Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sliding Home

Maggie's Farm fell victim to the ice storm of 2008 on Thursday. Also on Friday and Saturday....

But we were lucky in many ways: We had heat (Our home is heated via woodstove) and we had phone access (ancient land line telephone). We had a working stove (Propane) and most importantly, we had each other, safe, sound and cozy on a dark, spectacularly ice-ridden December evening.

What we didn't have and grew to miss most accutely was water. Our well runs by an electric pump and so we awoke to dry faucets and unflushable toilets. Not so fun for a family of five. Extra unfun for our thirsty animals. Luckily, we were able to catch the drippings off the roof to flush toilets. And we melted chunks of ice by the woodstove for the animals. The contents of the fridge did just fine on the porch and the freezers (Thanks to an infusion of ice) kept our harvest bounty cold.

Dan was able to drive into town for jugs of water (And take-out Chinese food) and things were fine and cozy again.

The kids just received a gift of really neat battery-free flashlights from their grandmother, and so the night was filled with the RRrrrrr RRRrrrr of wind-up LED and the gentle glow of candles and lanterns. We read and played board games and missed nothing much.... except water.

On Saturday, we drove down to the Greenfield YMCA for "Family Swim" and much (much!)needed showers.

Not so bad really. Not so bad at all.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Story of Puff

On the surface, Puff was nothing special, a plump little silver-laced wyandotte hen with that clear-eyed look that chickens sometimes get. She arrived in a peeping octagonal box with the rest of our first brood, resided in the basement a while, then the coop.
For the first three years of her life, Puff was as ordinary as they come. She didn't get broody or mean mean enough to remark upon. She didn't get friendly either, following around behind us hoping for a treat the way some of her sisters did. Unlike Fancy Feather and Brave Sarah, Puff was no child's favorite.
She lived through the rooster-reign of the nasty Archie, the somewhat-less-nasty Batman and the reasonable-most-of-the-time Batmandu. But when Stellar, a honking, Baby Huey of a bird, came to power, Puff did something quite remarkable for a chicken: She left the flock.
Now, it should be mentioned that Puff was Stellar's apparent "favorite". He'd seek her out for his roosterly duties with frequency and ferocity, and one warm summer day, after attempting to avoid Stellar in the driveway and side yard, Puff had had it. She struck off for territory of her own, territory totally free of roosters or fowl of any kind. She made a roost of the ledge of the utility sink in the barn and hung around at the far edges of the barnyard, in the woods and compost pile.
At first, we didn't understand the depth of Puff's voluntary isolation. We thought that maybe she was a little confused and tried to return her to the coop. No dice. As soon as she had a chance, Puff made a bee line (A chicken-line?) for her new home in the barn. When the roosters (Yes, we currently have THREE roosterS: Stellar, Little Jaguar and Otto Longlegs) came snooping about, she hid in the stalls with the sheep.

We wondered how long this would go on. Perhaps, as the days got colder, she'd end her boycott and return to the warmth, safety and guaranteed grain of the coop. But she didn't.
I took to scattering a few grain pellets for her and a bucket of fresh water. For a while there, I left a heat lamp over her utility sink roost but that was too much of a fire hazard and a crazy-bad waste of electricity at that. So Puff was on her own.

She disappeared during the first bad cold snap of the season, on a day that didn't make it past 25 degrees. The kids and I searched the edge of the woods by flashlight, checked out all her old haunts but there was nothing else to do. She was gone. Perhaps she decided to roam even farther, to our neighbor's coop perhaps, or off into the oblivion of a predator's jaws (This is the most likely fate).

At any rate, every time I go down to the barn for chores I can't help but cast a hopeful glance at the sink-rim roost and I think about Puff, an ordinary old hen that made an extraordinary decision. I realize that I am being anthropomorphic here, but how else can you explain a chicken resisting the strongest of instincts: the instinct to flock, the instinct to retreat to warmth and safety in favor of a lonely, danger-ridden no-roosters-land?


I love Thanksgiving.

What could be better than a holiday devoted to gratitude, one that urges us to take stock of the goodness in our lives?
This year, like every other, we filled the last hours before dinner with art-- "Thankfullness Pictures" as the kids call them.
Micah counts, the school food bank among her blessings (Our donation a few weeks ago must have stuck in her mind), the color red, fun, and the planet.

Anna is thankful for "The knowledge of art", her school, the earth, her family, baseball (She's a big Red Sox fan these days), dogs, teachers and herself.

Joe is thankful for his friend Oliver:

I, myself, am thankful for another Thanksgiving here on Maggie's Farm and the gathering of family and friends that happened this year, the joys of children, animals, and easy love, the bounty of here and now. And for Dan, my partner in every sense of the word (and the most awesome man in the whole world). For birthdays and busyness, quiet and cold. For snowdays and sunny days, for the animals and plants that gave us our first seriously homegrown feast-- homegrown turkey, lamb sausage stuffing, apple everything. And I am thankful for the spirit of change that has overtaken my own and the country's cynicism. Oh, I could go on and on. But I won't. Not here anyway.

I hope your holiday was a good one.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


You may have heard that farming is cyclical. This is most definitely true. The seasons take on a certain resonance when the variety and type of work you do, the worry that tugs you awake at night, the hopes and sadnesses, are intimately connected with them.

