the farm.

sheep shearing 101

I signed up for the Sheep Shearing School and I'm more excited than any reasonable person should be. In a few weekends I'll be sitting in the barns at Shelburne Farms with a ewe's back against my stomach learning how to not clip nipples as I give her a haircut. I'll be one of many students, all new shepherds (or new to shearing) wanting a hands-on experience before trying it out on their own flocks. If I get good at it, it could be a skill I could build on and provide it as a service for other small farms around my area. It's hard getting a sheep shearer to come out for just a few animals, a lot of smaller and hobby farms have to wait until the popular shearers can fit them into their schedule. Perhaps I could make a little extra farm income shearing sheep in the spring? Anyway, it's something to think about.

If you're interested in taking the class, it's offered twice in April here in Vermont. Get in touch with the University of Vermont Extension. Classes are April 10th and 24th.

It is in the 60s here now and the weather is driving this gardener crazy. With the move in a few weeks though, my hands are tied. It would be foolish to start hoeing a place I plan on leaving so soon. I want to reserve my energy for the Jackson Farm and all the effort that will go into starting the year new. But hot damn, all I wanted to do this weekend was get out there with a shovel and prepare the ground for lettuce, peas, broc, and potatoes. To temper the anxiety, I started planting seedlings inside. I have a windowsill of tiny greenhouses of future greens, peas, carrots and broccoli. They started to sprout yesterday. Sometimes you just need to make things happen. I'm all for positive thinking, visualization, and all that. But I really think if you want an organic garden don't think about spring greens, plant them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

almost that time again...

Monday, March 15, 2010

the whole hogget

This weekend I'll be attending a Greenhorns event in upstate New York called the Hogget Cook Off. It's the first of a two-day event that centers around basic butchering education, but the buck doesn't stop there. Every aspect of processing the animal will come into play. The fleece will be shorn and cleaned for spinning. The fat will be turned into soap. The hide will be tanned and the meat will be eaten. All of these sheep adventures will be presented to a hands-on audience of scrappy young farmers who will be attending the event. Some will have land, others will rent—a brave few will have just started entertaining the idea of a grass-fed career and are following their gut to Kinderhook Farm on the official first day of Spring. I'll be showing up as a young shepherd chomping at the bit to learn.

To some it may seem odd, or even revolting, to spend a day centered around an animal's death. But this Animal Welfare Approved event isn't about slaughter—it's about community. The pasture-raised lamb (a hogget is a sheep under a year old that has never been shorn) will be treated with the utmost respect and gratitude from the lot. The crowd will be current and future sustainable farmers, people who strongly desire to opt out of the illusion that meat comes from the land of Styrofoam trays and shrink wrap. These are people (like myself) who are hoping to raise meat on their own farms. The point being to be part of the solution that ends the demand for factory farm meat. More farmers raising free-range animals means less assembly line lamb chops. Events like this area a wake up call to a culture becoming more and more suspicious of industrial food.

I was talking to a friend in the office about this earlier this morning, and his response was pretty common. He said being a part of something like that would surely turn him into a vegetarian—just the thought turned his stomach. I can see his point, it won't be pretty, but it will be important. What may turn one man into a vegetarian is probably what's going to turn me into a meat eater again. I mean that in the most best way possible. I'm a vegetarian that will return to local carnivory only when I am assured the animals on my plate lived the best life possible, on my own farm or at the farms of friends. The Hogget Cook Off is a practice of that life choice. When it comes to my food, I want to look it in the face before I sit down to dinner. I want to know how it lived, see how it was treated, and make sure other animals are given the same dignity before their own demise. It takes all kinds to make this world turn on a slightly kinder rotation, some of us just have sharper teeth.

It's a celebration of the Vernal Equinox, but it's also a celebration of a lifestyle. If not the life the greenhorns have, then the life they desperately want. Whether the attendants live in Brooklyn or the farm next door they're coming to Kinderhook, yes, to learn how to cut up a sheep, but also to meet other people who want to spend their Saturday learning how to cut up a sheep. It's not exactly a check-off option on e-harmony.

