Sunday, December 16, 2007

Timing is everything

It's that time of year. Time to remind our egg customers of the seasonal nature of free-range eggs. Most understand, but there's always a few who don't want to acknowledge that Slow Food and being a "locavore" (one who eats locally) has it's realities.

"...egg laying is triggered by day length, so most of our breeds naturally stop or slow down in winter. Availability might be limited in January & February..."
It's the lesson we find ourselves constantly teaching to folks...and it is comforting to know we are not alone...
And speaking of timing, the Ravelry tide has turned: there are now more people in line behind me than in front of me!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Chicken Dance

Besides being the infamous oom-pah wedding song from Werner Thomas, it's the apt description of my morning chores that takes up far too much of my where-did-it-all-go-to? time. Somehow my daughter's hobby, and my indulgences and bleeding heart have led to:

First, there's the regular laying flock of Surprise and his dozen plus girls. They lay the eggs, so the earn the money. No problem so far.

Only, one Red Cochin hen has decided coop life is too, well, cooped-up for her, and she has found a way out of the penned yard every day. Like a feathered Houdini, she defies logic and crafty incarceration attempts and finds her way out. So every morning I am greeted by this:

She waddles over, pleased as punch with herself, as if she is supposed to be outside the enclosure. All would be forgiven if she would then return with no fuss to the pen, So the dance starts with all the rest of the flock lined up at the fence (cheering her on, I just know it...) and me chasing her around till I've cornered her to get her back in the pen. Some days I'm just not up to it and I default to the Red Scoop of Joy, and toss a whole bunch of grain in there and watch her race to join the feeding frenzy. Now, they would be getting fed eventually anyway, but this way it feels just too much like the chickens are calling the shots, and the dumb human is being played like a banjo.

But then there's the "exceptions" who require separate housing and board. Like Pecky...

...who is now occupying the former maternity ward for broody hens, as she was a summer hatchling Ameracauna who is too big to be housed with her brood-mates, but is too small to be safely released in the regular flock because the harrassment is just too awful. (Hen-pecked doesn't even BEGIN to describe it...)

So after feeding her, I have to take care of her brood-mates Caesar and Jelly, offspring of the award-wining Buff, who are bantams and just too small to be in with real chickens ever.

Next, there's loud-mouth Gomer, who I just think is the cutest little rooster ever, and who needs a hen in the worst way, but thankfully Red Pyle Old English Game Bantams do not just grow on trees around here...

And on to the "outlyers", (that is the parents of Caesar and Jelly), Buff and Stenson, who live in a chicken condo of their own, mostly because they're bantams, so again, too small to be in with regular chickens, and also because too much sun and outdoors time would fade their plumage. It was also told to us that bantams are very broody, and the spearate digs were to encourage them to raise a bunch of show-quality chicks, however Buff emphatically states that motherhood is not in her contract, and Caesar and Jelly can thank their existence to the fact that broody hens don't care much about whose eggs they sit on, so long as there's eggs.
(Oh, blast! Where did THAT picture go?)

Joining them are the newest pair, Salmon Favorolles named Zeus and Maya:

They have five toes. That's one more than normal for most chickens. However, the novelty of this is wearing thin, as they eat just as much as regular chickens. So they are stop # 6 on the Chicken Breakfast Express.

And just because I need more exercise, I finish all the way across the property by feeding the turkeys.

So, this weekend, we are doing some serious systems work. Shrinking. Consolidation. Re-configuring. After all, I've signed up for Ravelry, and I'm gonna need every spare moment I can get. Enough Chicken Dancing for this gal.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Flying solo with Brie

It's been just a little over a month, and I have been frantically trying to suck up every morsel of cheese-making expertise and instruction from my new boss. She moves around the cheesehouse so naturally, and has all of this experience and understanding tucked so deeply away that she does things without even being aware of it, not to mention the tons of little "shortcuts" she knows and's a little daunting to learn this way, but she tolerates questions, so I am picking it up.

