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Sunday, June 2, 2019

These Hands

These hands started today much like any other, tucking in blankets around Little man who would sleep for two more hours after Mom was well into her day.  Last night these hands assisted in the birth of three of nine piglets; even though towels and rags were involved, these hands were colored red before the six healthy piglets were settled in for the night.  A thorough washing with soap, bleach and water, these same hands tucked that Little man into bed last night.  Downstairs to washing some dishes, feeding the indoor animals and emptying the trash.  Washed with soap and water, brushed teeth and hair, change of clothes and hand lotion applied, these hands skillfully maneuvered the car to the feed store.  Feed and hydraulic fluid paid for; these hands loaded them into the car and headed back home.

A quick sweep of the kitchen floor, a load of dishes into the dishwasher and some more hand lotion - these hands hugged her Little man and headed outside.  Grabbing gloves, the battery powered drill, the screws and a bottle of water; these hands went to put up a few more arches on the high tunnel.  The tractor wasn't big enough and Mother Nature added her ample supply of rain - these hands moved jacks, 4x4's, and concrete blocks.  Amidst the rain, three arches are raised instead of eight.  These hands clean up the tools, move the mud from tractor parts where it doesn't belong and start doing chores.  

While still wearing gloves, these hands collect chicken eggs, water and feed the chickens and rabbits and remove the gloves only to gain tactile advantage on the bag of feed that was inadvertently placed under the one spot that leaks in the shed roof.  Un-gloved hands clean up the ruined feed, placed the salvaged feed into a clean 5-gallon pail and head for the stump to stoke the fire that amazingly remains aglow after all of the storms that rolled through today.  Forgetting the gloves, burnt chunks of wood are rearranged and the fire burns strong again.  Black with charcoal these hands head over to the hose, grabbing a splash of car wash soap, the hands get a quick rinse before finishing chores for the evening.    Over to the pigs, who have moved their feed buckets into the muddiest, wettest, slimiest part of their saturated spring paddock.  The gloves are completely soaked so these hands delve into the mud to relocate feed dishes and rinse out water dishes to ensure that all of the swine start with a clean meal - though they don't finish it that way.  Ear scratches, tummy rubs and rearranging hay; these hands exit the pig pen in a lovely shad of muddy brown.

Back over to the hose for another splash of car wash, these hands show a few shades of pink amidst the stained cracks of black and grey.  A few tosses of the baseball and some misjudged kicks of the soccer ball; these hands are brown again before they get another great hug from Little man before heading inside to prepare dinner.

Some baking soda, some warm water and some soap are generously applied to these hands for several minutes to ensure they are bacteria free - if not pink and clean - before dinner prep begins.  Everyone gets fed and then it is back outside to put the chickens to bed for the night, close up the rabbits, re-stoke the fire (of course without gloves) and put the farm to bed for the evening.

These hands trim Little man's hair, prepare a quick dessert and ready him for the land of slumber.  After he is settled, copious amounts of hand lotion, some more soap, water and bleach this time are applied in hopes of making these hands somewhat presentable for work in the morning.  They look OK, not great, but OK when the pigs start squealing - one has gotten stuck in the fence between the new piglets and its regular pasture.  Back outside - without taking even half a moment to think about gloves - the six month old piglet is freed from its fence entanglement, the pants which were once tan are now several shades of brown and the hands that might have passed for normal have returned to those of the overtired farm woman and mother who sometimes has an off-farm job.

A thorough scrubbing and some more hand lotion later - these hands set down just after this picture to write this blog post.  In a moment they will get yet another bath, a lathering of lotion and some old white cotton gloves so they can settle in for the night in hopes of resembling a plain old calloused hand in the morning.  But, with all the abuse and chores and tender-loving care these hands both receive and dish out - behind them is a farm woman who wouldn't change all that comes with these tired, dry, cracking, stained hands - for anything else in the world!

