Wednesday, June 30, 2010

not a plane ticket

Today, with the help of my friends Christina and John, I was able to enlarge the sheep pen ten fold. I had been pounding t-posts and running old field fence every night this week, but today I was able to encircle and build on the old pen structure. Now the sheep have an entire hillside to enjoy with their home shed up high in the pasture. I'll post photos in the morning, but tonight I feel wealthy from the work. When I pulled into the driveway after the office my sheep had a hundred square feet to call their own when they weren't grazing. Now they have a quarter acre. Thanks to the selflessness of new friends, I was able to turn a petting zoo into a pasture farm.

The flock was still eating grass when I returned from Christina's place in town. (Just three sheep. No lambs to speak of. I dont know if Maude is pregnant or not. I lack the eye.) When I got out of the truck all three were Sstaring at me through their fence right by the driveway. They aren't used to being that close to the house at night. I'm not sure if they expected me to walk them up the hill to their pen or if they wanted grain. I let them enjoy their confusion.

The turkeys know nothing of going home to roost. When I came home from the celebratory ice cream at Stewart's in Cambridge—all four were huddled together in a circle on the lawn, their heads meeting in the middle. They looked like a dead rabbit, all hunched and over each other to stay warm. I thought to myself how funny that they didn't understand home, yet understood night. They knew when to be still, and warm, and stop, but not where to belong. I know a lot of people who remind me of young turkeys. I'm one of said people.

I picked them all up in two hands. I was instantly nostalgic for the moment, knowing in a few months they'll be so large it will take two hands to barely hold one. But tonight they are small and four heartbeats quietly hummed in my hands in the dark. I placed them on the clean straw of the chicken coop and shut the door from danger.

Fence lines and poults. It's not a romantic dinner, a plane ticket, or even a night in a bar with friends: but I'm happy. I'll sleep well.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

check out my new belt buckle, son!

finding your rural property: part 1

I just finished another twenty feet of fencing, maybe more. I realized a few weeks ago that I would never have the hunk of cash needed to fence in three acres anytime soon. But I did have some spare t-posts and left over Red Brand field fence in a few rolls. Instead of looking at all that land in trepidation—I started pounding posts and running fence just twenty feet at a time. Slowly I've run enough to almost quadruple the sheep's current pen. Day by day, Cold Antler is becoming a sheep farm.

I want to start a series of essays here on buying land or finding your own farm. I want people who are in the same position I was in a few months ago—to see how easy it is. I had bad credit. I had no savings. I had nothing but a paycheck and a decent rental history and yet I bought this farm in April. It took a little homework, savings, frugal months and luck: but I got it. And now with a recession still in recovery, a weak housing market, and land prices lower than they have been in a long can't hurt to look.

And that's really how it starts. Get on or drive around looking for sale signs where you want to live. Knock on doors, call neighbors, ask questions. If you see something that would be perfect for you (even if you can't afford it now) ask to be shown the house. Just getting your foot in the door and shaking people's hands sets off a firestorm of events in the process. Walking around property and having realtors know you're looking keeps them looking for you. Soon you'll be getting emails and advice about other properties.

When you start looking—actually knocking on walls and asking about well water—find a mortgage broker that is savvy about alternative loans and rural programs. If it wasn't for my broker Jim's knowledge of the USDA's Rural Development loan program - I would have never bought a home. The USDA program let me walk onto my own farm with no money down. That left me with closing costs, inspectors, and moving costs to cover. Since the sellers really wanted out, they agreed to a deal called a seller's concession. That means they agree to put a few thousand dollars (in my case, six) towards my closing on the house. It still cost a chunk of money to get in the door, but compared to what it could have cost conventionally, it was nothing.

I am in my own farm house right now because I asked how I could get here. Sure, I was somewhat forced into asking those questions when the cabin deal fell apart—but I'm glad it did. The Jackson farm (which I am just starting to call Cold Antler) is starting to feel more like a home than a new house. Fences are rising, slowly the inside is getting unpacked and decorated...It'll take time.

But today: look. Even if you don't plan on moving for three years, look. Start clicking around online and see what homes cost in your area, and then what they cost a county over. This farm would be double just over the state line in Vermont, and not even qualify for the USDA program. So don't be scared to crane your neck a little. Your perfect place doesn't have to be a pipe dream. It just may be in Delaware instead of Maryland.

But the point is I had no idea I could get here. I had no idea about those programs or tricks. I think I was too intimidated to even ask. I thought needed 20k in the bank and a second income to share the payments, but because I just started looking I was able to start actualizing the possibility. It's the first step: look. The second step is ask. And the third step I'll write about next time: save.

Monday, June 28, 2010

gibson on a bed wool in the pickup

photo by tim bronson

Sunday, June 27, 2010

no lambs...

I think it may be a false alarm, or a while off. Time will tell.

i adore this stuff

be responsible!

four shots of bourbon

sunday morning

Oh my god. Fresh broccoli from the garden. My hen's rich eggs. Battenkill Valley whole milk. Grafton smoked maple cheddar... I just ate the best slice of quiche of my life. Eating it with a side of ridiculously dark coffee and I'm in an edible paradise. The dogs agree, too. If you've never made quiche, it is so easy darling. You just need a pie crust, some eggs and milk, and whatever cheese or toppings you desire. I'm a big fan of cheddar and broc: but when my folks come it's sausage, bacon, and pepper. And men: a man who can make a quiche, well that's mighty fine.