I flew solo today; making a batch of cow milk brie from start to finish by myself. We poured out twenty eight or so of the larger molds, which when finished will sell for $10 each. I have no idea the weight of these wheels, but they are roughly the size of a saucer (6-7 inches in diameter and 2 inches thick). It takes about a month for them to grow their white mold casing, so I won't be able to taste them for a while.

I've learned to wax cheese, stack cheddar curd, brush cheese wheels, cut curds, stir the whey, and on and on, but this was the first time she let me go. Considering we were dealing with almost $300 worth of cheese, it was no small trust.

On the home front, 4 out of 5 sheep are clipped and coated, the last of the apples are being picked this weekend for cider, and the winter wheat still sits on the front porch, mocking me in its plastic-bagged state. With company planned for the weekend, it remains to be seen what I can get done. Trying to farm as a job, and keep this wee farm going is a constant race for time. Too bad all I want to do now is sit and knit...

We found this little fellow trying out our cellar out as a potential winter hibernation spot:

Actually very striking and pretty, this milk snake was about 18" long, still a baby. Hopefully, it finds a home in the rock wall and settles in before a serious freeze.

Speaking of settling in, there's a set of dpn's laden with alpaca calling to me...

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Power of Poo

First lesson learned on the new job: never underestimate the power of poo. Honestly, this place grows vegetables that look like they're on steroids. I've never seen potatoes this big. Granted, using them as baked potatoes might challenge even the sturdiest microwave or conventional oven, but they make dandy fries!

It just highlights the importance of good soil, and the efforts to get and keep such soil in your fields. The 50+ cows in the farm herd are kept mostly for their manure and the improvement of the fields. (Organic hamburger and steak being the second obvious benefit of these guys...)

I have also learned that a foot and a half of cow poo and mud can suck your boots off. Really. So walking slowly and deliberately around the farm is not a quaint mannerism of full-time farmers; nope, it's one way to make sure your foot is boot-covered before stomping it down in a jaunty trot across the field. I know this. (I suppose you can figure out just how I know this...)

On our farm, the garlic went in this week, covered with sheep poo and barn whatsit as a mulch and soil enhancer. Last year we planted approximately 80-90 cloves; this year we planted close to 300. Mostly red hard-neck, but also took some softneck for braiding from work, and some white hardneck that has been the farm standard for them.

Cheesemaking continues to fascinate me, and my apprenticeship is just beginning. The only thing (I believe) I can do reliably well is turn and brush the wheels in the cheese cellar. But I am learning from a master, all the while she is running the whole huge farm, so starting this week I am taking notes. Really. Because my brain is overflowing with little details that I need to remember and that took her ten years to accumulate.

And what is this? This is what happens when the conservative, PC parochial school decides Halloween is no longer an appropriate holiday and they appease the eager youngsters with All Saints Day (dress up as your favorite saint!) and Mommy quickly suggests the only saint that offers a sliver of a chance to be at all fun - St. Francis of Assissi, patron saint of animals and animal lovers (or something like that). So we pack up one of the Buff Brahma Bantam hens and dress in a very fuzzy and comfy imitation of a monk's robe, and join the scary procession of classmates dressed in mini-nun outfits. Those girls looked like one big nun recruitment poster. I am so glad we didn't go there. Considering she doesn't actually like candy anyway, bringing a chicken to school garnished as much fun as trick-or-treat, and really set the nuns and staff on edge for the day. Especially the part where the kids get to go to chapel in costume...
(I'm going to hell. I know this. But lots of my friends are probably there as well...)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

And then there was....change

When I started to write this blog, I was employed as a trainer and curriculum writer of material for the Human Service field. Farming was incredibly interesting, and was my real love, although I couldn't see any clear way to making it my least not yet.

Based on my years of good performance and written material, along comes a multi-million-dollar contract, which made my administrators drool and ooze from every bodily orifice, and for which I was to dedicate the bulk of my work time, although I still worked for The Agency. Somewhere along the way, I was sold over to The Contract, and like a Vegas marriage, I was hitched along with no clue how I got there.

