Monday, December 14, 2009

Yeah, Right

Yeah right, is my son’s new saying. He’s going to be ten years old in less than two months, and he knows that this is a big birthday celebration for most ten year-olds. I’m pretty much a stick in the mud when it comes to traditional celebrations like this, and I only acquiesce to a birthday celebration because he so loves parties, and I do too. He’s been lobbying the details for two weeks now, fully two months before the big event. He’s outlined plans, favors, games and the menu. So today, we sat down and talked about particulars.

Five kids

Whaat? Are you crazy? Only five?

Yep, five. Name them.

I tap my pencil, while he digests the words, gauging whether I’m serious or not. Finally, he starts. He analyzes his choices, and wonders if inviting one probably-no-show will jeopardize a most-likely-will show. He spits them out, one by one, girls last, because, well, it’s not cool to invite the girls anyway. We settle on eight in the end, because I always give in, and because they truthfully won’t all show anyway.

We talk about the games they’ll play, what the theme will be, the menu (he wants pie, not cake---it’s genetic on the maternal side), the time of day it will occur. It’s kind of fun to plan, because he has real ideas of how it should unfold, and I love party planning as much as he does.

The farm will be very much put to bed by January fourth, his birthday. The sheep will be coming in and out of their nightly pens, basking outside in Vitamin D for at least eight hours of the day. The cows will be in the barn in their stanchions, for the long haul, waiting until May to go out again. We’ll be down to just the laying hens, on their timed lights, providing them with 13 hours of daylight. It cons them into thinking that it’s summer. I use the same hours of light to keep from going into an abyss of depression: no light, cold, hunkered down in the house.

But there will be snow. And crazy ten year-olds, careening down the steep banks behind the house, aiming for the greenhouses on their out of control sleds.

No presents, I announce.

Are you really my mother? Dad, did she really have me?

No presents, Dad reiterates.

You’ll ask for donations to the food shelf instead.

Yeah, right, he says (but it sounds like Yeahhh, Riiiiiight). There’s maybe zero people in this town, and maybe three in the state that need food.

Ohh, ohh. This I can work with. This is something to work on.

He recently did a food shelf drive in school. I was so proud of him, because he came up from the pantry, two bags brimming with food. I picked through it and reduced it to one bag (I can proudly say that we have just recently been relegated to above poverty status and no longer qualify for food stamps).

Oh, he pined (after I had reduced the bags to one), now we’ll never win.

Never win what??? Apparently, the class that brought in the most food for the food shelf would win a pizza party. It had become completely foreign to him why they were gathering food. Then he told me how a classmate’s sister’s class was sure to win, because she (as a kindergartner) was sneaking food past the parents every morning to win the prize.


So this year, after his birthday, on Monday, we’re going to the food shelf with his presents of food. I’m so proud of him that he didn’t pitch a fit, after explaining that, yes, there are hungry people, and yes, we have food, so we wouldn’t necessarily know that there are so many without. He takes it for granted that there should be food but why wouldn’t he? That’s what we do. We may not be rich in greenbacks, but we certainly are rich in greens.

Now if I can only make it through the Sponge Bob theme birthday….

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bacon and Vampires

New Moon

Yep, it’s true. I can’t wait till the new vampire segment is out. I devoured all of the books, I bought into the fantasy. I love the story. But tonight, I am fascinated by what has been lost in our culture. - the art of making bacon. It has nothing to do with vampires, but everything to do with ecstasy. Who can say (of the meat eating variety) that he or she does not hold a special place in his or her heart for bacon?

It’s just pork, just flesh from the belly of the pig, but somehow, it’s transformed into a delicacy of indescribable sensation...bacon.

Do we know how bacon happens anymore? Is it easier for us to conjure up werewolves and vampires than bacon?

Because I hate what is put into the process of curing a modern day pork belly, I do it all at home now. The pig is killed here, cured here, and last night, thanks to my husband Kyle, the meat began the last process of being smoked here. He made a smoker out of an old fridge. We were lucky, because this was a fridge from the 1960s, metal, ceramic interior, and smokehouse-worthy, so it was well-suited for conversion. There was no plastic interior to worry about, no Freon gas hidden inside its interior to discard.

Kyle spent the day wrapping cabbages in newspaper to store in the root cellar for the winter. They’ll keep in their container until June this way, wrapped in their moist blankets. Kyle asked me what the world would be like when there were no more newspapers, and I had no answer. Will the ability to preserve our food for winter be as wondrous as the existence of vampires? Will bacon be so foreign that it is easier for us to believe that a mortal and a mythical creature can fall in love?

My friend happily signed onto a half a pig for her freezer the other day. She didn’t know that hams and bacon meant extra work. Hams are just roasts unless they’re cured, and bacon is just pork belly unless it’s tended to. Far from pork belly is bacon. She’s
pregnant, so when asked if she wanted it cured and smoked, she said no- savvy to the modern processes of pumping nitrates into the meat to combat botulism, she had no idea that bacon and ham are what they are because of the process they go through- brining, then drying, then smoking, to achieve that achingly good, buttery goodness. Yes, you can cure bacon and hams without nitrates.

In order to finish the bacons in the smoker, I resolve to stay up all night. Bradford has the beginnings of what looks like the swine flu (fitting since I am processing pork), so I have two excuses to stay vigilant tonight. Every two hours, I go out to the new smoker, feed the tinder box with a mixture of dry and wet hardwoods, and fill the reservoir with water. Every two hours, I gauge the fever raging in my son, and swab him with wet wash clothes and prompt him to drink water.

At 3:36 am, after the bacons have turned a golden brown, and I know that I will be awake in just two more hours, and Bradford’s forehead is cool with the sweat of a broken fever, I crawl into bed with two cats and Kyle. It is warm and cozy, and I am soon dreaming of vampires.

At 4:13 am, this all abruptly ends, with Kyle’s shouts of : “ It’s on fire, the smoker is on fire!”

I open my eyes to see flames reaching up to our bedroom window, almost 15 feet high. I run out, with a bowl of water for a grease fire, and throw it on the inferno, only to make everything worse. Kyle appears with the fire extinguisher and gives a mighty blast, then another and another.

In my head, I am still thinking that we can save the bacons. I’m yelling for him to stop with the chemicals, that I can put out this inferno which is now melting the ceramic, with water. It’s roaring. Reaching up and over to the bush that lays next to the propane tank which feeds our cooking stove. “They’re gone, they’re gone, it’s gone,” he says, with another blast. He was a forest fire fighter for years… I am out of my element. I sulk back to the house and try to sleep for two hours before my day has to begin. I don’t know what has gone wrong. Did the grease from the bacons cause the hot plate to flame up? Did the string used to tether the bacons to the hanging wire fail and topple the bacon onto the hotplate?

Kyle joins me in bed after he is sure that the fire has been put out and begins giggling at his poetry:

Autumn, and the smell of apple wood smoked bacon drifting toward the bedroom window. The sun is up, flowing in the south window. Wait a minute- it’s four o’clock in the morning, it’s too early for the sun to be up, and from the south???

Be quiet, I say.
Bacon. Do vampires like bacon? I bet werewolves do.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gourmet Gone

“…influence and spending power now lies with the middle class.”
- Conde Nast, speaking for why Gourmet magazine was forced to close its doors.


I am saddened and disheartened by the news that my favorite foodie magazine, after 70 years of publication, has been forced to close. Conde Nast sites that a 43% decrease in advertisement forced it to do so, keeping the more frugal Bon App├ętit afloat in our stagnant economy.

What this means to me, as a hardcore foodie, is that we have reached a place where it is no longer status quo to drop $700 for a table for two at dinner.

This should make me happy. I have always hated this excess, and I think that the frivolity and wastefulness is somewhat like an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand in today’s economy. I know how strongly I feel about these things when my son becomes horror stricken at the restaurant when he can’t finish his side stack of strawberry pancakes, and is inconsolable about the shear waste of food that will not be composted, but will instead by chucked in the trash. I try to explain to him that this is a good thing to feel, that next time he will be more frugal in his choice, maybe share it with another person, or order less. At age nearly ten years old, he understands that waste is ridiculous.

Yet, I thought that Gourmet was really trying to make an effort in a roundabout way. I mean, it was the first publication to link the politics of food with actually eating it. It was the first to discuss the pros and cons, the humane treatment of animals, when considering the boiled lobster dinner, or the finely marbled beef rib steak. It married cultures with food, tracing the ancestory of dishes, of hardships felt in parent countries between the growers and the diners, amidst the elegant descriptions of the foods prepared. It tried to make eating an experience at the same time providing the reader and cook with an adventure and a reality.