For us, each season has its own "issues". Winter is about waiting it out, about hidden life growing in the bellies of the ewes, in the earth, in suddenly prodigious fleeces. Spring is lambing, an anxious, joyous, busy time. Summer finds us working to ensure the flock flourishes, worrying about parasites, chasing cute little lambie escape-artists back into the fold, rotating and rotating those scant pastures.
Fall...? Well, fall is about harvest, yes. Thanksgiving and all that. But it is also about sex, or at least, as we shepherds prefer to call it, "breeding". This is the time when we appraise our flock (Those that did not fall victim to the "Harvest" part of the season) and plan for spring lambs.

Before last year, there wasn't much of this "planning" to do. We had one single (nasty) ram, Gus. He was our breeding program, all of it. Last year, there were three eligible batchelors in Maggie's Farm's version of "The Dating Game", Charlie, Harry, and the adorable Mr. B. This year, Harry has gone on to other pastures, but we have added his offspring "Chance" and also happen to have acquired Rahm, another ram lamb with a whole other pedigree.

So we've been thinking a lot about these four gentlerams and the qualities they might pass to their offspring....
Charlie Bucket, the handsome guy at the top of this post, is the number one ram around here. He is huge and massively horned, but Charlie is a cautious soul who doesn't push his weight around much, an important trait in a ram. We like his build and his genetics as well. Oh, and Charlie is very resistent to parasites, an excellent, excellent quality.

Then there is Bombadil. This guy is a real sweetie, personality plus and not in the least aggressive, even when our crafty puppy Luka sneaks into his stall and scarfs down his meager grain dessert. Also, he brings a different set of genetics, a nice gray black fleece and a long-bodied build. He isn't the largest ram in the land, nor the most parasite resistant, but we like him anyway. Lots.

Chance is a recessive little guy-- a spotted solid moorit, carrying the genetics for the badgerfaced pattern as well-- with a really nice fleece. He has potential, and we'd like to see what he can produce with Copper and Daisy, our big, solidly built ewes.

And then there is Rahm. Rahm is 3/4ths AI from Jager Farm. He has an excellent meaty build and a nice thick fleece. He is (so far) calm as the day is long. A pretty cool cat all around. On the down side, he's got some scurs going, scurs we hope can be offset by breeding to some cleanly-polled beauties. This is a picture of Rahm, on the day he arrived. He's a bit dirty and burr-full but a real looker nontheless.

In short, fall is not all harvest and heartbreak around here. It's also about long-range planning. Long range planning and a whole lotta hope.

And so, without further ado, here are the Maggie's Farm Fall 2008 breeding groups:

In Pasture #1... Charlie with three lovely ladies: Leela, Cedar and Acorn. (Yes, Acorn is polled. But as her lambs were scurred last year, we thought we'd try her with the strongly horned Charlie in the hopes of keeping some of her superfriendly lambs in our horned flock.) Leela has a beautiful fleece, but less than stellar build. So, hopefully, Charlie will improve that aspect in her offspring.

In Pasture #2... Bombadil is hanging with the lovely Caroline. Yes, we know Caroline is horned, but she is a ewe lamb and we are hoping lambing will be a bit easier for her without the hornbuds to worry about.

In Pasture #3.... Chance with Copper and Daisy, two lovely and quite assertive ladies. Okay, Chance is not thrilled with this arrangement. The girls aren't showing him any love as yet. In fact, they are downright mean. But they are also terrific mothers and well-built genetic powerhouses, so he'll have to stick with them long enough to impart his offspring with fine soft fleeces. Also, Chance's recessive little self will tease out any latent color in these two white ewes. Copper may be homozygous for white as she has never had any lambs that were NOT white. But we know Daisy can produce solid moorit. What are these two ladies hiding? Chance will tell us.

And finally, in Pasture #4... the stolid Rahm (Yes, we did name him after THAT Rahm...) with our lovely and quite cleanly polled Penny. Rahm will also serve as our "Clean-up Ram" as well.

Here's to fall's high hopes!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ten Bags Full

Shearing day.

You gotta love it, always hectic with herding dogs herding (or trying to anyway) kids underfoot, spur-of-the-moment gatherings (Always seems to happen somehow...) and lots and lots of sheep wrestling. And in the middle of it all, Andy the shearer, as calm and cool as a guy with an upside-down sheep in his lap could be, separating animal from mineral (or fiber anyway).

What a scene! At first, the sheep look so skimpy and strange without their fleece!

Here is Penny before shearing:

Here she is after:

Not so stately, eh?

But if you're looking for raw skirted fleece, we have some nice ones. We'll be sending them off for processing in a few weeks, so let us know.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Sound of Wonder

Earlier this year, we hatched several "homegrown" eggs in a borrowed incubator.