No lambs to speak of yet. I spent a bit of time last night repairing a hole in the fence. It's unnerving to be falling asleep watching episodes of Buffy on DVD to be shocked back into full consciousness by a black sheep, 6 feet away, bleating at the back hatch of your Subaru for grain (which is where I hide it). (The car is parked right outside the living room wall.) Joseph, is the escape expert of the trio. I can come home from worrk and see ol' Sal and Maude munching in the pasture and Joseph is down in the barn eating rabbit pellets. Alas, he cares more about Blue Seal Coarse 14 than he does about freedom, so he'll follow me right back into the pen if I have a handful of grain. I brought him back in his pen, nailed the fence back to the side of the sheep shed, and then went back to the Scooby Gang.

Today I start pounding some fence posts and running some new fences. I have a few used rolls we transfered from old fencing at the farm. It's not good enough for pen fence but fine for field fence. If I can do twenty feet today will be a victory. I need to just focus on small chunks done well.

Gibson is growing into a gangly little man. His fur is growing longer, his legs are too. He and Annie have become good playmates and spend most of their time rolling around the house together and exploring the upstairs. Right now they are playing keep-away with Annie's favorite stuffed animal (Annie is the one keeping it away) and Jazz is guarding his slice of quiche in the other room. He knows he can eat it in a few gulps, or he can sit with it and mock the other dogs who ate theirs to fast. Jazz can be a jerk sometimes; mocking us with his egg pies.

So that's my Sunday in the country. A morning of decadent food stuffs, an afternoon of sweat and midwifery, and hopefully an evening with my old friend, my fiddle. I think it's time I finally memorize Sally Goodin.

P.S. I've never read this blog in whole, but I did look at entries from the first September today. Wow.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

still not sure

I have no idea if Maude is pregnant or not. Yesterday she seemed languid, dripping, heavy, and slow. Everything she did looked and acted like the labor descriptions in my sheep books. This afternoon she was back to her old, crotchety, self. Right now I wouldn't be surprised if she dropped a set of twins or bit me. Maude is a mystery, always will be.

I would like to have a lamb around though. It would be good practice for next spring. We'll have to wait and see.

I moved the turkeys outside this week. They're all doing well. I've kept them inside the small pen for their own protection from the big hens and geese. When all the birds in the coop are used to them, they can join the fuss. Though I plan on making them sleep in the barn in a few weeks since that many turkeys don't jive with chickens. One turkey with a handful of chickens: no problem. Four turkeys and it's the Jets and Sharks.

Tomorrow: time to start those fences.

maude, this morning

Friday, June 25, 2010

holy shit

So I know my sheep are on the chubby side, but Maude...she's huge. Not only is she huge, her teats have dropped, and her end is looking very very raw and red. I don't want to cry wolf, but when I got these sheep I was told that Sal's castration didn't go as planned....

There might just be a lamb at Cold Antler this spring.

meet josh

It's only a change of time.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

specks in the distance

When's the last time you ran around your yard in the dark with a jar with holes poked in the top? Tonight I was outside in the humidity, catching fireflies for an hour. My skills have slipped. At a certain age you stop catching and start watching and it's enough. But tonight I wanted to remember what a glowing jar felt like in hot hands.

I can't help but believe the farm is teaching me how to become the person I hope to be. I want to find some sort of very rusted old grace and obtain it, hold its reins, and know it. A way to understand things without having to comment, or to react to things without a reaction. I'm tired of filling up silence and space. I want to be so comfortable with myself and my life I would grow roots if I sat still too long.

It took a weekend in pure misery of bacterial poisoning to teach me the intense lesson of careful work around animal processing and raw meat. It forced me to make the place cleaner, more orderly, and to take better care of myself and what I consume. It drove me to get my well water tested (the test came out fine) and to slow down. I take more care in preparation of not only food, but in my own day. I wake up early enough to have time to sit, drink coffee, and stretch. And understand the luxury of a life that has time to sit, drink coffee, and stretch. I am grateful for it.

The fox too, has helped me. As angry as I was when the deaths were occurring, today I realized that five eggs a day, one rooster, a half dozen new layers and meat birds—is what I can reasonably handle. It also got me in touch with new people and friends: trappers and trackers who know how to deal with and prevent fox attacks. Because of that blasted animal I now have a more manageable home and the farm has met new faces. He's also made me walk the entire property line, looking for dens and signs. Being outside on a June sunrise and staring across my land, seeing the sheep just specks in the distance: is a gift from a fox I hate. Sometimes a farm takes the world and tilts it. Same place, just slightly different and with new things to understand.

When the weather report says there's no chance of thunderstorms. I still hope for one. Slim chances never did a damn thing o stop chumps from hoping. It's impossible to become jaded, because every now and then one still surprises you. And you can't help but get excited when clouds come and the wind picks up. It's hardwired like that in some of us, hope I mean.

When I was a kid, holding the flashing jar in my hands was the best part. Now it's letting them go.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

farm update

The farm has returned to peacful equilibrium, or maybe I have. The panic and stress that racked me a few weeks ago is starting to melt off and the farm. All its residents (including me) are existing as one unit again. Chores have fallen into a longer-evening-shorter-morning-routine that really suits me. After sitting in a desk chair all day I come home to the farm, turn up the ipod, and take care of all the feeding, water hauling, mucking and fence moving. In the morning it's a simple feed-n-leave.