Yes, there was decadence. Yes, they spoke elitist. But they also spoke local and sustainable and practical, terms that no other high class, upper echelon publication would dare to broach. Martha brought cool to heirloom tomatoes; Gourmet evoked historical significance with their use.

On the farm, we are experiencing the most support, the most viability and sustainability that we have in the twelve growing seasons that we’ve been here. Support ranges from those who want to barter for their food with work to those who want to buy the best food available, no dollar spared. We have been inundated with qualified applicants for apprenticeships- people willing and eager to learn how to fend for themselves. We have a dedicated following of supporters interested in heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruits, and heritage breeds of livestock. It is an incredibly diverse number of supporters, from all walks of life, not just the middle class.

I am the middle class- we are the middle class. And I for one, will miss Gourmet, where I could transform my cippolini onions (formerly grown by peasants in Italy) my rutabagas (the lowly cousin of the turnip), and my garlic (routinely referred to as the stinking rose) into masterpieces of culinary excellence, thanks in no small part to the folks at Gourmet magazine.

What a waste.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I’m glad that this isn’t our first season farming. I wonder what I would think if it were. Would I just chalk it up to inexperience? Would I stay up late and blame it on the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing?

There’s a barred owl calling out a familiar sound, in between raindrops, “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” I hear the sheep, noisy in their August voices, mothers calling to their lambs, coaxing them to be weaned, because they themselves have been called into fertility by the waning daylight and turn of the nighttime temperatures. They’re more interested in the attentions of the ram than that of the lambs, almost two thirds the size of their mothers, still butting for milk and attention. Still, they can’t resist their baby’s call to be nurtured, so they answer them back, blatting their assurances.

In the morning, the ancient black locust tree rings shrill with the songs of adolescent Northern Orioles and Solitary Vireos caught up in the crazy dance of migration. The geese do tap dances through the lawn, complete with mock take- offs and elaborate trumpeting sounds of leaving. Of course, they’re domestic, so they can’t take off at all- they just squawk and carry on.

Everywhere, it is Fall, and we’ve only had ten days of summer. Seriously.

For those of you who’ve noticed, I’m pushing the two month mark in not posting this blog. I am overcome with writer’s block, always wanting everything to come out more eloquently, more fit together and perfect. But it’s like this season. Unpredictable and unwilling to be summoned up. Today I found myself complaining that it was too beautiful out to be stuck inside doing farm paperwork. A complaint that I have not been able to have all summer. So I helped Janet and Tali clean out the hoophouse of the waning cherry tomatoes, who have bravely soldiered through the late blight and hornworms, but are now at their end. We ripped them all out, pulled the grass from the aisles and spread compost throughout the house. After being rototilled, it will be planted to spinach and mesclun for December harvest. Between December and February, it is almost impossible to grow anything in there without heat or lots of layers. Plus, it means walking through three feet of snow.

The barn got white-washed today, and it smells and looks sparkling clean, the manure from the sheep pens having long been removed. The chicken pens themselves will be cleaned one more time before the winter months, and a heavy layer of sawdust and straw litter put down.

The pigs are happily rooting about outside, where Dominic, Janet’s friend, has made them a beautiful pen, complete with a wallow and a shelter.

The fact that we had no summer would be overwhelming me now, but I was incredibly fortunate to have spent five days in San Francisco and another 7 in Hawaii just last week. It was a fabulous trip, so perfect that I can now appreciate these crisp, fall nights and brilliant blue sky days. Everywhere, the last of the summer birds are retreating. The trees are turning colors, and the fall crops are ripening. I need to buy a new alarm clock, because the sky is no longer light filled and packed with birdsong at 4:58 am. Dusk is descending. And I guess I’m okay with that.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Chicken of the Woods

Every summer, I cajole someone on the farm into seeking out one of my favorite wild foods to find with me: wild mushrooms.

Usually, their abundance coincides with the most intensely busy times of the year: morels come when the first farmer’s markets have started and the greenhouse is full of plants that need tending to. Chanterelles come at the height of summer, when all we think of is getting hay in the barn. And my favorite, Chicken of the Woods, falls in between, with nary a specified date in site, dependant on rain and heat to grow into colossally huge arrays of orange, succulent fungi. And usually, everything at the farm is in disarray and in need of weeding or planting.

Mushroom foraging is a luxury, one right up there with having the bed made and the lawn mowed. It’s an extravagance, because, honestly, whoever heard of surviving the winter or even gauging one’s readiness for the bare season to follow summer’s bounty by the amount of mushrooms lardered away. There are several pounds of beans to pick, beets and carrots and Swiss chard to bunch, sheep to move to new pasture before even the smallest of shrooms gets considered.

Today, I have been enticed away from the farm by my sister’s boastings of a mushroom field that even I will not scoff at. She says that she’s harvested three pounds of mushrooms and not even dented its surface.

As a family, we tend to exaggerate, so I am not prone to believe her. We walk through the woods where I used to wander as a fourteen year-old, a place safe enough that our parents would not think to try and find us until dusk set in. Now, there are new houses where horse trails were, but still, it’s not as bad as I expected (I’ve actually refused to walk in these woods for the past 11 years, in fear of what I would find. My sister has finally told me that most of it is still there, the tree shaped like the number four, the sliding hill, the moss rock..). One of the houses is beautifully done. It looks like an old New England saltbox, complete with grey stain, a roof that resembles cedar shakes, and a horse barn finished with old-fashioned windows.

We walk by these places, and I remember what they looked like, void of houses, when I rode on my horse by them many years ago, maybe 20 years ago, maybe 30. It’s fun to be walking with my sister, back down the same roads we did as kids.

The sky is breaking clear blue, and I think about how different the weather is, right now, at this moment, just 50 miles away. I think about the girls, diligently weeding the garden, trying to stay on top of it, doing such a great job despite the deluge. And then we get to the Chanterelles.

There is no way that I can describe what this looks like. There are orange carpets of mushrooms as far as we can see. Everywhere. We start picking. And we’re choosey, careful not to take the old ones who’ve sent their spores, or the very young ones who’ll continue the produce. There are other mushrooms. Frilly corral mushrooms, little ones with bright green caps, burnt orange, sun-yellow, velvet brown. It’s like we’re in a terrarium.

Back home, after absconding with 11 ½ pounds of mushrooms, we are greeted with the news that we have the tomato blight- the one that has been spread by big box stores selling to home gardeners who have the desire to grow their own food, and who have unknowingly purchased and spread the disease- the one spread by a fungus called Phytopthera infestans. What a rough justice that I have spent the bits of time harvesting fungi, when a fungus has destroyed our tomatoes…

We pull up and burn 300 of the 600 plants, hoping that the remaining ones don’t die. Shannon drops the F bomb (sorry Daddy Duffield, but she did), and we all just look, having only ever heard a grunt of discontent from her in the past. She planted the seeds, transplanted the plants in their pots, planted them in the ground after making the holes in the biodegradable plastic and mulching the rows with hay. Staked them, tied them, watched them grow fruits. And today, she ripped them out of the ground and burned them. Guess it’s worth the word.

Tali quotes Godfather lines, trying to keep it light. We all work like mad, to get rid of the spores, to stop it, to protect what’s left. All that we have read points to total failure, but right now, we’re up to accepting this horror, not that one.

At supper, we feast on the Chanterelles, that would not be so plentiful, if not for the rain. We don’t talk about the pitfalls. We just rejoice in what we’ve found in this wet, cool summer- like Chicken of the Woods.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Margaret Suzanne (Peggy Sue), 2002 - 2009

Nikko Tinbergen pissed me off at an early age. He said that herring gulls didn’t have the capacity to learn. He concluded this because, after throwing a clam down to crack it open, the gull couldn’t determine that it was easier to crack it open if it threw it on a ledge versus the sand beach. He concluded this after observing that the gull had tried seven times, and hadn’t figured it out. Who decided that seven was the magic number? I have friends who’ve gone through twenty years of their life, making the same mistake, attempting the same task, and still, and still…

I have a weird six degrees of separation litmus for most people that I feel that I can relate to. They are: that Simon and Garfunkle are probably some of the most influential musicians in the United States ( also David Byrne and Conor Oberst, to name some of the more non-obvious), and that animals, do, indeed, possess souls. I understand or can relate best with people who not only listen to this type of music, but who can also interact with animals that they are caring for with the understanding that these animals aren’t just on this Earth to please us. They actually have another purpose, and a useful and meaningful reason for being that has nothing to do with us as human beings.