After almost a solid year of frustration and bureaucracy in which the bull-shit-o-meter registered almost constant 100, The Agency had already spent too much of the multi-millions, and despite regular warnings from me to start pushing back and making clear our concerns with the behavior of The Contract parties, The Agency found themselves in a bind. So with a ruthlessness and desperation that was reminiscent of a fox that chews its own paw off in the trap, or the lion that will eat the cubs to eliminate any trace of a former rival, my boss (and former best-friend) cut me loose. That Vegas marriage had obliterated all of my former good works and value to The Agency: I was unemployed.

Now anyone that does any farming at all, even the Wee amount we do, knows that does not mean I had nothing to do. I simply spent the first two weeks trying to catch up on necessary chores and pre-winter projects around here to allow the blood to clot, and the sting to heal. (A bit...)

And in a strange twist of fate...I find myself working again. For a farmer! An organic farmer! A woman-run business, organic farm! A woman-run, organic, MAKING MONEY farm! (Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus...)

So, I have stepped off the edge and am going for it. Yeah, making a living at farming. Or making my best effort to, so I will never have to look back and wonder, "Could I have...?" Much of what my new employer/mentor does is what I want to do, only on a much grander scale, (with bigger machines), but knowledge is knowledge, and I learn something amazing every day.

And I'll keep you posted...

Friday, October 19, 2007

Talkin' Turkey

Something new on the farm - turkeys! We have never tried to raise meat poultry on the farm, because we've never had anyone to "process" them in the end, but circumstances have changed, and here we go!

First, I had to build a pen. So from this:

(the old pheasant pen...a 4-H project...)

To this:

With old or green lumber, no power tools, no concept of level, and no's fantabulous! Or at least Madison and the poults think so...

That's one Narragansett, and three Bourbon Reds. Sex unknown. At least for now...

These guys were the first installment on the new career (more about that coming), and a new "mentor" for the farm, and well,'ll see.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


The Northeast Shetland Sheepbreeders met at Maple Ridge Farm in Vermont a week or so ago, and I've been holding off reporting so as not to "leak" news of our project, but I think it's safe now...

We are a small group, but this year we hailed from New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York.

We discussed all kinds of sheepy stuff like marketing our fleeces, composting animals, testing hay, but the discussion that was most lively was around breed standards and especially colors. Shetlands come in a rainbow of colors, 11 recognized for showing and registering purposes. But there is much debate about what's what, and people are constantly trying to make up new names to describe the subtleties they see in their flocks, and it makes it challenging for breeders and anyone trying to promote the breed yet stay true to our Shetland roots...Just look at some of the variety in Linda's flock (her rams):
Her ewes:
It was after the potluck that we got to go "play" with some of Linda's sheep. Here is one particularly friendly ewe (the Walmart greeter of the flock):

Fleece inspection:
And it was during all this activity that we formulated the "project"
We're going to collect fleece samples and try to get the definitive, "scientific" scale of Shetland colors...or something like that. I'll post a link to the group discussion when it's posted.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Meet Gomer

For those of you not running around with a copy of Poultry Breed Standards tucked under your arm, this guy is an Old English Game Bantam Red Pyle. (Nod if you understand the choice of second choice was Rock, and my daughter hates them both.)

He is a chicken with no real purpose in life, other than to look good. Perhaps someday he will father other little Pyles, (if I take a blow to the head and decide raising bantam chickens is one of my newly discovered passions) otherwise his coming to the farm was just another rescue/acquisition for the stash. Apparently, the concept of stash does not only apply to yarn. His previous owner is going away to college (in a large city where they frown on poultry in the dorms, no matter how small or handsome) and had to find a home for him. In his current state, which is with comb and wattles (a flaw for Old English Game bantams) no one wanted him, and so home to the farm he came. I have no plans to take scalpel and cauterizing iron to his head just to make him "right".

But you have to admit, he is handsome. Doesn't he look just like the model for half of the chicken/country brick-a-brack you see lining the walls of _________(fill in name of the large box store of your choice)?

We think so. Now to build him a coop....

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Anybody Wanna Do Some Dyeing?

It bothers me to waste stuff. So when I have an abundance of something, if I can't save it or put it to use, I am determined to share. This year we have an abundance of butternuts off the trees on our farm. More than I ever remember having in all the years we have lived here. I use them for natural dyeing; they give a nice, coffee brown color on natural wool, and are pretty easy to use.