As advertised, it was a great experience for the kids. The humming box in the corner, forgotten for most of three weeks all of a sudden became the object of intense interest as scattered pips and taps were heard within it. The first chick, "Peeper", hatched while we were getting ready for bed. But by the time the second chick kicked its way out, the kids were thoroughly engaged. And lucky for us, Dan's penchant for technological innovation and a homemade tripod resulted in our capturing this, the sound of absolute wonder (Along with a lot of extraneous family stuff):

The 8 chicks that resulted from this experiment are adolescents now, freeranging about with their cousins, aunts, uncles outside:

Sunday, November 2, 2008


A week or so out from that horrible day at the slaughterhouse, we have a freezer and a half of meat, a bit of hay money, and a little less hard feeling. Distance does that to you. Thanks to all those who offered a few kind words. I really appreciated your encouragement and wisdom.
I'm sure I'll think (and write) quite a bit more about this in the weeks to come. But it's the end of October, and my thoughts turn, quite naturally to other scary stuff:

Halloween, for one thing. The Maggie's Farm crew had a happy one. Micah, determined to be scary at all costs, morphed into "Zombie Micah". Joe, became a "spooky dude" and Anna, interested in space, the universe and everything these days, was an astronaut. Dan was a ram, or-- depending on your cultural reference points-- a refugee from Mad Max. Here they are setting off to trick or treat:

Election Day is another scary fall thing. I'm trying to be relatively apolitical here on the farm blog, but I am not keen on another 4 (or 8!) years of Republicannonsense (VERY scary indeed!) So I'll be up in Keene, New Hampshire helping get out the vote for Obama on Nov. 4th.

Have a good one, whatever your political persuasion.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hard Harvest

Yesterday, we took another step-- a giant, uncomfortable, yucky step-- in the direction of "real farmness": I brought a vanload of sheep to a slaughter facility in NH.

Now, I knew it'd be a hard thing. But I had no idea just HOW hard a thing it'd be.

These animals were not pets, but they had names, a history with us, distinct personalities. And so I faced the drive with trepidation, reasoning with myself all the way. Self, I said, We can't afford to keep 21 sheep,the money and food from these sheep will ensure that we can afford the others. What's more, these animals, by virtue of health, build or all-out spookiness, are not suitable for breeding and keeping, and we can't, in good conscience, sell them as such. Furthermore, we've given them good, carefree lives, better by far than those of the animals in supermarket freezers and this is just part of the process...

Oh I reasoned alright.... but this helped my reluctant self not a bit. I drove the two hours with a heavy heart, barely able to look back at the make-shift pen behind me.

And when I arrived at the USDA facility (USDA sounded a lot fancier on the phone than the scattered warehouse the place turned out to be) I began to tear up immediately.

What I really wanted was to turn around and go home. I wanted to, but I didn't. Some of these lambs had been presold for meat, and so meat they would be. Besides (here's some more rationalization...) Keeping this bunch would add close to 10 dollars a day in hay expenses, a burden our farm, and family couldn't bear. So I opened the back of the van, and helped the handler shoo my little group into a holding pen.

I didn't say good bye. I didn't even dare to look at them. I went into the small office and went through the paperwork; I checked off which cuts, which parts. Then I went out to my empty van, put it in gear, and cried for about an hour. Really. It thoroughly, thoroughly sucked.

I sat in a bagel store parking lot for another hour, re-justifying. Checking off all the reasons why this was the right and logical thing to do, and I felt like crap about it just the same. I thought about going back to retrieve my sheep-- WAIT! Never mind!-- but once their feet touched down in the dirt of the "facility" they couldn't return to the farm to transmit whatever bacteria and illness they might have com in contact with. It was done. A done deal.

I had planned to go to work after the drop off, but this was overly hopeful. Honestly, I didn't know what to expect, didn't know the day would be so out and out miserable.

Perhaps "real" farmers are used to this process, and bringing animals to slaughter is just like any farm chore for them. But It's caused me to question the whole farm premise.

When we began this enterprise, we hoped to grow good quality wool and breeding stock, and perhaps also some meat to feed our family. The trouble with this model is that meat is the farm product people want the most. We have had no trouble selling meat lambs, and if we had 20 more, we'd probably be able to sell them as well. Local meat, with good reason, is in.

Wool, however.... wool is slow going, expensive to produce, hard to market and such a specialty product. Ditto for roving. Our wool is beautiful, knitters love it, but there are a lot less knitters than meat-eaters out there.

And breeding animals? Well, we've been able to find breeding homes and fiber homes for some of our lambs but we had 11 this year, and the economy's in the toilet and several big Icelandic Farms have dispersed this year, so... nope, not sustainable.

Before yesterday, meat seemed like it might be a way to go, but I'm feeling pretty shaky-- okay, REALLY SHAKY-- about that now. Dan and I like to joke that the sheep are our retirement plan (This is a joke because the sheep COST us a heck of a lot of money each year and have yet to break even close to even.) But we cannot continue to pour money into the farm without the sheep at least earning for their own keep.

But the meat idea is a lot more real for me today than it was a week ago. I do not want to get callous about death. Yesterday,I talked the one of the young handlers at the slaughterhouse while picking up the hides of the animals I'd dropped off. The conversation went something like this:

Me (blinking back the day's ever present tears): "It must be hard, what you do..."

Him: "Oh yeah. It's not easy to get the cuts right. People think they can just do their own. Like my buddy who got a moose yesterday. I told him it ain't so easy"

Me: "No, I mean the killing part..."