I'll be going to learn about processing animals. I myself raise sheep and hope to start breeding lambs for the table next spring. I'm looking forward to the hands-on aspect of the work. But more so I'm looking forward to the conversations and company I'll keep for those hours. A chance to stand outside in the dead grass among people who share your love of rotational grazing and heirloom beef cattle is a recipe for a very specific kind of happiness. It proves that even among twenty-something's Networking doesn't always require a Facebook page meet up and a drink at a bar. For some of the feral ones, it just requires a dead sheep. I'll take it.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

goat at the door

tired and hoggets

Boy oh boy, do I have a lot to update you on.

In the past week I've found out I secured the mortgage for the Jackson Farm, signed up for a sheep shearing school, moved Finn into another foster home, and spent a long, wonderful, day at a farm film festival. Soon as I recoup from the weekend's non-stop pace, I'll fill you in on all of that... but tonight I am barely standing up. I got home from Williamstown around 1AM, and if it wasn't for the fine people at Subaru for making cars that handle snow so very well—I might not be writing you at all. I have never driven through such horrifying weather in New England; 70 mile per hour winds and driving sleet. It was a horror. When I got home to the farm I was so rattled from the drive (and excited about the people from the festival) I couldn't sleep. So I didn't. Insult to injury: today I loaded a calf hutch in a trailer, planted seeds in mini-greenhouses, re-homed my kid, and still managed to hit the grocery store and Laundromat. Time to sleep. I am a beat scene.

Before I do... This is happening next weekend and it is going to be awesome. I hope to be there, and if you're an up-and-coming shepherd, farmer, or into really local foods, you should check it out. It's a spring equinox festival where a lamb will be shorn, slaughtered, tanned, cooked, and then eaten! Casual lessons in basic lamb cooking and sheep stuff will be going on, as will (I hope) music, beer, and conversation with young farmers. Sponsored by the Greenhorns!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

i have a confession to make

When I come inside from morning chores, and I crave iced coffee instead of stove hot—I know spring is here. These past few days have been balmy, muddy, and wet. The trees are barren. The sky is gray. The ground is brown as a paper bag stuck under a tire well. Outside the snow that remains lives in little angry islands covered in dirt and dog piss. It's not pretty out there, that's for sure.

Listen, I have a confession to make. It may shock you. I hate spring.

I know, I know... Homesteaders, gardeners, shepherds, and farmers alike should be over the moon that winter is finally over, but I can't stand spring. The whole season makes me edgy and miserable. When it kicks into high gear (April being the worst) I just put on my running shoes and jog through it, hoping the whole month is washed away in sweat and miles.

I find the whole season creepy. People are so wrapped up in the abundance of new life they forget how short life really is. Folks turn into distracted avatars of their old selves, more engaged in riding mowers and patio furniture than each other. And why be grateful for life when there is so much of it around you? It's like saying grace is a grocery store. Our guards are down and our hope is replaced by expectations. It's too much. It seems a gluttony.

Now, all that said, there is a side of spring I adore. I am excited about the farm work, and everything falls out of my head but that addiction. I can plant any size garden I can muster. I can fill my coops with new chicks and poults. I can arrange for lambs and kids and god knows what else. The place is thriving with life and I am the queen of my own empire. It goes to my head! Grass starts to turn green and leaves bud on the trees and before you know it I am surrounded by so much creation I am drunk on it. I too think this bursting of life is the new normal. I sit on my laurels and breath it in and feel like I will live forever.

However, I am not the type of person made happy by immortality. Like too much money, too much life corrupts. In April I forget I'm a dying animal. It turns me into a distracted, selfish, person. I get annoyed standing in lines, and let small things upset me. I snap at friends and loved ones, assuming I can apologize later. I get materialistic, wanting seeds and fences and new clothes and tools. I am so wrapped up in the possibilities I forget the probabilities. I don't like the immortal me. I start living like a person with a lot of time on her hands. It's the worst way to be.