Monday, March 18, 2019

The other season

For those who don't live in the northern states, the 'other' season doesn't carry much meaning.  Here in northern Vermont, as soon as the temperatures rise and the welcomed melt begins - so does MUD season.  It happens mostly at the end of winter and right before spring.  It can however come before spring, continue into the middle of spring leave for a little while and come back at the beginning of summer or just decide to stay around for weeks.  The decision on whether to keep your winter boots handy or whether to switch entirely to the less insulated mud boots is never an easy one.  Head out for a project in just the mud boots and your toes freeze, wearing your winter boots could cause your feet to overheat or the water could be deep enough that the liners get soaked and you can't wear your boots for three days while they dry.  Today I chose the winter boots.  The water and mud hadn't gotten too deep and I was able to haul brush for burning, collect some dead wood in hopes of drying out the still frozen fire pit and bring feed and hay to the pigs all with warm and still dry feet.

All of the melting we have had in the past week is very welcome.  It taught me yet another lesson - don't put your snow piles in the middle of your spring drainage paths.  My driveway slants eastward and draining water typically flows off the side of the gravel before it makes it down to the house but when temperatures quickly rise into the upper 50's and the snow banks haven't yet melted, a winter's worth of frozen driveway heads straight for your garage.  Because you put your snow piles in the way of where that water would normally flow, you have to go chip and shovel ice so that you can keep the water flowing past your garage and down the hill.  Next year I will not put the snow piles in the same spot as this year and I will be shoveling the spring drainage paths after each snow storm.

Most of the ice in the driveway has melted and there are several spots of brown grass poking through the remaining snow pack.  With the sun out and the mud arriving this farmer headed out to start working on her high tunnel.  The post went exactly six inches into the ground before refusing to budge any further and now it is stuck, frozen in the ground.  At least that is six more inches than what I had before I started today.  We are still waiting on baby chicks, it looks like the boys were not as successful as they appeared to have been.  Tomorrow will include more outside work and perhaps taking a few minutes to restore my minivan from farm vehicle full of hay, tools, fencing and who knows what else, back to a passenger vehicle.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Farming is a passion - often unrequited

They say that farming is in your blood.  While I didn't have much of an opportunity to farm with my family when I was young - the last of the dairy farm was being put to bed when I arrived on this earth - the farm itself stayed in the family.  I played in the barn, I got under foot of the farm hands that were still haying, I played in the pastures with the heifers that remained here, I caught salamanders in the ponds, I made forts in between boulders and next to hand stacked stone walls, I slept on the floor of a handmade cabin at the south end of the lake and went potty in the woods, even in the rain.  Those are just a few of the things that are in my blood.

I have been homesteading and slowly growing a vegetable, livestock and Christmas tree farm on my families land for almost ten years.  I tried to fit in infrastructure projects, livestock care, weeding, watering, planting, baking, canning and farmers markets with a full time job, a terrible pregnancy which gave me the most wonderful Little man.  As he grows there are t-ball practices and games, soccer practices and games, cub scouts, etc.  The dream of farming has taken a side seat, a back seat or all too often gets relegated to the back of the trailer whose wheels are falling off.

Last summer I made the VERY difficult decision to leave a career that I loved, working with people that I both loved and admired and a profession whose dedication is unwavering, in order to spend more time on the farm.  I miss them terribly.  

The first few months were a huge adjustment.  Learning a new part time job, taking on a second part time job since the cut in pay was more than my budget could absorb but giving up much of that extra time that was supposed to be spent on the farm, and trying to sell summer piglets who were eating me out of house and home.  Then winter arrived far too early and best laid plans of erecting a high tunnel in November have become hoping to get it completed by the end of March.

Farming is a passion and in order to be successful, many things have to take a back seat.  We don't travel, we don't take family vacations more than a few miles away from the farm, it has been more than two years since I have bought myself a new pair of pants or even some desperately overdue new shoes.  Little man needs food, warmth, and clothing; the animals need bedding and feed; the car insurance and light bill need to be paid, the car needs fuel and perhaps if there is anything leftover then maybe we can grab a takeout pizza or sandwiches once every other month or so.  It has been a difficult winter, one which was not completely unexpected, but one that makes this farmer question - far too often - whether she made the right decision.