Three meat rabbits were lost, but the other three have fully recovered and last week another three were born to take their place. The fox hasn't been seen in quite some time, and (crossing fingers) he's had his fill amd moved on. The three surviving angora kits are also doing well, also on grass. The sheep are shorn and light on the hoof, and I think I stopped all the escape holes in the fence that Joseph has wiggled through and made a bee-line for the grain on the covered porch. And the bees are thriving too. They're about ready to have another super added to give them all the space they need to expand their hive.

The poults are growing fast and fat, and all healthy. Turkeys are supposed to be as fragile as glass lambs but I've never had a problem with them. I feel if you can get a poult through the first two weeks you're home free long as they have proper protection from the elements and predators.

The garden is in high production and while the salad greens are starting to bolt, the pumpkins are flowering and beans are too. So much good food on the way: onions, potatoes, peppers, cucs and more...

And I'm on a mission to slowly start expanding the pasture fencing. The idea of money falling into my lap to hire a professional is out of the question, and with a flock on the way carrying lambs—I need to start acting now. So every night I run just a few t-posts and fencing to do a new section. At the rate I'm going I'll make much of the work and expense spread out thin enough to be realistic. And that's pretty much the pace of the entire enterpise. Do what I can with what I have, and pray for rain.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

patting his side

The puppy day in Wallingford started around 10AM, but Gibson and I showed up fashionably late. Since my guests were leaving that morning, and we were only going to watch, I didn't mind pulling in the host farm's driveway at 11. A handmade sign in the shape of a sheep said 'Puppy Day!" was posted, it had to be the right place. Just beyond the gray farmhouse I could see the small gathering of folding chairs and black and white dogs. "Puppy" in today's context meant sheepdogs just starting to work sheep, under a year old. Gibson was a bit too literal of a definition to take part in the shenanigans.

We arrived and my shearer, Jim, waved hello. I didn't know anyone but I did have a border collie on the end of my leash, so it was as good as any backstage pass. Folks waved and pulled me a chair. I sat among the pack of folks in ball caps and leashes and watched a handler in the field send her young dog in circles around the three sheep Jim had brought along. I had so many questions. Was the dog taught to circle that wide, or was it instinct? How do you get a snappy lie down like that when such a young pup is three feet from a ewe? Where did they find a plastic training crook? Can Gibson and I really do this? What gets us from the sidelines to the twenty yard line?

Gibson sat and watched for a while. His eyes locked on the sheep every now and again, and for a three-month-old his attention span was impressive. Mine was less so. I kept bouncing between conversations, questions, text messages on my phone, and the constant flow of panting, smiling dogs at my side. What I love about border collies is the controlled chaos of so many off leash dogs. They just want to be by their owners sides so even a pile off leash at play snap to recalls when they hear, "HERE!"

I had a fine time. I learned much, was invited to future trials, and filled in who's got the top dogs. People were interested in where Gibson came from, his breeding and such. Jim raised his eyes when I mentioned his father, Riggs. "Oh, I know Riggs... You've got some good breeding in that dog.." and I puffed up like a mother hen.

There was a moment in the early afternoon when the clouds got dark, the wind picked up, and the birds all flew into the brush. Clouds burst and it started to rain. I walked with Gibson to the truck and watched the fields from the dry cab. By this point he was exhausted from the stimulus and all the puppy play. He slowly breathed in the passenger seat and I watched the dog in the field, a red collie. The red collies are rare, but work just as true. I saw the handler and his dog in the rain and I swelled with the excitement and envy of any rookie. I wanted to stand in the rain with my dog, and a flock, and feel the purpose and the power and know my place in the world. I sighed.

"That'll be us, kid." I said calmly to the pup by my side, patting his side. "That'll be us."

listen to this

Monday, June 21, 2010

herding, help, and homes

Yesterday was Gibson's first herding clinic. The first of many, I'm sure. We were only there to watch, not participate (at 14 weeks, my pup isn't ready to tackle an angry trio of ewes) but just sitting among shepherds is a lesson in itself. The conversations about dogs, training, and sheep abound. My osmosis you pick up little tricks and tips. You listen to the observations on the the stock in the field, the dogs at work, and the farmers explain their methods. There's also rumors, jokes, gossip and potluck spreads, pretty much what you get with any gathering of people. But the humid summer morning, and the curling black clouds calling a storm, made the day a little storied. A little surreal. I spent all of it on a cooler talking and watching while Gibson play and tackle the other collies. It was nice to see him tussle with his future like that. Here you can see him crashed by lunchtime. While the older dogs were pacing and raring to go, Gibson needed a nap. He fell asleep right in the middle of the circle of chairs.

More on his day tomorrow, I'm in the middle of final edits on this chicken book and that's why posts are thin these days. I'm also just over some company (my sister and her husband) who were amazing guests and helped cook, clean, and taught me how to light and use my new/used charcoal grill Steve rescued from a tag sale fate for me. So much was done with family, and my sister loved the farm. It's hard not to love, even if it's covered in chicken poo and stinging nettle.