The Polish Crested chicken that became Peggy Sue was a hothead. She didn’t really like people, and she was fairly high maintenance, as far as chickens go. Didn’t like being touched, didn’t really interact with anyone. She was from a fancy hatchery that specializes in heritage breeds, and she didn’t have a lot of maternal instinct savvy. The first year she decided to try and hatch her own eggs, she forgot that a rooster was needed to actually have the eggs be viable. They exploded under her tiny frame, one at a time, until she was a putrid mess of rotten egg. Round two, she decided to start setting on the eggs in early November. When she got off the eggs to eat or drink, they would quickly freeze and crack. The third time at becoming a mother, she partially hatched the chick. I finished cracking him out of the shell, and Whitney named him Patchouli. Peggy was so proud of her accomplishment, that she literally ran that chick into the ground, procuring food item here, there and everywhere. Patchouli tried to keep up, but in the end could not.

On her fourth try, she had 16 eggs under a little tarp in the middle of the hay mow. After candling them (taking a flashlight and shining it through the egg to see the embryo), 11 were viable, and she hatched nine. Shannon, determined that Peggy would finally become a mother, put her on lockdown in a huge dog crate. There, the chicks thrived, and Peggy chilled, realizing that it had finally happened.

She raised every one of those chicks to independence, but also to her detriment. Today, she finally succumbed to the stress. And I’ve lost my little Peggy Sue.

I drove to Burlington with my sister today. Past where I rode with my first “boyfriend” (I was twelve years old) to the river, past the cemetery, past the place where Dad would practice his bow and arrow for deer season (he never got one with a bow and arrow). Past the campground where, as a girl scout, I camped and made potatoes in the fire pit. Through the fields, where the hay has still not been cut because of our horrendous weather, past where my best friend’s dog got hit by a car, all the way to the biggest city in Vermont.

Peggy was with us, because I couldn’t leave her to die at home alone. She rallied in Burlington, raised her head, drank some honey water. We left her in the warm car and walked Church Street, looking at the beautiful people eating in the outside booths, looked for bargains, saw the circus, and bought lots of Asian Market groceries. Bradford came too, and he got new Crocs at a bargain price at Outdoor Gear Exchange. It was a really fun time, the second time to my favorite city besides Portland, Maine, in a week.

On the way home, we took the back road to the farm, to search for Chicken of the Woods mushrooms. I had a tree staked out, where Janet and I had harvested about three pounds the week before. When we hit exit 4, there were four of us in the car taking in the cool air that this summer is giving us. I told everyone to keep eyes peeled for mushrooms. “And that means you, Peggy” She flapped in her carrier when I said her name. And then she died. We pulled over so I could hold her, but she was already gone.

Who gets so attached to a feathered thing? Who attributes so many human qualities to something clearly much less human?

“Mom, did you know that a Flamingo’s brain is smaller than its eye?” It is my brainy child, trying to make order in this confusing world.

“Yes, baby, but can you imagine how much is packed into that little space?”

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Independence Day. It’s the day we closed on the farm property, the day my favorite cat ran away and then was re found and rescued by Kyle, the day, as a child, when I’d ride my pony to the town parade, his hooves painted red, white and blue.

I’ve always stayed up for the sound of distant explosions and the occasional spark of lights (fireworks), but today, I’ve actually just come to at ten o’clock at night, after snoozing so soundly that I woke myself with my own version of explosions: loud snores.

My back has given out, as it does every year, around this time of harvest. So Janet has offered to do a type of massage that is supposed to re-align energy in the body. I jump on this opportunity, because I am a massage freak. Any type of massage is good in my book. It isn’t really massage, though, it’s kind of half Reiki, half pressure points, half what she learned to do on horses. Anyway, it quickly sends me into slumber, and I become blissfully rid of the stress of the delayed harvests, the lack of hay, the predominance of weeds, the blue spirits brought on by these gunmetal gray, cold skies of this particular summer.

Even the normally uncontrollable nine year-old resists the temptation to move lying next to me, waiting for his turn at this massage and energy re-alignment (because he still believes in magic). I am skeptical that anything will work to make me actually want to walk again, but slumber comes in spite of my faithlessness.

The next evening, the iPod is on shuffle. We’ve gone through Kings of Leon, then the Miseducation of Lauren Hill, then the Best of Leonard Cohen, then Loreena Mckinnet, live. Brit is cooking an awesome stir-fry, and Shannon is doing the evening chores. Tali and Janet are cleaning out the part of the barn that we’ve always referred to as the wood museum. It’s a huge room that is largely filled with beautiful pieces of wood that Kyle has designs to make into something later. Every sort of lumber that Kyle has carefully milled and stickered (the art of drying the wood with pieces of wood stuffed in between to make sure that the boards dry). They sort them, according to size and type, trying to make a place of their own to hang out in, away from main part of the house.

The Peonies have finished blooming now. It makes me remember Whitney, who was here last year, and who unexpectantly became one of my best friends. The corn is planted, so it reminds me of Greggy, who was too Dudey for the other farm, and who we got instead. What a gem. It reminds me of Chris, a hipster that re-introduced Bradford to the Clash, from a hipster’s point of view; of Justin, who taught Bradford how to fish, of Marka, who kept the peace here, and of Jeremy, who hated the farm lists, and would set out on his own each morning, secretly protective of the potatoes. Maria, the sweet Bell from the south, who loved Bradford, and would do anything to keep the farm going; Joey, the rescue apprentice, and my crush, who painted the whole house in three weeks. Kate the difficult vegetarian, who ended up raising pigs and turned out to be a cool Mom; Rachel from Brazil, who shelled beans and knitted hats and played music. I’m reminiscing, it’s true, because I feel like anyone who has been here before, who has experienced the intensity of farming and its uncertainty should know how much of a pleasure it is this year to have everything so organized. It’s incredible. And despite the hardships, despite my nearly daily panic attacks about weeds and hay and who of the beautiful ewe lambs I need to let go, and all of the other curve balls this screwy weather is throwing at us, things are good, and they are going well. And tonight, I can walk, and remain in awe of the magic art of touch and healing.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Leaping In

"...and the theory of relativity occurred to Einstein in the time it takes to clap your hands. This is the greatest mystery of the human mind- the inducive leap. Everything falls into place, irrelevancies relate, dissonance becomes harmony, and nonsense wears a crown of meaning. But the clarifying leap springs from the rich soil of confusion, and the leaper is not unfamiliar with pain." -John Steinbeck

It seems only fitting that the blog has decided to post my photos backwards, from placid sunshine to green growing things to the impending storm and finally to dinner at the end of the day, all in reverse order.
I am fully aware that I've been silent for over a month, overwhelmed with the growing season and all that that entails. Things are good here, though. In this picture, Bradford is in the foreground, leaping into the picture. Brittany is behind him, then Tali, who cooked this fabulous meal, then Janet, Tyler, and Shannon. Tali cooked it while we got some hay in. The weather patterns have sent low after low scudding across the map, from west to east, and each time, our window for haying disappears into a haze of drizzle and clouds. Today was no exception. Shannon tedded the hay- used a machine that scatters the hay all across the field to dry it out faster- then, by the time I came home from the animal hospital, it was ready to rake into rows for baling. Dana and a very pregnant Heather arrived on the scene just as a huge rainbow and accompanying showers passed just to our east.

Here, you can see the blue sky disappearing to our south, and the big storm racing toward us from the north and east. We got all but four bales on the wagon before I hollered that I was cutting and running for the barn with Gertie, the 23 year-old truck towing it. Everyone piled onto the wagon, and we made it into the barn just as the rain really let loose. It felt so good to get the hay in before the rain had a chance to ruin it that we all sat around, stunned and wet from the rain. Except for Bradford, who darted like a frog from one puddle to another, soaking wet from the torrent.

Protected inside one of the two hoophouses are the head lettuces, the bunching onions, and two mammoth cabbages that were wayward strays in the transplanting process, and who we kept out of pity. They are nearly four feet across now, and just starting to head up.

Michael, the 32 year-old horse, is still protecting the sheep. They are doing really well this year. The lambs are beautiful, and it's only a matter of how much hay we can get in the barn that determines how many of them we can keep as replacements. The five cows are comfortably pastured on the hill, and the piggies are growing quickly, thanks to the constant attention of the apprentices. We have squash bugs and Mexican bean beetles. We are struggling to get hay in because of the constant flow of low pressure. We have so much lettuce that we can't sell it all. And still. And still, this farming life is a good thing. It's constant and it's empowering.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Burst Bubbles

The undeniable fact is that any species’ pursuit of its interests will always have an impact on the rest of the planet’s life-the fox impacting on the chicken population, the flea on the cat, the beaver on the forest, and the sheep on the grass. Living in a bubble, where one’s individual actions (let alone those of one’s entire species) have only a benign effect, or none at all, on other living things, is not an option. Such moral purity simply doesn’t exist. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, in The River Cottage Meat Book. 2004.