Spring is four days away - at least chronologically if not meteorologically.  The chicks are scheduled to hatch this weekend and this past weeks thaw proves that there is actually still grass under the white which has blanketed the ground for the past five months.  It will be lean, but this farmer will be working hard to make a go of it over the next nine months.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A winter of firsts

This winter has been a little harder than most on the farm.  Normally we are outside for most of the season working on various projects, but this years weather has been harsh.  When temperatures are tolerable in the single digits, the winds have been blowing a gale causing fingers to go numb quickly.  Pounding posts for the greenhouse has been impossible as the January thaw which usually has us outside with our first campfire didn't show up this year.  But alas, when you can't get outside, you work on other projects.  It has been a winter of firsts - but definitely not lasts.

Our chickens have continued to lay, despite the weather and we got our first blue egg this weekend.

I tried a new flavor of jelly - plum apple.  It is beautiful in the jar and even more delicious on toast.

We attended our first winter farmers market last week and we did pretty well.

Spring does promise to arrive eventually and temperatures are creeping closer to tolerable each week.  Today I will clean out and ready the brooder box, baby chicks are scheduled to arrive this weekend.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Don't do what I did

They say that you learn something new everyday - that certainly holds true on this farm.  Yesterday I learned that when I decide to build something, I need to take into account more than just - here is an empty spot, let's put it here.

Mother Nature gifted the farm with about two feet of snow last weekend.  Then she delivered a beautiful cleansing rain four days later.  We were reasonably prepared and had cleared snow away from primary drainage areas and dug out fences and waterers to ensure that we could both get to and leave the farm as well as get to and feed all the critters.  All except the rabbits.

A little better than a year ago someone dumped sixty or so rabbits on the side of the road in cold, rainy/snowy weather.  Some were just kits while others were older breeding stock.  I was lucky enough to be able to rescue most of them.  They were placed into temporary holds in the garage until I could build them a new shed.  I had rabbits in my garage once - I won't be doing that again.  We left an overhang of a couple of feet on both sides of the storage shed roof when it was built to store tools and supplies outside, but still protected from the weather.  I took one of those overhangs and with the help of Little man's father and a friend, threw up some walls, added a door and made a small shed to house the rabbits.

When siting the door, I figured in the middle of the long wall would provide the best access to the cages that would go inside.  What I didn't consider is that the snow from the entire south facing roof would drop right in front of that door.  The ground in front of the door was also a little higher than the bottom of the door so I dug out some of the soil in front of it to provide some additional clearance.  This was fine for three of the four seasons of the year, but when you combine a recessed landing in front of the door, rain and snow collect there.  When you get close to two feet of snow, you have to shovel both what fell on the ground and what fell off the roof out from that recessed landing in order to access the rabbits.  Then when it rains in January, it inevitably gets cold again and the standing water in front of the door freezes.  If you don't want your rabbits to go hungry you have to chip all the ice from in front of the door so that you can get inside your shed.  Chores that should have taken 15 - 20 minutes took almost an hour last night.

As I began construction of the new brooder coop for the baby chickens that will arrive on the farm this spring, I spent plenty of time looking at snow drifts, checking side and rear clearances and trying to think of every access and weather implication.  I am certain I didn't think of something, but at least this next piece of farm infrastructure stands a much better chance of being trouble free.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Never challenge Mother Nature!

Not too long ago I wrote about challenging Mother Nature and moving forward with my plans, to hell with the weather and all that she had planned.  Well, She answered back in a BIG way.

This summer challenged this farm with a 50 year drought.  Wells and springs that were plentiful ran dry, including the one on this farm.  Thankfully the generations before had provided backup systems that allowed this farm to provide water for its two and four-legged residents alike.   As fall came to a close and an earlier than usual winter closed in with ice-in on the lake a full week earlier than any that this farm had ever recorded, the rains came and the spring brought forth water once again.  The pipe that runs from the spring to the well has sunk and the gravity feed which was once reliable has become an every other day appointment to re-prime.  Family intervention brought a new drilled well with a gallon per minute source of water to feed the homestead.  Unfortunately, the drilling came a week too late and the ground has frozen so that the ditch from the well to the house will wait until spring before pipe can be laid.  No matter the weather and no matter the to-do list, the appointment with the spring will be kept every day for the next four months to ensure that human and critter alike will have plenty of water.