And my big idea: I want to help some of you find your own farms. I got here, and now I want to show those who are just as eager how. Buying rural property wasn't hard, I could do it by trial and error—but I learned some things I'd like to share to help anyone out there who is seriously considering buying land by October. And if you're renting right now and think I'm talking crazy... I bet we could find you your own farm by fall. I was able to move into my home with a no down-payment USDA loan, something I didn't even knew existed this time last year. Because of that, a recession, dumb luck, sellers concessions, and annoying the hell out of my realtor and mortgage broker I got a house. You can too. I promise. It's all faith, sweat, and realtors baby. CAF wants to help you find home.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

it's hot in jackson

Saturday, June 19, 2010

wool drying in the bed

Friday, June 18, 2010

family at the farm

My sister and her husband are coming up to visiting from Pennsylvania for the weekend. I can't wait to see them, and show them the farm. Katie's my older sister, at 30 she's just three years older. My brother John is 26, only 361 days younger than me. Growing up so close in age, we were all pretty tight. But there is always something a little screwy about that middle kid, and I was no exception to the rule. I never played with dolls, just stuffed animals. I never stayed put, I was always wandering off and getting lost. When Santa came to the Palmerton elementary with a reindeer I reached for its harness and almost got my hand bit off. I was a handful. Girl scout leaders complained about me running into the woods...

My sister, however, was always more grounded and level. I looked up to her, and I've missed being a part of her life. Ever since college I've lived all over America, but in my wandering around never was able to hang out for much couch time. No BBQ's and lazy afternoons with her two cats and their golden retriever, Lindsay. So this weekend we'll be doing a lot of relaxing and hanging around the farm. Maybe some light gardening but most of the time will be R & R.

I'll be in touch though. I have some ideas I want to share... big ones.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

he's growing up

photo by tim bronson

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

happy birthday ford!

the goodness of grass

When the meat and angora kits started dying, I was s confused. I knew what was hurting them (a weakening intestinal disease that caused them weight loss and dehydration) but not why only a select group was affected? I moved them all off pellets and onto spring water and hay, but still... I lost three of each breed. While removing a dead spotted rabbit from one of the hutches, its tan flat mate jumped out of the hutch and onto the barn floor hay. Thinking it had hours to live, I let it rest on the hay and didn't put it back in the cage.

To my surprise, when I came home from work the little guy was out on the grass. He had ventured from the barn and was chomping away at the green stuff. I had never seen him eat so well! I let it in nature's hands and kept my distance. He was so weak. I knew he would be dead in the safe cage, so I let him be feral. Let him take his chances. Then another day passed, and another, and every day the little brown rabbit was growing stronger and faster. Yet he was still tame. I could walk right up to him and pick him up. He was no longer the weak animal in the cage. He was a free-range rabbit. I named him Brutus. He seemed so tough.

Brutus has recovered fully, and I did the same with the other four weak rabbits. The remaining four kits (well, seven, three angoras are living in the laundry room) are now all free-range beasts on the grass. If they continue to thrive I'll let them there till harvest time. I am amazed at how such sick animals were able to turn around based on fresh air and green grass. I'm also suspect of the used cages they were in. The only animals that were sick were young animals in second-hand cages. Maybe there was a bacteria on them the older animals could fight off they could not? I'm not taking any chances and no longer using those particular cages if I can help it. And hopefully my free-range rabbits will do well.

As for predators? So far not one rabbit, only poultry, has been bothered by the fox. I think the rabbits are fine outside due to their wicked speed and being so hidden away at night. If the fox wanted Brutus, or could catch him, he would have. But to be on the safe side I am setting up an electric fence around the coop and rabbit range.

Monday, June 14, 2010

it all starts

Some days small things happen that create the whole that is a farm, and some other days very big things happen. Yesterday was a big day. I stood in a fog-soaked field with a flock of Scottish sheep and their lambs. The only thing stopping them from charging away was a 35-pound Border Collie named Jess. There I stood and selected the breeding animals that would be delivered later this fall, right before the snow fall. I made a deposit on the future lambs of Cold Antler Farm.

I had loaded up the truck that morning. Just Gibson and I were braving the three-hour round-trip. While we rolled southwest of Washington County, I was listening to a cd I recently picked up. It was Bushes and Briars by Susan McKeown. It's dark, semi-traditional, Irish music. A damn fitting soundtrack. Yesterday's rain left a blanket of fog so thick over upstate New York that it was hard to see cars a hundred yards ahead of the Ford on the thruway. As I left the civility of the highway system for the back roads of Esperance, the fog grew thicker still. McKeown's Irish bagpipes matched the entire weather pattern. Gibson's head rested on my lap, his body sprawled on the passenger seat. We were about to step onto an 85-acre sheep farm and pick out our future charges. Scottish Blackface ewes which would be delivered bred. A slight panic filled me. Buying sheep meant I would be in need of fences and a small pole barn shelter by Halloween. Feeling like a girl who jumped without knowing what was below her, my stomach clinched up a bit. But this wasn’t the feeling of stress or panic like the fox, dead rabbits, and food poisoning gave me. This was roller-coaster panic. The good kind. Gibson, sleeping quietly, had no idea what was in store for him.

I haven't been to Barb's farm since I returned Sarah two years ago. We've chatted over email now and then, and spoke at trials, but having no dog to train I simply fell out of touch with the trainer. When I emailed her out of the blue to ask if she'd sell me any of her breeding ewes now that I had the space for them at my own farm—I was thrilled with her response. She said sure, just later in the year. She wasn't going to sell any breeding stock till after the trial in August they hosted was over. However I could come down and select my animals anytime and make a deposit. Here I was.