I think that the crew is probably about done with my lectures on the hypocracy of veganism; of the complacency of vegetarianism; of the solutions for the world’s ills, based on farming. Well, not done, but, a smile smirks across their faces when I start in, so I know that they know what to expect next from my mouth.

At Fat Rooster, our bubble is always burstable. Like on Wednesday, when Shannon called me at the animal hospital where I work three days a week, and said that that the driving rain had sent the sheep through the fence, toward the gardens. Luckily, the three, Shannon, Brittany and Janet, were able to steer the sheep to the paddock and save the 600 heads of lettuce. Then, when we thought we could begin to transplant wildly—eggplants, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and much, much more, the rains began. We are expected to get a quarter of an inch of rain every 12 hours for the next 7 days. Perfect for transplanting and hardening seedlings, but very hard on the psyche, 7 days of cold and mud, and nowhere to sprawl out and gaze up at fluffy blue clouds.

The sheep pens have begun to get cleaned, and talk about a bubble burster. The barn is not wide enough for a Bobcat to come in and scoop out the three foot high mound of manure and hay that has accumulated during the winter. Literally thousands of pounds of manure need to be pitchforked or shoveled, one load at a time, into wheelbarrows, then carted outside to the manure pile. It is a daunting task. And a challenge. Definitely a stereo is needed to assist in the chore, and as of now, the stereo resides in the greenhouse. The tri-musketeers tackled the project and got about 25 square feet conquered; only 17 times more than that to go…

Kyle made blueberry rhubarb cobbler from berries that we harvested last year and fresh rhubarb. I am sauteeing sweetbreads in gluten-free herbed flour and butter; there is braised baby swiss chard and spinach drenched in minced wild leeks, pine nuts and basil, and a grilled kielbasa to douse in homemade ketchup and relish.

We’re about to watch one of my favorite movies of all times- Strictly Ballroom. Neither Brit, nor Janet have seen it. Nor have they ever tried sweetbreads. Oh, what bubbles …

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Harold: Maude?
Maude: Yeah?
Harold: [pulls the stamped coin from the arcade out of his pocket] Here.
Maude: A gift!
[reads the engraving]
Maude: "Harold loves Maude."... and Maude loves Harold. This is the nicest gift I've received in years.
[she throws the stamped coin into the water]
Harold: [gasps, bemused]
Maude: So I'll always know where it is.

One of my most vivid childhood memories is having the laying hen chicks arrive in the mail in the spring. It was the harbringer of everything living returning to our cold clime. I must admit that even though I am a born and raised Vermonter, I hate winter. I hate the cut throat cloudless sunsets and the endless dreary days, to paraphrase Ray LaMontagne, but when the chicks came, it meant an end to cold.

We’ve entered the world of technology. There’s wireless internet throughout the farmhouse, and we’ve changed our email address for the first time in ten years. I have Pandora radio streaming through the computer- it’s playing a playlist that Whit created and emailed me from across the middle of the Pacific, where she lives on an island inhabited mostly by birds, seals and turtles. Does all the information make everything harder or easier?

The swine flu panic doesn’t make it seem easier. You can even Twitter its progress across the globe, tracking every suspected or confirmed case. I woke up with a sore throat this morning and wondered if I have it, when really, if I hadn’t had all of this information, I would have just chalked it up to spring allergies. Brittany, one of the new apprentices says that her friend sent her an email that said,”They said we’d elect a black president when pigs flew; 100 days later, swine flu.” Pretty funny. Also check out the Winnie the Pooh swine flu comic. Just Google it, and there it will be. I spent an hour typing song lines into Google to get the artists from one of the playlists that Shannon gave me…got every song title and artist except one in seventeen tracks.

If I don’t hear from someone within two days, I think that I’m being snubbed. I forget that they have lives, too, and that it is spring, and everyone is whirling around, out of control, trying to keep the threads of progress from unraveling into a tangled jumble of summer…

We’ve had two more ewes lamb, both teenaged mothers, both doting on their tiny little lambs. The lambs are healthy and hardy, but I think I might take them to Strafford, where some of the sheep summer on a landscaper’s farm (the ewes and their lambs are there in the pasture to add to the bucolic scene for potential clients, and the owner buys and raises the lambs for his employees for the fall). Both births were unexpected and a complete surprise and joy, given that they’re both fine and healthy.

Peggy the Polish Crested hen is very close to hatching out her chicks. The other little bantam hen hatched out two of nine (it’s her first time at motherhood), and is in a protected corner of the barn. New chicks arrive in the mail, today, and any minute, I’ll get the call from the postmistress, to come pick up the chicks (it’s 5:30 am right now).

There’s a man and his son here doing lots of foundation work on the barn. I want him to build this enormous deck overlooking the clover pasture, where we could languish in the shade of the ancient black locust during the summer, sipping lemonade or chardonnay. Seven grand is needed, though, so not sure that’s a likely reality. He is reluctant to commit to the deck, because I am asking him to be artistic, to surprise me, to show me that I know he is capable of doing this extravagant thing. I’m not sure that I can get him to do it…

It’s onion planting time. They survived being left out in the 18 degree nights, a careless move by me, underestimating the power of windchill. I’ve planted 3900, and there’s only 11,000 to go. We’ve been harvesting wild leeks like crazy, the push for local food fueling the demand. We need to get 60 bunches ready for market on Saturday. Shannon and I have mini contests harvesting them. I’m faster, but hers are far prettier.

Here are pictures of the onions. They are started in the greenhouse in February, in these big pots. Then, the tops are trimmed, and they are unceremoniously dumped out of the pots and separated so that they are put into the ground, bare rooted. Each one is tucked into this biodegradeable plastic (it’s made of corn!), and then left on its own to survive. Onions are resilient. And they are reliable in the sense that they can surprise you with their survivability. So even though it’s a surprise everytime, I’m pretty sure I can count on them to come through.

This has been a tough day for me, beginning at 5:00 am, because I have to drive to the post office to get the chicks, do the chores, and get our son on the bus. Kyle is quick to assume the duties of feeding him and getting him on the bus. I have to figure out how to get an order ready for a store, do a tour for an elementary school, deliver produce to CSA shares (people who put up money when nothing is available, and we use it to buy seed and animals—maybe pay the electric bill--, then they get whatever is available at the farm), deliver to the retail store, pick up my son, pick up the beef that is ready at the shop, cook dinner for 6 guests tonight. Luckily, Shannon, Dana, Heather and Karen team up and cook dinner, so when I get home, everything is ready, and all I have to do is eat.

Which brings us to the chicks, that I have just checked up on, making sure that the waterer is full, and there is grain scattered on the newspaper.

Driving to the post office to pick up the chicks was probably the most rehearsed of the day’s activities; I’ve done it close to a hundred times before. How the rest of the day was going to pan out- not so sure. I was pretty much fried by the time I got the chicks. Gloria at the post office is so nice; she leaves the front door open, so I can come in two hours before everyone else, and do the secret chicken knock, and get the chicks. I crank the heat in the car and head to the PO. When I get the chicks back to the house, Brad has already gone to school on the bus, and Kyle has left for his ecologist job at Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historical Park, where he works three days a week. I take the chicks to the barn, in the twightlight of the breaking dawn.

The night before, Linda called me from the hatchery. She told me that they had sent 27 instead of 25 chicks, just to make sure that they survived. So now I sit in the dark of the barn, touching each chick’s beak to the water, to make sure that they know how to drink, as if their mother had shown them how. I count, 25, 26, 27. They are accounted for. But I hear peeping from the box, and I spy some dark little thing in the corner. I grasp it in my hand and burst into tears. It’s a little duckling. It looks at me with mournful eyes: are you lost, cause I’m lost. I have no idea why I am here. Do you know?

In that instant, it comes to me that I’d rather be surprised by what is to come- to wait and not be instantly gratified all of the time- to believe that magic happens once in a while, for no reason, and without real purpose. I haven’t named the duckling yet, but maybe I’ll call him Chance.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Heaven, Hell and Earth

“I think it’s just as likely that someone could say this place, right here, is heaven, hell, and earth all at the same time. And we still wouldn’t know what to do differently. Everyone just muddles through, trying not to make too many mistakes.” Trudy, in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle- David Wroblewski 2008

For fours days, we have basked in Maine, unencumbered with the responsibilities of animals to care for and plants to water. When we arrived, the ocean was angry and unapproachable. Bradford tried anyway, and Kyle looked for wayward seabirds. I pretty much read books, walked a lot listening to the iPod, and cooked. By the end of our stay, the ocean was almost glass, and the hawks were migrating. We saw osprey, kestrel, sharp-shinned, broad-winged, merlin, red-tailed, skimming the ocean air currents on their way to breeding grounds. White-crowned sparrows sang “Poor Jo Jo missed his bus,” and yellow rumped warblers flitted after flies. We missed the “fall out,” where the shorebirds arrive, en masse. Probably just another couple of days away. Still, that we had weather fair enough to tan skin is a gift in April.

We ate lots of fresh seafood and lots of homemade candy- anis gummy lobsters, cappachino flavored jelly beans, and a square of candy made from caramel and marshmallow. Yum!

We biked and walked and drove looking at beautiful houses with manicured yards and spring flowers. The boys ate donuts almost every morning. I had rice crackers topped with cream cheese and smoked wild salmon. I really wish they’d make a gluten-free donut.

When it was time to leave, we had been offered an entire extra day to stay by Shannon, who has been taking care of everything in Vermont. Still, on the morning of our departure, we all three, readied the little house for departure, and by 11:00, we were eager to head home.

Whenever we would come home from vacation as a kid, the first thing my sister and I would do would be to leap out of the car and take head counts of the animals. Each chicken would be checked and kissed and cooed at. Today, I try hard to help Kyle unpack the car, but I am really taking mental stock of the chickens, cats, and dogs. Peggy is brooding her eggs. The two hens with chicks are safe. But where is Henry? I search the yard, I search the front of the house. Shannon is inside the barn doing chores, and the first thing that I say to her should not be Where Is Henry? It should be – the house looks emaculate- the planting that you’ve done looks great. The sheep pens are clean!

Finally, I get up courage to go inside the barn where she is feeding the animals. I call hello to her, and exclaim at how big the lambs have gotten since I ‘ve been away these six days. Then, hearing my voice, my giant rooster comes waddling out to me, waiting to be scooped up and cuddled.

Fat Rooster Farm is an anchor, a burden, a choice made long ago to nurture a piece of land and try in some small way to contribute to preserving a way of living that has fallen out of favor in our society as a whole- to farm.

The chores are done. No one has died. The weeds are still nascent. This clearly looks like heaven. Tomorrow I will go in search of morel mushrooms, after I have planted the bok choi and broccoli and harvested wild leeks.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Life ain’t nothin but a funny funny riddle- thank God I’m a country boy.
John Denver

There may be nothing nearly as scary as listening to John Denver cover Robbie Robertson’s The Weight. It is playing now, as we languish here in this seaside house in Maine, a personally chosen torture, for me, by Kyle. It almost matches in horror the duet that John sings with Placido Domingo, but not nearly.

It has been three years that we’ve ventured anywhere on a vacation together, with no agenda, no family to visit, just to have a break off the farm. In December, Whit let us off the hook to go to Ohio to see Kyle’s family. It was a break, and while it was undoubtedly a gift to get away from Fat Rooster, there was not a chance just to wander throughout the hours of the day, unencumbered.

Ray and Liz, the owners of Back Beyond Farm have extended this opportunity to us in the past- a chance to stay in their beachfront house in Wells, Maine, bordered by the Atlantic on one side, and by Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge on the other. Today, in celebration of Earth Day, we walked the refuge trail, and listened to the first songs of spring. A pair of bluebirds, setting up court in the saltmarsh, a pine warbler advertising his newly found territory. At Biddeford Pool, outside of Kennebunkport, we walked past mansions to East Point to see Common Eiders bobbing in the angry ocean waves. There are dogwoods blooming, as are forsythia and daffodils; the air is laced with spring, but when Bradford and I went to bask on the beach, we retreated quickly back to the cabin and shifted gears to bike riding the two miles into the town’s wharf.

Shannon, raised in New Jersey, and until just recently, employed by a container company, had never even set foot near a farm. On Monday, we dumped the whole thing on her, and fled for Maine. I think she’ll be okay, as the cow that threatened to bash someone’s head in was butchered before we left; the hen hatched her chicks and is safely sequestered in a pen with them, away from the maurading peacock, the last sheep to lamb did so two days before we left, and things usually happen in three’s, don’t they?

My email from Shannon today said that Neil, the hound dog, found the cow’s carcass and vomited blood in the house. Tildy Anne, the matron of our herd of cows, escaped from her collar, and ran loose in the barn until Shannon was able to coax her back to her stanchion with grain. Her dog, Pepper, is too keyed up to stay with her while housesitting, so he is on lockdown at her and her boyfriend’s house while she farmsits.

It could be worse- she could be listening to this John Denver tune…

When we arrived here, we found that there was no phone. In a mini moment of panic, we hopped in the car, and drove the streets with the laptop (Kyle has named the lap pod), looking for unsecured connections to the internet. Bradford found one about a mile down, and we emailed everyone we could think of that we were safe. I then found an actual landline and called home. Everything was fine. The dog had not yet puked, nor had the cow escaped.

Back at the cabin, it took Bradford about ten minutes to find that there was actually intermittent unsecured access in the house, and we have been surviving, without tv, without radio, without telephone, with just a little help on the internet, when it decides to work. Email to Whit, to Shannon, to Mom and Dad, the weather, to eBird, to Amazon to track book sales.

I’m reading a great book- the Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Kyle is reading Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie. Bradford is reading a Roald Dahl, and hounding us to play endless games of Pictionary, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, and Monopoly. He has been swimming in the chilly Atlantic twice, his face blue with cold, and a smile on his lips that could beat Edward’s in Twilight.

Outside, the marsh lies misty and cold, but a warm front is coming, promising air that will rise to the 80s. It’s wonderful to have this luxury, this chance not to plan each second of the day- to forget, even, what day it is. Tomorrow to Portland, to the fish wharfes. But now, tacos made of carrots from our neighbor’s farm, meat from our cattle, and beans we grew and threshed by hand.

Friday, April 17, 2009

In two weeks, we will start up our CSA again. For those who don’t know about CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), it’s pretty cool. People sign up in the beginning of the growing season, before the seeds have been planted, before summer’s bounty begins to flow. The great thing for farmers is that it allows us to have a cash flow that is normally lacking severely at a time when supplies for the farm are at the peak of need. Fencing, seeds, money to purchase chicks and piglets, bills for fixing the idle equipment in the barnyard, they all happen before anything really starts growing. There are many variations to the CSA model; people can receive a weekly offering from the farm, packed by the farmer; there can be choices that the individual can take or leave; or in our case, the amount can be subtracted from a database, and people can pick or choose what they want weekly. We felt like this method works best for us, because it is all done over email, and because some people really have a hard time trying to figure out what to do with kohlrabi all of the time.

People can also do a straight barter for work here, where they’re paid by the hour in the equivalent amount of vegetables, fruits or meats. This is great for someone who just wants to do some physical work after being in the office all day, but doesn’t have the time or the space to keep a garden or animals.

Kyle plowed the fields yesterday. He’s watering the raspberry plants that he transplanted. I hope to get them rototilled in time for Shannon to plant the rest of the brassicas—the family that includes cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi. There’s lots of spinach to plant, even more lettuce. We harvested both curly and flat-leafed parsley yesterday and sold it to the local food co-op.

We sold 25 lambs already, which makes the burden on the poor ewes a lot less (and the burden on our dwindling hay supply easier to take). There are still about 40 of them cavorting in the barn, being chased by the cranky geese, where both females are laying eggs and trying to hatch them out. There’s a little hen behind the lawn mower who is sitting on about 8 eggs that will hatch any day.

I’m sitting in the front lawn on the old stones that they used around the countryside to attach wire to for fencing, after they’d cut all the trees down and had nothing for posts. Now the stones are the front porch step. The grass is still just a little too wet to sit on.

Amidst the time worn traditions associated with farming, enter technology. I have some rules about the big three that I just feel are a big waste of energy, and there’s really no logical reason behind me choosing them as the big three, save for the fact that I used to live on an island in the middle of the Pacific, where energy was not a commodity to be wasted. They are: dryer, microwave, and dishwasher. However, I am certainly not above owning a laptop, or an iPod; and certainly the dsl that arrived last week is okay. And here’s where the technology comes in.

My first purchase was not a car. Nor was it a cell phone (mainly because when I was a teenager, they didn’t exist). What I bought first, after many months of deliberation, was a stereo, complete with dual tape deck and turntable. I still have that turntable, and it works just fine; in contrast, we’ve gone through five cd players in ten years.

I love music. It’s a way to set words to notes, so that the melody hits your brain, and then you listen and feel a verbal and melodic connection at the same time.

I have a weird habit of associating songs to specific events in my life. My friend Kep has quizzed me with different songs, and I’ve countered with what they meant to me, almost like asking someone where they were or what they were doing when JFK was shot, or when people were jumping out of the Twin Towers, both of which I can remember.

Another strange thing about my situation: I am the very last Baby Boomer and very first Generation X, so I don’t really fit into either.

Back to technology. is amazing. Go onto their website, tell them a few songs that you like, and they put together a huge playlist that you can listen to, for free. If you don’t like the song, just tell them, and they erase it from the list and any other associated genre as well!

Why is this so exciting? Because if I could, I’d put speakers all over the farm so that I could listen to music. Art, music, and farming are the attributes that I feel most proud about for being human. And Pandora has opened a huge box of possibility for me to explore.

Here are some soil building pictures for you to enjoy. The first shows what Kyle uncovered from the very first field that we cultivated in 1998: we’re still uncovering buried junk. The next is the succession of manure to compost, and the last is actually plowing the field after manure has been spread. Then, plant, plant plant!

It’s spring. I saw a toad today, and its here. Time to savor every moment, to let things linger, and to languish in exquisite sunshine. Bloodroot and Coltsfoot blooming in the forests; wild leeks and stinging nettles to harvest. It is abundance at its best- on the cusp of having nothing, we are given the most precious green.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Srping Enlightening

Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day. Thomas Jefferson

This is the first year in nine and a half years that we have not been occupied with sugaring- making maple syrup- in partnership with the neighbors. I am ecstatic, to be honest. I asked Kyle if he missed it, and was actually surprised with his answer: “little bit”. For me, sugaring involved collecting sap on days when no one else was available, usually in the rain and cold sleet, or worse, sitting for long hours in the sugarhouse as the sap was transformed to sweet ambrosia. I was not usually allowed the task of filling the arch, under which the sap thickened to syrup and the fire raged. I was not allowed to fill the flaming inferno with fuel, the wood that I had help cut and stack that fall. Nor was I allowed to actually determine when to take the syrup off of the pans. Instead, I cleaned the sugarhouse of its fast food containers, plastic cups, paper plates, plastic forks. I changed sap filters, removed the soiled muslins that filter the hot syrup when its poured off, and transferred it into syrup cans. All the while, I was thinking about lambs being born unattended, or greenhouses going unwatered, or gardens staying unprepared just too long to hit the May market with fresh produce. I missed the first woodcock’s song, the first wood frog emerging from his snowy winter cave, the first phoebe singing his song, the first yearling ewe trying to mother her newborn.

I do not miss sugaring at all. I know that I will help my husband in the future, should he decide to venture on his own, and do something small-scale, and I know that I will not be relegated to just filling cans with “syrup”. Till then, I am enjoying the most thrilling part of Vermont’s seasons for me: spring. Blink and you’ll miss it. But really, it’s so subtle, that it’s much longer and larger than people claim it to be:

1) Red-winged blackbirds, followed shortly by grackles
2) Snow fleas on the snow (not really fleas, but living bugs, just the same)
3) Christmas ornaments disappear
4) Lambs are born
5) The air smells damp
6) Wild ramps (wild leeks)
7) Mourning Cloak butterflies
8) Goldfinches turn yellow
9) Mudseason
10) The light returns!!!!

I have been part of a three-way collaborative, albeit a small part, to help a beautiful horse this year. His name is Backstreet Beau. He was a six year-old stallion, and he is recently gelded. I’ve been riding him lately, and having the time of my life. He is a good boy, just a little full of himself. I’ve been trying to introduce him to Michael, but that’s going pretty slowly. I think his problem is that every other horse that he’s met was for a performance purpose, not just a casual get together. He’s beautiful, and Ginny, owner number one, is hoping to use him as the mascot for an animal rescue organization.

Today, instead of filling cans with syrup, I rode Beau down to the house. Bradford really wanted to ride him. I knew that when I left the barn that it wasn’t going to happen, because Beau is feeling pretty good these days.

The onions are hardening off now, and Shannon has almost shelled the last of the beans. We are harvesting wild leeks and nettles. That’s the crazy thing about spring in Vermont—if I don’t blog every three days, the stuff I’ve begun working on to post just 9 days before is old news!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Blackbirds in the Fog

Blackbirds are flying in the fog. It is fog that I see now out of the eastern windows, as I wake, reluctantly, to my 4:59 am alarm. It’s set at that time so that I can boast of waking before 5 am. Really, there’s a routine involved, of shedding layers of warm covers, of undraping myself from my husband’s warm grasp, of dodging the cat’s paws on my wiggling toes, wiggling to take flight from this resting place, as the blackbirds have done.

There is no greater thrill for me than to wake to the sound of bird song in March. From now until the 19th of July, the birds will sing, announcing their willingness to take on familial duties. Many of us don’t feel the absence of bird song in July since fecundity is at the cusp of excess when it comes to gardens or carefully tended livestock, but the subtle changes of late summer and senescence have truly begun by then, at least here in Central Vermont.

Outside, the blackbirds are puffing up their red wing bar feathers, practicing for the return of the females, who make the journey fully three weeks later, counting on their prospective mates to set up household and procure territories that are bountiful with provisions for the summer of family rearing. When they finally do return, there is a bit of a free for all, as the birds are not monogamous, and the most flamboyant, most impressive males with the best territories are chosen first by the females.

In our hoophouses that were erected two years ago, everything is in order. Shannon has weeded the east house twice, carefully covering the crops that Kyle planted last fall with Remay. It’s a magic cover that warms the soil as much as 10 degrees more, and inside the hoophouse that can translate to 35 degrees, even when it’s 23 degrees Fahrenheit outside. There is spinach, arugula, radishes, Chinese cabbage, spring onions, and carrots all started and growing. We have been eating greens since the middle of February, and we made it through the winter buying just 6 heads of lettuce.

In the bottom picture, you can see the established greens from September in the middle. The lettuce that Shannon planted is on either side. These plants were started from seed in our heated greenhouse.

In the picture to the right, you can see the radishes planted between the rows of lettuce transplants. The carrots are planted underneath the radishes. The radishes will be harvested at about three weeks, just as the carrots begin to germinate and begin to compete for space. The lettuce will be harvested as heads become ready at about the same time as the radishes. A cherry tomato plant will be planted in some of these newly vacant spaces, about two feet apart from each other. Basil plants will flank the tomatoes, and the planting cycle will be complete. At the end of the season, the house will rest over the winter, and early the next spring, it will be used to grow just greens. We rotate the tomatoes from one house to another in an effort to cut down on pests that prey on tomatoes. Some people winter their chickens in the unheated houses to scratch up and remove the larvae that lay just under the surface of the soil. As long as there is plenty of fresh water, the chickens do well in these unheated houses. The added light from all sides will allow more productive egg laying; a chicken’s pituitary gland reacts to diminished light by decreasing their egg production.

Today it was gloriously warm- in the 60s! I put a blanket and a pillow in Bradford’s plastic sled and lay outside in the sun, listening to birdsong. Soon, the sheep will be on pasture, and wild leeks and stinging nettles will add to our table’s bounty. Tonight, we dine on mixed greens- arugula, red mustard, leaf lettuce, cress and kale shoots. The main fair is what I’m really excited about- real Boston Baked Beans from our own Bird’s Egg Beans that we harvested in the fall and Shannon and Whit have been shucking since January. Only 50 or 60 pounds left to go…

In the top picture, you can see that the aisle ways have been mulched with hay. Between the rows of lettuce heads, spring bunching onions have been planted.

Boston Baked Beans

1 small smoked ham hock, about 1 ½ pounds
2 cups dry beans, such as Navy or Pinto (or Bird’s Egg, Cranberry or Goose beans)
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 cup dark real maple syrup, grade B or C
½ cup dark molasses
Salt and pepper to taste
4 garlic cloves, slivered

Cook the beans until tender, but not mushy. Drain and reserve the bean cooking liquid.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix all other ingredients except the ham hock together with the beans. Add enough of the reserved bean liquid to make the beans soupy. Put the ham hock in a cast iron Dutch oven or bean pot and pour the beans around it.

Bake the beans for four hours; checking occasionally to see that the liquid has not all evaporated (add more if needed). The beans will be done when the meat flakes off of the bone. Shred it into the beans, remove the bone, fat and cartilage and serve with fresh greens and pickled vegetables like beets or dilly beans.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I will find the bones of buried pigs
And hang them on your clothesline.

listen to the sound of them drying.

I will become a cattle egret who perches on the
memory of cattle
and picks insects from the dark skins.
I will bury myself deep enough

goats’ milk fills in
around my shoulders. Around my neck

I will wear a string of gourds and old farm

and in the ceremony
of your work

I will put coal on my ring finger
And tell myself, wait.
I will eat your apples

Because apples are proof
and they have fallen from the trees.

- Molly Bashaw- Letters to a Farm

I love March. Red-winged blackbirds return, the males at first, their fire-engine red wing bars blaring, their cheerful song bursting life into the silent, ice world of winter. Then come the black-green grackles singing tunes that sound like bad ring-tone choices on cell phones. Killdeer and woodcocks follow soon after, and then it is upon us, spring and its swell and hopeful greetings of change. No more bitter cold winds and nights where long-sleeved shirts and four blankets are required to keep warm.

The mud is the worst it’s been in ten years. School was cancelled once already, because the scant three inches of snow on the muddy roads made it impossible for the plows to pass. The $1800 we poured into the driveway is really getting its mettle tested as nights plummet to the teens, and days caress the warm winds of the 40s and 50s. I love mud season. And I love that today marks the first day of spring, which means we have 12 hours of daylight to luxuriate in.

Shannon Duffield started her apprenticeship this week. She applied for a position at Country Animal Hospital, where I am a veterinary technician, and I immediately became intrigued by her. Her resume was spot on, and she had a boatload of charisma. Her only weakness was that she couldn’t offer any length of time past August at the animal hospital without certainty. So when I saw her name on the list of potential NOFA apprentices, I jumped at the chance to have her come meet the farm.

And she is great. She’s already cleaned out the sheep pens that we refer to as the moldy pens, and today, I came home to find the chicken coop spotless. This is good, because VPR is coming on Friday to do a book interview, complete with chicken noises.

She has no farm experience, and I hoped to let her in on the stark realities of this business slowly, but Compaya, my 21 year-old llama died the day after she started her apprenticeship. Then there were two difficult births by yearling ewes (all the lambs and moms are fine), followed by a stillbirth four days later by a young ewe not experienced in the art of licking her newborn dry.

Today takes the horrible reality award though. Petal, the beautiful, sweet, perfect calf hung herself and died today. She was not even two months old. Her poor mother, Ginger, has the rope burn scars, where the halter her calf wore razed a jagged line across her back. I can only guess that a startled Ginger rose, while Petal was lying on the other side of her, and she strangled her own baby.

Shannon bravely handed me water and tools as Kyle and I scrambled to replace the horror of this tragic accident with practicality. Here was a 300 pound milk fed calf that would be composted if we didn’t act quickly. Had we been just minutes earlier, she would have been saved, but now, we had just minutes to save her meat for consumption.

Shannon stayed back as I slit Petal’s throat to bleed her out, then skinned her feet. Kyle got the tractor, and we hung her to skin and gut. We washed her and hung her to cure, and truly, the meat is beautiful. It is perfect veal, like that you would find in any specialty store. The problem that I have in allowing it just to be perfect meat is the tragedy of her death. I wrestle in my brain with why it’s easier for me to accept the local butcher coming with his gun to shoot the grass-fed steer than to accept Petal’s absence. And then, I think that it’s just that. I had dreamed of Petal romping about pastures, raising her own beautiful calves, not dying a horrible freak death.
I am truly thankful that we were able to pull our grief together so quickly and save the meat: although I feel as though it is important to feed the soil, it would somehow have felt like a waste to me.

For Shannon, it was easier to see the carcass without the beautiful hide, the head with its brown eyes, the feet, the tail—those things that make it a real animal. I know how she feels. It may be why I worked so hard to turn the animal that I know and kissed and pet and dried when it was born, back to a carcass. I don’t know. And the starkness of this reality always confronts me as though it’s the first time that I‘ve had to think it through.

So this is my letter to the farm, although not nearly as beautiful as Molly’s. We are at the cusp of fertility, of rebirth, but always reminded of our fragility.

As you read this, Whitney is on a boat to Tern Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where I spent almost four of the happiest years of my life. Reality abounded there, but so did magic. I hope that she finds the same. If you want to follow her adventures, she has a blog called It’s the Sun. I miss her terribly, and I know that she would grieve Petal as we do.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ge Ready for Your Chicks!

Time to Get Ready for Chicks!

March 1st—get set, GO! It’s still 10 degrees Fahrenheit at night here, and I’m still wearing double layers of clothes, but it’s time to plan! This is the year you’re going to do it. You’re ready raise chicks, and you should order them now in time for delivery in the spring (I try to time it so that the chicks can go outside in three weeks, and the pen they are in still has a heat source that keeps the air warm in at least one area to about 80 degrees Fahrenheit- this translates to late April in our Vermont clime). Start out with the egg layers first, if you’re feeling squeamish about raising meatbirds. Believe me, I’ve been there.

When I was younger and braver, I worked at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. We lived in a common house with a bunch of other 20 year-olds. We were all full of life and energy; so much that we knew we had the power to change the world, if only someone would listen.

I worked in the rehabilitation center for raptors, where we took on injured hawks and owls and occasionally rare songbirds. One of our duties was to feed the captive birds. It didn’t bother me when I had to thaw out the frozen rats- I’ve never really had a huge affinity for them, although I had a great pet rat once. We also fed the birds the chicks from local hatcheries. They were excess hatches, chicks that had not been sold and were killed by gassing them with carbon monoxide. They were an amazing source of food for hawks and owls, but it was hard for me to pick up the black plastic garbage bags full of yellow fuzzy forms and hoist them into the back of the Honda.

On the drive back to the raptor center, I usually had the radio cranked as high as it would go. Never country music, mostly stuff like Journey or REO Speedwagon; sometimes CSNY or Cowboy Junkies. On one trip back to the center, I heard a cheep from the back of the car. I pulled the Honda over, and untied the black bag. There, inside, were three live chicks that had somehow avoided being gassed to death.

I raised those birds at the raptor center until they were so fat that they could hardly follow after me. They were so tame they knew their names. The day came when they started interfering with guests at the center, vying for attention right alongside the Snowy Owl display. I was told that they had to go.

My friend graciously offered to do the slaughtering, and I acquiesced. I remember crying for hours after their demise, wondering how I would ever be able to eat them. They sat in the freezer for about three weeks before I got up the nerve to eat them. When I finally did, I realized that I hadn’t tasted chicken that good and well cared for in a very long time.

But you can start with the egglayers…

Get sexed chicks (the ones that are 98% certain to be hens) from one of the reputable hatcheries mentioned in the Resource section of The Joy of Keeping Chickens, and raise them for egg production. By the time you’ve had the birds for two years, you may be brave enough to tackle the next step… using the chicken meat. Until then, here’s a checklist to get ready for your new chicks:

Housing should be draft-free, corner free (so birds aren’t able to pile up on each other- use cardboard to round out the edges of your pen), and warm (suspending a heat lamp about 17” above the bottom of the pen should create a temperature of about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The pen can be as fancy as a finished, insulated area in your chicken coop, or as rudimentary as a cardboard appliance container with the sides cut away and lined with newspaper for their first few days and dry wood pine shavings thereafter. Make sure domestic house cats and dogs don’t have access to the chicks. Keep young children supervised around the new chicks, as this stress can also be overwhelming to the babies.

2. Waterers should be sufficient enough so that birds don’t have to crowd around frantically to drink. For very small chicks, place marbles or pebbles in the base of the waterer so that the chicks don’t get in it and drown. A one-gallon plastic waterer per 15 to 25 chicks should be good.

Make sure that you have chick starter on hand. This feed is much higher in protein than the ration used to grow older birds. I scatter it on the ground for the first couple of days before filling feeding trays for the chicks.

Change the chick’s bedding daily if needed. Feces can be ingested by the chicks, and infestations of protozoans called Coccidia can be detrimental.

Listen to the chicks. They should be emitting cooing type sounds that sound like bee bee beep, bee bee beep. Not CHEEP CHEEP CHEEP. Baby chicks are like any other baby. They need food, water and warmth. Adjust your conditions until you hear happy chick sounds!

More later on what to do to transition your chicks to more independence.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Winter Break

Bradford made a shopping list for me this morning. I had decided to make the trip to the big town 25 miles to our north, because there was a storm calling for eight inches of snow, and I figured that it would be safe to venture out into the metropolis without hitting the crowds that usually frequent on a Sunday. He wanted me to pick up things to make heart-shaped pepperoni pizzas (he was going to make them- he’s an amazing cook at age nine). My hardest task was to find a heart-shaped cookie cutter in the end of February. “They’re seasonally available,” the Wal-Mart associate informed me; “They might be in the reduced items isle.” Instead, I found a plastic, candy-filled heart that could double as a cutter after Kyle had devoured the chocolate inside.