Him: "Oh, THAT. That's easy. We do 250 animals a day. That's the easy part..."

When you go to the supermarket or buy local or order a deli sandwich at subway, somewhere, somebody has unloaded a bunch of scared animals off a truck into some ugly warehouse and asked somebody to kill them. That reality was pretty abstract for me, until yesterday. Even locally grown, free ranging meat is not a pretty thing to contemplate. At least not right now. Perhaps if we had a traveling butcher who'd come and do the slaughtering right here on site... perhaps at the new, "state of the art" facility opening up a few towns over this year, one designed by Temple Grandin to minimize stress... Or perhaps, I'll go back to the primarily vegetarian diet of my 20's, win the lottery and and buy hay for our growing flock like nobody's business....

Or, perhaps things will look different in a day or two.

If you've been involved in this process, or plan to be, I sure would appreciate some advice or feedback on this.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Goodbye Gobbles

The turkeys went to the butcher today. It was tough to see them go, but not quite as tough as it might have been; I have had it up to here with their troublesome wanderings, their voracious--expensive!-- appetites, their tearing up the lawn something fierce. It was a chore and a half to coach them into the barn at night (We'd sort of given up on it at the end here, leaving the flock to take its chances on the pasture fence and on the ground beside the water pump.) And I could have offed the group of them myself the day I returned home to find the whole flock up on the porch pecking at our freshly picked bins of apples and leaving a tremendous mess behind... So yes, the turks had outstayed their welcome.

But somehow-- there's always a catch isn't there?-- I miss them already.

Turkeys are kind of cool in a clueless, show-offy, wholly unexpected way. They are drama kings, prancing and sighing, sneezing and gobbling, and fighting-- oh the fighting!-- all the time. I'll miss the spectacle of our slate gray tom, smaller but full of game, bumping up against the bigger bronze toms. I'll miss "Blinky" who had some sort of neurological issue, listing and lurching in circles, bumping into trees and calling after her buddies. Blinky was so obviously in need that even our puppy Luka, nudged her in the right direction sometimes. I'll miss the gaudy colors, the toms' skin going from red to blue at the whim of some internal barometer, their comical snoods, the way the flock gathered around as I picked apples, toms gliding around at my feet like schooners at full sail. There might be a hundred apples on the ground around them, but turkey wisdom dictated that the only good apples come from the hand of a weary human.

I will miss them-- I DO miss them-- but it was time. (Long past time, according to Dan, who is right this minute cleaning out the tremendous stinky, turkey-fied mess that is our barn.) And I can console myself with several weeks worth of home-produced dinners and the chance to supply a farm-fresh, wholesome well-raised food to friends and co-workers. I choose to focus on this aspect today, the day our first turkeys went to the butcher.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

And a Good Time Was Had By All

The Greenway Celebration was our initiation into a new world, a world chock full of interested customers who wanted to know a little bit about Massachusetts' rural heritage, small town living, apples, wool, sheep and chickens. 30,000+ interested customers as it turned out.

The build-up and market day were some of the busiest of my life, and also the most productive. I baked and peeled apples and organized yarns and apple crisps and whatnot. Dan developed a lovely banner, brochures, business cards and labels, Micah made some beautiful signs. We were all up late into the night readying for the big day. Saturday morning found us up at four packing the minivan, waking Micah (who chose to come along for the day) and driving the two and a half hours into the heart of the big, B-i-i-i-g city to sell our wares.

Now, at past events, we barely had our "stuff" together; we set out a card table and hung around chatting. It was lots of fun, but part of the fun was our sheer, amateur-ness. We considered these small events a chance to meet other vendors and learn about the whole process of marketing.

This Greenway Celebration, however, was the BIG TIME. And we were (more) prepared. We had a brand new canopy and our professional looking banners, and we even brought a cash register... well, it was our kids' bright red toy cash register.... But you get the idea. A friend of mine made cute soaps to help fill our table and we also offered, baked goods-- Apple flax blueberry bread and apple flax walnut bread, apple oatmeal bread and apple crisp, and Dan's homemade peach, plum and blueberry jams. We also offered plain old apples to the hungry folks who came by and fresh cider. None of this has to do with our primary business, but we were advised to have food to offer.

We also offered yarn and roving, and I brought a few of my hand-crafted items, hats and scarves, to demonstrate what a person might DO with all this wonderful stuff.

We figured there'd be lots of other small family farms at the farmer's market, but mostly there were small family businesses: a cookie company, a bread company, a jam company, a coffee micro-roaster, etc etc. Businesses with inventory and a few employees and such. So once again, prepared as we were, were were, achem... out of our league once again. (It may say something about the state of Massachusetts' rural heritage that the Greenway Farmer's Market had so few small farms.) The Rodale Institute, the event's sponser had a really neat passport system to help get customers and farmers talking and also gave us free canvas bags that we could offer to customers with a $10 purchase. These were great ideas and the event organizers have our thanks and gratitude.