So does anybody out there want to try some? I will mail you a box with enough butternuts for at least a two skein batch and instructions. All I ask is that you post your results on your blog, or e-mail me to let me know how it came out. Of course, you're not obligated to dye yarn, but that's up to you. Mind you, if you were to send me some dye plant stuffs from your corner of the world that I could play with, I wouldn't mail them back, but you DON'T HAVE TO.

Today, in between bouts of cooking, I dyed with some goldenrod flowers and got the nice pale yellow on the right. The honey color on the left is red onion skins. What fun!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Fox Hunt

When I type the words, it brings to mind the genteel, pretty picture of steeds and hounds, bounding across an English countryside laced with manicured hedges and the call of a brass horn...(it's just a mental picture, actually I don't think chasing down a fox with a troup of dogs and humans is sport, fair, or even nice, but...)

But like so many other things, on our farm the reality does not come close to the vision.

As it is with the fox. Or foxes, to be accurate. There is a mother and her single, surviving pup, now pretty grown up. I say surviving, because grey foxes usually have litters of 2-4, and we have no proof of demise, but just assumed.

They ate Speedy. Speedy, for those who do not know, was a bantam rooster we hatched on the farm, and despite his fiesty and sometimes aggressive personality, he was my buddy. So we do not like these foxes. And although they have helped us curb the rabbit population, I would prefer nibbled veggies to losing our poultry pals.

So, we are hunting the foxes. We all would prefer to catch them and move them to the state land three miles down the road, but this has proved harder than we would like.

1st Attempt: Bait the trap with a rotisserie chicken wing and wait.

Although the right color, not exactly what we were hoping for.

2nd attempt: Try a piece of the chicken skin.

Some sneaky little creature dug underneath the trap, and removed the skin by pulling it through the bottom. It's the right intelligence, but not the outcome we were hoping for.

3rd Attempt: DH thinks we should use apples, since we have watched the foxes eat the windfalls, I think apples are too available, and opt for an egg.

At dusk, we checked the trap, and DH reported the egg was gone. So either this Einstein really did go in for the apples, which lay by the dozens all around, or it went something like this:

Rocky: Hey, what's that over there?

Rascal: Dunno, let's go check it out.

Rocky: Why don't you go in it?
Rascal: Why don't YOU do it?
Rocky: What? You chicken?
Rascal: OK, fine. Watch me.


Rascal: Hey! Get me out of here! You made me go in...don't leave me!
Rocky: Cool your jets, I'll dig you out. Wait till I tell the boys about this one...

Rascal: Shut up and dig, man!

Rocky: Sorry pal, but I'm not getting anywhere. What did you go in there for in the first place?
Rascal: Shut up.

4th Attempt: Bait the trap with cat food. We have also seen the foxes eating the cat food.

Just the distance of the photo should tell you what we caught this time, in case you can't tell...Needless to say, this one did not end with the same happy outcome as the others. (Animal Lovers: We are open to any tips on how to empty a live trap of a skunk without necessitating extensive bathing in tomato juice and driving to work with all the windows open...short of that, it was "Hello to Mister .22")

5th Attempt: (Still waiting for the trap to air out...)

Meanwhile...another puzzle.

Several weeks ago we found the feathery remains of something on the lawn. Too many feathers for it to have been a close call, or happy ending, and pretty much the look of a raptor kill. But the feathers were all a light grey, covered with polka dots of white. I was stumped.

This morning, as I went back up to the house for Mister .22, I found a carcass in the middle of the path.

The size of one of our laying hens, at first I thought that's what it was. Thankfully, none of ours match the description, and frankly no chicken I've ever seen has the grey and polka dot I'm thinking young guinea hen? Any thoughts? Before you tell me to check the head, there was none.

And if anyone wants to weigh in on the predator...

BTW- none of our neighbors have guinea fowl. At least none of our neighbors within "several blocks". So that just makes the whole thing even more strange. So it goes around here...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Fair Results

About time I get around to this, but life has been so busy lately that every time I sit down to start, I literally fall asleep in the chair. Sad, no?