When I arrived at Taravale Farm I was directed by Bernie (Barb's husband) to head up through the pastures to where Barb and Joyce were. They were finishing up a lesson and I was told I could walk right up.

Gibson was on a leash. The last thing either of us needed was to have a renegade pup tearing after sheep with no training, and then getting rammed to the point of such force he'd grow up fearful of the wool. So as we padded across the dewy pasture and into the fog I kept Gibson close. He looked at them like they were giant pieces of rawhide, puling towards them as we speed-walked across the grass. The sheep stayed 20 yards away from us near a fence. Occasionally one would stamp her hoof and we quickened pace. I felt protective. I felt glad. We made it through the first pasture without incident.

We walked into the lesson field. By now my jeans and waterproof boots were soaked. Everyone else had the sense to wear wellies, and looked like proper shepherds. I was in Hi-techs, ripped jeans, and a cotton dress with a leather jacket. I felt poorly dressed, and over-dressed. This was quickly forgotten in a minute of chaos. Gibson jumped in the air and barked. There a small flock of four sheep being herded right toward us by a dog named Molly.

Barb was coaching the owner Joyce on when to speak up and correct her, to make her circles wider and not crowd the sheep. I stood my ground. trusting Barb and her valiant dog, Jill. Gibson barked and lunged at his leash. When they were about thirty feet away Molly cut them off and turned them back towards her handler. I let out a quiet sigh of relief and told Gibson to lie down. So far the only animal he's show any intense interest of force is sheep. For me, that's a subtle joy. I told him “that'll do” and had him sit beside me for the lesson.

When the lesson was over Barb came over and gave Gibson a scratch on the head. “How old is he?” She asked. “12 weeks!” I exclaimed. Barb smiled and shook her head, “He’s going to be huge…” In the North East Club most sheepdogs were around 40 pounds. Gibson’s west coast girth was rare. A fifty pound rough-coated shepherd was big for New England. Compared to my 70-pound huskies, he felt petite to me.

The ewes with lambs I would be choosing from were over half a mile away, in a pasture Barb had just recently fenced. It was so foggy that the animals in the distance looked less like sheep and more like ghosts, almost transparent. That moment standing in dense fog, on a sheep farm, surrounded by high grass and trained sheepdogs felt like I had shifted into a past life of sorts. Barb spoke (not yelled) “Away to me, Jill” and sent her tiny dog around a hedgerow to the stray sheep. We didn’t see her for five minutes. Then the flock burst like a landmine erupted below them and came towards us. My heart beat faster. Moments like this make the whole world feel like October.

Jill Held them for us against a fence and Barb asked me to tell her which ones I liked. I pointed and she read off the information that matched the number on the tag. Gibson sat beside me while we looked on at the sheep that would teach him to herd, teach us both. There was respect there, even if it was in my head. Gibson was silent and sat as we talked. He watched the flock the whole time, like a statue.

I ended up with five ewes. All of them full-blood Scotts. They would live here till they were bred and then be delivered to Cold Antler when I was ready for them. A major step was made and I bought some time as well. I sucked in the wet air and let out a happy sigh.

I will always keep a few chickens. I will always plant a garden. I will always can, and raise a few turkeys, and maybe keep the rabbitry alive. But there is no doubt that the focus of Cold Antler will be Lamb and Wool. And this spring, the first lambs will drop in Jackson

P.S. Folks have asked if Jazz and Annie are being ignored with the new pup around. My answer is: of course not. I write about Gibson because he's a sheep dog, and this is a sheep farm. He's my partner in crime, peer in sheep 101, and friggin' adorable. So his stories and photos are posted often. But J & A are —like all family members—still a huge and well loved part of my life even if they don't appear on the blog as often. My dad rarely appears on here either, and I would trade in all the sheep farms in the world for him! Plus, huskies eat sheep. So you know, they don't hang out on shearing day.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

what a day...

come out to the fields!

I'd like to invite anyone interested in a CAF meetup, to join me and Gibson at the Merck Forest Sheepdog Trial in Vermont the weekend of July 10th. It's my birthday, and high summer in New England, and a fine excuse for a weekend away.

The sheepdog trial is wonderful. It's a two day festival put on by Merck, complete with food, shearing demos, farm tours, hikes, and maple syrup, wool, and other farm goods will be on sale. Merck Forest raises sheep, heritage pork, chickens, and creates some of its own energy with windmills and solar panels. It's a hell of a place to steep yourself in modern, diversified, grass-based agriculture. I never miss this weekend. You show up early and feel like you're in Scotland for a few hours. Last year (I swear) a bagpiper played while the dogs ran. There are heavy horse cart rides from the parking lots to the trial fields (shuttle service!) and everyone's happy to be there. There are tents with shade and seating. You can buy border collie t-shirts and listen to club members gossip and cheer. Come be a part of my world for a weekend.

I'll be there to watch and probably volunteer somewhere. But I thought we could all sit together, picnic, gab, knit, watch the trial, talk farm stuff, etc. It's informal, but should be fun and if enough people want to get together we can hit a local restaurant for a Cold Antler dinner. (Nothing fancy.)

