Tuesday, May 31, 2011

living out a colloquialism

There is something special about living out a colloquialism: which is exactly what I was doing. Barefoot in the potato patch sounded like a phrases said a million times to imply something, but I wasn't exact;y sure what? Going Six ways to Sunday day means a rushing effort, Lifting yourself up by your bootstraps means a self-imposed work ethic. So what did being barefoot in the potato patch mean?

It meant it was damn hot outside.

87 degrees and muggy as all get out. I had been unshod for most of the morning, liking the better grip and cool dirt under my hot feet. The bare feet gave me balance, and stepping over mounds and seed potatoes I even felt a little primal. It's a good thing, too, for a corporate employee to be sweat-stained and shoeless in brown earth as often as possible.

After five years of homesteading I still don't have a rototiler, so all sod is broken with a single hoe. I raise it up and then slam it down into the grass and lift up the earth's pretty covering of green to search for earthworm castings and dark earth. I hoe deep enough to bury each spud (or half of a spud, depending on how many eyes it had) into a grave and then cover it with dirt. They will be covered with compost and more mulch as the summer continues. I'm thinking about my summer commitment to this small backyard patch and wondering if I'm over my head this time. How will I store them all? Can I use the basement or will it be too damp? Should I use the closet under the attic stairs, or will that be too warm by the woodstove? After a while all these considerations got folded into the rows as well. Soon it was just the heat, my rhythm, and the voice of Barbara Kingsolver reading Prodigal Summer over my headphones.

When the first 65 were in the ground, I was beat, just plain whooped. I went inside to replenish some fluids and instead of walking back out to my hoe and sack I grabbed my drug-store spin reel and rod and headed for the pond. Sunday night I watched the Daughton boys reel in bass after bass from my little pond and I wanted to land one of those bigguns myself. So I headed down there with my twenty-dollar tackle and a package fo worms from Stewarts. The irony that I'm an Orvis employee was not lost. But when a girl spends the day working for her food, she doesn't want to hunt via dry-fly airstrike. She wants to trick some fish with live bait.

last night I realized something wonderful. Fishing is the one thing I need no distraction from. Everything else I do alongside something else. I hoe with headphones. I surf the net while watching a movie. I read in the bathroom...but fishing. I am 100% there. Hours flew by and I caught panfish and smiled. No bass yet. Just a girl in her straw hat with dirty feet, chucking worms and praying the snapping turtle isn't hungry for my lowest digits.

I came back to the farm an hour or so later. I had the guilt as heavy as a sack of seed potatoes calling me home. I hoped to plant 65 more, but gave up after 20 to return to the pond. Between the heat and effort, 85 poatoes was nothing to be ashamed of, and that's not counting the ten already in the raised bed with bushes high as my waist. One woman can get through a winter on 400 pounds of potatoes, for sure. So I fished until dark, still only hooking sun fish, and then eventually walking up the road to the house. I was so tired from the sun, planting, and angling I felt like I had been slipped cat tranqs. Just totally used up by that happy day.

I was sound asleep before dark.

Monday, May 30, 2011

there's no shame

...in planting 85 potatoes—all in newly-broken sod.

the garden

This weekend is on its last leg, and the four days off from work have soared past me in a heat of road trips, television celebrities, workshops, bass fishing (biggun's in the farm pond!), chickens and campfires. Today is my last day of freedom. I'm planting as many seed potatoes as my little body can handle planting. Also, some sweet corn and pumpkin seeds to join into the started pumpkin vines I already set. I'm not showering until at least one or two grocery bags of spud seeds are in the ground. I know it seems late, but we wait here until early June to pass the life cycle of local potato beetles. Something I heard second-hand from Othniel who heard it from an old-timer. I suppose we'll see. My one row in a raised bed isn't going to do it for a meat farm. I am a hardy gal. I like mine mashed, fried, baked, and hashed and there is nothing more comforting going into winter than that primal smile that comes from a backyard full of livestock you can roast, a few stacks of cord wood, and bins of potatoes in the root cellar.

I've added a young hive to the arsenal, and hopefully it will help the garden and all the flowering trees and buds around the farm. They seem to be settling in, and working hard to get their new home furnished with comb as fast as possible. They are directly next to a giant honeysuckle bush so the drive for take out isn't too far. They don't seem to both anyone else: not the sheep, me, or Jasper. I am hoping to order him a proper harness soon so we can move from lead line training around the pasture to actual harness work, light and simple. But our time together is proving good and I'm comfortable with the pony faster than I expected to be.

Okay, off to plant those taters. Anyone want to guess how many I'll actually get in the ground? Whoever gets the closet will get a giveaway prize: a signed copy of Made From Scratch with a chicken feather bookmark. So let's hear those chance guesses!

P.S. I have laying hen chicks for sale if anyone local wants some. Five dollars each: Ameraucanas, Buff Orps, and Rhode Island Reds.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

beekman 1802

Yesterday I was too tired to write, and that's saying something. The day started with my annual pickup from Betterbee in Greenwich, and then ended shutting my neighbor's chickens in their coop for the night. Between those two things I: helped a friend install her first hive of bees, loaded the truck with 13 bales of hay, unloaded 13 bales of hay, expanded the pasture by 15 pounded t-posts and woven wire fencing, mowed the lawn, and then visited friend for dinner.

My days off work involve the hardest work of my life.

Today was a lot less stressful. I headed south to Sharon Springs to tour the Beekman Mansion and enjoy the town's Garden Party weekend. I got to meet Josh and Brent, buy soap, see their amazing accomplishments, and enjoy the best hamburger of my life at the American Hotel. It was quite the day. Polka Spot says hi.

More soon. Laying hen workshop tomorrow!

Thursday, May 26, 2011


cartons and girltalk

When the man behind the counter at the cafe handed me my takeout box, I couldn't help but smile. He wrote BAAA! in black marker. Knowing the guy's name who made your chicken wrap makes for a more personal touch when it comes to doggie bags. It helps of course that he knows I'm a shepherd, and that I traded three of my ram lambs at his farm for 90+ bales of hay. I thanked him and put the carton in the truck before running across the street to Battenkill Books where Connie, the shop owner, was sitting behind the counter. She was just back from the big Book Expo in New York and said she was reading my new book! I asked her if I could see it? And she ran back to pick up the paperback Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) from her travel bag. I held the glossy thing in my hand and turned it over. It's my third time seeing a book of mine in print and it still feels like make believe. We chatted for a while and then ended up in a bit of girltalk over how dreamy Michael Perry is. She talked about doing a book launching party and I just nodded an okay. Why not?! As I drove home my neighbor Shellie (CAF vet and new chicken owner) asked if I could watch her birds and gardens a few days while her family headed out of town. I got my marching orders and told her I had it under control, enjoy the weekend.

A scribble on a carton.
A conversation in a bookstore.
A message on a cell phone.

This is becoming my town.

putting off mowing

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

ravens in the corn

Driving home after my herding lesson was wonderfully anti-climatic, fantastically boring. For weeks I had been fretting about this particular ride, certain it would be a disaster. I knew I’d have an energetic border collie and a ram lamb inches away from each other crammed in the cab of a pickup truck for a two-hour transport across three states. I was expecting bedlam. Gibson would be howling and clawing at the crate, the ram screaming, truck swerving, me praying as I slid down sketchy mountain roads. I tried to prepare. I had a car-seat harness for Gibson. I had a first aid kit packed. I planned to stop often. When I doubted the transport, I started pricing stock trailers on Craigslist…

It was all in vain. The ride home was like driving in an Edward Hicks painting. Gibson curled up in the front seat, exhausted from his lesson. He was sleeping like a babe of Eden. The ram lamb bleated here and there, but generally resigned to his lot as cargo and laid down. (I would find out later he was "calmly" filling the dog crate with liquid feces, but that's another story for another day). With my back to the crate, my dog at my side, I was in a blissful state. My new-to-me truck was chugging through the Green Mountains like a champ and I was almost home. Just a few hours prior to crossing the Washington County line my business-partner-in-training had moved from the round pen to the high field and was starting to show real progress. I had come out of lambing and was now focused on summer projects. I had a rabbitry to start, a cart pony to train and outfit, turkeys to raise, and now I was driving home with next season's sire. He was a beautiful boy. I carried him in my arms to the truck myself from Denise's farm—a young Blackface ram. He's the breed I chose amongst all others to feed and clothe me. I named him Atlas, because a new ram is a sheep farm's whole world while he thrives. New blood, new lambs, new hope and all of it tangled next to my chest as I loaded him into the truck. Two hearts separated by wool, skin, cloth, and blood.

Picking up the spring lamb that would, in turn, become the fall ram was a new thing for this particular farm. New, but instantly ritualistic. It was one of those things you do as a new farmer and immediately understand you're taking part in the first of endless annual occurrences just like it. You are nostalgic in the present moment, (which I think, might be the closest to enlightenment this girl will ever get). My first Shearing Day was like this too. As was my first apple cider pressing, lambing season, and that first spring hatchery order years ago in Idaho. They are holidays, you see.

Holy is the proper word, too.

I am not a religious person, though I respect and appreciate what religion is. It's a way to live, and something to live up to. It's a year marked with observances and festivals that—if celebrated earnestly—make us understand the world better and our place in it. As a child my holidays were full of magic and great import. As I grew older I lost that. Holidays became Hallmark and faded back into numbers on calendar. Soon after, religion and I parted ways. We still meet up for coffee on occasion, but it’s a platonic conversation. No commitments from either side.

But farming is changing this. My life is entirely about commitment now, and I find myself praying more than ever before in my life, mostly out of sheer gratitude for my land and the air in my lungs. My prayers aren't to anyone in particular, but they are constant and honest. I have a lot of Evangelical friends and sometimes I sit down with the Bible. Other times it's the words of teachers and writers wise enough to crack the farm house's foundation. I make more time to meditate now, and read through the sutras that make my head sing with good things. The Heart Sutra, and the Diamond Sutra, which has a line I want engraved someday on my tombstone if I ever get a say in such things.

Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

So the farm is bringing out a more spiritual side, and it's varied and happy. This life of soil and lanolin is my choice and my dream and it makes its own holidays. My year is now marked in new ways now. It is marked with days novel to me, but timeless to the human animal: Planting, Breeding, Shearing, Canning, Lambing, Harvest, Honey Extraction... the list goes on and on. Most of these holidays are casual observances. You don’t need to dress up, but you do need to be mindful. There’s a good reason shepherding holidays fall in the order they do, and each one is just a part of the annual cycle that is ewe and ram, fleece and lamb. Care of the flock breaks up my year now the way old school and church holidays did, and I find myself as wound up and restless before Shearing Day as I was as a child waiting for Santa. The next day brings something magical, something traditional, something tangibly wonderful and a part of me and endless people before me. What a thing. What a thing to relearn again. At nearly 30-years-old I feel like an authentic string of traditions as old as fire and song are wafting back to me again. I need to learn all the particulars, but I have a lifetime to do it in, and if I'm lucky that's a few more years of cider and wool, eggs and piglets. What more dare I ask for?

And you know what's truly beautiful about these agricultural holidays? They belong to everyone. Regardless of your creed, race, age, gender, location, wealth, or sexual orientation, hell species: we are all united in the Great Religion of Food. We all need it to survive and if it wasn’t for grocery stores, we would all be ordained instead of lapsed practitioners. Which is exactly what we are because just a few generations back your family probably grew (or personally knew the farmer) who raised the food you ate. We once knew how to eat in season, how to cook dinner, how to string up a bean vine, shell peas, and dress a Thanksgiving turkey. Our children were not scared of dead pigs, but clapped their hands under the hanging hogs. Because they liked bacon, and because they weren't shielded from the whole story as if it was a favor. I want to go home to that mind that sees the world as a hundred pieces of one life, complicated and forever, like the growing season.

All this time I thought I was becoming a farmer, but the farm is becoming me. It turns out I'm a seminarian here. A little monk on a little piece of land learning how to not mess it up, over and over. It makes me glad.

P.S. If you read this post thinking I am replacing religion with agriculture, then you have it all wrong. Farming isn't a path that drives me away from faith. It is a way to cultivate it all over again, and maybe someday find it amongst the ravens in the corn. Maybe not. Like said, there's not commitment here. Just a lot of observation.

But we can still meet for coffee.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

thanks jasper!

Monday, May 23, 2011

chicks in the house!

The chicks for this weekend's workshop arrived this morning! All 45 are doing well, and spending their time with the three poults I bought at the feed store. They are from Mt. Healthy Hatchery from nearby Pennsylvania—Orpingtons, Reds, and Ameraucanas (just like in Chick Days). If you're coming this weekend and need directions, please email me at jenna@itsafarwalk.com and I'll hook you up. And for those of you wondering how to get these guys home safe? A small box with wood shavings and a heat source will do the trick. A hot water bottle, a breakable heat pack from the drug store, or a plg-in heating pad should be fine. Just wrap it in a towel under the shavings and you created a pullet spa. If the ride is over three hours, have a small dish of feed and water and extra heat packets for the roadside stops. They'll do fine.,

Looking forward to this weekend, a lot. Starting Friday with the annual bee pickup and hive installation, Saturday is a trip an hour south to Sharon Springs to take a tour of Beekman 1802, Sunday is the chicken workshop, and Monday is a day of rest and gardening. It's officially the beginning of summer here at Cold Antler. I'm just waiting on the fireflies and wishing on pairs of crows.

herding lesson: in pictures

Sunday, May 22, 2011

200 watts

If you sprinted behind sheep for twenty minutes straight—you'd appreciate a tub of cold water too!

Gibson had a herding lesson today down at Tanstaafl (There aint no such thing as a free lunch) Farm in Greenfield, Massachusetts today. Between lambing, Jasper, cash flow, and the work weekends of pasture expansion: herding lessons have been on the decline. This isn't such a big deal, as G is only a year old and still a baby in the world of working sheep dogs. He has plenty of time to learn the ropes.

Today was a warm, muggy, overcast day. My lesson was in the late afternoon, and I was expecting my pup's usual amount of tom foolery. Gibson did not disappoint. He was so excited to be around sheep he lost most of his sense and was all high tails and bravado for the first fifteen minutes in the round pen. We work on a long line, with flags on sticks and training staffs and do our best to get him to calmly balance sheep between my movements. At a fast walk, if I move left, he should move right. If I turn last, he should turn to always match my choice and balance the stock between us. We do our best.

Gibson's 49-pounds, was no match for the little, prick-eared, 35-pound, sprite Emmy, who has three-years under her hide and takes commands practically at a whisper. When Denise sent her up the field to gather and fetch the three hair sheep we would be training with, I watch in confused awe. How do you get from Gibson to Emmy? From Jenna to Denise? I have no idea. I just listen to my teacher, and trust in the process. Like a car can drive cross country in the dark with only seeing the 100 feet of headlights in front of it—I train my dog a step at a time.

I have a clunky way about me, and a clunky young dog, and watching me in a herding lesson is watching a confused woman with a stick yell "LIE DOWN" 70-jillion times. But then by some point in the lesson Gibson calms down and moves sheep like a proper dog and I beam like I'm made of Tiffany glass and my heart's 200 watts of pride. Denise thinks we can start working on our out run next lesson. Just the idea makes me a little weak in the knees.

I have more to update you on. I brought home my ram lamb from Denise's farm tonight, and he is gorgeous. He'll be this fall's ram (and possibly this winter's roast). And three Bourbon Red poults are chirping away in the brooder box. (They were on sale at the Salem Agway, at a price too good to turn down), but that needs to wait till tomorrow. I need a hot shower in ways you don't want to understand, but let's just say bleach-scrubbing the ram crate for an hour and you get the picture. I know a lot of people say they put up with a lot of shit in their lives, but few of them have the laundry to prove it.

Also, I named the Milk snake Trevor.

what kind of snake is this?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

folks in town

My folks are visiting from PA (it's the reason the posting has been thin). All is well though. They arrived yesterday afternoon and when my mother met Jasper he tried to eat her beaded bracelet (that wasn't the best introduction), but it was all uphill from there.

I had friends over for some charcoal grilling and beer. It was a night of pond-bass fishing for the kids and chatter for the adults. A beautiful night, too. A thunderstorm rolled over in Vermont but only a shower reached us. The Daughton boys came back in the house wet from the shower, but proud of the fish they caught and offered no signs of the big fat snapping turtle.

This morning I'm making a breakfast of eggs we may head over to Gardenworks to look at bedding plants and the art gallery. If the rain hold out it should be a banner day. Here's to Washington Count putting on the dog for us! More photos and updates later today!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Chicken 101 Workshop Next Sunday!

Hey there Chicken Workshop Attendees. Can you please post here and let me know that you're coming over next Sunday, and if you are taking chicks home with you? I have thirty chicks on the way Monday morning, so they will be about a week old when you pick them up. You'll be taking home the three breeds featured in Chick Days, and a copy of the book.

Is anyone a vegetarian? I was thinking about pulled pork for lunch and hard cider and mountain music in the evening (for those who might stay a little later for a campfire). And if you attended a workshop earlier in the year and just want to come by and join in, you are welcome.

pullet and hen

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

grass stains

You got to walk a special walk in my chicken yard. If you don't you might sick a chicken under foot. When you strut out there with a 50-pound bag over your shoulder they know what's inside and they clammer all around you. Wings flapping, beaks chirping, you'd think you were carrying a sack of meal worms and not cracked corn and mash. You can't step down, and don't you dare stomp. You got to shuffle. Feeding 30+ chickens here at Cold Antler takes some serious dance moves. You slide your feet just a half inch over the ground and push them forward, gently (but swiftly) removing the hoards from the path. Kind of like the old steam trains pushed cattle out of the way with their shovel front ends. You do this and no one—omelet and roaster alike—is worse for the wear.

The chicken shuffle is one trick of the trade. There are other moves you have to pick up to keep time around here. There's the grain-bucket two-step with the pony, and the field-fence break dance over the meta rail. You have to hold a bucket a certain way when carrying sweet feed into the sheep pen or they will jump up and dive right into it head first, pushing you to the ground in the process (I know this well). So instead of just strolling in like a chump, you march in the pen like a 1920's movie-script prison warden, all purpose and bravado. You got to carry that bucket with the same son-of-a-bitching swagger Jasper gets when someone ovine gets to close to his pile of hay. He glides like a lion, swishes his tail with his ears are pinned back. Body language is universal between all animals, human and otherwise.

They know when I will pitch a fit or scratch their backs.
I know the same looks in them.

Tonight between chores I grilled burgers on my little black charcoal grill and mowed the lawn. First real mowing of the season and when it was done I was covered in grass stains and sweat. The farm looked like someone switched it out with a golf course while I was unloading garden soil from the back of the truck. Taking it all in from the bed of the pickup I beamed with pride. Talk about instant gratification. Mowing the lawn is a zen koan crushed into PBR cans. Amen.

When the work was done, I leashed up Jazz and Annie for a short night walk. It was almost dark, the slightest bit of blue left in the overcast sky. If it was a normal summer day you would have called the clouds above us thunderheads, but the mild rainy week here just meant they were...well, clouds. No storm was coming, but it looked like an angry teenager painted the sky. From just a little down the road the farmhouse looked make believe. Behind it, far away on the hillside white spots the size of my pinky nail were lambs. My lambs. Animals that knew of one home: my farm. I say that not to boast, but out of near disbelief at the fact there are living creatures in this world who only know of Cold Antler Farm as their entire world. A little over a year ago this was nothing but a pipe dream and today it's grass stains and sweat. Watching from this lower viewpoint down the hill, my farm house looked so huge. 1100 square feet have never looked that big to anyone else in the world before. I tried to gasp, tried to say a small prayer, but was interrupted by a slam poet. I caught a yellow flash out of the corner of my eyes. A firefly? Could I be that lucky? Can the world be that beautiful all at once on Tuesday?

I'm not sure. I think it was the house lights caught in my glasses. But my heart stopped and a smile so wide it needed a tailgate spread across my lips. Summer is here.

And so am I.

Monday, May 16, 2011

dulcimer for sale


Sunday, May 15, 2011

willow gardens and wet ponies

I am sorry to report no gardens got planted, and no pasture got expanded. I went to all the trouble of braving the wilds of Bennington for ten new t-posts, 4 1.5 cubic feet bags of organic garden soil, and 6 2x4s cut in half: but the cordless drill is staying on the charger today. That rain is too much, and too often. When I pulled into the farm's driveway I didn't see a single animal with a hoof. But when I honked the Dakota's horn I saw Jasper and Sal poke their heads out of the sheep shed. If it's too wet for Scottish Sheep and an Amish pony: it's too wet to plant taters. Isn't that how the saying goes?

So the dogs and I are waving our white flag from inside the farmhouse, roasting a chicken over carrots and potatoes, and watching Braveheart. My coworkers are learning to call chilly, rainy, days "Braveheart weather" because they have gotten used to my habit of watching that movie every time I am home during a downpour in the daylight. Fog, rain, wind, and muted gray daylight to me say it is 1993 all over again and you are watching Braveheart. Till this day, even if it is just on in the background, I have probably watched it 600 times. I can't help it. All I can hope is that to some sort of man out there, a woman who watches war epics based on the weather is a sexy quirk. If not, heeeeellllllooooo cats.

Tomorrow I'll post a video of myself playing Down in the Willow Gardens on the Banjer. This is our groups last Double C song, we are now moving into Sawmill tuning and for our first group recital we'll play Cluck Old Hen. So that's your next song to practice. How is it going for you banjo folk? Are you still practicing? Is it something you are excited about or loathe having to dedicate time to everyday? Are your friends and family impressed or annoyed?

Tonight's a night I want to strum a guitar, eat carrots and potatoes, and maybe take a few moments to slide into some zazen. Being quiet at the end of a rainy day is a good thing, especially when tomorrow will throw you into a whirlwind of a work week. I have five days of work and then my folks and my sister are coming up to visit for the weekend. I'm excited for them to meet Jasper and the lambs and see how the farm has grown in just one year.

planting hope

Garden fever is setting in. It's mid May, there's a gentle rain outside, and my spring-planted crops are coming up in spades. Hell, the Arrowhead lettuce actually looks like spades. With peas, garlic, lettuce, potatoes, carrots, onions, rhubarb, and strawberries planted: this place is starting to look more alive than ever.

Today (if the rain stays light and steady) I plan on putting in another 4x4 bed dedicated to future tomatoes and then hoeing up a long bed for pumpkins and sweet corn. (I have bags and bags of potatoes yet to plant, but I will get as many in this week as possible.) I think once I start getting the heavy guns like squash in the ground I need to start really upping the ante on garden protection. I'm going to put an electric fence around the top sections, and hope the raised bed wood with some small ground fencing will help with the rabbits and groundhogs. Hope, being the operative word. Last year in May I had a great garden started as well, and it didn't take long for those dreams to die.

But what is vegetable gardening if it isn't hope? You spend all this enegery creating this plan, and even at its most basic level: is a pretty brassy ordeal. A garden is telling the whole world "Hey, I'm going to be around a while, and probably get hungry eventually." It affirms life in a proximity to your own home and that sure is a beautiful thing. Even with the soil so far caked into the cracks of my hands I can't wash it out, it is beautiful.

What are you guys planting?
And any advice for saving my garden from the animal army?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

the good life (border collie edition)

Soon as I returned to the farm I had my bag ready. Inside the plastic three big rawhide bones rattled like osteoporosized antlers. My dogs had been stuck inside the house on a Saturday since 8AM and it was nearly 4. I owed them.

When I got inside the door Annie instantly knew I had the goods, and sat down in front of me like the lupine cherub she isn't. I tossed her and Jazz their bones and then took Gibson for his walk. Together we padded down the road in a light rain storm and when his bladder needs were satisfied I let him off his leash to romp around the property a bit. He plopped down under the big maple that guards my house and panted a happy pant. A tired border collie on a sheep farm is certainly one version of the Good Life.

The day of book events went well. The plant swap at Northshire was a scattered, light crowd but a few folks braved the bleak weather to pet a chicken and talk landscaping. A fiddle and guitar due played some fine tunes, including Unger's Ashokan Farewell and for the 17-jillionth time I regretting having missed the Civil War. After running inside for a cup of strong coffee, I loaded up the Dodge and headed north to Glens Falls on a series of back roads. After a quick stop for feed (and a badass straw cowboy hat) I was on my way to the big city.

The crowd at Red Fox books was wonderful, a nice showing of chicken owners, chicken thinkers, and chicken lovers. It was an informal Q&A and my three chicks were fairly well behaved. At one point my white Ameraucana flew from the wire cage onto a customer's shoulder, but it came across more like theatrics than chaos. A point I was incredibly grateful for. Red Fox sold a lot of books and I met a lot of kind and interesting people. The folks who run the shop even suggested stopping by the farm when they drove down to Gardenworks and I told them to swing over anytime, just email ahead so I'm not out getting hay or working in a corporate office. I do hope they stop in.

By the time I was ready to return to my farm for a Saturday afternoon nap, it was starting to rain. They want it to pour all day tomorrow and into most of next week. Fine by me, the pastures could use it. The farmer could also use a proper raincoat. All I have is a heavy, plastic tarp I got at an outlet sale in Manchester. But I am going to save up for a proper waxed cotton jacket like the great dog men wear in Scotland to farm in. It seems proper: on this hill with these sheep and my pup-in-training, shucks, a girl's got to be ready for a Scottish rain.

P.S. A dozen people have emailed me about the rabbit workshop, but so far no one has reserved a spot. So if you are interested, please email me and we can set you up with all the information you need for a day or overnight trip to Jackson.

photo taken from Red Fox Books Facebook page

yeeeeeehaawww! (2.0)

chicken tracks!

Today I'll be at the Northshire Bookstore from 9-10:30AM in Manchester, Vermont at their Plant Swap. I'll be the girl outside with the chickens. Right after that I'll be at Red Fox Books in Glens Falls at 1PM to talk poultry as well. Hope to see some of you there!

Friday, May 13, 2011

on that day

Sorry folks, Blogger (the Google program I use to run this site) crashed for a 36-hour period. There was no way to upload new blogs or see comments. But it's back again, and hopefully nothing was lost. Here's what I wrote last night but couldn't post. I hope all of you are doing well. I missed checking in and your daily comments; let's me know someone out there is reading.

Thursday, May 12th
So this is how it goes: after work I pull into the farm's driveway and let Gibson out. He pees, stares at chickens, and noodles around and when his series of dog tasks are over with, I send him inside and turn to my pasture. I unplug the electric and hop the fence. The sheep all bleat and carry on, expecting grain and attention. Sal struts right up like he belongs on the top of some 4-H trophy, coated in gold. I tell them the newest gossip from the office as we walk up the hill together. "Roger got a promotion!" I beam, "We got a brand new coffee machine, and I think it's top shelf." and so on. When we get to the gate Jasper stand on the other side. I open it and call my pony to my side, and he walks over to me. I throw an arm around his neck and tell him in a soft voice, "Hold still, son, we'll get them together"

As the sheep dart and run into the big gated pasture I look at Jasper and say at a shout, "Let's Get 'Em!" and I run at a sprint towards the grazing sheep. Jasper rears up and runs beside me. Together we're a brace of border collies off on an outrun to gather a flock. But the pony and I don't gather anything, we just chase the sheep a little and watch the lambs fly. They are so damn fast I think some of them can teleport. Within a few laps we're both beat and I tell my horse he's a superhero and then go fetch him his hay and fresh water. By the time I am outside the fence his neck is down and grazing too. He is not on a mission of sheep torture, just joshing. I laugh and grab the metal scoop.

By the time farm chores are done it is nearly dark. I had a solo cook out tonight, just a few burgers and iced tea. While they simmered in the little charcoal grill I ran the push mower around the front long. I love it. Even in the dark grass I watched the blades whip through the grass like a a hot knife in butter. I have a gas-mower but don't really feel the need to use it yet. Using the push mower means a little more effort and slower pace: but it is so pleasing to use I just do one part of the lawn a night. I am over the need for a lawn that looks like a golf course. I'm going for more of something along the lines of a one-cow afternoon pass.

This is how I get it all done: the farm, the job, the writing career. I combine my nervous nature with constant work. There is very little down time here. Even at an end-of-day cook out rabbits are fed between flipping burgers and water buckets are filled and carried to sheep and pony troughs. I do not sleep in on weekends. I do not stay out late on Friday nights. From the minute I get home till 9 PM I am a constant tornado of tasks and beasts. I slop buckets of water, race with ponies, collect eggs, check on mated rabbits, and plan a quick dinner from whatever I think is in the fridge or larder. I manage things in small spurts, keeping a log in my head of how the farm is working and what needs what. Then I throw a load of laundry in, turn on the dishwasher, and know that clothes won't be thrown in the dryer or dishes put away until morning. It's all done in stages, in order of importance. The ship runs tight enough that if I wanted to skip out a few hours no one would go hungry or thirsty or wither away: but I certainly can't leave the farm for a weekend jaunt to New York City. Someday, maybe. It's just a matter of planning and finding a sucker who wants to share this little world with me, but till then I say no thank you to Dairy animals and bottle-fed babes.

Mostly, running a farm alone is love. You put it first, and you learn to make due when the ghosts of perfection run off, and you sleep less. Along the way you make good friends, miss your mom and dad, and wake up with a border collie nuzzled into your chest. You dream about love, and take notes on turkey diseases, and you split your mind wide open to let in all the experiences and folks who hike on by.

Enough word magics. I'm going outside to play my fiddle on the porch. Some time soon fireflies will join me. On that day I'll sing.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


My next book is called BARNHEART, the story of going from a new Vermonter to a land-owning New Yorker. It covers three years of love and stubborness and the battle to fight my own disease. While it does go through a lot of the adventures I shared on the blog, it also goes deeper. Talking about loneliness, despair, failure, and being broke while trying to start a dream. It comes out late this fall, but you can pre-order this nice paperback any time. A couple dimes of each copy go to this little freehold, a constant work in progress, but never without grattitude.

Pre-Order a Copy Here!

rising out of beds

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

damn right

I had my first riding lesson in months tonight. I was on a lunge line with my trainer Hollie, who was seeing how I was shaping up after a winter out of the saddle. It could not have gone better. We were both surprised at how well I did! I was posting again, and with such ease. I felt relaxed, comfortable, in control. The 15 hand mare below me read my body, and I hers, and together we were a team. It was as effortless as sitting on the couch. By the end of my thirty-minute lesson I was able to take my mount from a trot, to a walk, to a complete stop without touching the reins. It was all done through my seat. Which is to say, my butt. I had never done anything like that before. I never made any coach that proud in a lifetime of childhood sports and college equestrian shows. It felt friggin' amazing.

Hollie McNeil is one hell of a trainer.

I owe a lot to Hollie, who took this tense, scared, and out-of-practice novice rider and turned her into someone who can talk to a horse with her butt—but I think I also owe my good lesson to getting through this past winter. It was rough. So much harder than the blog describes. The length, the damage, the broken down cars, the being broke, worrying about heating oil and fixing old trucks, scary nights when I was sure the roof would cave in or the barn would blow apart.... But now with this world bursting with green again and I feel like I overcame something big. I made it through my first year as a homeowner and never missed a mortgage payment, or ran out of heat. I kept the lights on, the internet working, and the trash pickup regular. Trains run on time around here.

Tonight I finally brushed myself off. I did it. I got through the winter of 2010/11 and came out the other end a lot stronger. Someone who can set up an electric fence, a sump pump, and has a plow guy on speed dial. There was no tension or fear on that horse tonight because I think I used it all up on far scarier things long ago. So tonight I simply gave into a black saddle. It was the best 35 bucks I spent in my entire life.

After my lesson I drove home to the farm in a blue dusk. There was still enough light to see the whole farm but still do chores under moving clouds and a half moon. I let the sheep from their day pen into the big pasture, where Jasper spends his day. Jasper always perks his ears up like a teakettle is going off when I open the gate and a dozen sheep rush into his turf. Then he rears up and runs with them. It's not herding, or cutting, or even a game of tag: just an equine and ovine romp to better grass. When I call his name he turns and comes right to me. Since he's only 11.2 hands we are nearly at eye level. His head is still above mine on flat ground, but he lowers it and rests it on my shoulder when I turn my back to him. If I walk away he follows and nudges my lower back with his nose. I pet his small head and tell him he's home.

Did I partially buy a scrappy cart pony because I wanted a bit of joy after this godawful winter? Because I was through? Ready to take back the reins?

Damn right I did.

Monday, May 9, 2011

two groups

Sometimes I feel like this entire world is split into two groups: the people who are working towards something good that makes them happy, and those who are not. It's not that I dislike the latter, content people keep this ship on course...

But I am falling in love with everyone of the former.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

the first outdoor market

I don't think I had ever driven under more stress in my life. While drifting at a painstakingly conservative pace down Route 67 into Bennington, I kept looking into the rear-view mirror with wide eyes. The 80-year-old green farm trike was falling out of the back bed constantly. Not falling into the road, but knocking down the tailgate with a bang. I wanted to drive faster, but couldn't. If I sped up the old bike might fly into the road and the small cage of pullets might go with it. It was too early in the morning to have blood on my hands. So I just white knuckled the steering wheel while another angry driver passed me on the windy two-lane road. I was going 35 in a 55. People hated being behind me.

As I got closer to the state line I passed a large horse farm and took in a happy sight. A woman was driving a single pony in standard cart. They were coming down a dirt road at a trot, and against the green pastures and bright mountain it looked wonderful. I kept looking, wanting to pull over and ask the woman if she gave lessons, and another German car whizzed passed me. I don't think the people in the BMW saw, or cared about, the pony on the hill. I guess they don't worry about free-falling 1930's tricycle shrapnel either.

I was running late, really late, for merchant set-up time at the Walloomsac Farmer's Market. I thought it started at 11, but when checking the website at 9Am in my bathrobe, I realized I had it all wrong and it was starting in an hour. It must've been my post-turkey hunting doldrums that messed up my times. I stared at the screen of the kitchen's Emac. I was to be set up and at my table in half an hour. Oh, shit. It takes a half hour just to drive there. There was no way I could make it on time, and there was certainly no way I could make myself look presentable either. I through my hair up into a hat, braided my pigtails, through on a cowboy shirt and jumped into the poorly-loaded truck. I had an old folding table I found in the attic, an ancient EZ-UP tent, and my books and wool already loaded. For blatant showmanship and chick-book advertising I had planned to set up the old farm trike by my table with a small cage of pullets loaded in the back. I hoped people who stopped to see the chicks (or the bike) would consider a book.

I pulled into the train station with 15 minutes till the opening bell. In a panic, I searched for the market coordinator to ask where to go? She told me where to pull up my truck and I backed it into the very last spot. Talk about poor positioning... I was on the edge of the market, the spot for, well, the people who show up late. I sighed and ran to the truck to unload the tent and table. The table was easy enough to get upright, but the ancient tent (which had not been used in ten years), was stuck and myself and another woman who came to my rescue from the next booth, could not get it open. Disgusted. I threw it into the back of my truck. I should have tested it at home first, but had not. By this point I had missed a turkey, been late to the market, and now I was breaking the must-have-tent rule. I set up my sad little table fast as I could and ran to the truck to get my bike. In the rush I grabbed it wrong and cut open my hand with the old fender. Blood poured and I silently cursed, almost wanting to cry. I had been up since 4 and starving. Besides one thin slice of cold pizza I had nothing to eat.

The Joe showed up, who I knew from Izabella's in town, and as husband to my coworker Lucinda at the office. He saw this frumpy misfit trying to unload an old bicycle and in an act of kindness so selfless, he set down his snack and helped me get it out of my truck. It was an extremely decent thing to do, and in my state of exhaustion and frustration I was moved to canonize the man. I thanked him, and my mood instantly changed. Just like that. If there are still men kind enough to help a Hobbit woman get her stupid tricycle out of her pickup truck the world can't be that crappy of a place: dead turkeys or not.

(I think this is the only blog you will read that last sentence on...)

I was set up soon enough after that. I was handed a bandaid and then spent the next three hours taking in the scene. One of the woman from Polymeadow's farm brought a goat kid along. A little LaMancha cross with a black coat, tiny ears, and white socks. Kids played with the ten-day-old goat and asked me about my chickens. I saw some local folks, coworkers, and met a few vendors. The rain they were calling for held out, and for that, this tentless girl was grateful. I took the six dollars I had brought from home for change in my blue mason jar and spent them on a cookie and a croissant. I might be broke, late, and bleeding: but I wasn't going to be hungry. I ate them with gusto. People would just have to have correct change.

It was exciting to be sitting at my first outdoor market. Until that morning I was always on the other side of the table, walking around with a dog and a shopping bag, buying things. Now I was the one in the camp chair hoping someone was thinking about chickens or liked to knit. Sitting at a market table is a constant mantra of c'mom, c',mon, c'mon.....

The market was well attended, their largested opening day ever, but darn slow for me. I made a total of fifty-five dollars in book sales, but fifteen went to my table fee and the other 40 fell out of my pants pocket loading the truck. I realized this when I was at long gone from the grounds at the Tractor Supply check-out line, trying to pay for t-posts and 330 feet of field fencing and realized the cash I planned on putting towards it had slipped out of the pockets of my sister's hand-me-down jeans. That poor luck had made the entire day of work a monetary wash.

Well folks, I can tell you this, after yesterday will never aim a shotgun wrong or put cash in those shallow pockets again. Lessons come easy for some, and harder for others. I'm the later, and if you don't believe me just ask Sal how many times I got zinged by the electric fence. He won't answer you, but he will smile.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


It was the perfect hunt. Everything went for us as if written in a script. All of it, beautiful and exciting: the pre-dawn drive to the forest-edged field, the hike across the navy blue world of moors and scruff, soldiering uphill with a shotgun over your shoulder, the forced silence of stalking prey. Hunting is a feral hope. You go out with a prayer and you come home blessed or forsaken. It's the closest to the Old Testament I ever really get.

This hunt started well before dawn. My alarm went off at 4AM, and within twenty minutes I was covered from head to toe in borrowed camouflage. I had never gone turkey hunting before, and it could not be more opposite from the upland pheasant hunting I took part in this past fall. Pheasant hunting is a chatty jaunt through the woods in bright orange with a happy spaniel flushing explosions of feathers in your face. You point a shotgun and take home dinner. But turkeys are clever, sly, and can see you move your hand to scratch your face from fifty yards away. You need to become part of the landscape to hunt them, and trick them with calls and decoys. If you're lucky a Jake or a Tom come into your line of fire and you get a chance.

So my friend and mentor, Steve, was with me. He leant me an automatic 12-gauge and his hunting clothes. He would show me what to do, how to act, and how a hunt should go. The plan was to sit still, call in some birds, and see what happens/hopefully shoot them. So in the black of an old farm pasture we set up our blind by a fallen log near an old property-line hedgerow. I sat like a toddler in a car seat while he set up the decoys at the base of the field, just 25 yards away. After a few minutes of his gadget calls we heard gobbles. (What a rush!)

After an hour of zen-monk stillness paired with turkey calling, Steve called in two jakes and a hen. I could see them 300 yards away and my heart stopped. My already numb butt shot up into me with pain. I barely moved. Steve got out a slate call and mocked the hen's sharp chirp and like as if we just advertised free turkey-orgies the two Jakes ran right too us. The saw the decoys and fluffed up into their strut. They looked wonderful, like cardboard Thanksgiving decorations taped to elementary school walls. Steve told me to take my shot soon as I was ready. The moment could not have been more perfect. The shot, a gift from New York herself, and two birds dancing not an end zone away. I sucked in all the air in Washington County, pointed my shotgun, and fired...

And I missed. I missed all three shots. At point-blank range I did nothing more than scare them. Truth is, I totally misunderstood how to aim a shotgun after months without practice. I was aiming too high. Following the advice to "look at the bead" at the end of the gun, I aimed true, but you're supposed to only see that bead on your site. I could see my whole barrel when I fired. I didn't realize that bead was the ONLY thing I should see. I shot feet over their head into the hill behind them. It was all my novice stupidity. I completely ruined the hunt for Steve, who was beyond polite and an amazing sport, but I was crushed. I wanted to make him proud. Instead I made noise pollution.

It could have been a perfect story, a beautiful meal, a wonderful moment. Instead we watched all three silly birds scuttle unharmed up the hill away from us. Not a tragedy, not by a long shot, but not a proud moment either. I will try again this month if I am given the chance.

Maybe I'll be hungry for turkey after I eat up all this crow.

Friday, May 6, 2011

full day ahead

Friday, May 6th
No sore rump this morning. The Benadryl did the job, and I was glad for it. A Friday morning without a puffy ass is reason enough to celebrate. Another reason to celebrate: the rain stopped. It started Tuesday night, went all through Wednesday, and pelted into Thursday as well. But Today, glorious sun. 68 degrees by noon, one can hardly believe it.

Gibson and I cut out of work early to go to the vet. He's been limping, and while I knew the only thing the vet would do for him is tell me to slow down his physical exercise and watch the arm, I went anyway. I can cough up fifty dollars for a professional opinion on what to do with a sports injury on my working dog. Mostly, I was worried it was his hips and not some torn muscle. He's always been a little cow hocked and he runs a little wonky sometimes. So the doc looked him over and gave me some pain meds to use only if he is truly in bad shape. They are in the medicine cabinet, and Gibson is asleep in his crate.

My evening was an eventful one. My friend Wendy came by to meet Jasper, and to ride down to a book event in town. Our riding instructor, Hollie, was having a book launching party for her new English Riding book, and we went to enjoy the slideshow and snacks. Gibson stayed at home for this, and contemplated his shoulder while we ate pecans and basked in the effort of a woman's book. I bought a copy, and look forward to learning from it. Dressage is a secret dream of mine, something so non-pioneer, but so beautiful. Some girls get into ballet and boy bands...I want to wear a top hat on the back of a white horse some day and finally be graceful. Finally.

Getting up at 4AM to go turkey hunting. Me, my friend Steve, a 12-gauge, and good fortune. After that adventure I will be backing up for the farmer's market in Bennington (first outdoor market!) from 11-1PM and then back to the farm for a work party to expand the pasture. It'll be a full day, from 4-4 of constant motion and labor. I can't wait. I hope there's turkeys, wool, and electric currents involved. A girl's gotta dream.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Thursday, May 5th
Came home from work.
Stopped at mailbox.
Put the wad of mail in the truck.
Did not realize mail contained three yellow jackets.
Sat on three yellow jackets.
Damn, that's smarts.
My ass turned red and puffy.
I took three Benadryl and now am too tired to write.
More tomorrow, promise.

Banjo players: Willow Gardens.

it took a dog to make the story good

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

scared of heights

Wednesday, May 4th
This morning I wake up to rain. It is beautiful. Next to an open window the combination of birdsong, the rushing creek, and soft rain are the sounds that make my half-awake body curl deeper into my quilts. In bed, I do the same thing I start every morning with...the list. I read in a self-book once that if you begin your day—before your feet ever hit the floor—going through a list of things you are grateful for, it can change the rudder of your entire day, and eventually, your life. You're not supposed to run a checklist, but actually visualize and feel this deep feeling of luck and love for the things that matter most to you. I start out with a thankful prayer for the beautiful morning, for four-working limbs and a functioning brain to live in it with, for my family, my farm, my dogs, and I go through images of friends and moments from the last day that I was grateful for and ten minutes later I walk into the world feeling like the luckiest person in the world. Not because I have a farm, or a pony, or a truck outside: but because I have eyes and ears to use them with. And because (I hope) for the next few decades I get to hang around this world and see what I can learn. It starts today. May I be better at the end of it than I was in the beginning. Starting your day with a list of graces means you don't snap at the person who messes up your coffee order. You don't care if someone cuts you off on the way to work. You realize you're not the one who walked under the piano. You are still among the living, and will accept the soy substitute without complaint. Drink milk another day and revel in a new taste.

Outside I am armed with my cheap, plastic rain slicker, and am happy that the rain has called a break and I am just enjoying sounds of dripping trees and bouncing through puddles. I don't feel sick today. I think the 2 naps and long night of sleep healed me. I am thankful for this too and I call out to Jasper who walks to the gate. He isn't totally comfortable with me yet, but he knows I bring the hay and grain and that gets the happy ears. I feed him and say hello. While he munches I pull out my fence tester and stick the metal needle in the ground. It's attached by a long wire, like an outlet you stab into the ground, to a box with one red light and a wire hook on the end. I hold the plastic and stick the wire to the fence wire and watch in the still-blue morning dark the flash of red in half time. This fence, is on.

The sheep are fed, the chicken door opened. The young meat birds spill out like a tight plastic bag of quilt-batting was sliced open with a knife. They scatter at the feed and some run down to the stream to fill their beaks. The older birds come out next, much more dignified, engaging in regular acts of sexual congress (Roosters here start their day with their own reasons to be thankful), and last out is Cyrus: the gander. He comes out hissing and hollering because his woman is still on that nest. I hope the goslings come. They are overdue now.

Gibson jumps in the car and we are off to work.

I'm back in the gym before long and the mile feels like I am carrying dead weight. I dog it. I finish and am covered in sweat. The shower is longer than usual and once again, while shampooing my hair, I run through things more materialistic I am happy about. My truck flashes through my head, as does the new Chaco sandals outside. Plain black. I am blown-dry and dressed and only five minutes late to my desk.

At my workstation is a taxidermed deer head I named Clark (Gable is here at the farm) and I use his head and antlers to hold my vintage 1970's pioneer headphones and stack CDS on his prongs. This was interesting once, but now is as common an office fixture as the metal filing cabinets. I like my big headphones because they are the size of air traffic controller devices and say "Do Not Disturb" with force. I can put them on and plow through projects and designs. Today I have a conservation-based project based on a site I designed for the company, and a lot of html work. I look forward to Dog Lunch in the rain.

Gibson is out at lunch and pulls something, starts a small limp. It goes away by the end of the day but seems to come back after every half-hour sprint session with the other dogs. I decide to tone down the rest of the week. It is probably no more tragic than a sprain, but I side with caution when it comes to a working dog in training. I don't call the vet for him, but I do make an appointment with Saratoga Equine to come check on Jasper. He needs a list of shots and a farrier visit. We work out the details. I explain he was from the Amish Auction down state and the vet tech seems to understand exactly what she is dealing with. Just like the trainer I bought him from said: the Amish work their horses hard, and probably feed just what they require to run. I don't know if this is true or not, but would explain a lot.

That afternoon my editor emails me the cover of my next book and I squeal in delight. A favorite illustrator has been hired, the same who did a portrait of me for Paste Magazine back when I lived in Vermont. The type and images are wonderful. The title reads, like an old county fair poster "BARNHEART: the incurable longing for a farm of one's own. When I first discovered I had this disease I had three chickens in a 99 dollar hutch in the back of a rented house 2800 miles away. I am now learning to work with equine power to move firewood. I am on the path to my cure. I still have a while to go. People think Cold Antler as is, is a dream come true. What it is, is stubbornness manifested. My dreams are still a while off.

I come home from work in more rain. The sheep are all in their shed, but the horse is out in the rain, trotting to the gate to greet me. I hop over it and look him over. Besides being wet, he seems fine. I give him some extra grain anyway.

I am home just long enough to walk the dogs and feed them. I need to run down to Common Sense and grab some hay. We have a casual relationship when it comes to hay sales. I handed them three ram lambs for their farm and in exchange I get their dollar worth in trade for baled hay. I haven't paid for hay in months. It is glorious. My name is on a wipe board in the milk room. I am up to 64 bales. Almost the price of two rams. Inside their beautiful old barn (the cleanest in Washington County that actually hosts animals, I am sure) is a small pen with my three sheep. I see them and scratch their heads. They are all being bottle fed and weaned to grain and hay. They look so clean compared to my muddy scrappy four still on my farm. I tell them to keep their noses clean, load hay, and drive three miles back.

Night chores belong to the rabbits. I walk inside the barn and refill all the feeders, water crocks and bottles and look them over. The rex doe I bought knocked up should be kindling soon. The other two does I bred (one of my own homebrew: a palomino cross) and the new giant New Zealand/Chin cross are given new hutch tags with their breeding dates and personal data. When they are all attended too I collect eggs and come inside. I eat take out, and I feel full but bloated and unhappy at the choice. I decide tomorrow to make some serious dietary changes. If I want a quick meal, scramble some eggs and butter a slice of bread you baked the night before. I am done feeling full. I want to feel satisfied.

My night ends with this fortune cookie. It reads: The path of life shall lead upwards for you. I laugh at the scrap of paper between my scared hands. I'm scared of heights.

hell yeah

Sheffield, Mass
On a sunny Sunday just before the vernal equinox, Rich Ciotola set out to clear a pasture strewn with fallen wood. The just-thawed field was spongy, with grass sprouting under tangled branches. Late March and early April are farm-prep time here in the Berkshires, time to gear up for the growing season. But while many farms were oiling and gassing up tractors, Mr. Ciotola was setting out to prepare a pasture using a tool so old it seems almost revolutionary: a team of oxen.

Standing just inside the paddock at Moon in the Pond Farm, where he works, he put a rope around Lucas and Larson, his pair of Brown Swiss steer. He led them to the 20-pound maple yoke he had bought secondhand from another ox farmer, hoisted it over their necks and led them trundling through the fence so they could begin hauling fallen logs.

Mr. Ciotola, 32, is one of a number of small farmers who are turning — or rather returning — to animal labor to help with farming. Before the humble ox was relegated to the role of historical re-enactor, driven by men in period garb for child-friendly festivals like pioneer days, it was a central beast of burden. After the Civil War, many farms switched from oxen to horses. Although Amish and Mennonite communities continue to use horses, by World War II most draft animals had been supplanted by machines that allowed for ever-faster production on bigger fields.

-Read the rest of the article from today's NY Times here

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

sick day

Tuesday, May 3rd
I wake up feeling achy and nauseated. I am beginning to think that these sore mornings might have less to do with physical labor than they have to do with three days of labor followed by a full work day when you're already feeling iffy. My cold finally was forcing me to slow down. So I called in sick to the office, and decided as soon as morning chores were done I would not leave the daybed. I'd spend the day resting with vitamin C and cold medicine.

But I ran out of chicken feed. Crap.

I thought I had a spare bag in the barn, but apparently the crumbs in the bottom of the barrel was the spare bag. So on this achy, vomitty morning I would have to hop in the truck and go the 7 miles north to the Salem Agway to buy chicken feed.

I get in the truck with Gibson, un showered and with my hair held back by a hat, and head north. While at the farm store I see a roll of electric netting insta-fence and snatch it up. It's what need desperately to stop the pony and a dozen sheep from destroying the little grass left on the pasture. I come home, and even though I am dedicated to rest, I take the 15 minutes it requires to unroll it and clamp it to the remaining electric. The sheep and Jasper walk out onto new ground and I save a bale of hay. Thrilled I pulled off a newly contained salad bar I go inside and sleep through lunch.

I sleep for four hours. I was dogged. I wake up to the sound of rain and instantly look out the window. Did the sheep tumble through the netting? Did Jasper plow right through it? Nope. All was quiet on the hill.

Being home sick when you're me doesn't mean you get to spend the day inside on the couch with some Kleenex and a remote. It means you have the luxury to spreading the chores out between rest and long naps. Everyone still needs to be tended too. Just like I mentioned a few weekends ago that farms do not observe holidays? Well, they don't respect sick days either. And so I did the things that need to be done. But extra things like mile-long dog walks and lead-rope hikes with Jasper were out. I read Michael Perry and slept. I plan on heading to bed by 9 and then setting my alarm for midnight. If these downpours are coming that the weathermen have been so stern about: I need to make sure everyone on the hill is sheltered. I know for certain that Jasper is aware of the sheds because he walked right in on Maude napping and she butted him right in the snout. She was so angry that he didn't move that she left. Diva.

So my Tuesday was a Sick Day, but still a Farm Day. I'm calling it early on account of my need to recline, but if anything goes on worth gabbing about, I will certainly check back it. This farm is your farm, too.

P.S. I will pick a winner for the book in the comments of Tuesday's post, check back there tomorrow at noon!
P.P.S Bennington Farmer's Market opens on the 7th, stop by!
P.P.P.S. Come visit me next weekend at Northshire Booksellers in Manchester (9-10:30AM) or Red Fox Books in Glens Falls (1PM). I'll have chickens!

Monday, May 2, 2011

and she was

Monday, May 2nd
I woke up at 4:40AM, still sore, but less so. Either my body is used to all this farming business or simply giving in. Weekdays are a routine of their own, and I can only lay there in bed with Gibson for a few minutes. There is much to do.

I get up and change into work clothes. This morning it means a pair of cotton thai fishing pants, tied at my waist, and heavy wool socks over much boots. I throw on a thin cotton sweater and head outside with my dogs. They go about a quick morning relief and then come inside for breakfast. Dogs come first on this farm, always will. They are seen to and fed long before any sheep, chicken, or pony sees a flake of hay. Family always comes first.

When the dogs are settled, I load Gibson's plastic crate into the back of my pickup cab and let him wait at Shotgun until I feed all the hooves and claws, and then head inside to grab my gym bag. I leave for work an hour early to hit the gym. I run a mile on the treadmill every weekday, then shower in the gym before I sit down at my desk chair. My friend Geoff joins me, and unless someone from marketing beats us and puts on Sportscenter, we watch the Science Channel and gab about our lives.

The workday is split into a morning and afternoon, and today I enjoy lunch outside with the dogs. I say dogs, not meaning my three, but with Gibson and his work friends. An English Setter named Ellie, an Australian Shepherd named Jackson, and a cast of other characters (mostly gun dogs, this is Orvis, after all). Some days I run home to the farm to check on things, specially if it's rough weather. But it's a mild day and all was quiet and well stocked with hay and water when I left at 6:45. It would be okay until 5:30 when I pulled back into the drive. Gibson runs and barks and play-growls and wrestles with his friends and the new puppies this season. A little black lab named Hattie tries to join in, but pretty much just barks from the sidelines with his tail wagging. She is such a sight. Me and the other owners sit on the grass and take in the show. Before long Gibson sprints down the hill to bother a well-bred Labrador Puppy named Murph from his lessons in being a gun dog, and then slams into the water of the pond, scaring the young trout and bass. Jackson joins him. Murph goes back to retrieving his plastic dummy. He doesn't mess with that sort.

In the afternoon nothing of great consequence goes on, but I do take a lot of joy in the Obama Chia Pet our E-commerce department has set up in the window. Someone posted his birth certificate next to it. I love my coworkers.

On the ride home Gibson and I crank the radio. Talking Heads And She Was blares and we sing along. (Well, Gibson pants rhythmically—I sing.) We drive west on route 313 into New York, and past Shushan and Cambridge. They are our new stomping grounds. I am falling for Washington County, hard.

I get home to a laundry-list of things that need to be done. I plan on introducing the sheep to the pony tonight. Mostly out of necessity. Heavy rains are coming and I want Jasper to know he can walk right into one of the sheds for shelter if he wants to. I have a feeling though, in this warm weather, he'll just stand in the rain. But he needs to know he has the option. So I let him into the sheep's mostly hard-packed dirt pasture and they run onto his side of greener, softer, ground and continue to munch it into oblivion. I need more pasture, and fast. I plan on assembling a work party soon. A role of Red Brand and some t-posts and I'll be back in business. I just need the manpower. That 1/8 of an acre saturday damn near tore my arms out....

The sheep and Jasper meeting is totally anti-climatic. Lisette tears out there with her lambs, and soon everyone else is out there too. Jasper ignore them all. With the fences hot and the horse shown his optional shelter. I feel like I did all a shepherd can do. So I spend some time with Jasper, trying on his new bridle. It's dark leather and silver conchos shine. He takes the bit and I adjust straps and the throat latch and decide the bridle is fine but the bit is too large. He should have a smaller, swivel bit. But he looks fine in his new headgear, and leads calmly. It was a quiet thrill to see him in his headdress, me holding the reins. I take it off and let him back to sheep time. He's so patient and I am deeply grateful.

Eggs and collected, chicken feed scatted, and the rabbits are seen to. I use the Silver Fox buck to service the two does that need to be bred and he does a heck of a job. This is his second day of whoopee (I had him on the does yesterday between tree pruning and concrete) and now have three probably pregnant does. If each has an average litter of 6-8 kits, that dress out around two or three pounds, then those small hutches have nearly fifty pounds of meat from a few small animals. That's almost half of what raising a pig put in my freezer. Anyone who thinks raising meat requires a huge space in the country needs to read Storey's Guide to Raising Rabbits, or Farm City (or both!). They are an amazing introduction to home-grown meat. Between them and a hutch of meat chickens you could fill a chest freezer in a Brooklyn summer.

It's getting late. I have a chapter to write about my first turkey (TD) for my editor, and I'm feeling lucky to have it ahead of me. Tonight the farm seems okay, no drama and no danger. I call it a night early and kiss Jazz on the head. Just four more days until the weekend and this one should include my first outdoor market. I'm excited for it!

Oh, and for those of you kind enough to read all the way down to this point. Leave a comment to be entered in for a drawing of Frances O'Roark Dowell's novel Ten Miles Past Normal (A young-adult novel inspired by CAF). I'll pick a winner Friday for the hardcover, and mail it your way. And if you are wondering if you won a recent giveaway, check the comments on that post. The last few winners never contacted me to claim their prize!

P.S. I will be at two book events up here soon: from 9-11 at Northshire Books in Manchester Vermont, and then 1PM at Red Fox books in Glens Falls, New York. Come over and meet me and some of my chicken friends. Get books signed, talk turkey, the works.

one week

I decided to share a week—in great detail— of what it is like living on Cold Antler. How it works, what I do, and how the farm and my 8-5 job work together under the effort of a single person. Starting with yesterday, here we go.

Sunday, May 1st
I wake up in pain. A lot of pain. The combination of sunburn and aching muscles is what wakes me up before the alarm. It's 4:40AM and for a Sunday, that's even early for me. It's still dark out, mostly. I roll out of bed and at my feet is Annie, a living stuffed animal. I whisper a good morning and she tucks in her front paws and rolls onto her back for a belly scratch. Jazz is on his bed downstairs and Gibson is in his crate. Since he still thinks this house is his buffet, he has to be crated at night. He'll poison himself eating AA batteries if I let him.

I'm so dang sore because yesterday I extended the sheep's side of the pasture an 1/8 of an acre, and put in a new raised bed garden by myself. Sometimes I can wrangle help, sometimes not. Saturday: not. The whole afternoon was spent slamming 15 pounded posts, stringing electrical wire, and hoeing a new raised bed. I started at 1 and ended around 6PM. I was proud of the full day of work, but paying for my lack of sun protection (straw hat or somesuch) and choice of tank top instead of a button down. So I am red as Brandywine on the vine. Outside the kitchen window I can see Jasper on the hill, laying down. He looks so small when he's laying down and so very large when he is running. The sheep are still curled up in their crumbling shed. It need to be rebuilt or shorn up, soon. It's not about to fall on them, but it won't make it through another winter as is. Panic quickly shoots through me at the thought of this.