The Schaghticoke Fair has come and went, and well, the big news is Madison and her chickens...

Her little Buff Brahma Bantam hen, Buff, took the grand prize. Best Bird in the entire Open Class and Show. Beat out every other chicken, and more impressively, beat out the Big Three. The Big Three refers to these older gentlemen that are the epitome in poultry culture around here, and they have been trading this honor back and forth for over ten years. It's come to be expected, by they and us alike, that one of them will raise the prize winning chicken and walk away with the honors. So it was rather jaw-dropping when the 10-year-old marches in and walks away with the top slot. For them, anyway. We were too busy grinning.

Of course, there were a lot of the usual blue ribbons in the 4-H barn, for her veggies, and this one for a tie-dyed shirt (thank you Uncle Richard!):

And even though all the ribbons were nice, the thing she loved the most was the chicken trophy she won for showmanship. Which, for the inexperienced, is when the kids have to take a chicken, and before a judge and the throngs of folks traversing the Poulty Barn, handle the bird, showing various features, answer questions about poultry raising and poutry trivia, and of course, keep the featured bird from taking off and freaking out the crowd as it runs around looking for any means of escape, or shitting on your clean pants. This year, Madison managed all of it. Not so lucky for some of the other kids....but that's what keeps the audience coming back!

Just so her little head didn't get too swollen out of whack, I paraded her through the Arts and Crafts Barn and Mommy's blue ribbon for hand-knit socks. Balance in all things, right? I took her through about 14 times. She reminded me each time that I had won only one ribbon. She has a chicken trophy. (Sigh)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Fair Clean-up

For those of you bloggers who have never known the pleasure of 4-H, or for those who don't live in an area that still features the County Fair, we're here to tell you: it's that time again! And we're getting psyched..
The entire year's work gets summed up at the Fair. For us it's the Schaghticoke Fair. Which is the County Fair for Rensselaer County. (Forgive the ridiculous's what we get for living in an area settle by Dutch and already populated with Native Americans). And two weeks in advance of the opening, the 4-H kids and parents descend on the grounds to get the barns and displays ready; to clean, sweep, label, plan, plot, eat (of course) and even workshop.

We are an independent club, meaning Madison pretty much just does her thing, and we latch onto as much activity and meetings as we can manage, and her social calendar demands. Not surprising, as we live in a pretty isolated corner of the county (just not that many kids!) and her interest is pretty narrow (just not that many kids interested in poultry!) In fact, fellow blogger Lauren has a son who appears to be just as ga-ga over poultry as Madison, but he's the only other one I know of...

So drumming up help to clean the Poultry cages and barns is sometimes a little tough. There are a half dozen kids who do poultry in addition to other animals, but that's it, so the work party is kinda small...(Further reason not to lock up the help, no matter how young!) I had nothing to do with this...the kid in yellow is her big brother...

We washed dozens of cages, dishes, swept floors, painted display boards (we did this part two weeks ago) and of course, talked "bird"...

Here is the 4-H side of the barn (pre-chicken):
And the open class side: (I still don't know why it is that the 4-H kids clean the whole barn, even if they only use half....hmmm...)

But she will have, (fingers crossed here - we just lost Speedy the Rooster to the foxes, and I don't want them to get the "fever for the flavor"...if you know what I mean) 9 entries: 5 in 4-H, and 4 in Open Class.

Then she's got veggies galore, and the shirt she made in the MakeIt/TakeIt Workshop after dinner...

And not to be outdone, Mommy is entering knitted socks in the County Fair this year. Yee-haw! All I need now is a gingham blouse...I have the overalls, but alas, no pigtails.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Business of Farming

In a never-ending struggle to pay for this hobby/passion/obsession/dream job of mine, we actually do a little business here at the farm. We run a small CSA:

This is one of the two-person baskets from this month. We have done pretty well this summer; more berries, beans, and peppers than last year, but still waiting on cukes and carrots...

