Thursday, March 31, 2011

a lamb's storm

A storm is brewing up here in Veryork. Unfortunately, I'm not being figurative. An actual snow storm is whirling right now in the angry sky and planning to dump 5-10 inches of snow on our current the world of taupe. The combination of nearly a foot of snow and three more pregnant ewes about to lamb required a vacation day. Some times you just have to put the farm first, and snow storms, a ewe recovering from ketosis, and an inexperienced yearling will be making for an interesting three-day weekend.

But lambs are not the only projects on the farm. I have plans to start really cleaning out the barn after the winter of pig and chickens, and preparing for the smaller rabbitry. Since my friends Zach and Shellee are returning the Angora bucks they got from me last year, and I already have a Palomino doe in the barn, it made sense to me to keep breeding them for meat and side-income. So Sunday I’ll pick up two little Angora does who will be bred to Benjamin and Bean’s progeny later this summer. Wool rabbits are back on the farm and I am glad. Expect cute bunny picks along with new lamb picks (if they ever show up….) soon.

P.S. I still have two spots free for the memorial day laying hen workshop, so come on over! It’ll be a summer day on the farm with friends from all over the New England/Mid Atlantic area with a campfire jam at night. I also have one spot left in the meat bird workshop. And five spots left for Sheep 101!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

knox and ashe

everyman's steer

The meat chicks are now living outside and thriving in the spring sunshine. (The dozen layers are still inside the brooder, but without any heat lamp.) They were welcomed into the coop without much fuss. The other birds mostly ignore them, and they spend their days walking around learning to scratch, hunt, and cause chicken-level trouble. At about a month old, these Jumbo Cornish Crosses are already halfway to harvest weight. In about a month I'll have a freezer full of enough chicken to get me a homegrown Sunday roaster for 5 months!

A lot of folks ask why I don't raise a breeding, sustainable, flock of meat birds that can reproduce? My answer to that is: I do. It's called my laying flock! You can eat any chicken, including slower-growing heavy breeds like the Orpingtons and Brahmas, and I would certainly raise their chicks for meat birds some day when Cold Antler is more along the path to being self-sufficient. However, right now I am a 9-5 office worker with an oil furnace... I order my meat birds with gusto.

So many folks look at the Cornish Cross as an industrial mutant, but hell, I like them. They get the job done right, and fast. I also like raising meat animals that were bred to be meat animals. For example, you could make hamburgers out of a Jersey cow, but certainly you would gain more value out of their milk. So cattle bred for beef like angus and herefords were developed. Same goes for these big Cornish birds. They are the angus chicken. They grow true, make delicious healthy food, and can be harvested right at home with little tools and supplies. They are everyman's steer.

I have heard horror stories about these guys though. About them not moving in pastured tractors. About broken legs and exploding hearts, but I have never experienced anything like that. I have found if let them live outdoors while their bodies are growing—free ranging across a farm—they grow strong and beautiful. They need space, not just a movable pen, and if given that freedom they learn to support those hefty frames. There is still one of last year's meat birds (same jumbo cross variety) in the barn. He missed last year's harvest season so he's earned his place to live out his life as a scrappy barnyard bird, which he does. I call him Castro. He just never dies.

And you may not ever want to raise an animal that was designed to be breasts and thighs and not a functioning breeding animal. I get that. But I still have a fondness for these chunks. They aren't perfect. That is true. But if you are looking for a model of perfection, man, have you ever come to the wrong blog....

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

banjo equinox: first challenge!

For those of you taking part in Banjo Equinox: here comes your first group recital. We're going to get together and play some music. This weekend I'll post a video of myself playing Old Molly Hare (the first tune in Erbsen's book), and in the comments you can add a link to your own video. A randomly picked winner of all video submissions will win a copy of Banjo Camp!, which is a beginner's book about the culture and magic of the banjo. Great for inspiration and lessons on clawhammer and bluegrass styles (with a CD to boot). So start practicing.... Video will be posted this weekend! Winner picked next Tuesday night! Oh, and if you learned this tune on the fiddle in the Fiddler's Summer challenge a few summer's back. Post a video of you sawing out that tune and you are entered too. Same goes for guitars and dulcimers, voices and pots and pans.

Below is an interview with the author from a few summer's back.

I want you all to meet Zhenya Senyak, the author of the recently published book Banjo Camp! Zhenya hails from Asheville, a town I love and used to frequent when I lived in Tennessee. Banjo Camp! is a gem folks. It's a beginner's instruction book for teaching yourself the basics, but it's much more than that. This colorful and friendly book is a tour on the backroads of America's roots music. You'll see photos, hear stories, and learn about all the ruckus happening in camps and shindigs all around the country. It makes you want to sling your banjo over your shoulder and start walking to the nearest campfire jam.

Zhenya has been kind enough to stop by the farm for an interview. We'll be having a friendly conversation about old-time music, his love of openback banjos, and some advice for all of us new pickers out there. If you are even mildly interested in making the banjo part of your life, pick up his book. It comes with a CD too, so you can listen to what you should be playing as you frail along at home ( a must-have for all us self-taught folks.) Okay enough yakking from me, everyone pull up a chair and gather round.

Zhenya, thanks for stopping by. Welcome to the farm.
Hi, Jenna, appreciate the invitation. Love the farm… and thanks for the mug of coffee. If Jazz and Annie are willing to move over a little, I can put down my banjo case.

So you've been playing banjo for how long now?
That’s hard to pinpoint. Six years ago I started Blue Mountain Schoolhouse, a teachers cooperative that offered all kinds of classes around Asheville, North Carolina. And in the course of interviewing teachers I got turned on to old-time music. I found a little hand-made banjo at a garage sale, , cracks filled in with bondo, strings high off the fretboard and some assorted tuning pegs screwed into the peghead. The guy said it would look good hanging on my wall but that was my first banjo. I paid $12 for it, about what the Pete Seeger banjo book cost me.

That part of my banjo career lasted about two weeks, maybe less. But I did hear some banjo sounds before I got discouraged. It was three years ago, when I was about to start a newspaper job, that one of the Blue Mountain teachers traded an open-back banjo for one of my acoustic guitars. And there was something magical about that banjo. I played it first thing in the morning, lots during the day and last thing at night. I’d wake up hearing that jingle jamming plunking sound in my head and couldn’t wait to start picking. So I’d say, yeah, I’ve been playing about three years now.

I gather you started as an adult. Was that intimidating?
I don’t know about being an adult, but I know I was surely getting on. I finished that newspaper job two years ago when I turned 70 and figured it’s now or never. I just leaped full bore into banjo and mountain roots music, spending an intensive year studying, visiting banjo camps, jamming. Yeah there were some intimidating parts. I got started playing bluegrass where, beyond learning the rolls and repertoire, there’s a whole routine of lead breaks and backup that you have to know before feeling reasonably comfortable in a jam. Plus bluegrass is a lot more of a performance.

Old time music is mostly people sitting in a circle, putting their heads down and playing together. When I found my way to old-time music banjo playing kicked into a whole new gear for me, more soulful, rhythmic, communal. I’m lucky, living in the heartland of old time music, to be surrounded by great old time musicians. For now, that usually keeps me at the edge of the circle at fiddle conventions and the many old-time jams around town, but I can play along and get into the groove and be part of the music.

Do you think making your own music can be considered a form of self-reliance?
That’s a good question. The flip side of picking with friends – and strangers – is your relationship to your instrument and to music. What I love about the banjo is its transformative power, the way it can jack me up or calm me down, keep me company on the road.

With my banjo, I don’t have to depend on MP3 players or CDs, on an electrical hook-up or batteries and ear buds. I love music, all kinds of music and, play lots of instruments… somewhat. Most any instrument, for that matter, most any way of producing music or rhythm gives us the ability to create an environment. The open back banjo, to me is alone in its range as a solo instrument. It can be mellow or insistent, ring out or just sing along softly on a single string. It’s a drum on a stick with stringed intervals that encompass all musical forms.

Why do you think old-time and bluegrass music feel so kindred to living close to the land?
Old-time music, country music whatever its form, is really folk music, music people make when they come together. Sometimes the music is about current events but often it’s a variant on old tunes passed along in families and communities. This is music that sustained people working long hours on the farm, when maybe the only refreshment was picking up a banjo at the end of the day or coming together with others for a fiddle and banjo dance.

Handmade music as the accompaniment to rural life is the natural way it has been for many centuries, long before cities and concert halls arose All that living history of folk music only started being collected in recordings and published and passed along recently. It’s great that that work has been done because now we have some historic record of folks who are gone, music we might never have

Returning to the roots or roots music is not a big leap. We may take our Blackberries and other electronic gear for granted, but the World War One was less than a century ago and at that time radio didn’t exist. Television, in any form, has only been around for 60 years or so and personal computers only go back a little more than 25 years.

You did mention to me you recently picked up a fiddle. Are you saying mountain music has some inevitable side-effects
When I was researching Banjo Camp! I interviewed many old-time banjo players who also played the fiddle. Maybe it’s not right to say “also,” since you’re talking about some of the best old time fiddlers in the world, like Brad Leftwich. Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham are good old-time examples of the nexus between fiddle and banjo. When the fiddle bug bit me, I understood immediately why these instruments are so bonded together. Of course they’re both light and portable, but their voices just naturally blend. When played together, fiddle takes the lead and banjo provides the beat, but it’s more complex than that since rhythm is an important part of fiddling just as dropping melodic and harmonic licks into a solid frail is part of banjo. It’s a conversation and now that I’m past that first squealing sour note stage of fiddling, it’s a conversation that’s fun to listen to . Bob Carlin and John Hartford made a fiddle/banjo CD called just that, “Conversations” that’s worth listening to if you get a chance. An old-time musician, playing fiddle and banjo is a little bit like Pinetop Perkins playing boogie woogie on the piano, the parts just come together.

What has been the biggest reward since you played your first tune on your banjo?
Hard to say. There have definitely been some highlights, long sessions with David Holt showing me the clawhammer ropes, conversations with Pete Seeger and Tony Trischka, listening to Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn at an Obama fund-raiser, the Carolina Chocolate Drops with Joe Thompson on fiddle at the Swannanoa Gathering, weekly Shindig on the Green events in Asheville or the Wednesday night jams at the Jack of the Wood Tavern. For all that, I’m pretty much a loner. The biggest rewards for me have been the break-throughs, the empowerment, feeling close enough to my banjo to make the music I hear in my head, or maybe even close enough to let the banjo lead into the music.

What advice do you have for the timid-wannabe-banjo players out there?
It’s called playing the banjo…and that’s the attitude to take. If you just sit down and mess around for awhile, get some good old-time banjo music in your head and learn a few basic chord positions, it will all come together. You’ve got to just do it, knowing it’s about the music and playing and having a good time. You can work hard at it because it’s fun but if you start getting all grim about it, might as well take up insurance sales or something.

Think you'll ever stop picking?
That’s my epitaph: “Finally stopped pickin’”

Thanks Zhenya, 'preciateya.
So… you ready to break out your banjo and pick a couple of tunes?

Monday, March 28, 2011


Little Ashe is a firecracker! Like their respective cities, Knox is laid back and curious and she's all color and action. When Knox and his mom were let out of the jug he clomped out like a drunk clydesdale. But little Ashe bolted out in a joyful noise and then zigzagged all over the pasture, bleating like an idiot. It was quite the site. As of my last check, both lambs were on the hillside by their mothers with round bellies and brass numbers on their ears. Tonight might bring them more playmates, as both Liset and the yearling are due any moment now...


photo by tim bronson

Sunday, March 27, 2011

smoke, cider, and a roasting chicken

It's Sunday night and the dishes are done, the floors are mopped, the brooders are cleaned, and the wood stove is lit. The dogs have been walked and are asleep in their favorite places. The sheep have been fed—the chickens have too. Saro is asleep on a pile of eggs so large she can barely cover them. (I am certain little goslings will be lumping around here soon). The rabbit doe from last year's litter (the lone rabbit for a few more weeks) is on a bed of fresh hay with clean water and pellets. Outside on the hill the newest member of Cold Antler is curled up in a ball next to her mother, who is chewing on her own flake of Nelson Greene's 5-star hay and sipping from her bucket of molasses water. My sheep have a good life, and they deserve it.

Outside little Knox is running around the pasture ahead of his mother, then turning back to make sure she's still there. I can see this from my window. It's almost dark and the heat lamp in the lambing shack looks like some safe haven from another time and place: like a place people walk all day to come to at dusk, and then go inside where their bellies are full, thirst is quenched, beds are soft and dry, and safety and exhaustion combine into the best sleep of their lives. It's the sheep version of a log cabin in the middle of the woods that welcomes weary travels with hot food and warm fireplaces. You know, before the world was scared of everything we made.

There's a chicken in the oven and the house is filling up with the crackling, warm smells and it is heavenly. I have hard cider waiting for me in the fridge and I can hear my banjo whispering to me from downstairs, asking me to play Old Molly Hare at least five more times before I sit down to eat. I think banjos sound better when you can smell wood smoke, cider, and roasting chicken. Scratch that "think". I'm certain of it.

I know that this school night will be interrupted with 12-degree hill checks after midnight and before dawn, but that's okay. For the next few hours this farm is at peace. I can rest and know that there is nothing out there my head, heart, or long rifle can't deal with.

Life is good.

photo by tim bronson, but cropped and colorized by me without his permission!

knox makes a friend

it's a girl!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

triple hs treatment

Have you noticed I don't post as much during lambing?

I'll be back into my routine again soon, but right now my life revolves entirely around these four things: farm, sleep, office, lambing. The downtime I do manage to wrangle is used to add a few extra minutes of sleep, and even then I wake up a few times a night from my very-loud alarm to go out and check for any new charges. If it was 30 degrees at night and I had all my sheep in a proper barn I would sleep through the night like a rock. But when you're shepherding with an 8x12" shed and a lambing jug shack with lows in the southern need to get up and get those babies on warmed hay under a hot bulb. So I get up from nightmares* (bad sleeping patterns puts me in full-color, graphic end-of-the-world dreams) and put on all my wool armor, heavy Muck boots, canvas vest and a wool hat and search through the pasture for placenta.

I might be worn-thin but I am crazy-happy. A coworker told me after we got coffee one morning that "lambing looked good on me" and I had to ask her what the hell she meant by that? She told me I was glowing, like a new mom. I couldn't have put it better myself. Bringing these little muppets** into the world has been bliss.

And yet, the lack of REM while keeping up with the 8-5 full time job and running the farm has created a woman in serious need of a triple HS treatment. For those of you who have not tried it, it goes like this.

Hot Shower.
Hot Sugar.
Heart-warming Show.***

For me this means a twenty-minute steamy shower with lots of stretching of sore muscles, followed by a hot mug of cocoa, and a favorite television show on DVD I have probably seen seven times before, but am guaranteed to soak it up like comfort food. Something like Buffy, the Gilmore Girls, or Felicity. I have no qualms admitting to you I have probably seen these entire series four or five times each. Some people get stressed out and go for a drink or cigarette—I opt for Sunnydale or Stars Hollow.

*Did you know that the word nightmare comes from the belief that seeing a female horse before you go to bed caused bad dreams? Night Mares.

**Unlike normal lambs, Scotties come into the world with horns, shaggy hair, and spots. They look like something Jim Henson stuck his hand up.

***For men and extreme cases the shower remains the same, but the hot sugar can be replaced with High Spirits (whiskey, gin, name your pleasure). And the last one.... Well, use your imagination.

Friday, March 25, 2011

06-07 is ready to pop...

Breath is bated. More lambs soon. Maybe even tonight!

run gibson, run!

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

banjo equinox: lesson one

First off, congratulations to all of you who signed up! Choosing to learn an instrument is quite the accomplishment in itself! I'm going to ask that everyone out there holding a banjo in front of your computers stop and take a minute to comment on this post and introduce yourself. And if you are someone thinking of joining in a few weeks, say hello too! Tell us your name, about your banjo (or future banjo), and why you want to learn? Tell us where you're from, about your life, etc. If folks see other working parents, teenagers, or retired folks taking on the banjo it might inspire them to drop all excuses and doubts and start making music as well. If we all know each other we can support each other along the way. I also am interested in how many of you are going from complete beginner to old-time frailer!

Parts of the Banjo
Tonight we're going to start with something really basic: anatomy. Before we start talking about what goes where, we need to know the what. This image here shows you the basics, and the names associated with them. This image differs from most old-time banjos because it has that big resonator on the back of the pot. It's a popular addition in Bluegrass banjos, and some of yours may have it, others not. It doesn't matter either way. Both will play music! Get familiar with the parts of your banjo. Go over this list, or the listed illustration in your books, and touch them as you speak their names. Feel the tuning pegs and say "tuning peg" run your hand down the neck and say "Neck, frets, strings, bridge.." etc. Learning an instrument is also learning a whole new language of terms and phrases. And it's important you are familiar with them.

After you felt up your banjo, let's get it tuned. I can't stress enough how important it is you get your banjo tuned perfectly well. So much of this method of playing is by ear, and you need to hear on your own banjo what the videos and CD sound like. We're going to let Wayne take it from here and show you how to get it into our beginner's tuning: Double C. P.S. If you have an electronic tuner, it will be a huge help. Between your ear, the the gage on the tuner, you'll be able to get your instrument pitch-perfect. Here's a link to a video on using your electronic tuner on your banjo. Thanks Youtube!

Frailing!Once you're in Double C tuning, play each note. Hear them. Get to know them. And when you have that little gal ready to play, it's time to learn the meat and potatoes of Old Time Banjo: The frail!! I strongly suggest you go through with the book and CD first and give it a try before you watch the video. It'll just make more sense to you as he goes through the steps visually after you give it the ol' college try. One you gave yourself a lesson in the Banjo Lick, watch and listen to Wayne!

P.S. Julie gave me a tip I'll share with you: when practicing the clawhammer frail (frail is another word for lick), make sure your hand is in a proper "claw" by playing with an empty toilet paper roll in your right hand. As you strum, it forces you into that position.

So from here you have plenty to practice! Honestly, this should keep you right busy till our next lesson later this weekend. The tuning and claw-ham-mer lick are the basis of everything we'll learn from here on out. So play it until you're cats are so sick of it they steer clear of your company. Play it till you can close your eyes and feel it. Make sure you practice at least 15 minutes a day, that is the deal.

Next lesson will be our first tune, and feel free to read and practice ahead. Also, PLEASE comment with posts of videos of you playing! The more music on this blog, the better!

banjo parts thanks to
seeger's banjo photo thanks to

an interview with wayne erbsen!

Banjo Equinox starts this week, and to kick it off I have an interview with none other than Wayne Erbsen, our instructor! Wayne wrote the book we're using for this course: Clawhammer Banjo For the Complete Ignoramus! I asked him if he'd answer some questions about how he discovered the banjo and starting a new instrument as an adult. Later tonight we'll get started with tuning our banjos to Double C tuning and the Clawhammer Lick. These two things will be fundamentals in learning our first song "Old Molly Hare" which we'll be playing by this weekend! Right now, all of you sitting at home with your books and banjos: make sure you read that entire book up to the first tune: Old Molly Hare and feel free to practice ahead. But for right now, let's welcome Wayne to Cold Antler and thank him for being a part of Banjo Equinox!

You can learn more about Mr. Erbsen, his books, classes, lessons, workshops and even instruments for sale at his website

1. Why did you start playing the banjo?
In the early sixties I was bitten by the folk music bug that was biting a lot of people back then with the popularity of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and all the folk groups. I started playing the guitar and was soon giving group lessons when I was just a fifteen year old wet-nosed kid. My sister brought home a banjo and when she wasn’t around, I’d sneak it out and learned how to play it. I was soon giving banjo lessons too. There is something about the tone of the banjo that really grabs hold of you and won’t let go. So far, it still has a grip on me.

2. Do you come across a lot of adults who want to play the banjo but have no musical experience? And have any of them had success?
I seem to be a magnet for older adults with the lust to play the banjo but with no previous experience. Maybe that’s because I advertise the fact that I can even teach a frog to play the banjo. A lot of people claim to be frogs and sign up for my classes. I am able to teach the vast majority of them to play. The only ones that are a challenge to teach are older people who have been harboring the urge to play the banjo for fifty or sixty years. By the time they sign up for my class, they’re often in their seventies and eighties. Although many of these people certainly learn to play, others have difficulty because of arthritis, or other physical limitations. In general, though, I’ve had great success teaching beginners to play. That’s because I’ve been able to break things down very simply in my books and lessons.

By the way, in addition to my clawhammer banjo book, I’ve written Bluegrass Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus, Bluegrass Mandolin for the Complete Ignoramus, Old-Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus and Flatpicking Guitar for the Complete Ignoramus. Right now I’m finishing up my newest book, Bluegrass Jamming on Mandolin. Other books in this series will include Bluegrass Jamming on Fiddle, Bluegrass Jamming on Banjo and Bluegrass Jamming on Guitar. All my books can be found at

3. What’s a reasonable practice regime? How much effort does it take to play a few tunes?
I’m sure most of your readers are busy people with jobs, families and many things requiring their limited time. If they can spent about fifteen minutes a day, they’ll be able to learn to play. If they can spend more time than that, it’s even better. In learning clawhammer banjo, the hardest part is learning the basic clawhammer stroke. Once they learn that, playing a variety of tunes is rather easy.

4. What's the best advice you can give to new pickers and strummers?
Choose an instrument to learn that you’re really passionate about. Some people are discouraged from trying the instrument of their dreams because some well-meaning friend has told them that they heard that the instrument you want to play is very difficult to learn. To that I say “baloney!” If taught right by a good clear book, video, or instructor, anybody with average ability can learn to play any instrument. Mainly, it all boils down to determination. If you are hell-bent to learn an instrument, then nothing can stop you.

Good luck to all the folks who are accepting Jenna’s banjo challenge and are going to learn to play out of my book, Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus. I look forward to teaching you to play the banjo.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

little knox

come on over!

Breakfast in the Backyard
Memorial Day Weekend 2011: Sunday

Still spots open for this Sunday Chicken workshop. It's an introduction to keeping laying hens, and comes with your own three chicks and a copy of Chick Days (my new beginner chicken book!). It's a full day from 10AM till 4PM at the farm, enjoying cuddly little ones This is crash course in how to raise backyard chickens for beginners, and get this, it comes with chickens All people who sign up for the all-day workshop will go home with three heirloom laying chicks and a copy of my beginner’s book: Chick Days. You’ll go home with your new birds and everything you need to know to raise them right. This is a great opportunity for people who just need that friendly push to take the plunge into the poultry world. No experience with chickens needed to attend, and I am confident anyone leaving CAF that day will go home with confidence that they can raise their peeps to laying hens come fall.

The workshop will start at 10AM and include a brunch spread, coffee, and juice and start with group intros and lecture on how I came into birds and how they changed me into the farmer I am starting to become. There will be a tour of the coop and farm and more discussions on housing, healthcare, and a Q&A period as well. I would also like to host a group discussion about the importance of self-reliance and the first steps of adding animal husbandry to our modern backyards: both for food security and local production. It will be a day of like minds, baby chickens, farm animals, and probably a fiddle tune or two.

BBQ in the Backyard
June 4th 2011

I will also do a workshop on small-scale meat bird production if there is an interest (which will not include a Chick Days book, but will include 5 meat birds to take home and raise for your table.) This all day events (also 10-4 with food and refreshments) will include lecture, and instruction in home processing with a live demonstation. You’ll go home knowing exactly which boning knife to buy at the kitchen store and my secret leg loop trick for hanging fowl by their feet without a fuss. All the basics of raising backyard meat will be covered, but the bulk of the day will be on how to safely and humanely turn animals into food. (Trust me, I am an expert on the SAFE part after last summer’s lesson). This will take place on the farm in on June 4th.

All workshops are limited to ten people, and slots are filled when the workshop is paid for to secure your space.

Sheep 101: Summer Solstice
Sunday June 19th, 2011

So you want to be a shepherd? Then come to this sheep farm and get know information and inspiration! This will be a casual intro-to-sheep course that will go into feeding, fencing, housing, and maintaining a flock. You'll get a copy of Storey's Sheep Book, and information on everything from local shearing workshops to sheepdog trials, but not lambing. We can cuddle lambs and talk about my experiences, but I don't feel confident teaching folks about all the birthing business yet! It goes from 10-4 and includes food and farm time, bring along your knitting projects too. Hopefully we'll end the workshop with a campfire and some mountain music, so bring a guitar! I will say this: I attended a similar workshop as a sheepless renter in the Spring of 2008 and now just three years later I am lambing on my own small farm! Get the wheels turning, people!

If you are interested in any of these, please email me at for details and booking!

Monday, March 21, 2011

lambing is in full swing

It was a quiet afternoon here at the farm. A late snowfall came and covered the just-budding trees and grass with two inches of wet slush. It was a long day for me already at noon. I had been up since 2AM and was at my desk by 8AM in the office. My boss was kind enough to let me take the afternoon off, which I not hesitate to oblige. I came home and took care of everyone who chirps, honks, baas, and barks and then three dogs and one woman slept. It was the perfect way to spend the calm between the storms. Another lamb (or twins) are possibly due on the 24th out of 06-07. She could drop anytime. (No rest from the 2AM rounds for me.) Then both the yearling and the ketotic Liset are due on the 27th! The last one is due April Fools (15-06). She's the last to go is so swollen, and has such a bag on her; she'd looks like Veruca Salt if she was blue.

Still such a wild ride to go, but I am grateful this first experience was so by-the-book. It was exactly what I read about, and I feel like I knew what I was doing. But even in that systematic understanding of "what happens next", honestly, much of last night was a blur.

I thought I'd be an emotional mess and cry out of joy, but all I felt as I walked in on that lamb was pure excitement. Like, rollercoaster-about-to-dive excitement. I felt my heart pound as I ran down the hillside to get my supplies. All weariness was replaced by adrenaline. It was a blessing and an honor to sit in that tiny sheep shed built in Vermont for Sal, Maude, and Marvin and watch mother and son bond. I like how the farm's natural evolution turned it into a maternity ward. I tagged the ear, banded the tail, and he seems to be doing really well. I was just up there checking in on the pair and for less than 24-hours old he is alert, eating, and talkative. I picked him up and held him close to my face. Smelled that baby smell. Touched little hooves. He is more than the fruit of a ram and a ewe. He's my first lamb. The outcome of so much work, daydreaming, and luck...

Knox is staying on this farm. My first lamb will be neither chops or sold. He'll grow fleeces and live with the others. I'll allow myself the sentimentality. If you're ever going to succumb to it, a first lamb on your first year on your farm is when to do it.

I emailed the breeder to let her know, and she asked if any of the others took? Geez, did that ever stop me in my tracks. I had assumed they were locked and loaded, the idea they could just be wooly and fat never even crossed my mind. She asked me how many had bags on them, and with certainty I can saw Split Ear and Liset are pregnant and ready, but the other two (the yearling and 06-07 don't seem to have any bags on them at all. I can't honestly tell with all that fleece. I curse not having them crotched. I just didn't realize I should do it until it was too late in their pregnancy. A lesson for next year.

So I can say at least two more sheep will give birth on this farm, maybe more. If it is less than five, all will be staying here for wool production for the CSA, and I pray one will be a ewe lamb.

So banjo updates and workshop announcements to come. Expect a summer of fiddles, campfires, chickens, sheep, goslings, rabbits, knitting, markets, books and more ahead. This farm is barely at its beginning, folks. Barely.

P.S. Thanks to a reader email, I called the vet tonight about an anti-toxin for tetanus. I do not want this little guy falling due to an ear tag!

and then there were nine

Sunday, March 20, 2011

rain check?

Forgive me. I just don't have the guff in me to do the Banjo Lesson One post justice. I had a long weekend of cat-napping lambwatch and still waiting for the babes. I'll post a proper first lesson soon, early this week, but even though it is the Spring Equinox, this shepherd need to check out and start her first of four naps till 5AM. But here's the good news: Wayne Erbsen himself has agreed to join in with an interview and possibly even CAF videos to help us get started. How cool is that? Asheville and Jackson are brining American that sweet mountain music, right to your own living room. Can I get an AMEN?

The lamp is on in the lambing jug on the hill. It glows there on the incline like an old log cabin with a huricane lantern inside, waiting for friends to return home. I decided to leave the light on for any lambs thinking of dropping by later tonight.


A few nights back I was in Rite Aid looking at baby monitors. I explained to the sales guy I needed one without a wall charger, because it was going in an old shed I built up from the house on a hill. I didn't want anything that fancy, this would have the shit beat out of it from the elements. He stared at me, mouth agape.

later in the truck I realized I never explained it was for lambs...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

we still wait

Today is the official, on-calendar, unequivocal due date for 06-04. She's round, has a huge bag, and a red rear end. It could happen any minute now and like the midwife I have turned into: I am getting prepared for a midnight delivery. They want it 16 degrees tonight, so I already ran a heat lamp up to the lambing jug. 100 bright-orange feet of extension cord are carrying warmth to that little brown shack on the hill. It is loaded with hay, a water bucket, and a safe gate to keep mother and young together. I bought a small oral injector of LambSaver: a nutritional supplement for the first 24 hours of life. I'm ready, at least as far as physical preparedness goes. I have no idea what will happen emotionally once those little ones are in my arms. I'm pretty sure I'll cry more than I have in a long time.

I think everyone who has Barnheart, who seriously pines for an agricultural life, has these fantasies of being under the stars after a long day of work. Some time of year when everything is green and lush. Of reclining back after the birds have been processed, the salad greens swaying in the wind, and that first hay field cut down and relclining (just as you are ) after all your labor and strife. You want to be on the back bed of your pickup truck, tanned and thin, tired and happy. Perhaps with your dog, partner. or a cold beer (all three please).

But that is a fantasy. It happens, sure, every June night somewhere in America, but the longer I am a part of this farm the more I realize those greeting-card scenes are not what I had wanted all those nights paging through Hobby Farm Magazine in Borders. It is moments like this.

This farm is a mess of mud and melting snow. There are jars of honey glowing in the afternoon light on the window sill and I know another hive is on the way. Right now the chicks in the brooder are on clean shavings, fed and watered. The eggs are collected from outside and in the fridge. Production is good. The lambing basket of gear and supplies by the back door are like a hospital suitcase for a mother-in-waiting. The dogs are asleep. The chores are all done and now there is nothing but anticipation. Sweet, writhing, anticipation. This farmhouse is humming with it. Any minute, hour, or day (even this minute as I type!) a ewe will start hunching with contractions and start going into labor. I'm hoping I am able to be there to watch and assist (if necessary) as the first ever Cold Antler lambs come into the light. If one arrives today by morning it will be tagged and docked, given a booster and a head scratch. I will have completed the shepherd's year, and started a new one.

I'm here writing you because I'm not sure of what else to do? I suppose I could try to take a nap, but even on such little sleep I feel wired and restless. I keep checking for water bags, listening to what might be a contraction. Windows are open. Wood is piled by the stove. I was invited to a solstice bonfire tonight at a friend's farm and I doubt I'll stay an hour. I just want to be here. I want to know what it feels like to be there when this happens to me.

I hope my next post is a photo of a healthy lamb.

Friday, March 18, 2011

good news and bad news

Bad news first: my bees didn't survive the winter. Can't blame them, I barely got out alive myself. When I went into the hive I expected low numbers, but the box was nearly barren. What was left inside though, was a few pounds of uneaten honey...

Good news: I had an early spring honey harvest today! I brought in the combs and scraped the wax and honey into a colander set over a 5-gallon saucepan (cheap extracting) and by morning all that will be left in that colander is wax. So tomorrow I can heat up the honey on a low heat and strain it again through cheese cloth to get it clean and ready to jar in the larder. I wasn't expecting a spring crop of the sweet stuff, but at least I'm getting it instead of the bears.

Losing a hive is a burn, but since I'm not sure if it was disease or the cold that killed the Styrofoam hive: I'm not letting others coming in the end of april re-use it. Besides the fact it might carry mites or other critters—it could easily attract animals coming out of hibernation (like bears!)

Also, it is a goose magnet. Who knew? My geese never bothered the wooden hives but boy do they love pulling little Styrofoam balls off that new hive. It's been trashed by winter, geese, and dead bees. Time to cut my losses in the shape of honey jars and order a wooden hive.

Still No Lambs...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Banjo Equinox!

This weekend is the Spring Equinox! For a girl who just went through a hell of a winter, reading that out loud is music to my ears. It feels like Spring out there, too. I collected five eggs today (girls are back into production!) and lambs are moments from hitting the ground bleating. This farm is still melting the feet of snow and ice that covered it all through the past three months—but spots of grass are showing up. Tiny bright green blades are shooting through the winter of sheep poop. It's a hell of a contrast.

In celebration of warmer weather, Easter, sump pumps, daffodils, chicks, lambs and everything else wonderful about spring: we're going to put on a concert. We're going to play some banjo music. Yes, us. Any one of you out there that wants to be playing tunes on your porch by the solstice (and you will if you stick with us) can. No experience with instruments needed. I don't care if you never read a sheet of music in your life. We are learning the mountain way to play banjo: which is by ear and tune. And not any of that newfangled bluegrass: but OLD TIME banjo!

Yes darling, Old Time! The banjo music that grew out of the soil of the south. The songs from older Appalachia. The banjo tunes people played at Civil War camps and trapper rendezvous. We're all going to start with our first lesson on the Spring Equinox, right here. On this blog we'll start with the parts of the banjo, the history, and how to get her into tune. We'll cover the basic clawhammer strum, and I'll add my own videos of learning along with Julie Dugan: Grand Banjo Frailer of Cambridge, New York. It'll be fun and easy. You just need to promise to practice with us everyday.

You don't need a banjo to join us yet, but if you want to learn, you'll need to get one soon. You can borrow, buy, or beg for one. I can't say enough good things about (They aren't sponsors, so I'm not getting any sort of cash for endorsing them. I just really like them.) They hail from Knoxville, Tennessee and sell affordable banjo starter kits for beginners at affordable prices (under 200 shell cards) and the best part: they come all set up. You don't get a box with strings that need to be attached and tuned. They also come with electronic tuners, and many kits come with the book we'll be using to learn. It's called "Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus" by Wayne Erbsen. This course is 100% FREE. Enjoy it! Share it with friends and family who might want to join. If you can't do it in real time, that's okay, you can always catch up later.

Robert Webb won the CAF Bean Blossom Hobo package giveaway. It's a fine beginner banjo, and if you can swing it, get one or one like it. I play the Morgan Monroe Scoop Neck. You can play any 5-string banjo you can think of, resonator backs are okay too if that's what you got. We aint fancy.

So here's what you need to join up, son:

A 5-string Banjo (open back preferred)
An electric tuner (guitar tuners are cheap and work great)
Wayne Erbsen's Book listed above
Practice time of minimum 15 minutes, twice a day.

Additional Goodies and inspiration to check out!

Songcatcher (movie!) about old-time music
Banjo Camp! by Gene Senyak (amazing beginner book!)
The How and Tao of Old Time Banjo by Patrick Costello
Clawhammer Banjo From Scratch - DVD- Dan Leverson

Homework before starting: Order Erbsen's Book, read pages 1-22 with CD to listen to as you go. Get a banjo and tuner too. Check back on the Equinox to see our first group lesson: holding, tuning, frailing 101.

Raise up those stickpots, people. We're learning to make mountain music!

the good book

I was living in an apartment in Knoxville when I picked up Catherine Friend's memoir Hit By a Farm. I grabbed it from the shelf in Borders, mostly because Garrison Keillor had a quote on the back. I think I read it in four days. The book was about two people deciding to become shepherds in the 21st century. From clueless to buying land and picking up 50 ewes.... What a ride. It showed me that changing your life 180 degrees was possible. It was the first of many like-minded stories that made me quit my job in the city and move out west.

Last week I got an email from Catherine asking if I wanted to read her new book, Sheepish? I was thrilled and an advanced reading copy came in yesterday. I started it on my lunch break. It is wonderful. You feel like you're walking with her around the farm and she's pointing and talking about things right in front of you. It is reminding me so much, so very much, about that first read of last book. I have no doubt in my mind that Friend's story of becoming a shepherd was one of the many influences that got me to this farm. Her and other authors have filled my house with their how-to, memoirs, and novels. They were all my ticket here. The inspiration that created my reality. Sometimes a good book is all it takes.

Books have been my companion on this adventure from apartment-dweller to small holder. Some like Logsdon's Contrary Farmer have spent as much time in the pasture as I had. Wendell Berry lives in my kitchen. I have listened to Kingsolver, Pollan, and others on my ipod read to me so many days in the garden I equate certain audiobook voices with seasons. Some are funny, like the recently read Bucolic Plague, and others are just Biblical standbys, like Carla's Encyclopedia.

So what farm books have inspired you along the way? Add to my list, please!

P.S. No lambs yet. This is torture.
P.P.S. Banjo Equinox details later today
P.P.S. Anyone want to come to a sheep workshop?
P.P.P.S. That picture is from last summer. I miss green grass here...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

big plans

My morning started with me leaning my arms over a metal stock fence with a cup of coffee looking at sheep vulvas. Not exactly what I expected on my graduation day from my 4-year Graphic Design program, but pleasant enough. It wasn’t easy holding the mug. My right hand had been slammed into the sheep shed wall while administering Selenium shots this weekend. Now a black and blue mark like a large shadow marks the back of my hand. Since this side of the Mississippi lacks natural sources of selenium and haven’t been feeding much mineral in the frozen months, it was an important pre-natal care step. Selenium adds muscle tone and strength to ewes, helps stop prolapses, and fights white muscle disease. It took four of us to inject all five mommas-to-be. Myself, my friends Othniel and Yeshava, and Diane all took turns filling needles, catching and holding sheep, and letting them go one at a time. Liset still feels so frail compared to the others. I worry about her all the time.

I'm often asked by my non-farming friends and family what my plans are for the next few weeks? It’s a conversational segue, a totally benign question, and yet every time I hear it a little flicker of panic shoots up my spine. I have learned that my farm-related answers like lambing! or setting up the brooder for 84 chicks are not what people expect to hear. To them farm events are home-maintenance. It’s like saying I have dusting and laundry lined up for the afternoon. They want to hear about events off the farm. Things like dates, shopping trips, travel, vacations, furniture purchases, movies, parties, anything involving commerce, clothing, and culture. Pretty much anything that doesn’t involve a grain bucket.

My answers usually disappoint. I really don’t go anywhere. I don’t want to. My whole life right now is 6.5 acres, due dates, books, a garden, and this world of chickens and freezer pork. I like to cook and listen to music, play some when the work is done, and when I do leave the farm it’s for things like local friends and neighbors parties and events. We’re almost hitting a full calendar year here in Jackson and the only three nights I didn’t sleep a couple dozen yards away from sheep and chickens were the nights I spent in Pennsylvania with my family over Christmas. So travel is out.

I do buy things, but 85% of it is related to the farm and the other 15% is spent on little whimsical things of my own amusement (i.e. records, antiques, Fireking mugs, expensive coffee shipped from Portland, etc). I have yet to drop a couple hundred bucks on furniture or fashion: mostly because the farm needs fences and field shelters. Clothing is worn till it frays apart, and then I buy second hand online or in thrift stores.

I just got an email from a friend saying her company was sending her to Sweden. I cringed at the idea of being that far from the action at Cold Antler. If someone handed me a plane ticket to Bali for a Yoga/Spa weekend during lambing season I would poach it on Craigslist for a new shed with jugs and creep feeders. I’d buy the winter hay. I’m already in Paradise. I don’t want to be distracted from it.

I forget what it was like to not have all these animals and plans. I really mean that, too. I don’t remember what it was like to have nothing to do but go to work and then come home and feed and walk Jazz. I do remember never sitting still. That dog and I were all over the city of Knoxville, at every Farmer’s Market and Street Fair. We explored constantly, never static. So I’ll start dating (but won’t be blogging about it) and going to things (iron and wine concert in April!) but these things are holidays in a very filled-up life. This first year on the farm: learning the process of lambs and wool mills, markets, ad sales, and working on another book are all dancing along with learning to manage an old farmhouse and all it’s care and feeding.

happy birthday gibson!

congrats robert webb!

Winner of the Hobo Open Back Banjo! You can email me at for details and to get me your mailing address. Well done!

I would have announced this last night, as planned, but lamb-watch and an appointment in Cambridge threw me off my game. But hey, we're only a few hours late. And for everyone else who entered, thank you. Banjo Equinox starts this weekend with an intro and banjo primer. We'll be learning to play Clawhammer together using Wayne Erbsen's book and CD. Grab a stickpot and join the party!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

5-minute primer

the waiting game

Monday, March 14, 2011

the prayers run like weeds along the road

I'm listening to Kiss Each Other Clean on the record player while the tea kettle simmers. The combination is making this old house a few degrees warmer. I very much like the sound of new voices on old machines. I like it even more with a hot cup of tea between both hands. It fills them, keeps them warm. I keep my house at a temperature I can afford, and it's not uncomfortable with a sweater. Sometimes it gets chilly, but moments like this: with music and hot tea make the heat deficit poetic. Swirling steam rises from mugs. You can make your own weather in an old house in upstate New York in late spring.

I'm tired from a long day, spent with a fever and trained on the tasks of preparing the world for a few more wooly souls. I finished the lambing jug tonight, and while it's crude it will make a fine nursery for whoever decides to lamb first. It's built inside the smaller sheep shed and creates a 4x4 pen with it's own water bucket and hay supply on a hook. I'm proud of it. It's the last thing I had on my list to prepare for these new blackface lambs. I'm ready now. I'm ready for what's next.

I sing along with my record player. Sam doesn't know it, but we're a capital duet. I especially adore Walking Far From Home, which I know every word by heart now. That song reminds me so much of the last few years driving and living all over this fine country. It feels so good to sing along with the cracking LP while finally home.

Six years, 7,000 miles, five states, three vehicles, and a farm that is turning me into the woman I so desperately want to be: strong, graceful, calm, and quiet.

I'm none of those things, not really. I can carry a pair of 50-pound feed bags over my should, but that's not the strength I'm referring to. I mean stronger willed, more in control of my actions and emotions. I want to be able to obtain some level of moving grace, be able carry a mug of coffee up a few flights of stairs without spilling half on the trip. I want to get through a day without cutting or bruising myself. I want to get over my anxiety and panic, stop being a slave to my own fears. I want to not need to talk all the time, just listen, and remember the old Japanese saying that silence is better than 99.9% certainty.

Maybe these lambs can be a new start for me. Maybe they can be my ovine ambassadors towards being a better person. I'll hold up my end of the deal and stock my pantry with colostrum, vitamins, ear tags, and hoof medications, and they can show me how to exhale slower. Something like that.

I have a long way to go. I'll start here.

cornish's rock

The chickens here are all doing well and growing at a breakneck pace. I have about a dozen laying hens and twenty freezer birds all mingling in their fancy brooder castle. The Cornish Rocks (my meat birds) are a little over two-weeks old, and weigh a pound each already! They are three times the size of the laying hens! It amazes me that these animals will be dressed and in the freezer in just 6-8 more weeks! Raising your own chicken dinners is pretty economical once you have your brooder and coop ready to go. Since this is the first year I am only buying feed and birds (already had all the supplies and a barn) the cost to raises this clean meat is only 1.99 a chick and two or three fifty pound bags of chick feed. It comes to about 40 dollars in chicks, 30 dollars in feed (max) and three dollars a bird to have them processed and packaged. Which comes to a grand total of $130 for 160 pounds of free-range chicken from a sustainable farm. Making each bird cost about $1.23 a pound. Not too shabby.

Of course, this isn't about saving a few dollars a pound. It's about knowing your food, knowing how it lived, seeing it from peeper to pepper. It's being part of the story. Here's to cheap Sunday roasts I stoked a wood stove for!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

back to the root

15-06 due any day now...


So I didn't tell you the whole story yesterday, but I think this house is trying to break me into being a bomb-proof homeowner. The sump pump adventure was one event, but yesterday we also noticed that the power lines from the pole had pulled off the house, causing the live wires to sag and hang by nothing but the cables support, no screws, dangerous stuff. So I called the emergancy service and within a few hours the road crew from National Grid came to the rescue. They parked their giant truck by the sheep and all eight lifted their heads at once to see the man in the giant grain bucket lift off the ground. I had to smile at that.

So now that the power lines are fixed, I found out my heating unit's ventilation system is down, meaning my furnace can't run without filling the house with CO2. So I turned off the heat, stoked up the wood stove, and chalked that up as a loss until the maintenance guys can come see it tomorrow. With a night in the 40's it's pointless to waste money on an emergency call to come out here. I'll be fine.

So in the last three days this house has lost siding, filled a basement with water, downed power lines, lost heat, and is possibly trying to kill me in my sleep...

You just have to have a sense of humor about it at this point.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


It has been an extremely long 24 hours. I slept a total of 2.6 hours and my rugs need to be washed, but I am happy to report that the problem has been solved! Thanks to the amazing help and unwavering kindness of friends and readers this girl's basement has no standing water at all!

I spent the entire night hauling buckets, by 4:30 AM I was so worn out and sore I thought I would crumble on the old basement stairs. But at some point you just snap out of any sort of stupid self-pity and do what needs to be done. I got my second wind and kept about 200 gallons of water away from my furnace. By morning I was that shaking-tired that infuses the whole body. You feel like one of the characters in some epic movie moving across mountains in a cape with a pony on a lead rope.

But in the morning I got a text from the Daughton Family, my heros. I called Cathy and she told me Tim was coming over to assess the damage and he would be bringing me back to their house for a hot breakfast and then taking me to Home Depot to buy a sump pump. I could have cried. With them in this, I knew I would be okay.

After an amazing meal of eggs, bacon, cinnamon toast and coffee (I was so hungry it was ridiculous) we picked up our supplies in Bennington and then headed back to the farm in the Daughton Suburban. At the front door when we arrived was a site for sore eyes...a black pump and a yellow hose. Someone had just simply come to my rescue without a note. (I later found out it was the gals from Windwoman Farm). If anyone doubts the reality of guardian angels, well, then they haven't tried to run a farm alone....

We spent the day rigging up a water removal system, and it might be what Tim calls "Ozark Engineering" but I'll be damned if it isn't doing the job perfectly. Here's what we did.

Tim drilled several holes in a large 5-gallon buckets bottom sides and then we wrapped it in gardening cloth. The cloth was held in tape with Gorilla Tape, and created a screen to keep rocks and debris from entering the bucket. We submerged it in the lowest part of the basement and stabilized it with gravel. I bought a 1/3 HP sump pump with the auto-start float you all suggested and all the other hoses, clamps, PVC, and other supplies we would need. We rigged it up to shoot up 7 feet (three feet below the 10 foot max) and then ran it out a hole we drilled and threaded with PVC pipe. The hose now sends water from the basement out and away from the house.

Some of it was trial and error, and some of it was luck, but we put away the Shop Vacs by noon. Now the basement has some serious dampness issues, but is cleaned up. I now feel pretty confident doing it by myself or for someone else. A skill I would have never learned away from this house (which more and more reminds me of Maude). I might be dealing with a rough first-year, but this farm has taught me so much. And when I realize next winter I'll already have a 4WD truck, a plow man on call, a year of lambing under my belt, and a sump pump. Hells Bells, there aint nothing I can't take on.

Right now I am beyond tired, beyond hand salve, beyond useful, and beyond grateful. I do not deserve this kind of love from you, but I accept it as gracefully as this clumsy girl possibly can.

Thank you.

Friday, March 11, 2011

the bottom

Rain, wind, melting snow and a 50-degree day have created nothing but trouble. I woke up to the sound of something like a shopping cart being dragged across my outer walls and when I went out to feed the sheep I discovered that the gales had ripped some siding off. It was partially attached, but flapping in the wind. Not a big section, but a section I couldn't nail back on myself. It was near the roof. I don't have a 20-foot ladder. I'm scared of heights. I'm also a klutz. Wonderful.

What started as a little water in the basement is quickly escalating to a stream turning into a pool. I have spent the entire evening running Shop-Vacs full of water up the basement stairs and pouring them outside down from the house. Every time I thought I had it cleaned up, I would return fifteen minutes later to see it even deeper and farther spread out. At this point I panicked and called a half-dozen friends: all of which had the same advice: call a plumber or buy a sump pump tomorrow at home depot. But I am worried the water will reach the furnace, an item I need and can not afford to replace, and so I am taking shifts all night to do what I can to control this. I did eventually find the source in the floor wall, and was able to plug it up a bit to slow it down by piling mounds of wet cat litter over it. I bought five bags at the IGA in town earlier and felt I had to explain why to the check-out 16-year-old that I didn't own a cat, I had water in my basement. The idea of a single woman buying cat litter on a Friday night was just too pathetic to go without rebuttal.

This is wearing me down. I'm hungry, exhausted, and worried. I'm not going to lie, around 8PM I just started crying. I was crying because I was worn down from other things, but also because I knew the rest of the night I would be cleaning the mess the mud made in the house, and taking constant heavy buckets up those stairs. It's part of owning your own house. It just is. I'm not breaking down because of the work. It's the fact that every goddamn lesson there is to learn about houses has happened this year to me: and I have no experience with any of it, and it's just me trying to doggy paddle through it all upriver.

This winter has been so draining on me. Now that it is finally coming to a close it's draining into my basement. This better be the bottom.

A kind neighbor who has a contracting business stopped on their way into town and fixed the siding. They are certainly getting a pie. It's little things like that, that keep me going.

So here's what I am going to do. I am going to clean up this house from the mud, clean up myself a bit, and make something to eat. Then I am going to do another round of hose and buckets. Then I am going to take a nap. Then I'll wake up to the alarm and repeat the whole process over and over. If I let it go those giant puddle will turn into an entire basement full of water.

How much do sump pumps cost? And do they handle shallow water?

wound in bailing wire

Thursday, March 10, 2011

novella's little farm in the city

lambs soon!

We are less than ten days from lambing here at Cold Antler Farm. The shepherd's records for the blackface sheep mark the earliest birth at March 19th. All my lambing books say to take that date and remove three as the earliest birthday. It's the 10th of March and that means by next weekend there could easily be two more sheep at this farm.

Right now all I can do is remain extra vigilant and make sure everyone has what they need to get the job done. Everyone is eating well, has a nice straw bedding in the shed, and for once mother nature is starting to agree with this whole lambing thing. Tomorrow might reach above fifty degrees. Beats being born at -8.

My job when the lambs come is to make sure they are healthy and upright. If a lamb is with her mother, drinking her milk and by her side: we can assume all went to plan. But that still means the sheep needs to be tagged, docked, and looked over. She'll need her cord trimmed and dipped in Iodine. If I come across a lamb in the shed or snow without its mother, I just have to pray that it's still alive and I can bring it indoors under a heat lamb on a blanket and feed it some of the frozen colostrum I have from my friend's dairy goats. Just in case of such events I have special tubes that the lambs swallow down right to their stomachs and formula if their mother's don't produce milk.

My biggest fear is that a lamb will be in trouble giving birth and I won't be able to help. I know that's what vets are for, but if it happens at 4 AM and I'm still asleep...the guilt would be tragic. All I can do from tonight onward is set my alarm at 2 AM and 4 AM to check on things.

Any day now. Any day now....

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

just 5 days left to enter! win your own Bean Blossom Hobo Banjo! For details on the Banjo Equinox blog lessons and giveaway, click here! Winner will be announced on the night of the 15th.

the cambridge kids

On a hay pickup in Cambridge last night I was invited to see the newest members of my friend Jonah's farm. These little twins, a girl and a boy, were under the glow of the heat lamp in the old dairy barn. Being a milking operation: the little ones need to be taken from their mother's right away, but they are doing well on their bottles in their own little corner of the barn. Did you know when you hold them they nuzzle right into your chest? Makes a tired girl smile.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

on the tailgate of his new rig

resting stance

I bought some straw bales to couch up the sheep sheds and make them clean and comfortable as possible. One of the sheep seems to have dropped her lambs from behind her spine down into the lower belly. This means we're T-Minus two weeks around here for some lambs. Everyone is eating well and enjoying their grain rations and minerals.

Last night was a firestorm of work and small emergencies. I was pumping water out of the basement, cleaning the brooder, working out, all over the place. Tonight I was done with errands and chores by 7:30. I was on the daybed with an oven-fresh piece of pizza and homebrew by 8. No working out. No water in the basement to pump. No drama with beasts living or dead...

I'm going to bed early, people. That's that.

Stay tuned for that first CAF lamb....

young generation of farmers emerges

“People want to connect more than they can at their grocery store,” Ms. Jones said. “We had a couple who came down from Portland and asked if they could collect their own eggs. We said, ‘O.K., sure.’ They want to trust their producer, because there’s so little trust in food these days.”

Garry Stephenson, coordinator of the Small Farms Program at Oregon State University, said he had not seen so much interest among young people in decades. “It’s kind of exciting,” Mr. Stephenson said. “They’re young, they’re energetic and idealist, and they’re willing to make the sacrifices.”

Though the number of young farmers is increasing, the average age of farmers nationwide continues to creep toward 60, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. That census, administered by the Department of Agriculture, found that farmers over 55 own more than half of the country’s farmland.

From a Fantastic NY Times piece on young farmers!

all better

Gibson's body is back to normal. Turns out he passed all the staples he ate—and no metal showed up on the Xrays—but What the x-rays didn't show was the popsicle sticks jammed inside him. Two days after we hit the emergency vet he passed a wad of wood and has been acting normal ever since. At the workshop he was piling on top of people and yesterday he spent lunch hour at the office running amuck with an Australian Shepherd. If you want more details on the story and the vet visit, you can follow the comments on the Facebook page and on the ER post below.

Thank you all for your thoughts and support!

Monday, March 7, 2011

five hours

Came home at 5:30. Parked truck outside driveway. Shoveled snow pile road plows built in driveway. Snow was heavy. Pull truck into driveway. Bring Gibson inside to eat his dinner in crate. Take out Jazz and Annie for a short walk. Bring in Jazz and Annie. Feed them dinner in front room. Go outside to feed sheep while still light out. Give half a bale of hay to flock. Separate it into four sections so everyone eats. No more big piles: leaves some out. Give a cup of grain to each sheep at its own station in the snow. Check all ewe's health and general condition. Scratch Sal. Set water bucket at artesian well spout. Stop to be grateful for artesian well on farm. Remind self to come back aftera short while and replace dirty water in heated pail. Go inside to check on chicks. Clean out brooder and replace with fresh shavings. Refill water and feed containers. No casualties for days. All Chicks look good. Vents clean. Eyes bright. Start fire in woodstove. Start a load of laundry. Check emails. See angry vegetarian on Facebook. Feel self-conscious he called me a pig. Let Gibson out of crate to play with big dogs. Check on oil in basement (half a tank) and realize water is all over. Panic. Post about it on blog. Call friends Shellee and Zach for advice. Zach asks if I have a wet/dry Shop-Vac? I do! I spend the next 45 minutes sucking out fifteen gallons of water and dumping it outside back of house, away from house. Feel like a home-owning superhero. Clean floor from basement-to outside trips from mud. Wash hands three times and still dirty. Sigh. Go outside to collect eggs and feed big chickens. Door of barn is frozen shut from ice storm. Pry open door enough to throw in grains for the barn-birds. Has to be good enough. Only one brown egg inside. My hens don't lay for ice storms. Smart. Come inside. Put clothes in dryer. Start to feel tired. Take out all three dogs again. Come inside to check email/delay 30-Day Shred DVD. Change into workout clothes and do level one in kitchen. Gibson lays on my stomach when I try to do crunches. He licks my face during push ups. He is the world's worst drill sergeant. Finish workout and back hurts. Wonder if pigs get back pains? Take ibuprofen and stretch. Change into PJs. Remember I forgot to fetch the sheep's water and look for warm socks. Take sheep fresh water and all dogs outside one more time. Dinner is yogurt and a peach. Drink a lot of water. Crash out on daybed with warm dogs. Put on mindless movie. Pray for June. Set alarm for 4:45.

It's not always like this.

water in the basement

After this weekend's rain and thaw the basement is starting to get water in it. I'm sure this is normal for the house, as the basement is always a little damp, but the water is pooling in just one section, near the holding tank and furnace. The boiler is a good six-inches above the half inch of water seeping in. But the furnace is just an inch or so above it. Can this water hurt it?

I'll call my furnace guys tomorrow to ask, I need to call them about the rattling vent anyway—but does anyone know ways to keep water out of a dirt and stone basement? Do you shovel all snow away from the walls of the house? Do you buy some water-be-gone powder from Lowe's?


Sunday, March 6, 2011

the workshop

I just finished a tall frothy glass of Caribou Slobber and I loved it. The brown ale with the eccentric name was a gift from Sage, one of the workshoppers who traveled to the farm today to dive into the world of backyard chickens. She and ten others came from four different states (and two cities!) to spend a Sunday at Cold Antler and go home with a cardboard box full of future fritatas. It was a wonderful afternoon.

The Chicken 101 workshop was my first since becoming a Chicken Author. I was nervous as all get out. There were things I wished I had planned better—but overall it was a success. Folks signed up to learn about raising laying hens, and between the talks, questions, and conversations: that is exactly what they received. They also left with a copy of Chick Days and their very own Ameraucanas, Buff Orpingtons, and Rhode Island Reds. Not a bad way to spend a rainy Sunday.

Cathy Daughton arrived early to be my saving grace. She brought her beautiful cinnamon coffee cake braid and did everything from dishes to help answer beginner questions. I'm blessed to have her in my life.

Soon after she arrived the attendees started to show up. The recent snow melts of the last two days brought the gift of parking spaces, so everyone was able to squeeze their cars and trucks along the road. Before long the house was full of people eager and willing to see their chicks and talk poultry. We enjoyed a brunch of quiche and Daughton Cinnamon Fanastico and then got into the big show.

We started in the nursery, going over the breeds and brooder basics. As I explained about heat lamps and pine shavings, people got to hold their future employees in their warm hands. After that initial talk from me and a general Q&A we broke for lunch to eat up some homemade pizza. Collin played some banjo tunes while the PBS special The Natural History of the Chicken aired on the used television. After that, we went out into the wind and rain to discuss adult hens, housing, and diseases in the barn. It was like a treehouse club of homesteaders and future farmers. Everyone was friendly, helpful, and kind.

The workshop ended in the living room with more questions and discussion. We went over cleaning coops, predator control, stories, and more. When all of us were spent, full, and excited we filled up their transport containers with chicks and said our goodbyes. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed the fellowship and fowl. I felt lucky to host it.

I'll do another workshop like this the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Already we have three folks signed up and I hope more of you decide to join us. It'll be a beautiful spring weekend on the farm, complete with romping lambs, home-brewed beer and a bonfire. And you get to go home with some chicks in a little box. Email me if you want in on the party. There's a great old grand hotel just three miles from the farm.

I didn't tell this to anyone, but the entire time I was handing people chicks or in the barn talking about frost-bitten combs—I kept thinking about a few springs earlier in Idaho. I was in their position in 2006. I had just moved to the other side of the country and wanted to produce as much of my own food as possible. Diana (my friend and mentor) showed me all of the things we covered today. It was a wash of gratitude to realize just half a decade later I was back on the east coast with my own land, flock, and telling other beginners about scratch grains and reference books. I still remember that day I picked up our spring order of chicks and I drove them in the snow to her farm. We set up the brooder, and I watched her open that postal box of babes with the awe of a 6-year-old in a pet-shop window giving away free puppies. After the chicks were settled, I remember thanking her and telling her I hoped some day to do the same for someone else. Today I had that chance.

Thank you, Di and everyone who made my farm a part of their weekend. Let me know how those little ones do.

photo by Alli Schweizer

Saturday, March 5, 2011

splattering the robe

In the Zen Buddhist Tradition there's a ritual I truly adore. Those who choose to take the vows of Jukai—to become dedicated students— sew a small special robe in the shape of a rice field. This garment is called a Rakusu. It's a collection of delicate scraps of fabric patched into a hand-sewn quilt worn across the front of the body. The ordained wear it over their sitting robes as an affirmation of their vows (and so other students are aware of the level of their practice). It takes weeks to create these relics by hand. When the final product is done it is magical. A handmade meditation.

Stories passed down tell of Zen teachers who looked at their students' robes with discomfort bordering on disgust. The students had too much pride in the work, too much attachment to an item that would compost into soil if left out in the rain too long. So to keep their students awake to the point of this world (to live free of attachment and suffering) they would splatter a bit of ink, or tear a corner, or squash a berry into that beautiful robe. Anything that would remove that silly desire to keep something owned as worthy of permanence: from being seen as an object instead of a purpose. It kept folk's eyes on the prize, so to speak.

I once heard a Baptist pastor say that you never see a U-haul following a hearse. He was a great Zen teacher.

Gene Logsdon says the best investment a small farmer can make is in their truck. It does a million different jobs, and makes an agricultural life possible. You get a stock trailer, hay hauler, and car all wrapped up into one. In a way, buying a truck is a homesteading Jukai. It is your Rakusu. As an object of utility it doesn't need to be shiny and show-room ready. It just needs to practice. It needs to be a truck.

The seven-year-old Dodge Dakota I bought yesterday came with a few dents and tears. There's no point in being overly proud in something already imperfect. Just 24-hours after driving it off the lot I have it coated in mud, strewn with hay, and coffee-rin stained. To own it I had to trade in the truck that had carried the farm this far. It was sad to see that little Ford go. Sadder than it should be.

Gain and Loss. Ink and berries.

Consider the robe splattered.

this shepherd got a ram!

P.S. Gibson is pulling through.

ER trip tonight

Thursday, March 3, 2011

news that didn't happen

Liset, I think, I hope, is doing much better. It's getting harder to catch her to give her the prescripted dosage of Glycol. That first day I could walk right up to her grab her. Now we play an eye-locked game of chance trying to hold her still long enough to inject the goo into her mouth. But now she's excited to eat her grain and hay and seems to more a part of the flock now. She's still lean but "with it" Keep her in your thoughts. I depend on each of these girls to help produce the future of my flock.

Good news: Murray McMurray is sending replacements for ALL the birds I lost. All 27 will be here next week. And everyone coming to the workshop will have their pick of the current healthy birds in the brooder now. I'll sell some started pullets later this summer for side cash. It will work out. Chickens make a lot of sense now, folks will scoop them up in pairs and trios.

I have some news (that never happened) to share with you all. I came across the perfect pony this week. A small 37" gelding named Rebel. He was a fully trained 6-year-old, road-ready, drafting pony down in Sharon Springs. Small enough to share my sheeps' sheds and hay and large enough to pull a small plow. He could cart, pack, and help spread manure around the farm. I dreamed of this pony. He was perfect. I went so far as to make plans to have him delivered. I told friends at 28: my dream of finally having a pony was coming true. My new ATV was just a few hoofprints away...

I emailed the trainer to apologize. I can't take him. With lambing, a new truck, a chimney, and so much ahead: a pony isn't a wise choice. I was justifying it because it was so perfect and priced so well, and who knows when a bombproof working horse could be delivered to the farm again? but I need to know what this farmer can handle. Maybe I could have welcomed Rebel into my life without a hitch? But I prefer to not find out the hard way anymore.

Some day I will have a working horse on this farm. This year I'll focus on a working chimney and used 4x4 truck.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

United States Poultry Service!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

liset's big scare

I know everyone is expecting an adorable chick post. I was expecting to write one. I took photos, video, the works... But life has a way of happening at 6:48 on a Tuesday morning. Sometimes it's not all fluff and feathers. Sometimes you're covered in sheep shit trying to inject glucose down a sick ewe's throat.

I woke up this morning excited about a lot of things. I had an order of chicks to pick up at the post office, and there are few cuter mail-order items than baby chicks. I was excited for the workshop this weekend. I sang to the Swedish Flower hen like I was a Muppet Chef while dumping out the laundry into a basket. I had a pot of strong coffee started, the wood stove lit, the brooder lamp had been chugging all night. Damn, things were looking good. I called the post office to make sure my animals were ready. The truck was warm and started like a normal vehicle. The sun was coming up over the ridge line, and the whole house smelled like coffee so dark you could eat it with a spoon. Heaven. All I had left to do before I got my basket-o-chicks was to feed the sheep before I left the farm.

As I was doling out the morning's hay ration I noticed Liset (number 20-06) stumble and walk oddly down the hill. My first thought was hoof needs to be trimmed. I'll check it right after I get back from the P.O. but then I watched her stare blankly at me. Within moments she was standing away from the flock chewing her upper plate in her mouth. She wasn't eating much at all.

This was bad. This was really bad.

I went through the flip-file in my head of sheep diseases. Listeria? No, she'd be circling...Rabies? No drool or twitching. Worms? No, she'd be eating like crazy.... Liset just seemed drunk. Wobbly. Like a waif in some Victorian play about to collapse on her fainting couch.

I ran inside to my lambing supply basket where my neighbor Shellee's number was located on a pink post-it note. Shellee was a large-animal Vet. She knew more about sheep than anyone on this mountain and happened to live a quarter mile away. I called, explained what I saw, and asked her she could come over? She had another appointment but said she'd come by later. Her instinct though was Ketosis; a late-pregnancy disease in sheep. It's a situation where the lambs are literally sucking the life out of her. She said she'd meet me in the farm in moments and bring up some Glycol and an oral syringe. We'd talk more in person.

I stood outside by my running truck and hung up my cell phone. I was no longer thinking about chickens.

I was so worried. These sheep were pined for—a dream come true. They took an entire summer to pay off. I had hauled and stored their hay, carried water, built them a shed and then spent frozen nights removing snow from it. I had studied. I had gone to sheepdog trials, workshops, and everything else I could think to do. What I didn't have was experience. I had no idea what a Ketotic ewe looked like. All I knew was something wasn't right so I called someone who could help. I know that much.

Shellee showed up a little later that morning as I was setting up the chicks in the brooder. She was standing at my front door with a jam jar of Glycol and this plastic-tube device and explained she'd be back later to check on her properly and run a urine test. I didn't ask her the one question on my mind. How do you want me to collect sheep urine?

I had taken the morning off from the office, and was grateful I had. Cathy Daughton was coming over with her boys to get their 15 Silver-Laced Wyandottes. I knew her boy Holden (a teenager) could help me doctor 20-06. When they arrived we set about the business of checking on the brooder and I explained the day's second small crisis. 25% of the birds died in transit or were failing fast. This was because (I think) of bad weather that delayed my order a full day). We did our best to help bring back any chicks that were fighters (and did manage to save a few) and caught up on farm talk. When the birds were as well enough as we could get them, Holden and I went outside to tend to little Liset.

There was a time in my life when walking straight up to a hundred-pound horned animal and flipping it onto its back would have been an impossible to even consider. Not today. In my Polyface sweatshirt (a barter for wool from Wendy down in Swope), my beaten-up Carharrt vest with hoof-trimmers in pocket, Muck boots, and dirty jeans I walked right into the fray and grabbed her by the horns. Shepherds (old or new) are tough stock. Soon she was on her back Holden filled the syringe and handed it over to me so I could slowly inject the energy into her throat. She didn't flinch. She was such a good girl. Holden was an amazing help.

I trimmed her hooves (she was on her back, why the hell not) and offered her more hay. She needed to bulk-up before lambing. This Ketosis is a carb-deficiancy disease. The same disease that human beings can waste away from if their body and brains don't get enough carbohydrate energy. In fact, you force your body into Ketosis to burn fat because the lack of carbs makes your body think it is starving. It's not a good thing, people. Eat bread.

Anyway, I had to head back to the office in about an hour. I debated just calling in the day to be here and keep an eye on the failing birds and the sheep but I had to go in. The office is what keeps the hay, vets, and chickens here in the first place. Also, the vet wouldn't be able to come back till after five anyway. I left the farm worried and confused, but content I was doing everything I could. I'd save my call-in days for lambing.

Work went by fast. I had completed most of my tasks on Monday in anticipation of today's morning off and so I scuttled through spreadsheets and emails. Soon as five clicked I was back on the road. Shellee had called to say she was coming back to the farm for a urine test at 4:30 and I could meet her for a diagnose when I got home. (By the way, if you turn a sheep on its back and hold its nostrils shut it pees. Fun fact for your evening read...) When I pulled back into my driveway I saw the vet-truck there and Shellee and her helper, Billy. They did the test and it turned out positive. My heart pounded. Liset was in the beginning stages of Ketosis and it could kill her if untreated. I asked Shellee what to do?

The remedy would be energy. Get the girl on more hay, twice-a-day Glycol down the throat, and start her on grain early. She would most likely recover, but this hit could mean her ability to produce milk is all but shot. Her lambs might be destined to be bottle feeders. Billy—a long-time sheep and goat keeper—said she would be fine and lambing would be fine too. My own opinion was too raw to decide either way. This morning when I woke up I thought all was well with my sheep's world. I chose to lean towards caution and do everything the Doc says and hope for the best. Tomorrow morning I'll have a date with the Glycol syringe and a skinny sheep. She might hate me for the drugs, but I'll buy back her love with Coarse-14 grain. I'll do what I can.

Now it's after 8 and things are calming down. The house sounds like a weeknight house; dryer tumbling, dogs eating kibble, computer keyboard tapping away. The remaining chicks are healthy and I'll pad the order with more Rhode Island Reds coming into Tractor Supply tomorrow. I think if I call the hatchery I might even get a refund? Right now though, I think I'll take a long hot shower, make some hot tea, and call it a night. I had a long day and another one of sheep-flipping and spreadsheets waiting for me tomorrow. I love this farm, but occasionally love is friggin' exhausting.

I promise my next post will feature adorable chicks.

FYI PDF on Ketosis in Sheep and how to treat it.