RSVP if you can. Details can be found at

Saturday, June 12, 2010

lyons and lambs

It rained all day. I heard some rumblings of thunder in Saratoga this morning, but generally the day was just a constant, steady, quiet rain. Weather for tea and sleeping dogs, guitars and books. It was one of those days where the farm work is based entirely around comfort of the animals, true creature comforts. Things like lining the sheep shed with fresh straw so they had a dry place to chew their cud. I can sit inside and sip some tea knowing my small flock is dry and out of the weather, eating their lunch a second time on warm bedding while the wind howls. I like seeing them from the kitchen, all of us watching the weather from our homes. It is easier to enjoy your Lyons when you know your lambs are content.

Friday, June 11, 2010

as i get older

It's been unseasonably chilly here in Veryork. Nights dip into the low 40's and sometimes days are barely sixty degrees. Jackson is cold and wet. I love it. I am a huge fan of humidity and precipitation. Overcast days, green hills, rain, wind, sheep—I adore them all. I should marry a Scott with a black hill dog. He'd get me.

The Bourbon Reds are doing amazingly well. Hands down the healthiest poultry I ever raised. Loud as church bells, bright eyed and alert, they are going to be fine table birds. And they're some of the first heritage livestock being raised for the table here, and that's exciting in itself. The Scottish Blackface sheep are next. I'll be loading up the truck this weekend for a road trip to Barb Armata's farm down in Esperance to meet my future flock. I'm really excited about this breed. They're very hearty hill sheep, and something about them suits me. I'm the same way about the highland cattle (I met three highland steers tonight in Cambridge by the way, another story for another time). Between them, the blackface, and the border collies I feel like Cold Antler is going to need its own tartan...

There's still trouble in paradise. The fox is still here, taking lives. The meat rabbit kits fell ill with something (bloat, I think) and are recovering on hay and spring water. I'm not sure how, but the young meat stock became sickly and got diarrhea. The angoras are all well, but I've separated them and am monitoring their feed and care extra closely. They seem fine but thinner than I'd like. I'm waiting to sell them until they are bright and I'm 100% sure they aren't suspect. I'll keep you posted but I think it was a simple intestinal issue that some of the younger rabbits simply couldn't fight it off. I lost two. My rabbitry is around 20 animals now, and on the mend.

I've decided to slow down a bit, be a little more realistic about my abilities. The garden isn't being expanded anymore. No corn this year (boo), but there will still be pumpkins (I demand pumpkins) and plenty of lettuce, onions, broc, and tomatoes. I discovered a USDA butcher one town over that will process my poultry (from clucking chicken to shrink-wrap) for three dollars a bird. It's not that I can't do it here, but after the food poisoning (which I think came from careless chicken processing at home) I think I will let the pros have at it. The fox has eaten half of my current meat bird crop but I am keeping them locked up best I can and building a pen. I am doing my best.

This year, I have to chalk up so much as experience and lessons.

I know a lot of folks read about things like the fox, or bloat in the rabbits, and shake their heads at me. But please understand that I only share the stories of dogs eating chickens, or sick animals, or bear-eaten hives, or any of the messy stuff to show that this life (and lifestyle) isn't perfect. I get hurt and sick. Animals die. Crops wither from blight. Sometimes it's lonely. As wonderful as a small farm is it's a morality play 78% of the time. Sick rabbits, predators, ramming sheep, electric fencing hives, all of it is part of the play and it's never simple....

I am learning to farm and sometimes it's not pretty. Mistakes are part of that education. I need to accept that and appreciate what I gain in understanding what not to do. I only ask you refrain from judging the new kid for a few years.

I'll get better as I get older. I hope.

photo from wikipedia

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

click it to preorder!

shake shake shake

photo by tim bronson

Monday, June 7, 2010

midnight mass

Regardless of our different religions, all shepherds celebrate the same holidays. There's Lambing, and Barn Building, Hogget's First Snow (I added that one), and of course...Shearing Day. These are the high holy days of the sheep calendar. Shared events understood by everyone in the Society of Lamb and Wool. It doesn't matter where you live, or what spices were stored in your family cupboard—all wool shepherds are brethren when it comes to spring rituals. Anyone who thinks ritual is dead is secular society doesn't have ruminants.

Today the flock at Cold Antler got a visit from the barber. It was perfect weather for haircuts. A mild, sunny, evening with the occasional crisp wind. For early summer it sure felt like early fall. The shearers were running late and I was thrilled. I expected to come home to three naked sheep and a thank you pinned to the door. The shearers, Jim and Liz, explained they'd be here around 3 in the afternoon and I sighed the sigh of all shepherds with day jobs and explained I'd have to leave the check on the door and extension chords by the gate. They understood, and have sheared when the flock's owners were away before. But when I pulled into the driveway and saw my check still there, my heart fluttered a little. It was only my second sheep shearing of my own flock and I wanted to be around for the big show. In the small-farm sheepworld, this was Midnight Mass.

When the white truck pulled in the drive I shook hands and helped carry gear up to the sheep pen. Within minutes the shearers were in their felt boots and set up with their extension chords and blades loaded in their giant shears. Joseph was first to be flipped and shorn. For a first time he did well. I couldn't believe how pitch black the wool was under his brown locks. When all the wool was off his body, Jim told me I could bag it while he trimmed the wether's hooves. My little hogget was a hogget no more. The term refers to any young sheep that's never been shorn, usually between 6-15 months. Shaved, he looked like a little black doe, a fluke, a sheep. I scratched his ears and told him he did good.

Gibson watched the whole event go down from a tie-out on an apple tree. I couldn't bring him into the fray, but from outside the pen he watched he flock being worked by people and all the goings on. I want him to be a part of every sheep holiday at the farm. Some day soon I'll be depending on him to work beside me, not just watch while chewing on a stick. But we'll cut the 12-week-old some slack. Right now we're just working on basic obedience and not pissing in the kitchen. A perfect pear-shaped outrun on the trial fields a ways off. Baby steps. Today he watches buzz cuts.

Jim saw the pup and told me of an event going on just an hour north of here the weekend of June 20th. A gathering of sheepdog people will be getting together with their new pups to work on herding basics and have a pot luck. It wasn't any sort of sanctioned club event, just shepherds and their dogs watching the new kids show off their talent. He said I could come along and watch with Gibson, meet some locals, see some young dogs work at their beginning training. My heart was beating like a first kiss. I no longer felt sick at all. I was filled with the excitement this place, this weird sheeplife, grants me. I told him we'd be there, and I was bringing pie.

Sal and Maude were troopers, and after they too were shorn all three looked like paper dolls with their outfits torn off, awkward and naked but still oddly innocent. Sal, being Sal, came up to me and leaned his big 200-pound frame into my thighs. My lion had turned into...well, a mountain lion. Same thick dope of a sheep, but with less mane. I scratched him and he craned his neck back into my waist as I helped him with his new itchy bald self. He nipped at my shirt a little. I adore that ruddy sheep.

Maude just stood on the hill and glared.

Within an hour of pulling into the drive Jim and Liz were packed up. I handed them the check (always tip your shearer) and thanked them. I also handed Jim a wrapped set of blades from my own shears (mailed as a gift from a shepherd reader in California) and he said he'd have them sharpened and ready for me by the 20th. Jim not only trains herding dogs and shear's sheeps: he sharpens blades! Fresh, sharp, shears and a date with the Border Collie set. Not a bad way to end a work day.

test results came in...

It was Campylobacter.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

it tastes better in jadeite

I was in the pasture with the sheep when the storm came in. My arms were full of fencelines, my body shining in a light sweat as I moved the portable electric pasture to new ground. On the hill I could see the whole farm below. Every animal seemed to understand what was ahead. The chickens were all under the porch roof, sitting on hay bales, watching. The wind rushed up to meet me from the valley and I was shocked at the speed. My dress ripped in the wind like a sail over my jeans and rubber boots. Within seconds my arms were dry and covered in goosebumps. Weather excites me.

Thunder sidled up to us, and when its volume grew the sheep lifted their heads, still chewing. Sheep never panic about weather. They will scatter at a dog, and bleat at a strange bucket, but they do not so much as blink at a storm. So like four rocks, we stood there as the storm came in. All of us looking up at the swirl of black clouds. When it came, it rained so hard the house seemed to buckle. Old houses need such allowances. I sat inside with my first cup of coffee in over a week. My weak stomach did not welcome it. Today, in the storm I sipped the creamy cup and it was like falling in love again. Christ, I missed coffee.

Gibson was beside in the kitchen, asleep under the table of a relative he'll never meet. He's learning to live in the world now. I used to worry that when Gibson was off leash in a field he'd run away from me. But that is silly. I am the warm place he falls asleep when it is dark.

good boy

photo by tim bronson

angora kits for sale!

Come to Cold Antler Farm and pick up your own fiber animal! I have seven kits ready for their new homes. Out of Bean, sired by Ben, all these purebred French Angora kits are fluffy, strong, and active. All CAF rabbits come tattooed and pedigreed with the ARBA, in which the farm is a member. Benjamin and Bean come from show lines, but their kits don't have to be in the pageant scene. Angoras also make great pets, livestock, or 4-H projects. They do well indoors and out. If interested please sent me a note at

a letter from a reader

Emails come every now and again, and I am ashamed how behind I am on replying to them. Sometimes I simply can't. Yet any note someone sends me is appreciated and if I can help with a question or problem, I try. When I wrote a few posts ago that I was in a low place and needed some encouragement, this came to my inbox. I never post reader mail, but this one made me wake up and realize CAF isn't just my farm. It's also the Gold's, and David Shearer's, and Fin's, and the Snyder's, and Tara's, and Amy's, and Paula's, and Melanie's and many others I have never heard from but still click here everyday to see if Finns back or if the fences are up, or what the heck a Scottish Blackface looks like. This email made a very long day end with happy tears.

I'd blog if no one read a single word, but I am so grateful that they do.

(And Amelie, Joseph says to enjoy your yogurt! But can I have the raisins?)

Dear Jenna,

There are some mornings that shine brighter than others. Yet, even with the clouds there is always sun. It’s just so damn hard to see what has always been there. In our home we called it temporary blindness — not unsightedness — but temporary blindness. It’s a condition that is self-created and self-multiplying. Simply put, it is the inability to see, take in and digest, and appreciate, when the muse turns ugly and leaves the building.

Jenna, my family and I are daily Cold Antler Farm readers. We do not visit any other blog, nor have any connection to homesteaders than you. It’s not that we turn to your blog for advice HOW to do it, we turn to your blog every morning to relish in the fact that someone we vicariously know IS doing it. Your dream, your farm, your vision, your experiences have been mutuality felt by a family of four striving for the homestead dream.

Your youngest fan, among our four, is only 3 years old. Her name is Amelie and her morning routine consists of yogurt, raisins, milk and Jenna. The sheep are always a big hit with her - the pics and the stories - they are her homestead motivation. Our 7 year old, Eliah, wakes to ask, “What’s happening with Jenna this morning? Did she get a horse yet?” Can you tell that she has equines on the mind?

I remember the moment that we first met. It was at the library. Julia, my pretty half, and I were gathering information on homesteads and the brave people that forge the way. for others like us. We found many resources with great ideas, spectacular photos, harrowing stories, and canned laughs. Yet, there was no one who captured the essence of the experience in words quite like you. Made From Scratch started as a library rental and became a family necessity. And, just like a good movie or a great book you don’t want it to end - yet every movie has end credits and every book has a back cover, except yours!

When the Cold Antler Farm blog was discovered so was the never-ending adventure. Unbeknownst to you, you became one of our family. Family talk consists of speaking about “Jenna” adventures or arcanely using your name in the presence of others as if they know you - as if we know you. It became habit to visit the site daily and to digest the words that so magically, so eloquently capture what we are trying to do. We laugh with you. We smell the fresh herbs through you. We watch “Farm TV” with you. We make mistakes along side you. We carry the excitement of life from you. You are major inspiration thoughtfully packaged in great prose. Inspiring enough to give us the courage to change our lives NOW while we transition toward a handmade life.

While glory of the correct action is good, even blissful in its encouragement, mistakes seem to carry a tone detrimental and stifling. Yet, once I clear my mind, chalk up my mistakes as part of the education, and shed that non-utilitarian condition of temporary blindness, I once again feel useful. And, as Jenna says, “Be of use, I say. Be of use and everything else falls into place.”

Amelie, Eliah, Julia & Jason Gold
Proud Suburban Homesteaders

Saturday, June 5, 2010

red bourbon poults are here!

I canceled all my plans in town for the night. I mowed just a section of the lawn, cleaned up just one room, scrubbed just the shower instead of the whole bathroom. I am doing less and letting myself breath more. I decided to stay here tonight and focus on my writing and let the coming storm roll in. When the wordcount is where I want it, I'll take a cool shower and change into comfortable clothes and watch a movie with the dogs. I'm taking it easy. I'm letting myself accept what I can't do. I'm feeling a little better. Thank you so much for your comments, which helped me so very much. Knowing people are listening helps very much when you're down. I'm grateful.

Ironically, the turkeys I ordered in April arrived on the day I exclaimed I could take no more. But four turkeys barely make a dent in my farm day. I'm glad there here, and already have sold two. They are in the laundry room now beeping how poults beep. I'm cooking dinner. The sun is getting heavy. The day's nearly over. Like I said, I'm feeling a little better.

banjo + porch + fireflies + storm + birds safe in coop + sleeping dogs = happy farm girl.

photo by tim bronson

Friday, June 4, 2010

i need some encouragement

I think what had me so wretched over the holiday weekend was Salmonella. All the symptoms match to a T, and I went to the hospital this morning to hand in my test kit to see if my predictions were correct. It's been almost a week since I first fell ill and my stomach still gnaws with internal pain and cramps and other colorful intestinal problems. It's given me quite the lesson, but it's also made me gun shy about the farm. I worry CAF gave me food poisoning. And now I'm skittish around her, worried that rushing to do too much Thursday left my poultry processing in the kitchen get sloppy. I must have got distracted from the chicken I was dressing, and had to take out the puppy or answer the phone or something and forgot to wash my hands.

The bout of illness has made me weak. I am so tired. Three flights of stairs is a mountain, a watering can a 50-pound weight. I no longer look forward to feeding the sheep or chickens but do so with a heavy head and heart. It feels wrong to not look forward to the farm when I pull into the driveway after work. I hope it's just the poison. This feels like a real low point.

The sick weekend let the place get dirty. The grass needs to be mowed. The house cleaned. The dog poo in the yard pitched into the woods. But the energy to do these things is gone right now and just looking at all that is ahead of me is exhausting. I am on maintenance mode: keeping everyone fed, sheltered, watered, and kept but extra chores are being saved till I feel better.

The fox has taken my ducks, more of my chickens, and seems to have my work schedule down because he now comes in broad daylight when I am at work. So I need to build them a pen or keep them locked up in the coop at all times. It's too hot for the latter. I'm too tired for the former. I feel beat. In so many ways, I feel beat.

So what I need is some encouragement. I rarely ask for it, never really, but tonight I need it. I really do.

I don't feel like myself. I don't like it.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

i'll take a bucket of chicken

back on my feet

I'm feeling better, but not back to 100%. There is still some residual yuckiness going on in the pipes. Remarkably, I was out last night moving fences, rabbit cages, and hauling water like I was never bent over with the flu. It amazes me how the body can take hits like that and right itself again.

I am in the final countdown of a seriously stressful writing deadline that's been hovering for months. (A wonderful thing to have hovering, but none the less stressful.) Soon as I hand that in I will be updating this blog like a crazy person. Updating with things like this special report: in a few weekends I will be driving Gibson and I to Esperance NY to pick out his future flock of Scottish Blackface! More son!