I know my dislike of spring has a lot to do with my love of fall. I'm never farther away from holy October than I am in the bacchanal of April. Some would say that perception is wrong, that harvest months are the time of celebration and abundance, but that's not really true. At least, not to me. With the somber holidays of Autumn, I are reminded about my mortality, but not in a bad way. Halloween makes me feel so ridicuoulsy alive. So grateful to be among the living I shake. I am at my knees in appreciation for the life I have and reverence for those I lost. You don't get that in April. You get mud.

October, god bless it. If you live like I do you know that autumn is the real show, the real time to relax and reflect. The work is done and set aside. The days are shorter and darker, but to make up for it the sunsets are five-alarm fires. The trees around here burst into fireworks too, making the whole northeast into this gorgeous land of orange, yellow, and red. The whole season looks like a sunset, and one you can stretch and feel your thinning ribs from the hard work you put into your life. You smile, and lay back onto a wool blanket under an oak and know it.

You spent months working and now the whole season celebrates with you. Like you, it's all going to die soon, but not at the moment. When you are on your back under a blazing fall oak—you are both so alive. Soon that tree with be barren, and soon I'll be buried under one, but for the time being we are both here and have a little time to make music, or children, or stories, or love. That understanding softens me. It makes me appreciate long lines as a chance to gather thoughts. I listen instead of waiting to talk. I am kinder, happier, and aged a lifetime by my sping animals and summer gardens.

I don't trust people who are ignore the grace of fall. They're worst than dog haters. At least hate usually has a motive, ignorance is just a pain in the ass.

7 months, and counting.

Friday, March 12, 2010

holy crap!

I got approved for the home loan!

doug's office: wayside country store

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

cold antler is on twitter

Yes, finally, I will be tweeting. I think it'll be fun. It'll be more accessible to me than facebook and I'm into the brevity. So far I've updated about signing up for a sheep shearing class. Those are the tasty nuggets of information you'll see on that little site. You can subscribe for my jabs and updates here:

a movie and some books

I'll be presenting Mad City Chickens at the Williamstown Farm Feast Film Festival this weekend. If you're in the area, come by and join me at 11:30 for the movie and a book signing at 1Pm after the show. It's part of a giant farm film fest, showing movies like Sweetgrass, Fresh, King Corn and many many more. There are also all sorts of community events like a Greenhorns panel for young, new farmers and a mixer called Carhartts and Cocktails where local foods and sustainability are the main points of conversation. Should be a big time.

Check out all the events and details here:

Photo courtesy Jason Houston

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

urgent help needed!

Finn, my goat, needs a place to be boarded at while I get ready to move. His current foster home just isn't set up for a goat. He's been jumping over the alpaca fences and breaking into the chicken coop. He needs a place around here to couch surf just until I can get him back—which is as soon as I can set up an electic fence at my new place. May 1st should be the very latest he'd have to stay with you, and I will of course pay for the food, space, whatever it takes.

If you live around southern Vermont and have space for a goat, please email me at

mud season

Monday, March 8, 2010

long deep breaths

The farm does not care about bad days. It simply does not allow them. If all I want to do after work is crawl under the covers, cry, and fall asleep to a Gilmore Girls marathon and Tylenol PM—I can't. My emotional state is of no consequence to sheep that need hay, eggs that need collecting, geese that want feed, or dogs that need a walk and their supper. You can't take drugs that knock you out in case something goes wrong in the night, life a fox in the coop or a coyote near the flock. There is no elbow room for selfish acts like broken hearts, office stress, or celebratory nights away in hotel rooms. There are also no snow days, rain checks, or even the occasional sleeping in. The farm demands I am the best possible self I can offer, at all times. The luxury of a personal life is useless.

I am so grateful for this it shocks me.

I had a horrible day. Sometimes the stress and responsibilities of a raw life still in the furnace cake like mud and I can't get clean. I'm not a manic person, and am pretty level in my emotions, but some days the world's too big and I'm too small. That's what happened today. I sat at my desk in the office and plowed through as much work as possible, then ran as fast I could in the company gym. I sprinted for nearly half an hour trying to beat the funk in a race. I got back to my desk and listened to my favorite music, emailed my best friend Kevin just to talk, and planned a special dinner for no reason at all. Nothing worked. I was a slow dog. I had been defeated in honorable combat. 5PM came and I had to fight back the tears as I walked to the truck in the parking lot. It was complete exhaustion. The house, deadlines, stress, money, movers, car repairs, mistakes, loneliness, confusion, distractions and reminders... I just wanted to go hide. I wanted to be useless.

But the farm had other plans for me. I came home to a mud season sunset at a place that needed me. Had I any doubt s about my necessity I could just close my eyes and listen to the bleats and crows—animals needing care. Within minutes my mood started to lift. I went inside, kicked off my Chuck Taylors, and changed into rubber boots. I grabbed the leather leashes and called to the dogs to me. They sailed from the other room, tails wagging and heads buried deep into my chest. I hugged them like I had not seen them in years. I don't know how any of you are getting through this life without dogs. I don't want to know either.

We, a scrappy pack of three, walked the muddy roads of Sandgate. They sniffed and searched the trees for crows and I took long deep breaths. I returned from that walk feeling a little lighter, my lungs less shallow. I fed them a supper of kibble, eggs, and some cheese curds and returned to the yard for wood chopping and afternoon rounds. I carried the sheep their new mineral block and heaved it like a bowling ball into their pen. I dished out scratch grains and hay, replaced water, and collected nine brown eggs still warm from the hen I rudely set aside just moments ago. Soon I was figuring out plans to move them all to the new farm, getting lost in the future of Cold Antler. I forgot everything else that seemed so important an hour ago. As I caked real mud on my boots, the metaphorical kind fell off. I smiled a little. I couldn't help it.

Had I not had these hungry mouths and trotting paws I would have came in the door, fell onto the couch, and decided I was too tired to be of any use to the world. Instead I was thrown into action and sunlight, forced to care for others and come out of my shell. The farm abhors self pity, ignores anxiety, and refuses to condone depression. A few chores and I am fine. Get me in the fresh air and around a community of my animals and before you know it I am picking up my fiddle and cooking up a dinner fit for a queen. I ate with gusto. I drank one granny smith hard cider for the hell of it. No regrets.

The place heals me because it needs me. In the end, that is all any of us want.

winthrop howls from the porch

Sunday, March 7, 2010

like tailgates

I was driving around Washington county today, my possible future home. I was on an errand to Nelson's farm to buy hay. Annie and I were in the truck, a Bobby Hicks CD was in the stereo, and I was having a one-sided conversation with my dog about why Whiskey Before Breakfast may be one of the greatest fiddle tunes ever written. The sun was out, the windows were down, and whenever Ann wasn't hanging her front arms out the window, my arm was around her as she sat shotgun. Dogs, like tailgates, are a necessary truck accessory.

I drove through Cambridge, Salem, and then Hebron. Three towns with thriving farm communities all connected by route 22. It's just a few miles from the Vermont State line, but the sense of the place is totally different. Vermont, god bless her, is a woodland wonderland of ski resorts, bed and breakfasts, mountains, rivers, and the occasional small farm tucked away. But upstate New York is 100% farm country. You cross the state line and you are out of vacationland and into productionworld. Rolling fields of corn and silos, dairy cows and giant barns—the place is a postcard for the American small farm before it got turned into multinational corporations. As I drove up 22 I passed tractor dealers and Agways. The signs for each town have RIGHT TO FARM pasted right under the welcome signs. I love Vermont, but Washington county loves agriculture. I think I'll fit in just fine. Maybe even find a fella to buy me coffee. We'll see how it all plays out.

Someone asked me in the last post what my plan B was. That answer is easy: I don't have one. Sorry folks, I just plain don't have enough cash or wits about me to try and buy more than one place at a time. And the Jackson farm really is the last best hope for making a place on the earth my own, right now. Listen, this is going to work out. It has too. If it doesn't then I need to just take a deep breath and scramble to find a farm to rent. If that happens then, well frankly, that sucks. But the bright side is I have the entire home-buying process under my belt, self taught and understood. If the bottom falls out there will be other farms and future plans. But for the sake of keeping it all together: let's just humor me and hope for the best?

P.S. I have CDs, watercolors, and prints getting printed. If you ordered something from the etsy drive a few weeks ago you are not forgotten. I'm just the busiest I've ever been in my life. My boss quit at work, so his work has been handed off to me and a coworker. The move, the house, my job and quivering social life all have me stretched a little thin. (Okay.... I'm exhausted.) I just want it to be May so I know how this chapter ends. Anyway, you'll get the goods soon as I can ship them. A few go out this week. Thanks for the patience, it's worth more than you know.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

hope and force

Spring is starting to hit Vermont, slowly but surely. The days are getting sunshine and creeping into the 40s. Snow is melting in the valleys and ice fishing is becoming an extreme sport. Mornings like this are met with frozen outdoor faucets and require hats and gloves—but my noon everything feels like it's trotting into spring. My farm-mind is on delay: knowing I can't order spring poultry or start staking out garden plans because of the coming move. But a delay doesn't mean pause. I think about what's ahead this summer constantly. Trying to map out plans for everything from hen houses to rotational grazing aparati.

Pablo Neruda wrote in the Song of Despair "Oh the mad coupling of hope and force...." That line is always humming inside me. While Pablo is writing about love, it sure as hell can apply to the feelings I have about finding my own farm. It perfectly sums up the emotional situation I find myself in now. Strung between wanting something so bad I can already feel my bare feet in the dark garden soil—and knowing the effort, expense, and grit it's going to take to get me there. Hope and force, indeed.

I'm starting to get excited and nervous about the Jackson farm. So far the home buying process has gone smoothly, but it's not a done deal until the USDA confirms the mortgage. As I write you, the loan is getting underwritten and the house has been appraised. All that's left to do is wait and hope all goes as planned. I should know within the coming week. Soon as I hear word, either way, I'll let you know.

Friday, March 5, 2010

on my mind

I love a waltz. I really do. I bet if you pressed a glass to my sternum you'd hear my heartbeat in 3/4 time.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

sometimes i get emails like this at work

subject line: RUNAWAY SHEEP!

Hi Jenna,

Someone just called to tell me your 3 sheep are heading west (toward Kimballs) on the West Sandgate road. Do you want me to try to retrieve them?

UPDATE: I went back to Sandgate as soon as I got this email, and when I returned so did the sheep. They walked to the end of town on the dirt road, got bored, and walked back. When I pulled into the drive they were in the chicken coop eating scratch grains and making chickens angry. But I got them back in their pen, repaired the fence, and went back to the sanity of web design.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

turkey tracks

That sunny afternoon I was basking turned out to be a bit of a stretch. Yesterday morning I woke up to snow. Not a lot, mind you, but indeed snow. It was a good slap in the face. A wake up call that winter was far from over. Welcome to March! I was outside feeding the chickens when I noticed new footprints in the freshly fallen snow. These weren't from the flock, these were a different bird. These were turkey tracks, and I could see the path of a parade of wild hens I must have missed in the night. I was surprised how nostalgic it made me for raising turkeys, something I never thought I'd miss. But raising a poult here on the farm a few springs ago and seeing him through to a friend's Christmas table was one of the most rewarding experiences I've had on Cold Antler.

I want a small flock of turkeys again. I think Midget Whites. Even if my family won't dine on them there are plenty of folks at work looking for a naturally raised free-range bird come the holidays. It's something to think about if the Jackson house comes through. Unlike sheep or gardens, the birds wouldn't need the capital and fences up front like a flock of shetland or scottish blackface ewes would. I could raise ten turkeys for the price of one registered sheep and use the cash from selling the birds at Thanksgiving to put into a farm fresh savings account. It's time to start planning for the future of this place as a working farm and not just my own personal supermarket. If you have any suggestions for cottage industries like that, fire away in the comments. I'm all ears.

Also, and this is just a PSA. I got a catalog from Gardens Alive yesterday, and there was a coupon on it for 25 bucks off my first order. No catch. If I ordered something under 25 it was free! This place sells everything from kitchen top portabella mushroom kits to giant compost turners so if some of you want a free start to this spring's garden seeds, vermicomposter, or bat house—look those guys up. Call and see if you can get the same deal.