Anyway, being out of our league turned out to be an advantage of sorts because people were really interested in what it was like to work a genuine small family farm (They were surprised to learn that we had to work full-time jobs to support our rural lifestyle, for example.) Micah showed pictures from our farming album and answered questions. (One couple asked her if she liked having chickens and she said "Sort of. Because when you have chickens you can never go out barefoot"!) Luminaries came by; Thomas Menino, Mayor of Boston, and Caroline Kennedy sampled the apple oatmeal bread. It was really fun to "talk sheep" with so many new people. (I love to "talk sheep" any time, any place!). Micah managed to take a few pictures for us and she was quite the soap-seller, explaining exactly why that the goldfish soap was great for kids. (From the moment our feet hit the pavement, Dan and I were generally too busy to BREATHE so it was great to have our own photographer along!)

I ended up selling one of my scarves and a felted hat, although I hadn't planned on it. (I have a long way to go before I am skilled enough to set up shop) because the customers insisted on buying the items, flaws and all. I wasn't prepared for the lump in my throat as I watched by cool, reversable lizard/goldfish hat walk away on someone else's head. But I was also happy it was going to a new home where it was obviously loved and appreciated. Here it is:

So it was a beautiful, busy, joyous day. We sold out of breads and crisps and also sold a lot of yarn and roving. We met a lot of wonderful people and gave out every last brochure and business card, arrived home exhausted at 11 PM, slogged out to take care of the animals in the dark, put our zonked daughter to bed and collapsed on the couch.

And for some crazy reason, we hope to do more of this sort of thing in the future!

Friday, October 3, 2008

To Market, To Market

Saturday's the day.

Dan and I are headed off to the opening celebration of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston. The Greenway is the snaky park that's replaced Boston's old raised highways. (Think "Big Dig".) The celebration is an enormous farmer's market, concert, happenin' event.

...And we, well, we are bringin' it. All of it: Yarn, roving, apples, baked thingys, homemade soap, etc. etc.

It promises to be a HUGE event-- much larger than we envisioned when we agreed to go.

Truth be told, we are rookies, raw rookies, when it comes to hawking our wares. We putter and dawdle and are not as focused on the "business end of our business" as we could be. So this event-- upwards of 50,000 people-- is a bit, um... terrifying. But really exciting as well.

Maggie's Farm may be turning a corner. The sheep may actually pay for a portion of their own feed this year. That'd be nice. Then we wouldn't have to talk so much about what a "fun long-term project" the farm is or chuckle self-deprecatingly about how the sheep are our retirement plan.

....Maybe. Whatever else, I'm sure we'll meet a lot of nice people and come away with some terrific stories. And isn't that what it's all about anyway?

So if you're in Boston this weekend, come by and say hello.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hay, Hay, Hay, It's Fall!

Fall is a crazy-busy season.
All summer we've been lying semi-low, keeping one step ahead of parasites and short pastures, but more or less letting things beef up on their own. But as winter starts sniffing around the apple trees and maple leaves, the randy rams and hyper-randy turkeys, we find we have a lot of work to do.

First and foremost is separating the rams and ewes. Autumn frost sets sheepy hormones aflame, and there's been quite a bit of jousting and jumping up out there. We don't want questionable parantages or early season lambs, tough enough to support the little guys when the weather cooperates, so we divvy the flock up. "Boys" in the "down pasture" and "girls" up by the main barn.

While divvying Sunday night, we checked condition and were pleased to note that the flock was healthy and worm free (Yay!). This is especially good news after the worry and wetness of summer 2008.
I've been developing my own mineral mix to help the sheep maintain under the worst of the summer wormload and perhaps the mix has helped some. "The mix", for all you shepherds out there, consists of 2 parts standard sheep minerals and one part goat minerals (Goat minerals have copper which sheep DO need.... but in moderation. Research indicates that Icelandic sheep may have a greater need for copper than more "developed" breeds. But be careful-- Too much can kill them!) To this mineral base, I add kelp, yeast-based selenium/E powder, and flax seeds. I've also been offering the flock black oil sunflower seeds, which they are developing a taste for. Oh, and they've been scarfing apples. A LOT of apples. So, whatever the reason, our flock is in pretty good condition here at the tail end of parasite-worry season-- a happy discovery!

We expected the ram lambs might take the separation hard, but surprisingly, even Connor-- who stuck to his Mama Louise like glue all season, seem quite happy in the "down pasture". And they have been tussling and jousting and acting just as you expect a bunch of rammy youngsters might. Here's Champ, one of our few unspoken-for lambs:

My attempt to get the flock to eat pumpkins last year (EAT! EAT! You know, You're SUPPOSED to LIKE pumpkins!!!!) resulted in a hardy, feral pumpkin plant grown all on it's own. Here it is, with the male half of our flock in the background:

Another big fall issue is hay. We need it. BAD. We always need it, and it is always more expensive than we expected. This year, Dan's been stockpiling a van-load at a time in the hay loft. It's been slow going. But we were were extra lucky this week; a dairy farmer friend managed to arrange delivery of 80 more bales at only $4.00 each! Yay! We were able to borrow her hay elevator which made the storing process about a hundred times easier. The kids had a great time playing in the haypile and even helped load it into the loft.
We still need more-- we ALWAYS need more. But it's a good start anyway.

