Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Mixed Bag

Life is a mixed bag.

Some of you may remember all the rain at the end of August and how hurricane Irene really walloped our egg mobile -hens adrift - poultry stress - egg laying cuts - hello, molt! - egg laying ceased.

I put a photo of this hen up last week to introduce our gratitude series and to draw a comparison between our infrequent posts and her infrequent feathers. She caught my eye because she looked so remarkably disheveled. She was one of the last to molt and seemed to have a rougher go of it than the others. Even though it has been a very mild November, it is colder at night now than it was in September.

Our flock has been turning in to roost in the early afternoon before the sun is even down. Once last week I had come in (to the egg mobile) around 3:30pm to check their feed and found them already in quiet repose, lined up along their horizontal perches with thin veils drawn over their eyeballs. This hen was the exception. She was trying to keep herself warm in the splattering of straw that lined her nesting box, looking alert and anxiously curious.

I found her dead beneath the egg mobile on Thanksgiving. I was pushing spent feed over the edge of the trough feeder and noticed a little mess of feathers through the hog fencing beneath my feet. I was worried that she had been cannibalized by the others, or mauled by some ferrel predator, but when I pulled her out it was clear that she had just died silently, ignored by her companions. Chickens are funny that way. One of them was pecking food from around her corpse. Another was enjoying a dust bath by her side. Whatever. Life was too cold for her. She didn't have her feathers. We'll just carry on. I imagine that is what the flock must have been thinking, but I realize that's just what I've been thinking.

The upshot is that after a little less than three weeks with a light bulb on a timer in the hen house (and I thought I got up early), we have our first white egg today. We haven't seen one in months. On the whole, the group has gone from looking dusty and dull to being full of vibrant life and color. Their breasts are a rich orange and gold ochre. Their forms look robust once again. A second laying season commences; life churns onward.

- Alanna

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thank You

Today I am grateful that the farm exists in my life, and that we get to share it with all of you. I feel so blessed to be working collectively on something that requires so much of us and rewards us so readily. I couldn't have imagined the stream of people who've told me how happy they feel when reading the occasional blog post from us. Some of these people have felt motivated enough to visit us here, and many of them are coming from far away. As individuals we are connected to a diverse group of people. Some who were perfect strangers to me have come here because they loved one of us well. I've gotten to eat with them, work with them, exchange ideas and get a feel for each person's unique quality. I just didn't picture this when we bought the farm. I hoped we'd see people, but I just didn't know. It's like hoping for light, and getting a rainbow. Thank you.

This is Kristina, cleaning bits of venison off of a butcher's saw we inherited when we bought the farm. Thanksgiving overlapped with the cutting and wrapping of Ed's second deer. Kristina just sailed along with us. What a hand!

- Alanna

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Radiant Heat

This series of gratitude posts we have been writing this week leading up to Thanksgiving has given me the lens with which to see my humble life for the rich and rewarding venture that it is. I suppose it is the nature of gratitude, to bleed into every cranny to reveal things small and large as comfort and grace.
This old farmhouse we live in has an oil furnace, though the neighbors who drive by can tell that we heat mostly with wood because we have stacks and stacks of logs on our front porch. Those of you who heat with wood know the joys and grievances of such a method: the radiant nature of the heat, and the inevitable cold rooms, the splitting, stacking, soot and smoke. Yet, I suppose I want to express my gratitude of our stove, for it is a podding, reliable workhorse. Most mornings I am not the first to arise, and I often walk into the kitchen to find a fire already crackling away. Some days, like today, there was coffee made, and it is for these small kindnesses we do for each other that I am grateful as well.
This year more than most I have been on the receiving end of such kindness, as I have become a mother this year. I suppose I have done my fair share of giving as well (the wakeful nights, the diapers, and countless back-pats and kisses). The limitations of my time and energy have also been a lens through which I can appreciate anew the pleasure of a warm fire, friendships and a few hours of sleep!


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Garden Bonanza

summer squash
sweet meat squash
onions (3 kinds)
garlic (3 kinds)
lettuce (2 kinds)
Asian cabbage
brussel sprouts
golden tomatoes
string beans
pole beans
Jacob's Cattle beans
Ken's beans
sugar snap peas
sweet potatoes
white potatoes
mustard greens
celery root
not to mention the blackberries, raspberries, ramps and apples growing wild on our property.

Our garden this year was ambitious and splendid. I am grateful to benefit from our collective goals for growing much of our own food. The accomplishments we have can be grander, broader and deeper than any of us would be able to do on our own. Those readers who grow vegetables themselves know the sweetness with which one's own food is eaten. What joy!
Tonight the four of us are going to sit down and do some planning for the coming year. It feels great to be a part of a team and watch our vision evolve and unfold.


Monday, November 21, 2011

The Scientific Method

I am glad I live in an era shaped in part by the scientific method. Here is a photo of the soil report for the sample taken in our garden at the end of September.

The production of the information on this single sheet took only a few minutes for a few people and cost $20, but the methods behind it, its interpretation, and appropriate amendments to increase the fertility of our soil represents the work of many, many years for a few people.

Despite the various times and situations we humans abuse, distort, or misinterpret results from various studies for any motive, there is still a ton of wonderfully useful and beneficial knowledge available to us as a direct product of testing hypotheses.

By amending our soil to certain parameters, elucidated independently, but roughly contemporaneously, by Carey Reams and William Albrecht, we can be comfortable knowing that we're growing plants as healthful and vibrant as our current knowledge allows. I'm deeply thankful to live in an age when some of the links between soil fertility and health have been ferreted out and to have the tools and resources available to move our patch of dirt a lot closer to the "ideal".

- Edmund

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Few Thoughts On Thankfulness

As a fifteen-year-old I went through a phase of reading - and mostly enjoying - the novels of Pat Conroy. I'm not certain, but this may have been spurred by my mother's occasional quoting of a line from The Prince of Tides.

"I'm angry at everybody. I have this all-consuming, titanic, free-floating rage at everything on the planet."

While it would be an overstatement to say that I have an all-consuming, titanic, free-floating thankfulness for everything on the planet, it almost feels like it. For the past few days, no doubt in part due to this collective exercise, I have been considering how blessed I am to live where I live, to know the people I know, and to try to lead a deliberate life. This morning when I stepped outside it was the particular, clinging cold that occurs just after a fall rain. But as I walked up the hill the clouds broke into tatters, and the moon and stars filled the spaces with silver.

The beauty of the night sky, with its ethereal clouds, pearlescent moon, haughty stars, etc. etc., is a difficult thing to write about, though I've no doubt Pat Conroy could get a couple of good, fruity paragraphs out of the experience I had walking up the hill this morning. While I take myself either too seriously or not seriously enough to attempt a physical description, I will describe my thoughts at the time.

1.) I recognized my own miniscule finiteness in relation to the heavens.
2.) Seeing my brother's headlamp inching along far below as he walked to a different section of woods, I was happy for the weekend we'd been having together and hopeful for our deer hunting prospects.
3.) Returning to the sky and the wind and the peel of moon just the color of a rind of cheese, I felt my heart beating and the cold air curling in against the skin of my chest, and my breath, warm and quick from the climb, came in foggy puffs.
4.) In short, I felt truly alive, aware of myself and aware of the world, and more or less in love with the whole deal.

My biggest issue with most portrayals of transcendence is that it is often linked to the annihilation of the self. To be fair, authorities on the matter suggest that the self does not enjoy being annihilated, so perhaps my concerns are actually evidence of personal limitations. But transcendence as I've experienced - and I can think of no better word to describe this morning or other such moments - arises from myself and my understanding of who, where, and how I am.

The quote I opened this post with was played for laughs in the Brown household, but looking over it now, I don't think it reads like humor, at least not primarily. I haven't gone back to any of Pat Conroy's novels since my formative years, and glancing at one of them does not entice me. Even with more than a decade between me and them, I catch a whiff of melodrama bordering on bathos. (See The Lords of Discipline in particular.) At the time I barely noticed. If not quite ripping yarns, they are certainly engaging, and occasionally the overwrought style works for a passage.

I am thrilled that for reasons I can no longer remember I really liked those books, and I am thrilled that I don't anymore. It may seem like a small thing, but the fact that I have changed in a hundred small and large ways stuns me, and the possibility that I may keep changing, and that as I do I may have more times like this morning on the hill, is one of the more amazing things going. All of this is to say, I am thankful for time, and for my sense of time - for my past, especially for my present, and for whatever future I have.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Neighbors and Fences

I really like this fence. The previous 'steward' of this place installed it with your assistance, assuming you pay federal taxes, as he got a load of government grant money from a federal acronym agency (NRCS and/or SWCD). For a few moments yesterday I thought for sure I was going to have a major mending operation on my docket, as well as an injured cow. The back story goes like this -

Our neighbor to the south is a very friendly, unfailingly helpful and cheerful 80 year-old partly retired dairy farmer. His name is Don. He has a good chunk of his land fenced with 3 or 4 strands of barbed wire that dates to his early career in the milk business. For a number of reasons such as neighborliness and nostalgia and feeling of use he continues to custom graze another local farm's bred heifers. This year he had 17 dropped off at the beginning of the grazing season and sent three home over the summer because they calved. Deer season opened today, and in preparation for it the 14 remaining heifers all went home on Wednesday, or so Don thought. On Thursday he went up the hill in his little ATV and, as he later told me, "thought he saw a ghost" when he got to the top. Somehow during the loading process they miscounted and failed to load one of the animals. It was this heifer that presented itself as a vision of the hereafter to Don as he looked into his pasture from the hilltop. There ensued an epic herd/chase that lasted a good part of Thursday and involved at least four men for various amounts of time. When they finally called it off Garth had assisted for two hours and if anything the heifer was more scared than anything else. Cattle may lumber about 98% of the time, but they can move when the fancy strikes them. Being alone and encountering only marginally familiar machines and people are motivation enough for most bovines to strike out into that 2% territory and hoof it. Chasing a 1200 pound animal through hawthorne thickets is not an adventure I'd wish on anyone.

So the chase was set aside after a while. Before sunset Garth spotted the rogue heifer out against the high distant part of our fence nose-to-nose with one of our calves. The disconcerting part of the 'sighting' lay in the fact that Don's old fences don't run out to that region of our fence. Not only had she run through thickets and woods, she'd jumped or broken or pushed through some stretch of Don's fence and freed herself of all confinement.

Yesterday morning dawned cloudy and windy. Garth and I went up on our pasture to capture a steer we're going to slaughter in a few weeks, and after we got a lead rope on his collar we decided to go help Don look for the lost heifer, as we were certain he'd be out searching for her. Sure enough we found him, his brother Bob, his neighbor Homer, (another retired dairy farmer) and his hired help Kevin all packed into Don's little Kubota 4-wheeler. Garth and I volunteered our assistance since it was obvious the stress of losing a friend's heifer was really getting to Don, and we were definitely the fleetest of foot available to scour the woods. We formed a plan and arced out through a large swath of our woods, ending near where Garth last saw the heifer the day before. We were careful to approach so that as we spooked her she would head for Don's place again, not the other direction out into the wilds of upstate NY. Sure enough, we found her in the woods near our fence and she spooked readily. Our cattle happened to be close-by, sequestered by their portable electric wires. They charged over to see what the commotion was about and then the whole group ran back and forth along the fence, our cattle on one side in the open, the errant heifer in the woods smashing through trees and rocks. We didn't push her hard, in fact we were standing well back still contemplating what course of action to take when she got it into her head that it was time to join the herd on the other side of the fence. She propped her feet up over the wires and then proceded to slowly roll over the fence. She hit the ground with a crash and wind-expelling bellow, then struggled slowly to her feet. My view was obscured by the trees, so if you recall back to the opening of this post, I had visions of terrible injuries and ruined fence dance into imagination. Luckily the dance was short-lived because I saw the heifer on her feet being crowded by our animals in a sort of bovine scrum. Still harboring fears of a trashed fence I walked over and looked around, but could find no evidence of any damage despite the huge loads placed on the wire mesh.

From there the adventure slowly wound down. She snapped our portable electric wire as the whole herd joined her in a stampede across the pasture, but after a breif lap around the whole place they settled down and we guided them into the red-barn without any hitches. We then sorted our animals out, and had her nicely contained in a solid building. Don brought over a rickety cattle trailer and we packed her up and sent her home.

I'm grateful for a number of things. I'm grateful that the heifer wasn't hurt. I'm grateful our fence wasn't damaged. I'm grateful that everyone maintained a sense of humor about the whole fiasco. I'm grateful that it is over and that she is home with the others in her herd. And I'm really grateful we have such a bomber fence.

- Edmund

Gobble Gobble

In a recent letter to a friend, I described the aspect of hunting which makes it engaging as 'contingent action.' What I mean by this is that hunting involves walking out into the woods in the dark to sit still under a tree, listen and look, until something either happens or doesn't. The more apparent defining element of this experience is the ease of being in the moment, the ease of being attuned. The less apparent, but no less profound, element is uncertainty.

The desire to eliminate, or limit, uncertainty is natural. I am thankful that we are not reliant on our field corn crop to see us through the winter - of the 1400 kernels I planted in the spring, only a dozen or so matured into actual plants, yielding enough for perhaps one meal. But I nevertheless think uncertainty itself can be affirming. The willingness of the cows to go where I tell them or of plants to grow as well as I would like are correctives offered by an objective world to the almost purely subjective dynamic of choice and fulfillment, or at least expectation and follow through, that define most of life, from media consumption to work. It's one reason, I believe, that professional sports consume such an outsized portion of the public discourse - they are one of the few remaining areas that routinely offer genuine surprise, however overwrought and melodramatic their staging and execution may be.

This turkey season - which ends today - has been a pronounced example of this. Ed got one almost immediately, and several times over the next few days we came close. And then they simply vanished, and for weeks we did not know where they were. In past years they have always come out to eat our neighbor's corn, but heavy crops of beechnuts and apples have kept them in the woods this fall. Once I had found them again, up above the waterfall, Ed and I started going up morning and evening. but though we saw them occasionally and heard them regularly, they never came close enough for a shot.

Finally, two days ago, both of us went up so that he could use the turkey call while I shot. I had heard them roost the night before, so we knew exactly where they would be. As the woods grew lighter, I could see them hunched all around on branches, and I could hear them talking to each other and to Ed. The first few flew through the hemlocks uphill from us, but a second later on landed in the clearing about thirty yards away, and after a few breathless moments walked out from behind a patch of saplings and into clear view.

So I'm thankful for all the time sitting in the woods doing nothing, and I'm thankful that we get to have turkey for Thanksgiving.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gratitude (no. 1)

For the record, these reflections on the last year will be numbered, but those numbers will not reflect a hierarchy. Post no. 1 will not indicate a collective or superlative heart swell beyond what no. 7 may induce. They will be random and meandering.

I am grateful that Lucky's neck doesn't look like this anymore!

These photos were taken in the middle of July. The two Dutch belted - cross steers had come out of a long winter looking shabby and lacking good condition. When the weather warmed and the pasture flushed, they were revived. Their coats were shiny, they were putting on weight and they were behaving normally - content to eat and drink and socialize as they pleased. Nothing had changed in how we were managing them, and then one day Edmund noticed that something weird was happening to Lucky's neck. It looked like he had aged 100 years overnight. Look at his wrinkled face! Those cross hatches! Those hairless bumps!

Cancer? ! ? !

Lucky wasn't uncomfortable. He wasn't scratching himself on anything or making any noise. He wasn't put off his food or water. It was mysterious. We asked our neighbor Don to come look at him. He thought it was ring worm, but cows usually catch ringworm from infected barn stalls, and Lucky hadn't set foot in a barn in months. I posted photos on a well trafficked herd health forum - same idea. Some friends of ours listened to my description, looked over the photo I sent them, and searched through their veterinary manual with me on the line. Their answer was in line with the others - maybe it was ringworm or maybe it was mange. Both ailments could be treated naturally with sunlight and air. So what more was there to do? Wait. Waiting is fine if you are not worried, but I was worried; worried that all of our cows would catch it; that they would be miserable; that we would get it; that we would be miserable; that it would be worse than I feared.

Well, it was wasn't. We just gave it time. Lucky gave it to Ned, but Ned didn't get it as bad. Both cows have since cleared up, and none of the Kerrys caught it. One interesting thing I learned about cows in the process is that, unlike humans who can get ringworm multiple times, cows get it once and are done with it. Wow. That's one of a very few things that cows do not get worse than humans do - something they might want to add to their gratitude list.

Beyond that, I'm grateful for the opportunity to reflect on and showcase here the absurdity and hell of entertaining fear with one's attention (fear is SO entertained by your attention). Don't do it. It's a waste of your time.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dear Readers,

Dear Readers,


It appears that we 'bloggers' on Cairncrest Farm have been suffering something similar to the molt our chickens have been undergoing for the last two months. The molt should come as no surprise. We bought our hens in March of 2010, and for nearly a year they had been laying fairly consistently. Whatever it was - the stress of the hurricane and the consequent destruction of their egg mobile, the week they spent at sea in the pasture before the new (and improved) egg mobile was delivered, the season, nature's good order - whatever it was - their egg laying basically dried up about two months ago. Oddly, this hiatus has been perfectly in sync with the disruption in your 'regular' (read: whenever the spirit moves us) updates from Cairncrest Farm.* We do apologize.

I am pleased to report, though, that not only is the hen pictured above one of the last of our flock to undergo a thorough upheaval of her plumage, but that we too seem to be on the mend, so to speak. Beginning this Thursday, in preparation for Thanksgiving, we will be offering daily posts of gratitude and reflections on the last year.

After a generous respite, and some attention to their additional molt-related protein needs (feathers are almost entirely made up of protein and hens coming out of a molt will struggle to lay again if they cannot get additional enough**), the chickens are under light for the winter. Maybe soon they will begin laying again, and we will have something else to be thankful for.


* See Susan Merrill Squier's "Poultry Science, Chicken Culture" for an interesting and scholarly collection of essays examining the chicken across the human spectrum. The link above will take you to her blog.

** See "The Chicken Health Handbook" by Gail Damerow, an exhaustive and detailed resource on, well, everything that could possibly relate to a chicken's health.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Over the last two years a few men have come courting our scrap metal. I don't know how any of them knew what was hidden in the deepest, darkest pockets of our woods. Even I haven't seen the second pile, a crescendo of tires and old cars cascading over a steep bank. People know people, and word gets around, I suppose. Most of these offers have come and gone in vain. Either the scrapper loses interest, or the fields are too wet to go scavenging in when the offer is made. We had told one guy that he could have everything, as long as he was willing to dig it out. But, his offer came after heavy rains and again, it fell through. This time it's different.

Two men approached Edmund offering to haul everything away and split the profit with us 50/50. We talked it over at dinner and everyone agreed it was a fine idea. To our surprise the guys called us on the phone the next day to seal the deal. No scrapper has ever been this tenacious. We gave them the go ahead and the two of them showed up a day later. They jumped on our pile of truck axels and hog fencing with a mammoth saw and had everything in manageable pieces within a few hours. They came back to us with a receipt and $300 in cash.

Because they haul so much volume, they were offered a dumpster from the scrap metal place and were able to lock in a better price per ton than other people get who bring it all in truckloads. When the dumpster arrived an hour after we agreed to it (who are these guys?), we gave them permission to take all the metal in the barn: head gates, drinking tubs, industrial fans, the manure trough mechanism and the hay elevator. A few other characters have showed up to help with the whole ordeal. It strikes me as a lot of work for a small profit, split between four men, but they are obviously into it. One of them has a very small dog. After getting permission to bring the animal along, he yelled coarsely through the cigarette in his mouth, "Rocky! Get in here! It's time to rocky roll!"

Edmund and Normandy have begun building the walls of their house out of cob (a mixture of clay, sand and straw), and it's reminded me that we are as unusual to some people as they may be to us. These guys had never seen anyone do anything like that before. They said they mentioned it to a friend, that a guy they know is building his house out of dirt, "but if you want to see that you'll have to come junkin' with us."

The old cars have all been extricated from the weeds north of the stream. The only metal we've got left is that pile I haven't seen. We told them that if they took the tires, they could have all the cash they could render from that heap. I assume they'll be here to finish it off soon because the scrap place just delivered our third dumpster today.
I read something a few months ago about how the industrial age is phasing out, and how the next era's economy will be based on restoring or repurposing what's left over - relics from a time of seemingly infinite energy and resources. It certainly seems that way now.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Shelling Beans

September has settled in. There's a sheen of heat on the cool air. The whir and whine of the insects has become dull. I have to think to notice it. It's like a greasy feeling on my fingers, only it's in my ears.
I recognized these things as I sat on the porch with Normandy shucking our shell beans. We grew two heirloom varieties this year, Kenearly Yellow and Jacob's cattle. We ordered the yellow ones from Johnies' Seed Company, and the other we bought to eat, but saved a few for a trial planting.
The timing was touchy. The plants had yellowed and most of the pods had ripened and begun to dry. They could have dried completely on the plants if the weather had been more gracious, but instead we got ten inches of rain within two weeks. Many of the plants had been pushed over. Some of the pods on the ground became so wet they started sprouting. Between the two storms we resolved to pull all the plants and dry them on the porch. They lay stacked about two feet high in three foot rows. We had each done a bit of shelling individually (Normandy had done far more than the rest of us), but the effort tended to feel endless when we worked alone. So the five of us (including our carpenter house-mate and hero Joram) split open the pods together in one final push.

The happy surprise was that some of the Kenearly Yellow plants had undergone a mutation that rendered their beans almost entirely golden, the color of popcorn. We separated those out and intend to plant them all next year to see if we could have a unanimously ochre crop.

The Jacob's Cattle beans are luminous.

We spread the harvest on our desk in the living room with a fan to dry them thoroughly before they're stored.

As far as the energy balance goes, I am not sure we are in the black with beans. It takes hours to separate and sort the good from the bad. Even though the desk is covered, it will be a caloric drop in the bucket for our year's consumption. But the effort is cloaked in good feelings. Our venture here on the farm is distinctly communal, but it is never more apparent than when we sit working to obtain the food we will enjoy together. There is also great satisfaction in taking a crop from seed through harvest. This quality is a color that lingers and pauses my mind. The quantity won't do the same. Today, the former matters more. Tomorrow? We'll see. Maybe we'll get better, and faster, and maybe next year, the weather will cooperate.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Them Apples

I can still vividly remember the day that the four of us walked this farm for the first time with our realtor, Frank. We saw numerous farms in the summer of 2009, and were no strangers to degradation and neglect: rotted-out beams, heaps of trash, and foul-smelling houses. The process of assessing and purchasing a run-down farm must filter out those inclined to cynicism. This probably is a good thing, because I've noticed that farmers foster a gambler's sense of optimism. I've heard at our kitchen table "This project won't take long.", and "This will probably hold." often enough, along with all manner of optimistic predictions concerning rain and sunshine.