In August the boar broke through the fence and began romancing the sows.  This homesteader thought little more of it than to record the date in her calendar, just-in-case.  Well three months and three weeks later – and earlier this evening – while feeding, watering and providing extra hay, she noticed that one particular sow appeared to be coming into milk.  In three days or less, while evening temperatures are forecast to be below zero, we will – in all likelihood, be having December piglets.  An extra trip to the grain store, a few extra hours in the pigs pen shoring up housing and wind protection, running some new electric fence, and probably more than a few hours of lost sleep over the next few days; there will, hopefully, be a successful delivery.  All of the piglets from this summer remain on the farm.  Mother Nature answered my challenge in no small fashion.

Thursday, amidst snow squalls and falling temperatures, the high tunnel arrived.  I certainly was dreaming to think that the freight company would pull into the dooryard and plop a 30 x 72 high tunnel, completely constructed and ready for compost delivery, onto the site which is only slightly prepared for it.  Dreaming it was.  The truck who delivered her got stuck twice on the flat part of the driveway.  Were it not for my fantastic cousin, the truck would probably still be in the door yard.   The pallet she came on was only partially intact; the load was collapsing even before we came close to it with the tractor forks.  Patience, experience and some wire cutters were what was required to make a quick delivery into just over 90 minutes work.  Some more skilled tractor work and a strong chain to extricate the truck and trailer from the dooryard were required and now the pieces/parts rest on my front lawn.

Finally, tomorrow marks the close of muzzleloader season in Vermont.  The evening after rifle season closed – less than 24 hours – this beautiful (although the picture is quite blurry) eight-point buck posed about 75 yards off the front deck.  I am certain that he acquired a calendar from the local grain store and checks off the days of hunting season.  I expect around 5:00 tomorrow night, he will visit again knowing that he has made it safely through another season.

The balance of this weekend will be spent with family over coffee in the morning, shoring up pig housing, running some new electric fence, bringing in a pile of fresh, warm bedding in anticipation of farrowing, posting sales of pork at rock-bottom prices, staking out where the posts will go for the high tunnel, recycling the old greenhouse plastic into both swine housing and tarping for the new high tunnel parts.  All the while Christmas tree sales will thankfully continue, and in between all of the above, hopefully I might find some time for a little house cleaning, getting ready for the upcoming week of off-farm work and school, and, perhaps, a load of laundry or three in there somewhere.

I said, “Challenge accepted.”

It appears her response was - 
“OK Lady, Buckle Up!  It’s going to be a bumpy ride!”

Saturday, November 17, 2018

November snow - Challenge accepted!

Critters, both two and four legged alike, are confused by the weather on the farm this week.  On Friday, Mother Nature blessed us with a foot of beautiful white powder.  Certainly early for the season and reminiscent of winters 35 years past, it has been both a gift and a chore.

The Canadian geese were as puzzled as I as they gathered at the south end of the lake.  The 'cocktail party' that typically ensues at the end of October during their annual migration was alive and well this mid-November evening amidst Mother Nature's fresh coating of white.  Chores, usually assisted by the child's wagon found free on the side of the road, were completed these evening by plastic sled carrying feed and water to the pigs.  

That same sled, after chores, carried the almost seven year old down the hill and driveway more times than fingers could count, giggles and full bodied laughter echoing behind as the sled went over the snow bank into the Christmas trees.

The first tree of the season was cut today and left the farm in the care of a young family who travel a lot for the holidays and asked to come and get theirs early so as to enjoy as much of their own season as possible before visiting their extended family across the country.

Our early season covering of white has made the ensuing construction of the high tunnel all that much more interesting and predicted low temperatures of single digits below zero on Monday aren't helping.  Sore muscles from regular chores and maintenance on the farm scream just a little louder as shoveling has become a necessary addition to ensuring all the critters have fresh, thawed water and feed.  This farmer remembered how to plow, albeit not a very pretty job, after better than 30 years away from being behind the wheel of a plow truck.

While chores may take a little longer and the grand plans for the coming season may be delayed a little - this farm moves forward.  Challenges have been laid down.  Perhaps the plow truck will clear the spot for the greenhouse instead of the 70 year old tractor.  School is out this week and this farmer has a chance to make a dent in some of her long overdue projects.  Mother Nature has laid down her challenge with a solid covering of the white stuff. 

To quote one of those popular movies that came out in the last few years - 
"Challenge accepted!"