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.