Yes, I shop at Wal-Mart sometimes. Guess what- three bottles of chardonnay, some toiletries and a heart-shaped box of candies for $15 doesn’t break the bank. It was dead in there, and the employees looked nervous at the lack of shoppers on a Sunday in the winter. I mostly do shop at local stores, but the neighbor down the road had just served this $2.99 bottle of merlot the night before which was decent. He said he had purchased it at Wal-Mart. I wanted to see what the chardonnay tasted like. Good- not like Grigich Hills or anything, but good. Certainly as good as the $9.99 bottle at the co-op.

Back home: the sheep are crazy. We’ve had four sets of triplets. My plan of attack this year is just to try and supplement every ewe’s triplets with a bottle of formula, and so far, it has worked-they’ve all survived. The downside is that we’re supplementing seven babies and feeding two without mothers. They drink three, 8 oz soda bottles filled with formula four times a day. To date, there have been 50 lambs born and only 27 ewes have given birth. We have 21 left to lamb!

Some of the lambs have curly hair; some are black and white splotched; there are two that are muddy brown. I’ve only had one mom reject a lamb, ironically, a black ewe that twinned and had one black and one white lamb. She rejected the white lamb. I tied her up so that she couldn’t turn her head around to see who was nursing (called jugging), and she will reluctantly let him nurse, provided that his sister is also nursing. The other exciting thing is that I’ve had to pull lambs (meaning that the birth was not a natural one and had some complication or other) only three times (of course, we’re only about half-way done…). All of the lambs were saved, and the mothers ended up nursing their babies except for one mother, who is destined for sausage, I fear. We’ve named this lamb Bucket, because he’ll invariably have his leg stuck in the water bucket every time we go down there to feed him. Lambs are cute, but they’re sometimes not the brightest bulbs in the circuit.

The little bantam hen that is a mutt, and could be a cochin or an araucana cross, hatched out her eggs two days ago. They are a mix of maple sugar-brown and creamy buff, some with stripes across their eyes, some with puffy cheeks. I was almost certain that Cassie the Silkie was the father, but now it’s looking more like Poopie Poo is the proud daddy. They’ll be travelling to Randolph with me for the book signing at Cover to Cover on March 14th. I think I may take Henry, the enormous Plymouth Rock rooster, too.

My dear friend Ray Williams helped us load the pigs up for slaughter last Tuesday. When he walked into the barn, he looked around and said, “Whoa!”

Billy, the Peacock was in full display. There were 50 sheep and 50 lambs cavorting in their pens. Petal, the heifer calf was bounding up and down the isles. The cows were busily munching their hay, and Poopie, Henry, Danny and Cassie were all crowing at the top of their lungs in celebration of winter’s retreat from cold and darkness.

Ray was the one who helped me get the two llama girls who are now hanging out with the sheep and overseeing all of the new births. He was a little nervous when I told him that the transfer from the former owner’s trailer to his was going to take place in the Seven Barrels Brewery parking lot in downtown West Lebanon. I think he had visions of llamas galloping down Interstate 89 toward Concord.

“The llamas look like they’ve made themselves at home,” he added, watching their snake-like heads weave in and out of the ewes. Ray’s farm is in Chelsea, bordering a beautiful, treeless ridge, and reminiscent of a western valley scene. He and his wife, Liz have beautiful cattle for beef and tomatoes the size of softballs.

So it’s here, this space between winter and spring, when we’re not really busy, but keeping busy. When I still take naps in the new sunshine that streams through the south windows in the early afternoon. I think this may be the last head of lettuce that I have to buy- having only bought six this year, I am quite happy. The arugula, spinach and mustard that Kyle planted in the hoop houses in the fall is thriving, and the greens that Whit and I planted just two weeks ago are looking enticing. Our break is over- the growing season has begun, and I am only too happy to have it wash over me and carry me into what is to come.

Friday, February 13, 2009

“Every moment before this one depends on this one.”-Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

I turned down a CAUSE request today.
“You’re so strong.”
I didn’t even respond to a WHAT KIND OF MOTHER ARE YOU request,”

I’ve entered the world of Facebook, thanks to my friend Geoff. He has been the driving publicity force behind the chicken book that we’ve just published. He called me one night and told me that we needed a Facebook page for it, and I gave him a long, exasperated sigh. Now, four weeks later, here I sit, maneuvering my way through posts and pokes and offers to join various causes. He’s right; the way to reach a mass number is to follow the mass media trends, and this is it. Daily, my question to Whit has been, “guess who just friended me??”

Just three days after I activated my account, I had a classmate from high school contact me, after 23 years of no communication.

Seriously, the premise behind Facebook is a good one. Keep in contact with one another. On the other hand, it’s a little voyeuristic; anyone and everyone has the ability to see what you’re doing and when you’re doing it. I suppose if you’re using it to stalk an old acquaintance, it’s not that great a use of time.

Interestingly enough, it’s been around for years, and only now are people who aren’t necessarily college aged taking advantage of it. The fastest growing demagogue using Facebook are the aged 35 and olders.

“Eliza ate too many cookies today.”
“Lupe is going skiing with a torn MCL”
“Jim is wondering whether he should sit on the couch and kill zombies or go home and clean”

“It’s ridiculous,” Whitney snorts at me. She’s shelling black turtle beans and listening to the Fruit Bats.
“It’s creepy,” she asserts.

Maybe she’s right- I mean if you’re a shooting star, and sailing into the swell of living, who needs that baggage trailing after you? All those painful memories of sitting on the gym benches during the slow dances at school, or being picked out as the one with hand-me-down clothes. Sitting at a computer to write 25 random things about oneself in the hope that it really matters to someone else might be a waste of time...still it’s fun.

“I’m a firm believer that some people should just remain forgotten,” she says.

“Ohh- I have 18 fans for the book now!” Whitney harrumphs and gets up to put wood in the woodstove. “I’m going to check the sheep,” she says in mock disgust, and out the door she goes.

“You still have time left to go back, you know,” she calls after me.

On the more practical side of things, Kyle has ripped up the hall and Brad’s room, and we’re doing renovations that we’ve put off for 10 years. He re-wired the barn, and the driveway has new gravel in it. Pretty soon, there’ll be no time for house repairs and yard work when the growing season begins.

Today we celebrated the sun’s light that still remained at 4:00 pm while we readied the greenhouse we rent from the neighbors for planting. The air inside should have smelled like spring- warm soil and little seedlings unfurling their green heads from their pots. Instead, it smelled strongly of ammonia and rodents. They kept ducks inside of it all winter, and the snow covering the plastic had shut out the light: a perfect petri dish for mold and bacteria. The place is a mess, and Whit and I have spent almost a week trying to get it back to something that resembles a place to grow plants. On top of the ducks, the floor of the greenhouse looks like a watering hole in the Serengeti- there are hundreds of rodent tracks searching for missed pieces of duck grain. You can actually see little rat footprints everywhere. We have to get rid of them before planting anything, because they’ll eat the seedlings faster than the seeds can germinate.

Whitney spent over four hours shoveling the heavy snow and ice off of the greenhouse’s roof, and now we’ve started bringing in the soil to warm and clear off the planting benches.

This weekend marks one year exactly that we’ve known the Red. In case you missed the picture of her, her hair is a burnt auburn, a flashy contrast to her smile and brown eyes. She showed up last year for the infamous interview that we have for our potential apprentices, which isn’t really an interview, but just a chance for us to meet whomever has decided that they want to spend the summer working hard on a farm with little pay and a not-so-private place to stay. In just one week, she’ll leave for an eventual voyage to Hawaii, headed for the chain of uninhabited islands called the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It’s the same place I spent almost four years as a biologist and refuge manager. Paradise, really- seabirds and seals and sea turtles and shockingly blue water and white coral beaches. Her biggest regret is that they now have email capacity there. At least there’s no cell phone service yet.

I don’t look forward to when they leave, these people who put so much of their time and effort into Fat Rooster Farm. The hope they harbor in this world of doubt, fear and despair is such a tonic to me. Gets me through the dreary winter months.

The first lambs are being born now, and the first calf of this year is thriving. The greenhouse is teaming with onion life. Every new moment I live again is what has come before. And every moment points to now.

Soon will be spring- the blackbirds, the woodcock’s crazy aerial dance, the Barred owls calling out their territorial song. I better get busy and write my Facebook 25 things pretty quick…