Fall also means wood. We need it. BAD. (Sense a theme here?) Although Dan's been putting every spare minute into chopping. Spare minutes are few and far between around here and we weren't helped much in the way of windfalls (our best source of weathered logs) so we are still pretty durn low this year. Here's our winter supply so far:

And here's the ATV loaded up with a bit more:

Not much for a wood-heated house. We may have to (gulp!) buy a few cords this year.... um....maybe....

And then there are apples, beautiful rosy apples desperately needing picking. When do we find the time? Well, that's the crux of it.... we haven't. Yet.

Oh, and there's shearing and butchering to do, not to mention the girl's birthday parties! And Holidays.

So that's fall in a nutshell: Busy, busy busy.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Diabolical Little Hearts

Are you sick of turkeys yet?

I'm beginning to be.

The big birds have an eye for misadventure, what can I say?

Today, I had to rescue a turkey hen who had accidentally sat on our single line of electric tape fencing and couldn't figure out that she had to get up and run away. (I rushed into the barn and cut the switch, then gently led her out of the pasture.)

The newest episode in our interminable "Turkeys, What the Heck were they thinking?" drama came last Thursday. I was down at the barn for chores and found our biggest tom-- barely functional due to his heavy poundage-- flopping around beside the grain feeder. "Oh, no." Though I "He's finally gone and eaten himself into the category of total lameness." But he managed to flop around the corner of the barn after the rest of the flock. So I grabbed the feed bucket and resolved to check on him after I filled up the feed and water.

Well.... I rounded the corner of the barn to find the big tom in the tall grass with one of the bronze toms ON TOP OF HIM STOMPING AND PECKING in murderous frenzy! It was too late for the big guy. He was quite dead. What a gory scene. I would never have believed that turkeys--TURKEYS!-- were such murderous beasts! But evidently, behind the goofy gobbles and contemplative looks, the comically enlarging snoods and stately waddles, lie diabolical little hearts.

I couldn't-- couldn't-- salvage another gigantic bird alone (See "Cold Turkey, Hot Day" for THAT story.) The kids were up at the house playing Stratego and waiting for dinner. I dragged the gigantic bird to the lower barn and, with great difficulty, hung him up. It was the most I could do. I had a nasty cold and it was just about dark and dinner was... nowhere yet.

Back at the house, I told the kids about the incident. Used to all sorts of odd animal related hi-jinks the kids just said "Really? Oh.." and craned their necks to look out the window at the turkey hanging by the barn. Back to Stratego for them.

Dan, well, I caught up with him as well. "All right," he said, the rush of road sounds loud in the background. "Guess I know what I'll be doing when I get home..." True to his word, he arrived home at 8:30 or so, changed out of his "Perfesser Suit" (Tweedy looking jacket with the leather elbow pads and everything), put on and apron and rubber gloves, sharpened up his knives and spent two hours down by the barn in the dark doing right by the turkey and all of us. What a guy!

He returned with a 32 pound turkey, cleaned and ready for cooling. And so we have a jump on Thanksgiving I guess.

I hope I forget the murder scene by then.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Not a Turnkey Turkey Operation

Well, It was "Turkey Tuesday" again.
Some of you might recall the sudden death and processing of a giant turkey from last week (Cold Turkey, Hot Day). Wellllll... turkeys just loooovve Tuesdays, I tell ya. This week, the entire flock (now down to 12) decided to go a-visiting. They walked a good ways, no mean feet for a bunch of tottering meat-bound heavies, and ended up on the doorstep of "L", the one neighborhood dog who is an unrepentant poultry killer.

Luckily, "L" was tied up.

Unluckily (Or perhaps just stupidly) the turkeys, used to dogs that pretty much ignore them, didn't see anything dangerous in a lab/chow mix straining at it's chain and barking ferociously. They thought it might be a good time to preen and strut and impress each other as young turks so often do.

Well, the chain snapped and, as you might imagine, the birds finally got the hint, scattering as "L" mowed through them, a shower of feathers in her wake.

That was when I got the call from our neighbor. I believe she said "There are a lot of feathers but I don't think there are any bodies around" or something like that.

So off I went. Some turkeys had already returned on their own, they looked winded and grim. Five were still missing. So I spent round about an hour calling and calling and traipsing around in the woods checking out every stump that, from a distance, looked like it just might be a big ol' dead broad-breasted bronze. Please oh, please let there be no dead turkeys, I muttered, not wanting to repeat the whole miserable butchering-gigantic-bird-all-alone scenario of the previous week.

I found no dead bodies. Just one traumatized slate-blue turkey sitting veeeerrry very still in the woods. When she saw me, she got up and headed back home on her own. Another slate blue was in the sheep pasture. "Blinky", as I've been taken to calling her due to her peculiar habit, was in rough shape. Too, exhausted to fight, she let me carry her back down to her buds where she curled up and fell asleep.

I continued hunting about. I got quite good at turkey calls. (Turkeys make a variety of really cool sounds: From the expected gobbagobba to rumbly purrs, sneezy exclaimations, chirps and a beautiful two-note whistle.) But none of this mattered. The turkeys all found their way back on their own.

I brought water and grain over to where they clumped beside the barn, but they were too exhausted to get up and eat. They stayed there all the rest of the day and when I went to close up the barn at 9:30 that night, they were still clumped outside, refusing to budge.

And so... the full moon found me prodding cajoling and carrying-- yes, carrying!-- 12 miserable, shaken and VERY HEAVY turkeys into the barn. So however cool the big fowl are-- and they ARE quite cool-- don't expect a turnkey operation!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Amaranth All Over Again

Last year, our garden was happier, a veritable cornucopia of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers. This year, we've been more than a little preoccupied with sheep, turkeys, chicks, work, house guests, oh, and children-- increasingly busy children.

The poor little garden, already cramped against the side of the house to maximize pasture space, has suffered. But it hasn't been a total bust. The little 15 X 5 foot patch has bestowed a few tomatoes and cucumbers, even some zucchinis pretty much all on its own. Somehow, Dan's eternally-optimistic corn crop is happening. But things are beyond scraggly, things are verging on downright unkempt out there.

Undeterred, last year's heritage tomatoes have traveled through the digestive systems of our free-ranging chickens and installed themselves in brand new places. Likewise for the regal zucchini plant holding court in the sheep pasture. But most impressive of all is the amaranth.

Last year, fresh with spring exuberance, I ordered a packet of amaranth seeds. Amaranth, plant of the Aztec, is both beautiful and practical. The deep red seeds are high in iron and other essentials. Last year's amaranth was on the puny side. We left it alone to drop its seeds, and this year, it rewarded us with extravagant, deep red blooms!

We will harvest these after the first frost and try our hand at shaking the grains loose and serving them up. I'll let you know how THAT goes.....

And next year, regardless of the state of our garden, these hardy perennials will ensure that it'll be Amaranth all over again!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Cold Turkey, Hot Day

This story is not for the faint of heart. Oh, no... it's for those out there who aspire to "earn their chops", "put their money where their mouths are" and "do what has to be done" when "the rubber hits the road." I could come up with a few more cliches if ya like, but basically, I found my homesteading, self-sufficient ideals tested last week. Seriously tested.

The day started out ordinarily enough. I was working from home. Engaged in some sort of work-related phone conversation. The turkeys had been making a bit of noise. Nothing unusual, just the squawks and whistles and "gubbagubbabubba" of everyday life around here. (There's quite a cacophony around here: roosters, hens, guineas, sheep all chiming in about whatever interests them whenever it interests them.) Anyway, I glanced out the window and saw a turkey-- one of our HUMONGOUS white turkeys-- lying suspiciously still in the pasture.

I extricated myself from the phone as quickly as I could. (No, I did not use the time-worn "Um, dead turkey in the field gotta go.") And with pounding heart, I hustled down to survey the damage.

The giant lay flat on his back. Spread-eagled, you might say. He had not been attacked or injured in any obvious way. Near as I could tell, he'd been tussling with the other toms, fell down and couldn't get up. I learned later that giant double-breasted turkeys like this are prone to heart attacks.

Whatever the case, I grabbed those gigantic feet and wrestled the body out of the pasture. The rest of the turkeys gave me quite the wide berth as I hobbled along, half-dragging half carrying the body. They peeped over the fence one last time as we passed from view, and then resumed their regular turkey duties, strutting and pecking and wandering about in a tight little flock.

I set the body in the barn. It was a hot, hot day and already, flies were gathering.

Ugh. What now?

Well.... I thought about it a while. And then a longer while... and then I called Dan. (OF COURSE he was at work, far, far away in my hour of need, and not due for oh, a half a day or so.)

My better half was suitably apologetic about not being around and also suitably sympathetic. But then he threw me a little curve ball: "You can't let all that meat go to waste." He said.

Oh, he was right. Completely, utterly right. What a miserable thing it'd be to raise a turkey-- for meat no less-- and then leave it to rot because it happened to keel at an inopportune moment!

But dressing a full-grown, no-- GI-NORMOUSLY-grown-- turkey without the proper prep and equipment. Well, daunting is an understatement. Also, in our few previous meat-prepping adventures, Dan did the gory stuff. I, um, plucked.

We didn't have a pot big enough to scald the turkey (Scalding is the step before plucking) and anyway, I could not lift it into a pot of boiling water safely. Heck, I couldn't lift it period. Oh, and the kids were due home in less than an hour and I was due to meet their bus (Preferably not while up to my eyeballs in gore...)

I decided, after some research that I'd work on salvaging the breast and legs. And go from there.

So.... that's how I came to be skinning and cutting and hacking away at a dead turkey when, with a screech of bus brakes, the kids arrived home and I ran up the hill to meet them up to my eyeballs in gore. Oh, this self-sufficient farming is the life I tell you!

For those who want a little more information and a little less story: When you come upon a recently-deceased turkey or other fowl, you have to hang and "bleed out" the bird the best you can before attempting this sort of thing. Skinning the bird and removing the breast was relatively easy-- and we ended up with at least 3 pounds of breast meat. The legs were a bit more tricky (this is where the hacking came in) and a bit higher on the gross-awful-Ican'tbelieveI'mdoingthis scale. The meat once removed, must be cooled immediately in a tub of cold water, then can be transferred to the fridge. Cooling should continue for at least a day. Then you can freeze it or eat it. (We froze ours because, honestly, it'll be a while before I care to see THAT turkey again.)