I don't even have time to make coffee. I need to scurry through morning chores (test and repair any faults in the electric fence, feed 12 sheep, chickens, geese, mallards, a full-rabbitry, and three dogs before I can head down to my neighbors farm. We're going together to the annual Poultry Swap, which starts way before 7AM. I am only bringing 15 dollars cash because I know myself well enough to limit my ability to buy animals and animal supplies. All I need is a hardy buck for my breeding meat rabbit does in the barn. The rex is too young to do the job, and the Silver Fox buck delivered yesterday by Jennifer hasn't been tested yet. I decide right there to not buy a rabbit until I plan on breeding with Gotcha, that new SF buck. But I need a working buck on this farm, three does and no kits yet. I am hankering for rabbit meat. It's a favorite. Something I didn't even know until a few summers ago.

I get dressed in worn jeans, a blue cowboy shirt, a five-dollar Salvation Armani men's J Crew wool sweater, wool socks, brown beaten Hi-Tec hiking boots, a leather belt with a TENNESSEE buckle and head outside. I laugh to myself quietly. This outfit just a few years ago felt like a costume. Now it's most of my wardrobe. My clothes went from hipster to wrangler pretty fast. Mostly because you can't buy American Apparel hoodies in Tractor Supply.

The indoor weather station reads 38 degrees and I am happy I covered the new broc garden last night with plastic. There are two stupid-impulse tomato plants in there. I hope they made it. I put the potted basil in the passenger seat of my truck last night. Trucks make great overnight plant protection if you roll up the cab windows.

After the dogs have been fed and walked, I head over to check on Jasper. He's standing where he always seems to stand, right under the big old apple tree on the hill. In the dawn light he is beautiful, so much bigger than a small pony to me. He puts his front hoofs on the tree stump, I think to seem even bigger. I open the gate and he walks down to me and takes some hay as I pet his neck. I still don't really believe he's here. For kicks I run away and his ears shoot up at my sprint. He runs right behind me, both of us chasing nothing like fools. I like that he stays beside me in the pasture, trotting next to me in play. I stop because my soreness isn't interested in pony jogging. And Jasper enjoys his breakfast of hay from down the road.

After all the animals seen too. I heat up day-old coffee in the microwave and pour it into a dented VPR travel mug (AKA adult sippy cup so I don't spill half) and turn on the truck. Ice covers the windshield. I sigh, and scrape it. I keep the plastic sheeting on the garden bed I covered, and hope for the best. It should be 70 degrees in a few hours.

I head down to Common Sense Farm, which I am seeing a lot of this weekend. Othniel, Yasheva, and their three children are in the barn with a french WOOOFER named Mitch. We're loading up goat kids in my truck, and their mini van along with plant starts, hanging baskets of berries, spelt, and meat chickens. When all is loaded, we drive south into the sunrise and Oth knows some secret shortcut to the fairgrounds. We float over hillsides and farm, passing a herd of deer so sprite and far away it looks like the goats escaped into the horizon.

We arrive early enough to have our choice of prime spots. We unload and build a small pen for the goats, set up plant stands, and hang strawberry baskets from the tent. The sun is out in full force now, but we're still cold in our sweaters. I walk the rows of vendors and am surprised how much the swap has grown since I first came to it four years ago. Now there are donkeys, ponies, and highlander calves. I see a man selling wooden Adirondack chairs (handmade and painted!)for 45 bucks and the folks across the road from us are selling horse tack for a dollar. I get a saddle pad, bridle, bit, reins, and a used western saddle for a song. I walk the thing back to my truck and have a flash of being part of another time and place. Cowgirl and her saddle...

By noon five of the eight goats are sold and Othniel is haggling over the market price of the Highlanders. I just keep thinking about getting home to the farm to refill water stations. Dog alive, it is hot out. My sunburn seems even hotter on my shoulders. All of us are growing sun-weary. We pack up and head home another secret way, past farms from storybooks. I listen to the CD mix my old friend Leif mailed me, and laugh when the song "All for Me Grog" comes on sang by a troupe of 11-year-olds. Classic.

I'm beat, but happy to know that my friend Brett will be over in a few hours. He'll be stopping by on his way home to the Adirondacks to help me shore-up the barn. We've slowly been repairing it, making it more sturdy and expanding the space inside. That afternoon we poured two concrete slabs for future posts and beams to rest on, and took measurements for a stable (needed by winter). We take a break to enjoy the coffee porter he brought and talk about our unusually similar pasts. Both of us worked in television and now take care of chickens and heat with wood. The beer is amazing. So smooth.

By now it's nearly dinner time and I am famished and tired, very, very tired. So is brett, but he sticks with the game plan. There is still much to do, and the fact that I had help meant I couldn't put it off and miss the oppurtunity of having someone who competed in logging sports aid in the lifting of heavy things. So Brett kindly helped me straighten and repair the weak sheep shed, prune the giant maple, and carry 80-pound bags of Quickcrete. I offer him a hanging basket of strawberry plants and one of the ram lambs. He accepts the barter for his efforts and I feel a little debt repaid. Without the talents and skills of others, this farm would not run. And thanks to them, I now now how to pour slabs and mix cement. Take that, design college.

By the time he leaves and hugs and plans are exchanged, I am too tired to even make pizza at home for dinner. I order Chinese (sorry, idealists out there) and while I wait for it to wok up, I go about evening chores so that when I return with it, it's just me and three dogs and Jamie and Adam on Mythbusters with my lo mein.

I set my alarm for 10PM in case I fall asleep. I'll need to go out and shut the chicken coop door. I saw a fox last weekend the size of a coyote slinking around the far pasture. His orange and white poof-tail gave me the finger as he trotted off.

It's on.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

a horse story

I watched him in the rain. His black mane tussled, his brown eyes focused. Why is it that when any horse moves, and I mean really moves, he looks larger than life? To me, this 11.2 hand pony was as magnificent in a canter as a Fell Stallion. He was being demonstrated to me. On his back a ten-year-old who had little experience with horses slowed him down into a walk and then picked him up into a trot again. I was impressed. Not so much with how he moved (though he seemed easy and well-paced) but the fact that on this cold, rainy, and miserable Saturday morning this equine saint was letting a nervous child prance him around a yard. This was after he had spent the entire night in a small trailer, away from his herd. Green grass was everywhere around him, yet his head never lowered once that bit hit his mouth. And I had to keep in mind this was after he was walked around by a stranger (me) on a lead line, and then tacked up for a demonstration ride outside in a high wind. If I were him I would have bucked off the kid, and had a snack in the nice green grass, and then joined my herd in a dry shelter. But he just trotted. "My 16-year-old daughter rides him bare back with just a halter." said Rob (the trainer and seller).

I was there because of a series of emails we had shared that sprouted from a Craigslist post. I saw a chunky little white draft pony and emailed him (what is more harmless than an email?) to ask if the "draft" horse was actually was trained to drive. After finding out the pony was never in a harness and 20-years-old, I told him I wasn't interested. He asked me what I was looking for and said he had a small Welsh-like pony from an Amish Auction, which I dismissed outright. At first.

But after a while my ears were perked. Rob explained how patient and even tempered he was. That his children rode him bareback, that he was trained and raised by the everyday-driving Amish downstate. And the price we agreed on over the phone was less than half of what people spend on a decent guitar... So I went out to see him (what is more harmless than a trip to visit a pony?) I would drive out into Belcher to pet his brow and watch him work.

Which I did last weekend, in a downpour, and through all the stress and fuss he was Temperance embodied. Then I said something that even surprised me.

"I'll take him."

A handshake and deposit later, I owned a horse. Holy Shit.

We agreed he would be delivered that following Friday. I had a week to prepare. There was new fences to run electric top wires on, pasture to expand, supplies to buy, hay to stack, and more. So I did what I could during the work week and decided to take Friday off to set up the new gate and wiring. I could also turn my weekend into three days of pure-farming. A joy to this scrappy shepherd, and a change from the usual routine.

A hour before he was delivered, I ran the truck three miles down the road to Common Sense farm to pick up hay. Othniel and his family were all inside the barn, doing the chores of a working dairy. Two kids were born at 6:30 that morning, and Yasheva was bottle feeding the twins when I walked into the barn's main door. We chatted about the Poultry Swap on Sunday, and then I headed up into the loft of their ancient dairy barn to thrown down hay to the truck. When ten bales were secured in the back, and I was heading down the ladder to run home to meet Jasper (!!!). I was climbing on air, so thrilled to run back to my farm with a truck full of hay to temper the maw of a small horse. My cart horse. But I stopped walking halfway down the ladder. Othniel told me to be still and look up.

I looked up.

"That's for you." He said, smiling in his voice.

High above me in the rafters of the 19th-Century barn was the skeleton of a single pony cart.