Pulling up to the driveway with Frank, we were greeted by a wildly barking dog. It was a Maremma, which is a large sheepherding breed (they look a lot like Great Pyrenees). With three legs and one eye*, this rascal must have been the closest a dog could come to being a pirate. It's one good eye fixed upon us, and bulged as it barked. Vertically through an empty socket ran a devilish scar. Argh, and Blackbeard be his name. He had a fleet of swarthy friends, for it seemed that every building on the property had a chained and barking dog to guard it. Later we learned that the owner had close to 20 of these dogs. Each had it's own tale of woe: burrdock snarled in their coats, patches of dirt pawed away, and discarded meat bones.

I could go on about the dogs.

That day was early June, and the grass and weeds came up through the trash piles and old fencing in tangles. Frank told us that before he got into realty, he was a dairy farmer. He must have cultivated his own sense of optimism because at one point his beefy arm waved over the weeds and commented, "You never know what treasures you're going to find out there." Our four, stoney faces followed his wave. I stared hard into the grass growing through the agricultural rubbish, trying to envision something desirable hidden there unseen. Then I looked at Blackbeard who wasn't barking anymore, but standing and staring at us with his one eye. I was sure that if there were any "treasures" hidden on this farm, this pirate-dog would take them to his watery grave.

To be sure, there were plenty of things that missed our critical gaze that June afternoon. There was the tire dump in the woods we found last year. And the other dump on the hill. Those weeds ended up containing yards and yards of bailing twine which was a nightmare to extract from the grass and ground. And did I mention the dead cats behind the refrigerator?

But assuredly, this week, we discovered treasure. There are apple trees bearing big, delicious apples on our hillside up the road. Last May we got a terrible frost just as the deciduous trees were all leafing out which must have killed the apple blossoms. This past spring had no such sudden dip in temperature. Many of the trees have small fruit, barely larger than a walnut. Some are green and blushing pink; some are striated and bright-red. Edmund discovered a tree bearing tiny apples with a deep red flesh and almost purple skin. Those ones are too tart to eat and remind me of cranberries. I'm convinced that with proper fertilization and pruning, all of these trees could bear much bigger fruit.

It has been my habit for several months now to eat an apple with peanut butter as part of my breakfast every morning. There are times when the work we've done seems to barely have scratched the surface. Discovering these apples seems to me like such a wonderful and unseen treasure.


* I've now been told by Edmund that there was a three-legged dog and a different, one-eyed dog. In my memory these two dogs just melded into one, and the storyteller in me just had to write it this way. I believe (ahem!) that it's a family trait. Also, the one-eyed dog's name couldn't have possibly been Blackbeard. That wouldn't have made any sense seeing that Maremmas are white. Edmund tells me it was Clyde.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Egg Mobile Reborn

Hurricane Irene's visit to Upstate NY and New England has been in the news this week, so some of our dear readers may wonder how we faired under the onslaught. We lucked out in that we're far enough west that the major force of the storm spent itself crossing other parts. This is not to say we didn't sweat it out waiting for a terrible wind gust or torrential downpour, but neither of those potentialities struck us. We did have a day of high wind and 5+ inches of rain, so we didn't get off scott free, but all in all it could have been a lot worse. Even in the southern and eastern ends of our county the picture of down trees, powerlines, and outages is very different.

Our one mini-disaster befell our egg mobile. There are a couple of pictures of our old mobile hen house, built on an ancient set of hay wagon running gear, floating around this blog somewhere. We had it parked halfway up our big hill, on a moderate incline, when Irene rolled in. At some point in the afternoon Alanna looked out the window and let out a cry of dismay. The "vehicle" was on its roof, wheels to the sky like some huge, dead, sheet metal and rotten rubber beast. It had a shed roof, and the incline was such that it sat pretty well upright while lying 180 degrees to its proper orientation. We hadn't let the chickens out that morning because the storm was raging and they wouldn't have left the shelter of the mobile given the opportunity. None of the birds were hurt in the revolution and they hunkered down in the wreckage while the storm blew itself away.

The next day I took the tractor up the hill and tried to right it, but it collapsed instead. So I took that as a sign it was time for a new egg mobile. I used the rafters of the old Bennett house (another previous post on this blog) and built a tidy little barn on the same running gear, as that part of the vehicle was undamaged by the inversion.

The new get-up is taller than the previous one, which is good for our backs but will require that we be more attentive to hill inclination and wind-speed if we intend to avoid another flip. As you can see from the photos I went with a gambrel roof as it spoke to my inner muse more than shed roofs do. It also allows for more roosts which will accommodate more chickens when we increase our laying flock.

I'm pleased with the outcome, well everything except how long it took me to build it. Assuming it lasts for more than a decade it will be time well spent.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Overrun with Cabbage

Now I can't recall whether we started our cabbages indoors and a fungal root infection killed them, or whether we planted the small seedlings out and slugs did them in. Either way, let's blame the slugs. After loosing our own seedlings, we were forced to buy cabbage starts from a local greenhouse. They had started them quite early, so by the time we took them home to plant they were already several inches tall. This didn't concern me at the time because I didn't consider the corner that 15 mature cabbages might force us into. I tried to ignore all the large and robust globes forming around me, as if that would solve something. When I finally addressed the situation, many of the cabbages had split open. Water had begun collecting in their new crevices and a fishy smelling rot was encroaching at the edges. I should have acted sooner. Next year. I brought a machete to the garden and whacked the orbs away from their roots.

What does one do with this much cabbage? Lacto-fermentation is the only answer. Luckily it is a good one because, beyond preserving the cabbage, it makes its nutrients more available and offers beneficial bacteria for your intestinal flora. Unfortunately the temperature is still a bit high to make sauerkraut. It would be ideal if it could ferment for 4 weeks between 60 and 65 degrees. We considered burying our imaginary jug of sauerkraut in the stream bed, but the temperature two inches below the water level was 66.9. If this were mid-September, we would likely have perfect conditions, but August is August, and August it is. We proceeded anyway.

There is a lot of chopping to be done. We read that you should sterilize all of your tools before commencing. We didn't go farther than giving them a good wash. I have a number of food grade five gallon buckets. After rearranging all of our stored nuts, one became available.

After weighing and slicing, we added around 3 tablespoons of salt for every 5 pounds of cabbage. You are meant to bash away at all of this cabbage until it releases and becomes submerged by its own juices. We were without a proper utensil, but we made good use of the rolling pin, the potato masher, the metal tongs, and the knife sharpening steel.

Finally it became like soup.
There are fermenting crocks that are designed specifically for this purpose, and I hear they work perfectly. The crock itself has a large rim that holds water that the lid sits down into. The gases that escape during fermentation are able to move through this seal, while it remains impervious to air and pathogens from the outside. Ingenious... and expensive. The smallest one I could find was over $125. So we are winging it, again, like we did last year. Hopefully this experiment will turn out better than last year's. Last year's sauerkraut rotted because we didnt' have a good seal. When the gasses escaped there were air pockets left in their places and deterioration took hold. This year we filled a 2 gallon plastic bag with salted water (in case the bag breaks for some reason) and placed it on top of the cabbage, thereby keeping everything submerged. Garth found a lid for a five gallon bucket from his beer making days with a contraption on the top that lets gasses out without letting air in. The bucket is on the dirt floor of our basement at the bottom of the stairs. If all goes well, we'll be in sauerkraut for months. If it doesn't, we will have wasted a few good hours on a Sunday, and a season's worth of cabbage. I'm not sure where my bets lie, but I know where my hopes do.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Slaughtering Chickens

Warning: this post contains photos documenting the honest slaughter and processing of chickens.

Some people hold strong views on the topic of animal welfare, ranging from a utilitarian belief that the pleasure and suffering of animals is as meaningful as that of humans to a biblically grounded belief that humans have dominion over animals, a dominion so absolute that the existence of an animal is justified only to the extent that it serves a human end. But most people I’ve talked to about it search for a comforting middle ground – a place where animals lead happy, healthy lives, but are then quickly dispatched, packaged, and sold for a reasonable price in a supermarket refrigerator case. As I know from personal experience, the trick to rhetorically supporting this sort of food system while eating a burger that concretely supports factory farms is to not think about it too much.

But I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot lately. A bit over a month ago we butchered the sixty-five broiler chickens we had been raising, a few more than last year. The experience of killing animals is a singularly difficult topic to address in writing. When I say this, I do not mean that it makes me uncomfortable to discuss or describe in detail. Most any striking or meaningful experience loses something in the translation to writing, though it may gain something as well. But in the case of killing another sentient creature, the act itself is uniquely visceral.

We raised our chickens in a 10’ x 12’ cage with an open bottom. Twice daily we shifted this onto fresh grass, so the chickens always had fresh forage and somewhere clean to lie down. We actually purchased 100 chicks, and we only lost the expected few in the first two weeks, but a few days after we put them out, 30 died in a single night. A predator had killed five, and the rest had suffocated after piling up in a corner of the cage. A few days later I trapped and shot the skunk that was responsible.

Modern chickens put on weight incredibly fast, and even though we were raising broilers bred to gain slightly slower than the most aggressive commercial varieties, by nine weeks they were big enough, and dragging the cage around the pasture had started to bother both my and Ed’s backs. So on an overcast Saturday we set up the scalding tank and plucker beside a table in the hops barn and positioned the killing cones just outside.

Ed went and caught about a dozen chickens at a time, placed them in smaller cages, and trundled them in a wheelbarrow from the pasture to our makeshift abattoir. Each went upside down into a stainless steel cone with a hole at the bottom just large enough for the head and neck to pass through. Each head was grasped, and each neck slit with a sharp knife. After this they went into the scalding tank, and then the plucker, and then to a table to be cleaned, bagged and frozen.

Last year Ed and I did all these tasks in roughly equal measure, but this time, with both Alanna and my aunt Juliet helping, we each more or less took responsibility for a part of the process. I only killed a few of the chickens early on and spent the rest of the time gutting them.

There are parts of the whole experience of raising chickens this year that I regret. I am saddened by the ones that died near the outset, though I recognize that some predation is inevitable in any outdoor production system. Feed is extremely expensive, and I wonder if chickens with different genetics would have been more efficient and generally healthier. And the actual, final act of killing is sad. I do not feel guilty when I kill a chicken, nor do I feel empathy for it in the narrow sense of the word. The sadness arises from the simple recognition that nothing (except maybe mayflies and salmon) dies without a struggle, tempered with the recognition that deaths large and small constitute each of us.

Although I can’t imagine a plausible alternative, I find slaughterhouses problematic. Of course I am horrified by unnecessary brutality found in many of them, but I am just as troubled by the idea that most of us do not confront the deaths we have chosen to endorse while a few of us become utterly desensitized to them. One step in the right direction would be to let farmers harvest animals and sell their meat directly to customers, a practice which is allowed to a limited extent with chickens, but doing this to a broad extent would require a complete overhaul of the regulatory system, and it would raise a host of health concerns, some legitimate, others not.

In the meantime, we will keep raising and hunting and butchering for ourselves, and I would encourage anyone – particularly anyone who eats meat – to have a hand in the death that preparing dinner really starts with.


Friday, August 5, 2011

More Mowing

With the gracious help of Edmund and Garth's father Lach, we are maintaining our resistance against unruly monocultures. The golden rod has just lit up our pastures, and we are eager to set it back. Both Edmund and Garth's unanimous distaste for machine work is inversely represented in Lachy, who is content to spend hours meticulously leveling these vast stretches. God bless him. His efforts were stopped short when, upon encountering the densest swarths, the drive wheel of the mower overheated and shattered in action. Enough was enough. The part won't be in until Wednesday, so the opposition has a little more time to dig in its heels.

Walking back from feeding the chickens yesterday, I ran into Datura. She had wandered away from the herd with her sister Lillyvale, breaching the electric line in an area weakened by tall grass, no doubt. I stopped to admire her. Isn't she beautiful? Edmund and Garth chased them back in a few hours later, which was easily done because they couldn't resist the companionship offered within their old confines.

Tall grass has a clinginess that cut grass lacks. It folds around my boots, clutching and then releasing. The bedstraw tangles and confuses my steps. Cut grass is not so jealous. It has been chastened, but will return stronger with less competition, we hope.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Human Intervention

We have been waiting for this moment. The thistles are in full swing. They are pouring their energy into these brilliant bursts of color before their seeds mature. They are still sterile now, but they have clearly agreed to lose everything for love. I hear the groan of the tractor. Garth is mowing swaths of burdock, thistles and parsnip that have been towering above our heads for weeks.

When hit at the perfect moment, it can be more than they can recover from. We want to break the cycle that has created a burdock monoculture on swaths of our pasture.

The winter squash has been asking for our attention too.

Meet the cucumber beetle. They eat the leaves of our squash plant, but what is more worrisome is that they congregate and damage the flowers as they're opening to be pollinated. The flower dies back without a fruit forming below it. You can spray them with organic pesticides, but the stores around us only sell the heavy duty insecticides, so I've been picking them off by hand.

They are slower than flea beetles and larger, which makes them easier to handle. I hope that the fruits our squash does produce will be extra potent because these beetles have diminished the competition. Cheers to hoping.