We did waste the rest of the bird. I just couldn't figure out how to remove any other parts in a usuable way. And I was pretty grossed out by then. And the kids had arrived. And there were about a million flies around. And, well, because I couldn't do any more just then. I really couldn't.

Well, that's the whole gory story. In a way, I'm glad I had to do this on my own. It's easy-- too easy-- to leave the hardest things to my better half and if I'm gonna eat it, I really should be able to butcher it. But watch out! Those homesteading aspirations of yours might see you to hacking away at an unexpectedly deceased turkey on a lonely fly-ridden, unbearably hot afternoon.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Isn't She Lovely?

It being labor day, and these little guys and gals being, in part the fruits of one type of labor, I thought I'd put up a couple recent pictures of our lambs.

After all, we still have quite a few of them. (If'n anybody's interested...)

They are really quite grown-up these days, so different from the leggy, little bundles that cavorted about the place in May, with their tight little curls and charming bleats.

Nowadays, the lambs have no time for fun; it's all graze and graze and browse with them. Which brings me to the fall, when the already-failing grass is gone for good and the hay is too expensive and some of these little guys-- the ones that are not sold for breeding or fleece-- will find themselves into our freezer.
This will be a first for us, but the daunting notion of feeding and housing 21 sheep combined with the need to know exactly where and how our meat came to us is making it seem somewhat more doable.... somewhat....

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Living Under Bees

Remember this hornet's nest?

Since my last post, I've done some research about hornets, "white-faced hornets" to be exact. Evidently, this football-sized nest can house up to 700 of the little beasties. They eat flies and other "meat" but will also eat rotten fruit or whatever. Usually, hornets are peaceful, but if the nest is disturbed, watch out! Unfortunately, they chose a maple tree rather prone to disturbances. And chose to live rather low in said tree, beside the chicken coop and barn.


In light of these details, Dan and I did some soul-searching. He is a live-and-let live kind of guy and I aspire to be his equal in going with the flow, not worrying/being happy, etc. Okay, I was willing to give the hornets a chance.

After all, I reasoned, life is always tenuous. However we humans try to minimize threats they exist just the same. We dodge bullets every day, bullets we may not ever be aware of.

Unbeknownst to us, the hornets' nest in question was dangling right above the slip-n'-slide at Joe's 5th birthday party, dangling above a wild water balloon war, kids against adults, dangling above the cake and candles and present unwrapping. I shudder to think of what could have happened that day.

But there are always could-have-happeneds. Near misses and moments of grace as well.

Having experienced the lightning strike of sudden tragedy in the past, I can sometimes dwell on these possibilies. Threats seem very, very real to me. So I thought I'd approach the hornets as a lesson, a case in point. I could live under threat of bees. After all, the bees are just one of a countless nasty possibilities made manifest. They could teach me to loosen up a little.

But then, one of the hornets dive-bombed me as I walked down the hill to do the chores. Now, it didn't sting me-- Did I mention I am severely allergic to bees?--- just bounced off the top of my head. And all this philosophy, the live-and-let-liveness and in the moment, no-worries zen-ness I thought I was cultivating, flew out the window.

I went inside and called an extreminator.

We do live under all sorts of visible and invisible threats, and yes, anything can happen at any time and being okay with that-- if you can manage it-- is a real gift. But I'm not quite there yet, not willing to live under threat of bees.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Each Peach, Pear, Plum

It's getting to be that time again.
The apple trees sag under burdens of almost-there apples, the grass looks tired and scrabbly, lush, summer leaves are ever so slightly losing their glorious green. Autumn whispers in the wings.

This year has been a strange one for our fruit trees. Last year saw some major pruning and this year, as if in protest, every third tree has refused to grant us fruit. Hopefully they'll cheer up by next spring; but apple trees have long memories and not-always-forgiving natures.
Our more forgiving trees are weighed down with slightly rosy macintosh and mitsu and jonagold lovelies. But we have to wait, and wait, and wait.... and when they finally ripen, there'll be a veritable avalanche of apples!
With fruit, it's feast or famine, or famine then feast anyway!

In other orchard news:

Our three pear trees, always finicky and frail, crapped out altogether this year. No pears at all.

The peach trees are chugging along. Although, sadly, a huge, peach-laden branch broke off one of them during the monsoon-like weather of July and early August. Very sad to see those still-green peaches wither on the vine, so to speak.

The plums, however... plums trees must adore the monsoon because they have blessed us with a real bounty. The red plums have come and gone. And the yellow ones, slower to develop, sweeter and, in my appreciative opinion, most beautiful, just keep coming and coming....

Unfortunately, most of them are very, very high up. We've collected all we can hoisting the children onto our shoulders and instructing them to "Reach!" And still they dangle and wait and if I can get it together, I'm going to make some jam this year. (Um, I believe I say that every year...)

Here's another thing that's grown on our trees this year:

a hornet nest, not far from the barn or coop. I pass under this beauty every time I go down to check on or feed the animals. It's a little scary. But we are going to let nature take it's course, the nest will hang in this maple until late fall, and then it will come down. I'm trying to appreciate the hornets and their place in the world, but did they have to make their place so close to ours?