There's always eggs for sale:

And even Madison gets in the act; she raises and sell produce through 4-H to the local market. Here we are on the first delivery day, ready to deliver boxes of cocktail tomatoes:

(Always time for a little Max love...)

Monday, August 06, 2007

In which I find myself talking to rats

I talk to myself. I'm not even shy about admitting it anymore. And I keep up a pretty regular banter as I go about the farm doing all the chores, or checking on things...most of it is directed towards the animals, who are consulted on all sorts of topics from gardening to politics, and some of it is just general commentary. Any human who is close enough to hear can join in, but it's mostly just my way of keeping my thoughts from racing so far ahead that I lose my train of thought about what needs to be done next, and I find myselft standing stock still in the middle of the yard with a completley blank look on my face, struggling to remember where I was going and what I was supposed to do when I got there.

So it was with much surprise and dismay that I found myself talking to the rats in the barn. They are not supposed to be there; and more than that, they are not supposed to break my reverie of rodent denial ( I know - having chickens means having rodents, but it's all good until I SEE them) by making noise, but they did.

Walking into the barn, I see the broody hen with the hatchlings, and I answer their chirping with a greeting, and I chatter while I feed them, and I turn to leave the barn and I hear squeaking that is too high and at the same time too quiet to be the chicks. I freeze in my tracks and bark, "I did not just hear rats, did I?" They fall silent, and I wait for more. After a minute, I turn to leave, and they squeak again. (Mocking me now, they are.) So I threaten them with poison pellets, and they fall silent, so I can leave. (Oh, for a chicken like Kathy's....)

But this scenario is repeated an hour later when I am back in the barn to retrieve the grain scoop. Bold, audible, too-numerous-to-be-one, rodent squeaking. And before I can stop myself, I explain to them that my next actions are regretable, but that they brought this all upon themselves by letting me know they are there: I break out the poison pellets. And I sprinkle. Liberally, but in all the spots too tucked away to be appealing to the chickens. Like under the floorboards.

I have been told, that rats are smart. So smart, that when you try a poison or trapping method once, they are then hip to it and won't fall for it a second time. So, I tell the rats that they are NOT that smart, and that they will come, eat the tasty pellets, and go far, far away to die. Any human listening at this point would surely be questioning my grip on reality as I am conversing with rats, but that does not stop me. I am keeping up this banter to quell my absolute disgust at the fact that I am in the same building with cootie-carrying rats.

I move on. To something far more interesting and productive - my latest natural dyeing experiment is finished. I have dyed two skeins of fingering weight (enough for men's socks), with butternuts.

I love the color, and even though the photo included coneflower for color reference, they still did not show quite as golden as I had you'll have to trust me.

We are going to try and do a fiber festival next fall, and if we get accepted, it is our plan to have a nautral dyes line. This is the season for dyeing, with lots of plants available on the farm. This is our year to experiment and develop reliable colorways. Maybe four or five will make the final cut...Rudbekia is in the pot now (a repeat) and we are still searching for an acceptable pink. Goldenrod coming up soon...and I am experimenting with sumac bark for an orange...
Oh yeah, before I forget: two dead rats on the floor of the chicken coop the very next day. Obviously they did not hear my admonitions about going far, far away to die, but I'll take dead over live and sqeaking anyday.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Dye Day on the Farm

This is Allison (background) my business partner, and Karin (foreground) a knitting and fiber artist who we met through her yarn store.

Karin came over for a Dye Day on the farm to see just what we do to create our sock yarn, and to see the critters and crew.

Here she is dyeing a skein of 52PP custom yarn for our crazy sock KAL.

The 52PP colorway is a three-color, self-striping yarn and here she is dyeing the last color.

Karin is a very talented and artistic woman, I had an excellent time just watching her think through the colors and try variations of the process. She makes silk scarves, so she is no newbie to dyeing, but it is always interesting to watch someone come out of their primary medium into another. Here she is working on the second skein, thinking hard about what she wants to create...

Of course, we should have had critter pictures as well, but we forgot the camera on that part of the tour! But all in all, it was a beautiful day, rounded out with lunch on the porch. Here, some of our finished skeins hang from the front porch to dry: