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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Who needs coffee when you have critters?

Early mornings at our house are Mom’s time.  The house is dark and quiet; the only critters that are barely stirring are the two cats that got tossed off the bed when Mom got up to silence her alarm.  She heads to the kitchen, starts the coffee and takes that few minutes to check e-mails and bank balances before getting on with the day. 

This morning, the computer was barely waking up and the only light in the kitchen was the glow from the red light on the front of the coffee pot.  Thursday’s include checking the order for the Fairfield Farmer’s Market.  It is an online farmers market where the vendors list their items that will be available that week and orders are taken until midnight on Wednesday.  All the produce, jams, jellies, dairy, meat, etc. are dropped off at one central location and can be picked up by the customer at four different locations throughout the county.  There is a little less meet and greet, but it is very convenient in today’s online age.

Slam, Clank, Crash!  Those darned cats had knocked something over in the back room, again!  Most of them are in their mid-teens, one would think that by now, they would be done climbing the walls. 

The house returned to its slumber and the whirring of the CPU joined the drip of the coffee maker. 
That can’t be good!  I jumped out of my chair, turned on the lights – all the cats were accounted for.  Little man rarely wakes up this early - my heart dropped to my toes - I ran to the living room and flashed on the light.   Little man lay snoozing on his father’s chest where I left them around three o’clock this morning.  Instant relief!  

The sounds were coming from the basement.  I grabbed a flash light, pulled open the door and carefully descended the narrow stairs – my heart was still racing, I was barefoot and hadn’t had my first cup of coffee.  Nothing should be in the basement except the water pump, the boiler and the water heater; if those mechanicals were making these kinds of noises then we were in for a rough ride.  The squealing continued as I reached the bottom of the stairs.  In the far corner under the shelves of empty preserving jars and behind the old water heater there was a ruckus. 

Photo courtesy of:
Eyes still clouded with sleep and just calming down from sheer terror, I couldn't figure out what I was looking at in the circle of yellow cast from the flash light.  After what seemed like an eternity, it let go of the mouse that it had in its grasp and turned toward me.  A WEASEL was inside my house!  I thought about throwing the pipe wrench at it, but I wasn’t sure if it would only get mad and come after me – they have some sharp teeth.  Deciding I wasn’t much of a threat, it returned to terrorizing his breakfast.  I found an empty wicker basket and attempted to capture it.  Remember, I haven’t had any coffee yet; wicker can’t keep a weasel in for more than 15 or 20 seconds before it would chew through the sides.  He wisely decided that I wasn’t going to allow him to finish his meal so he skulked off, climbing the stacked stone foundation and headed out along the plumbing towards the old ice house. 

There is a trap set in the basement and when I get home we will set one outside as well.  The last thing that will be taking up residence with a long winter coming is a weasel – our chickens could be in for trouble with a family of these buggers hanging around.  I was awake now, running behind schedule, but awake!  I still took 24 oz of that hot, energizing deliciousness to work with me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

If only cats were good at taping

One of the projects that was on the to-do list for this summer was to tear out and re-insulate the south wall in our kitchen.  Last year the frost built up on and around the windows and when the breezes came from the south we couldn't leave a candle burning near or on the window sill as it would not stay lit.

One weekend was allotted to complete the majority of this project, demolition, insulation and sheet rock.  In early August the plaster and lath was torn out from the wall and we discovered that the windows were installed without headers or sills - this does not make for very strong construction.  I build sturdy, but never seem to achieve square or plumb.  The headers and sills would have to wait until I had some help. 

Late in September, my father came to visit and he took one of his valuable vacation days to re-frame around the front door and the two south facing windows.   A friend and contractor was enlisted to install the sliding glass door.  Then the door was delayed.  Three to four days turned into weeks and bow-hunting season was looming, scheduled to start at the beginning of October.  The door arrived two days before he was headed into the woods.

Then it started to rain.  One thing that you generally try to avoid is having a huge hole in the side of your house when the rain is pouring in from the east.  It dried up slightly and between rain drops, even though it was hunting season, he came to the house and installed our new door.  Two days later the rain stopped long enough for him to return and repair the sheathing, install the flashing and trim out the door.  Sheet rock and insulation went in the day before my birthday and the first coat of taping was completed last week.  

The weather has turned damp and cold this week.  I was able to scrape enough money together to get a delivery of propane and the wall is closed up so that we can turn the heat on.  Our weekend project took the path of many of the projects that are tackled on this farm.  Now just over two months later there remains another coat of taping, priming, paint and re-installation of the trim boards.  But the house is warm for the time being and the rest will get done as time permits.  If only Patches could yield a putty knife as well as she holds the ladder still.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

No piglets

Alas, there were to be no piglets on the farm this summer, she wasn’t pregnant after all. 

Pig, as you may be aware, came to us as a rescue with a somewhat notorious history of reproductive difficulties as well as the general obstacles associated with trying to retrain an adult sow.  When we tried to relocate her last fall from her pasture into a warmer, drier shed for the winter, she refused to cross the line where her electric fence was.  No matter what we tried she refused to leave her pasture. 

The money was finally saved and in early April we tried artificial insemination.  Three months, three weeks, and three days later, it was time for piglets (or so I thought) and we watched, and we waited.   Midnight checks after what I thought was her ‘water breaking’ – still no piglets.  Pig’s labor wasn’t progressing; it was time to call the vet.  She came and we tried to check Pig’s private parts – she wasn’t having any of us monkeying around back there.  600 plus pounds of unhappy sow isn’t easy to wrangle.   Little man’s father, the vet, little man and I offered food, treats, water, cake, pancakes and more to Pig so that we could catch her – no such luck!

The following day there was no change.  Pig was panting and not eating or drinking.  We called the vet and she came back with sedation. Three shots with the tranquilizer gun and she still wouldn’t go down.  They say that animals can take on the characteristics of the caretakers – well stubbornness certainly runs in this family!  After returning from my off-farm job I found Pig in the middle of her pasture, still panting, although slightly groggy from the medication.  I chased her around her pasture once with no luck and finally managed to convince her that her house was a much nicer place to hang out.  We put in some barricades and secured her as best we could.  It certainly helped that she was already pretty loopy.

Back inside for yet another call to the veterinarian.  It was after office hours and this would be the third visit out to the farm in two days.  Before he even agreed to come out, he made sure we had her secured so she could actually be examined this time.  He arrived and little man’s father and I held the barricades in place while he went in and checked for piglets.  She wasn’t happy, but she didn’t escape.
This farm's first piglets - 9 weeks old - 2011

“I’m not feeling anything,” he said.

My heart sank, months of waiting, signs of pregnancy, signs of labor and now no babies.  He went back to his truck and got the ultrasound and confirmed that there were no piglets.   She had had some sort of phantom pregnancy.   I guess I wasn’t going to be a father after all.  We talked some more and I asked if we should try again given her age and the cost of artificial insemination and he confirmed that it is very difficult for older sows to become pregnant and when they do, they have harder pregnancies.

Alas, the decision has been made that Pig will leave her pasture this fall and take residence inside the house in much smaller packages.  With the two vet bills, the artificial insemination and the extra grain that we fed her because we thought she was growing piglets, we have a little over $725 invested in this rescued pig.  We can expect around 500 lbs of pork from her in various cuts at a cost of $1.60/lb. after buying the wrapping material.

Lessons learned from the Pig breeding adventure include –
  • Invest in or manufacture good equipment to secure your animal so that it can be examined by a veterinary professional.  ‘Cattle panels’ or some other material so that the next sow, Zeb when he gets older, or any other animal that weighs more than we do can be contained in one visit with the vet, not several. 
  • Next time we try to breed a gilt or a sow, we will get confirmation from the vet much earlier in process.  We might have tried to breed Pig one more time in May if we knew that she hadn’t become pregnant.

Once the heating season is over, we will be on the hunt for a new gilt or sow.  Ideally we would love to breed early this winter for spring piglets, but that will depend on cash flow.  If anyone has a healthy, heritage breed, gilt or sow for rescue/barter in Northern, Vermont or upstate New York, please reach out to me.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Piglet watch

It has been approximately 116 days since we bred Pig.  Her milk hasn't come in yet and she is now officially late.  This week I have checked on her even before I make my coffee each morning, I check on her as soon as I get home, I check on her right before I go to bed, and Monday night when I truly thought she was in labor, I checked on her at 2:30 a.m.

Last night before I went to bed I saw slightest hint of milk/colostrum from her - but no other signs so I didn't do a midnight check.  This morning, still nothing - but she wanted nothing to do with me checking her undersides.  Little man's father checks on her throughout the day as well although he doesn't get nearly as personal with her as I do.

I am watching for signs of distress and fever and thankfully none of that so far.  The vet says that I should wait two days past her due date, my father-in-law says that she will have them when she is darned good and ready.  In the meantime I wait - relatively impatiently!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Picking up the pieces, moving forward and re-setting priority number one!

The unforeseen, abrupt, loss of an income HURTS A LOT, especially in the spring on a small farm.  You start looking for more ways to cut already tight budgets and find ways to bring in any little bit of income to carry you through and keep the utilities on.  Farmers market, which was supposed to be on hold for this year, was added back to the mix.  Unfortunately, we hadn’t planned on a market garden this year so vegetable starts wouldn’t be available for sale.  Butchering hadn’t been done so we didn’t have any rabbit meat for sale.  Jams and jellies were still in their juice stage in the freezer.  We reached out to our neighbors and through some bartering and collaboration, little man’s father has managed to make a table at market work.

Chicken being chased by a toddler
with a camera
At the beginning of June I tried to do what I had done last year, bake four to six pies, four loaves of yeast bread and several desserts each market day.  I would come home from my off farm job and little man would ask me to play but I would be too busy baking to play.  He would ask to help so I would let him add pre-measured ingredients and mix when it was appropriate.  Baking took much longer than it had in the past.  Then when I moved on to the next recipe, he would ask to play again.  We would stop for dinner then go put the animals to bed, put little man and his father to bed then I would stay up baking more for market.  Since it was spring/early summer, the following night I would be transplanting from the greenhouse into the garden or the flower beds and he would help wherever he could, but then he would ask to play again, and again the answer would be, ‘As soon as I am done doing…’  The following night I would be baking again for market.  The following night would be spent cleaning out the rabbits and chickens housing, again little man would get his shovel and do what he could to help.  It breaks your heart when you have to tell your little one that you can’t play because you have to try and make a living. 

After too many times seeing that beautiful boy walk away with THAT look of total and complete disappointment, I decided that I was done with working full-time and trying to keep up with farmers market too.  I wasn’t going to miss another whole summer of playing and watching little man grow, all the while arguing with his father about distribution of chores/responsibilities and who was going to get to use the tiny work space portion of the kitchen first, just to try and eek out what little our local farmers market was going to gain for us.  Little man is far too important!  I wasn’t going to do it again this summer.

Now I come home in the evening and do at least one chore/job/task, which most of the time, includes some portion of something that little man can help with.  Then there is play time.  Sometimes it is fifteen minutes while making dinner, sometimes it is an hour and a half while the excavation of a new garage and parking facility are planned underneath the pine tree for the a pickup truck carrying blocks and a horse trailer carrying cows and rocks.  Often it involves running around with bare feet, pausing only to scratch a sow behind the ears, upsetting the chickens as they have to get out of the way of a racing toddler in the backyard.
2014's first harvest of
yellow beans from the garden

The worries are far from gone as little man’s father remains unemployed, but, the freezer is full and the garden is providing every day.  Now we have fifty meat birds ready to go into the freezer, I wasn’t able to buy the fingers for the chicken plucker we are building AND the one we borrowed needs fingers too

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

When Memorial Day throws you a curve ball!

2014 started relatively well considering all else. The plans were in place for a productive year, at least on paper anyway and we jumped in with both feet. This year would be better planned, we wouldn't take on too many projects, we would both be working full time jobs off the farm, the farmers market would be on hold for this year and we would focus on what we needed for the family, catch up on bills and get a decent financial foundation underneath us to start 2015 off with a deeper focus on the farm and earning at least one salary with what we can produce from the farm.

An older picture of the 'Rock' behind the fire pit
Plans were progressing, the year was moving forward, albeit behind schedule, but when has this farm ever adhered to a schedule – enter Memorial Day weekend. Historically, this weekend has hosted the impromptu annual family reunion down at camp. This year was no exception and the next generation, from 2 months to 5 years old, was present alongside those pushing into their late 70s to enjoy all that camp has meant to this family going on five generations now. Little man and I were no exception, visiting and enjoying the day with family. There was plenty to do at the farm, but this weekend has always been about spending time with those we only get to see once, maybe twice per year.

In the middle of a lovely conversation about the requirements instilled by my great-grandparents before you were allowed to take any boat out into the lake – you must be able to swim across three camp lots worth of lake shore before you could take out the row boat – you must be able to swim the distance from the shore to the island and back and pass the surprise you fell out of the boat with all your clothes on and make it back to shore with no life jacket test - before you could take out the motorboat; Little man’s father arrived at camp in a flurry of dust and flying gravel to inform me that he had just lost his job. I managed to politely inform him that no matter the issue at home – camp was no place spin tires and bring a cloud of dust. Then I took a deep breath and re-joined my family whose conversation had turned to the rock which borders the fire pit and the ‘rules’ about when you can and can’t sit on it.  All the while my mind racing – we were just barely getting our heads above water after five or six really lean years, we had just added Zeb, 50 meat birds, two batched of pullets through the incubator, Little man was still in diapers, we still have a car payment, Pig was pregnant and the restaurant where he worked supplied a lot of her food – WHAT THE HELL WERE WE GOING TO DO NOW??!?!?!?!?

Thursday, May 22, 2014


It has been seven weeks since we inseminated Pig.  I dutifully checked her on the weekend of April 26th but was unable to confidently say whether she was in heat or not. 
  • Her appetite was really good – good sign – not in heat
  • She was really vocal and wanted tons of attention – bad sign – in heat
  • She wasn’t rubbing or scratching the house too much – good sign – not in heat
  • Her back end was slightly swollen and red – bad sign – in heat

Since Pig wasn’t giving me any tell-tale signs of pregnancy then I may have to resort to the high tech route with the veterinarian and the ultrasound.

In the meantime I resorted to the interweb to see if anyone had an inexpensive way to determine if she was pregnant – low and behold – pigs have a pregnancy indicator.  All I can say is leave it to a VT farmer to figure this one out! 
(This picture is directly from his post).

Back out to Pig’s pen I went – grumbling as I crossed the yard to find that she had toppled the newly constructed shelter for Zeb – our new Gloucester Old Spot boar.  Thankfully he is still in the shed as he is too little to take notice of the bottom strand of electric fence.   I went into the pasture and began the process of resurrecting the shelter in hopes that she would leave it standing for a couple of days until I could get some reinforcing posts driven into the ground.  All the while she is having absolutely none of my being in her pasture or near her house.

If I am carrying food, water or hay, then I am allowed to go anywhere in her pasture.  If, however, I dare to enter her space, especially to work on this new structure – then I am to be banished and quickly.  Now, I am no small whisp of a girl, but this 600 lb. sow is no match for me when she has her mind set.  I retreated to the fence line while Little man and his father brought over a bucket of fresh water.  Back inside to look at her backside – ta-da!  From what I understand, the weight of the growing piglets pulls down on her insides which are connected to the outsides and voila – pig pregnancy indicator.

Now Pig is five years old and has had several litters before so her backside does not look exactly like the gilt in the picture.  So here’s hoping that this built in indicator means piglets in July.

In the couple of weeks since, Little man’s father has done a pretty good patch job on Zeb’s shed – which is to say that Pig hasn’t knocked it down, yet.  Zeb is getting fed up with being stuck in the shed, perhaps next week we will try to get him out into pasture – he should be just about tall enough to reach the bottom strand of fence.  Of course we will try introducing the two of them first to be sure Pig will tolerate him adjacent to her space.  If not, then there will be some re-engineering going on and fast!

It is spring around here folks and there is lots happening, please bear with me as I try to eek out some more time to get more posting done.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

First harvest of asparagus

We planted it three years ago, last year there were a couple of spears, enough to be a palette teaser.  Our first real harvest of any vegetable for 2014 yields enough for dinner for the three of us and there is more coming!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Pig - Breeding successful, only time will tell

With the box’s arrival at the office last week came several comments and jokes from my colleagues.  Was I going to play soft music, did she get a nice dinner first, and EWWW were among them.  I hadn’t gotten a call back from the veterinarian and although I joked back, I was genuinely concerned about how well this was going to go.  I had done the research and it didn’t look all that difficult, but I was still worried that I had just thrown a couple hundred dollars out the window.  That is certainly an amount of cash that this farm and its caretaker cannot just toss.

Saturday morning I went to the farm store and looked up and down the aisles for lubricant.  Well they don’t sell swine lubricant in anything less than a one gallon jug!  Not knowing whether something for people would work just as well on a pig, I have plenty left over.

I had decided to wait until Little man’s father got home in case she didn’t want to stand still.  I didn’t want to worry about where Little man was while I was attempting to ‘work’ on the business end of a 600 lb. sow.  Allegedly if the pig is truly in heat, they will stand board stiff when you put weight in the middle of their backs as if they were prepared to take the weight of a boar.  If my calculations on her heat cycle were correct, I would have nothing to worry about.

Little man gave her a sweet muffin while I went behind her, cleaned her up, and lubed the inseminating rod.  She stood almost completely still.  When she decided I didn’t belong back there Little man’s father leaned in the middle of her back – she stopped moving completely. 

Like many other things on the farm that I have never attempted before, I was amazed at how easy it was.  All the contingencies had been pre-planned and thankfully didn’t need any of them.  Saving a a few dollars by not having the veterinarian out to the farm was an additional bonus.  If Pig doesn’t go into heat on the 26th, then we will know that it took.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Got milk? Not from this farm for a while!

I posted to Facebook yesterday about dairy goats - as I look at my grocery cart and see so much of my cart filled with diary products, I wonder if I should get a lactating animal to offset some of the costs of dairy at the store.  Being the thorough researcher that I am, its off to the library for books on the subject, talking to friends/neighbors/mentors, and perusing the internet reading stories and looking for advice before I take on such a big adventure.  Each time I think about adding a cow, (July 2012 and this week) I look back at the following answer which I found a couple of years ago.  As much as it could be valuable to our farm - until I am ready or able to make this kind of commitment- there will be no dairy cows/goats. 

The cow is not going to supply you with milk for less than you are paying at the grocery store.

Besides that, think about getting 3-5 gallons of milk a DAY from the cow....what are you going to do with all that milk?

As a little experiment, I sugest doing this. Buy yourself some books on home dairy cows, and buy yourself a little stuffed cow.

Do this for one month straight:
  1. Go out every morning at 5AM, and get your stuffed cow out of the pasture. Lead your stuffed cow to where you are going to milk her. Now sit on a stool for 30 minutes with your stuffed cow, and read your books. This is the minimum amount of time a beginner would spend milking. It does not matter the weather, or if you are sick, or have an important meeting. NOTHING else happens before the cow is milked!
  2. Now put your stuffed cow back in the pasture. Take your buckets of invisible milk (you didn't forget the buckets did you?) inside, and get them properly cooling. Just putting them into the fridge is not good enough. Your books will tell you all about how to properly handle the raw milk.
  3. Now you can change clothes, shower, and get on with your day. Be sure you are home at 5pm sharp! Go out and get your stuffed cow again, and repete the entire process.

I'm sure you think I'm being a smart a$$, but I'm not. Honestly doing this is going to give you some idea what an impact on your life a cow is going to have. She needs to be milked twice a day, 12 hours appart, NO MATTER WHAT. You can be sick as death with the flu....cow still needs to be milked. Doing this exercise with your stuffed cow, is only going to give you a tiny fraction of the work a real cow will involve....but it will be a reality check, when you find out you cannot go on vacation, to a school function with your children, or work overtime....because the cow need to be milked.
I'm going to answer a couple of the questions you asked:

Vet need to learn how to give shots, and worm the cow yourself, as well as trimming her hooves.

If you need a Vet present for the cows delivery, send her off to market to be butchered. No I'm not kidding, and no I'm not a cruel person. She is going to cost you WAY more time, money and trouble in the long run than she is worth, if she cannot deliver a calf all on her own.

A lot of family milking cows are only breed every two years. Milk production drops offf some in the second year, but you probably do not need 3-5 gallons of milk a day anyway.

A good family milk cow, who's well cared for will live 20-25 years. A commercial dairy cow is lucky to see her 5th birthday.

In all honesty, if you want milking animals, serriously consider looking into dairy goats. They will give a much more reasonible amount of milk. Another plus with dairy goats is they cannot kick your face off (yes, I mean the skin of your face clean off and laying on the ground).   I've seen (in person) a farriers face kicked clean off, and laying on the ground (by a horse). I've seen a woman who's lower jaw and cheek bone on one side were nearly gone (totally caved in) from a cow kick.

My Great Grandmother spent 12 hours in a manger, holding the horns of a formerly friendly cow, who very suddenly decided she wanted to kill her. It was 12 hours before some got home. Are you physically strong enough to do that?

By the way, you do not have to pasturize your milk like another poster stated. Raw milk is delicious, and very healthy for you. It must just be handled correctly, so bacteria does not grow in it.

Homesteading/Farming over 20 years

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Mud Season = lots of water, not necessarily where I want it

Warm weather this week has allowed us to venture outside and start those tasks which have been eagerly awaiting snow melt.  I took out my farm planning list from March last night and frowned at how much wasn’t crossed off.  A few such tasks were moved up to March from later months based on the warmer winters of the past couple of years; perhaps 30 years of living in northern New England should have cautioned me to leave them in April.  Lessons learned.  When I sit down this fall to update my farm plan I will do it with the 2015 Old Farmer’s Almanac and my disparaging notes on this winters weather.

The fifth season has arrived here with the increase in temperatures.  Copious amounts of water pour down the driveway and running past the front of the garage creating a pond out of the driveway.  Over the past couple of years we have not maintained proper grading of the driveway, changed the parking plan and removed two huge rock maple trees from beside the driveway.  What this means is that water that historical was used by the trees, fell off the side of the driveway or ran through the back yard, this year, ran straight down the driveway and into the garage.  There are drains in the garage and in any other year water in the garage wouldn’t be a big deal, this year, the rabbits are still in there.  Imagine what several inches of water can do to your nice neat piles of pine shavings underneath your rabbit cages.  Quite the mess!  But even wet rabbit pellets and pine shavings are pretty east to clean up.

The water continued flowing and the drains were by then plugged with wet pine shavings; water went over top of the threshold and into the chicken coop.  Chicken droppings are not so structurally sound and when mixed with water simply create muck!

I shed my jacket as I shoveled what seemed like feet of slop out of the coop (in reality it was only about two inches, but it was heavy and I am out of shape!).  From the coop I moved to the garage floor shoveling, scraping and sweeping wet, sloppy pine and poo section by section.  Little man’s father worked diligently on the frozen drainage situation and was finally able to get the water to start flowing away from the garage.  By Tuesday night I was finally done cleaning up from Saturday and Sunday’s water damage.

Yesterday I continued the work of cleaning up the mess that December’s ice storm made out of the pine tree.  The pile is big and waits for a day of calm winds before it can be disposed of.  The brooder box in the garage was cleaned and disinfected, the reflector lamp tested and a new light bulb added to the shopping list.  The last turn of the eggs in the incubator was done this morning – some of the eggs are already moving!  New baby birds will be here this weekend.

As I sipped an adult beverage and watched Little man run up and down the driveway, the smell of boiling sap wafted down the hill from our neighbors.  We decided not to make our own syrup this year.  There comes a time when you are forced to realize that you can’t do absolutely everything.  Not boiling has given way to progress in other areas and some quality time with my son.  I will gladly barter or trade some rabbit, chickens, pork, eggs or vegetables, for our syrup this year.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Seed swap, decluttering and waiting - IMpatiently

Spring on the farm is very slow in coming this year.  There is still plenty of snow on the ground.  The driveway is starting to melt, hinting at the mess of mud season yet to come.  The ground in the green house has thawed slightly allowing me to clean out the detritus from last years’ plants and move the dirt around, if only just a little.  Slightly more than the top inch has thawed, teasing me into thinking I could get all cleaned up and ready to plant this past weekend.  If the sun comes out as predicted this week, even though the temperatures are cool, I should be able to start turning in some compost and plant some cool season crops next week.  My original seed starting schedule had me sowing seeds during St. Patrick’s Day week – it is looking like they will be a full two weeks behind this year.

I was also hoping to be sharing pictures of baby piglets right about now…  Best laid plans… <said grumbling>.  Many of the farms in our county and all of the blogs I follow are showing off their brand new farm babies.  I am getting more than a little jealous.  But life gets in the way.  The plans are to still breed Pig.  I was a little worried about her farrowing in late June/early July, but her house is in the shade of a 150 year old maple tree and half of her pasture has some great overflow from the same spring that provides water to the farm house.  Pig is expected to go into heat the first weekend in April and I am proud to say that enough money has been set aside to buy the sperm and pay the vet.  The email arrived this weekend letting me know that the boar I hope to have as a companion to Pig’s farrows was born on the 6th of March and is doing great – I should be able to bring him home right around Easter.

I purposely held off on putting eggs in the incubator in February as the almanac did predict a cooler than expected end to this month – I am certainly glad I waited.  The baby chickens will arrive the first full week of April.  That gives me another week and chance to get the brooder box cleaned off (as Little man’s father has taken to using the chicken wire covered top as a shelf), disinfected, the heat lamp located and tested, and the box ready to house new baby chicks.

The order for meat birds is due into the feed store shortly so talk this week turned to remodeling chicken coops and whether the parts to the old washing machine would work for the motor, belt and drive for the chicken plucker I am planning to make.  Unfortunately the door to the section of the barn where the old machine is stored is frozen shut and blocked by a snow pile still well over six feet tall.  In talking with my cousin yesterday, he is planning on milling some posts and beams for a barn my uncle is building – maybe there will be some left over material that I can salvage for the support structure of my plucker.

As the snow melts I am starting to pick up and clean up from everything that was left outside over the winter.  My old car (my favorite so far in all of them that I have owned) was carted off to the salvage yard today.  Little man’s father went out on Friday afternoon with the tractor and dug out around it then on Saturday afternoon attached the tow strap to it and yanked it free from the ice.  I miss that car!!  De-cluttering continues; perhaps there is a little more money to be made from clearing out the junk to put toward solar fence chargers, metal roofing, or hydraulic hoses.  My monthly project list is being held hostage by the weather and lack of snow melt right now. 

Tomorrow night I am headed to the first (annual I hope) seed swap in Enosburg to trade some seeds, meet some other like-minded folks and to drum up some business for the local farmers market.  Even though I might not be able to vend much this summer, I like the market and hope to get back to it soon.

With forecasted temperatures in the forties next week – here’s hoping for the beginning of a great season!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Back to real food

I miss my garden!  The warm temperatures over the past week have helped the ground inside the greenhouse thaw, if only just a little.  Unfortunately, overnight they are predicting a good nor'easter followed by a couple of pretty frosty nights.  Even though my seed inventory and starting dates are set for each group of transplants for the garden this year; actual yield is still a ways away.  I miss my garden even more at the end of the grocery store and whole foods market checkout process.

Back in September, when I returned to work full time, I focused on weekly meal planning for the family.  One day a week I would sit down, tally the contents of the freezer, refrigerator and pantry and make a meal plan which would use most of what we had on hand and the remaining ingredients would make up the list for grocery store and whole foods market.  The past several weeks have found my freezer unusually well organized.  Too many perfectly rectangular or square packages, intended for quick and easy evening meal preparation, started to take over a lot of the space.  Gone were the irregular packages containing whole chickens or stew meat or venison from this past year.  No uneven bags of chicken broth or peculiarly shaped bags of frozen vegetables.  The cookie jar no longer contained delicious home baked goodies but was filled with perfectly formed off-the-conveyor belt cookies for an after dinner treat.

Peanut butter banana oatmeal cookies
with no added sugar or fat
About two weeks ago I stood in front of the open refrigerator and freezer doors (something my mother would certainly have yelled at me for) and sighed in disgust.  I had gotten lazy and our diets and eventually our health would suffer for it.  That Friday night after both Little man and his father had gone to bed, I headed out to the deep freeze and took stock of what little basic protein and vegetable we had left.  Back into the kitchen for an inventory of the freezer and a thorough cleaning of the refrigerator; pig had a feast Saturday morning of all the leftovers that were not consumed because they were less than remarkable, primarily prepackaged or frozen meals.  I made a comprehensive grocery list and split it between both the regular grocery store and the whole foods market.

When I originally started my meal planning adventure I found  This website had some great meal plans which were derived primarily from a whole food approach – very little came from the center aisles of the grocery store.  As I have refined my approach, I have found and  Both are great websites which also take a real food approach to your diet and meal planning.

Homemade applesauce
Staples like granola to add to my oatmeal and yogurt and great sides like vegetable pancakes have joined our meal plans.  Last week we were much better and this week the plan continues for some more delicious, wholesome foods.  My budget hasn’t taken too kindly to my renewed focus on eating health especially with a large expenditure* looming at the end of the week, but after only one week, I am certainly sleeping better.  My evenings this week will be a little busier as my weekly meal prep time was instead spent outside with Little man but it was certainly worth it.

Here’s what our meal plans look like for the last two weeks:

Fresh tomato cucumber salsa
Last Week
Monday - Marinated venison steaks, frozen mixed vegetables, brown rice
Tuesday - Homemade macaroni and cheese with ham, frozen peas
Wednesday – Pot roast – crock pot with potatoes and carrots
Thursday – Chicken fajitas on homemade whole wheat tortillas
Friday – Goulash, Italian bread, vegetable (this got eaten Sunday night after playing outside and making homemade tortillas for lunch and Thursday’s dinner)
Saturday – Leftovers (we actually had baked chicken – there were no leftovers)
Sunday – Stuffed hamburgers with mushrooms, peppers & onions

BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches
This Week
Monday – BBQ pulled pork sandwiches (pulled pork from the crock pot and homemade BBQ sauce), 
tomato cucumber salsa - made from leftover produce - two tomatoes, one cucumber, 1/2 a green pepper, 1/2 an onion, a little lime juice - all just hanging around after last weeks meals.
Tuesday – Sausage, mushroom & kale pasta
Wednesday – Beef stew – crock pot
Thursday – chef’s choice – it was supposed to be butternut squash ravioli’s but I didn’t get them made on Sunday so chef’s choice is either leftovers or what ever is around and thawed
Friday – Chicken nuggets (homemade, breaded, and baked in one large batch – ½ is frozen for a second meal), baked sweet potato french fries, vegetable
Saturday – Chicken and homemade biscuits – normally we don’t have chicken two nights in a row so chef’s choice might get moved to Friday and chicken nuggets to Thursday.

Our meal plan is very flexible, but having all the ingredients in the house to make six meals per week makes dinner much more enjoyable and a lot less time consuming.   Do you plan your meals?

* The big expenditure - Pig should be in heat this weekend, if we can come up with the cash to order sperm by tomorrow afternoon, we will breed her this weekend.  
Goal - $225 - we have gotten together just about 1/2 with 24 hours to go.
     $60 for the sperm
     $108 for the shipping
     $50-75 for the vet visit - since I have never done this before

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Pig, New boar? Summer piglets & Home renovation

I made a promise to myself of no more permanent additions to the farm until we had made progress in some of the projects that we had already started.  That promise might get broken.  In my research for a boar or sperm for Pig, I located a farm within a half a day’s drive that breeds Gloucester Old Spots.  While that is too far to trailer pig for a romantic weekend away, they have a couple of litters coming up and they would be willing to provide me with an unregistered, intact boar for a reasonable price.  I could over winter him and at least one of Pig’s offspring and be able to start breeding heritage pigs here at the farm.  It is a very serious consideration.

The location of this particular farm is proving advantageous; my trip down there will take me only a stone’s throw from Cold Antler Farm.  I have wanted to meet Jenna and talk with her about her journey.  Although I may already have answers to some of my questions, it will be nice to hear what I am doing right, what I am doing wrong and perhaps get a good smack upside the head to put things back into perspective.  Jenna has done what I attempted, unsuccessfully to do, leave the off-farm employment world and dedicate my life to farming full time.  She is a full ten years younger than I, but I don’t think age has much to do with it.  It will be great to spend an ‘Indy Day’ or half day with her on her six acres of paradise.

Photo courtesy of Hidden Nest Farm
Until then, I am working feverishly toward next weekend.  Pig will be going into heat again.  I have lined up sperm for artificial insemination which in and of itself isn’t too expensive.  The shipping, on the other hand, is almost worth my gas to drive out to Ohio and pick it up.  Unfortunately my time is much more valuable so no road trip for me next week.  The goal is to sell a couple of things that have accumulated over time that we no longer use and perhaps I can find new homes for some of the craft items left over from this past summer’s farmers market.  I will also be mixing up a couple batches of jelly if time permits on Sunday (even with losing an hour this weekend, I am hopeful!).   I will be reaching out to the vet to make sure that they can be available and am lining up some panels so that pig can be held still while we attempt to do what the boar should be doing.  If we miss this cycle then we won’t have piglets until July and may have some difficulty finding them new homes.

Some of the swine related projects that are planned for this spring and summer include –
  • Improvements to our current pig housing situation - Pig has been very adamant about not leaving her fenced enclosure, even when tempted with left over birthday cake, fresh grain, whoopie pies, fresh vegetables, semi-rotted vegetables, left over goulash, etc.  Her house is sufficient, but we would like to improve on it so we don’t go through as much hay next winter and perhaps include some kind of solar heated watering device to save from carting water across the dooryard when it is snowing and blowing.
  • Additional fenced pasture and shelter for a boar
  • Shelter for the piglets and new boar
  • Larger capacity solar fence charger for use in conjunction with or in addition to our current solar fence charger
Next week I hope to have an update on our seed starting dates - where we stand and if there is any chance of getting seeds started before Earth Day.

You might have noticed that I have added a donate button to the blog.  If you would like to contribute to some of the upcoming projects at the farm, any assistance would be greatly appreciated.  All donations will go straight to these projects and not be used to for any other expenses.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Fruit trees

Earlier this week I was gifted with an unplanned day off from work – I forgot that Town Meeting Day is a state holiday in Vermont.  The weather was an unseasonably cool 10 degrees with a light breeze, but the sun was shining.  I headed out to the backyard with my big snow boots, pruners and loppers and had at them fruit trees.  There are hundreds of how to prune your tree guides out there so I will not regurgitate the how.  Fall and winter are the perfect times to prune your fruit trees.  Pruning keeps the trees healthy and improves their overall quality and productivity.  People have known this for years, but it was only last year that I saw the results first hand.
The spring after I moved into the family farmhouse my father sent us three fruit trees.  Pathetic looking little things, they arrived as bare root twigs in a cardboard box, barely protected from the elements with small little plastic bags tied around their roots to keep the moisture in.  I thought he was nuts for ordering fruit trees since we have forty or more varieties of apple tree on this farm, but who am I to question.  I dutifully dug three holes and planted three, lifeless looking twigs.  Fertilized and watered and protected from pests the little twigs sprouted a few leaves and a couple of branches the first year.
After that I didn’t pay them much mind.  I sprayed them a couple times a year to keep the worst of the pests at bay, but it seemed to be a losing battle with the Japanese beetles.  Dad was up to visit in the fall of 2011 and asked me if I had ever pruned these trees?  I confessed that I hadn’t dared because I didn’t want to kill them.  We discussed whether they had flowered, what if any fruit they had produced and what pest problems they were having.  He took a couple of branches off the first tree, told me to repeat the process on the next two and we should have a better showing the in 2012. 
The flowers that spring were gorgeous and plentiful.  Then there was the late frost; all of the trees had already budded and begun to flower, it hurt the apple industry significantly that year.  Dad said they looked good but that I wasn’t being aggressive enough.  Last winter I armed myself with knowledge – books, magazine articles, the Internet and advice from actual, real people.  Some of the older locals told me I was nuts trying to prune them trees they had been neglected for far too long, they don’t have a chance of good production any more.  I told them that Dad had sent me some baby trees a couple years ago; ‘Now why’d he go ‘n do that?  There plenty o’ trees on that farm.”  In talking with several folks I found someone a little closer to my age and a little less set in their ways to tell me that being a LITTLE more aggressive would be good.  The worst thing I could do is have a bad year and then I knew that I had to a lot more gentle the following winter.  We had a bumper crop of plums, only 2/3 of which I lost to some kind of worm in the middle.  A sad crop off apples – four I think – but they were big, beautiful, delicious baking apples.  And no pears – this is the tree that I thought I had over done it – I didn’t go far enough.
I am still learning and am sure that someone with more experience would have done a much better job, but it worked last year, we’ll see how well it works for 2014.  This weekend I am mixing up a batch of homemade dormant oil spray to see if I can eradicate them pesky worms.  The few plums we had last summer were juicy and delicious, this year the bugs will not get so many!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Life, death, life and rabbits

My thoughts were turning toward Spring this week as we had some beautiful, sunny, albeit cold, couple of days.  Since I can’t put plants in the ground and the spot where I want to build my raised beds this spring is still covered with several snow banks, I focused on minor repairs and breeding the next couple of does.

We are expecting two does to kindle and the almanac has been close to on target having predicted temperatures to be slightly above normal this weekend.  I lost two litters in November 2012 and January 2013 to frigid temperatures and inexperienced does.  This year I have consulted the trusty old almanac each time I considered breeding this winter.  My hope was that it wouldn’t be too far off; it predicted very cold temperatures for the past two weeks so I postponed my last breeding a week or two to try and miss the coldest of weather.  The girls are due this Saturday and temperatures are forecast to be close to normal for this time of year, in the upper 20s and low 30s.

Unfortunately the colder temperatures took their toll on our older breeding does.  We lost two to upper respiratory infections or pneumonia last month.  One of whom had a litter which was only two weeks old.  Anyone you talk to will tell you that if the kits are still nursing solely from mom and haven’t opened their eyes yet then you are wasting your time attempting to feed them and bring them through.  Perhaps I should have listened.  Forever the optimist, I attempted to bottle/syringe feed seven, one and a half week old baby rabbits. 

It was very obvious from the first attempt at feeding that two of them were not going to make it, but I tried anyway and was able to get them to take a very little warm, kitten-milk replacer.  The following morning I took them out of the nest box and focused my attention on the remaining five.  That day all of the kits eagerly fed and went potty and cuddled back together to keep each other warm.  On the third day two more had passed and the fifth was looking pretty terrible but I persisted.  By the fourth day I was down to two, apparently healthy, good looking baby bunnies.  Each day they fed vigorously, processed their waste products and appeared to be responding well.  They did well through day four and into day five. 

When I got home from work on the evening of day five, I was busy with Little man and dinner and the various evening chores which are required to keep any household running; I hadn’t noticed that one of my cats was pretty much absent.  After our dinner I went into the bedroom to retrieve the baby bunnies for feeding time, there was no movement in their box.  A wave of defeat washed over me.  I had been up extra early every morning that week and tried to fit an extra 30 minutes of chores into my already packed evening schedule every day.  I was doing absolutely everything I could for these little critters to no avail.  I reached in to collect them - they weren’t in there!  Where could they have gone?  The blanket covering their box appeared to be in place indicating that the cats hadn’t gotten in there.  I was frantic, as their caretaker I had failed these two little critters, they were my charges and I hadn’t protected them sufficiently from the paws of my felines.  Under the bureau, behind the night tables, under the baseboard heat, behind the hamper, all through the hamper (which they couldn’t have possibly gotten into, but it made me feel better); then a brown ball of fur flew past me and out of the bedroom – my oldest cat.  She originated from the area of a crumpled towel from this morning’s shower.  I cringed as I carefully unfolded it, expecting to see the worst.  Curled up in a little nest that my cat had made out of that towel were the last two baby bunnies, they were very clean and soaking wet from ears to tail.  There wasn’t a puncture mark on them.  Apparently my oldest cat found the babies outside of their box and attempted to mother them.  I don’t know if they were scared to death or if they got cold but the last two bunnies passed sometime during day five.  My cat paced checking the spot where the towel had been and the spot where their box had been trying to find them.  I finally heard her leave the bedroom just after 1:00 a.m.

Would my time have been better spent on other farm chores and to-do list items instead of trying to save a litter of bunnies that, all research had told me, had slim chances if any to survive without their mother?  I remain an optimist and more than a little bit of a sap and will probably try it again if there is any hope of any of them surviving.  It is never easy losing an animal, but it doesn’t seem to take nearly as many tissues and as much time to recover than it did when I started this journey.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

This journey

This journey began almost nine years ago as I arrived at a little trailer in Northwestern Vermont.  It was a cool, November day and the past weeks early snow was just beginning to melt.  Along with a new pair of snow mobile boots and a pair of ski pants, I was unwrapped, my tags removed and placed in the hallway to await cooler days ahead.   My first days in this beautiful countryside bore witness to a snow storm, a trip to the nursing home and bringing home an old black lab who had just had her person leave her for the third time in all too short memory.  My first injury occurred that night when the cat tore a hole in my sleeve as the dog was welcomed into the house for the first time.

That winter I went ice fishing on Lake Champlain, walked the Missisquoi Rail Trail, and went snowmobiling over Jay Peak to points east.  On one such trip over the mountain, this time in the passenger seat, we went to a little town on the New Hampshire border where we met her husband for the first time on a mild February day.  That spring I kept her warm as we watched tons of accumulated winter ice break loose on the river; the noise nothing short of a racing freight train.
Later that spring, and periodically through the summer, I was witness to several Native American Pow Wows from New Hampshire to Maine.  We met some wonderful people as I helped keep a tent from collapsing onto the radio equipment in a downpour, was loaned to a woman in her 70’s to keep her warm while finishing a pot luck dinner, and kept a lost child protected from the cool fall evening while her parents were located.  I even got to go fishing and relax by the campfire with some good friends, many still with us, but some that have since crossed over.

As November arrived, I reflected back on my first year, I had participated in a pretty exciting series of events, what would be next?  At the end of the month, I helped them move into the family farmhouse racing against the impending rain as the couch and bed were moved across two towns on the roof of the old conversion van.  I carried many boxes inside that fall and helped shovel and plow the snow that winter.  I don’t get to see much of the summers except from my perch by the back window.  Every once in a while I will get to come out when the weather is dark, dreary and wet – that is when I am happiest to know that she is warm and dry and I am protecting her from Mother Nature’s worst.  But for most of the summer I long to play outdoors with the dog, plant Christmas trees on the side hill, go for a ride in the boat, and help in the garden, but alas summer is not my season.  I wait patiently for when I will be needed again as the cooler weather approaches.

Since that first exciting year, I have been witness to so many wonderful and scary events in her life.  I have been first on scene of a snow machine accident and a motor vehicle roll-over in the town where she was an EMT.  I have carried firewood and boiled sap into maple syrup till the wee hours of the morning in the late winter months.  My pocket was full of nails, screws, door hinges and other various tools and parts as the first chicken coop was built in late December and the second, larger chicken coop in late February.  Other projects on the farm have taken their toll on me – running fence for the first livestock to be welcomed to the farm in over 40 years resulted in a few punctures.  I have been used to carry rocks, both while protection her from the weather and while used separately in the form of a basket.

I have watched a new relationship grow and was there on the two degree morning when a new life was brought home from the hospital for the first time.  I have been sledding with pre-teens and toddlers, played outside with dog and even helped her build snowmen when there were no children around to build them for.  Many a Memorial Day has been spent by the campfire with family and friends watching the next generation arrive here on the farm.  I have even kept baby bunnies warm as they were abandoned by their mom and waited to be housed with their foster mom.
I have traveled the New England states but missed the opportunity to go to Florida as the weather was too warm.  In my travels I have helped people move, laid in the wet snow while mechanical repairs were completed to not only our car but others who we helped along the way, I kept a small child warm on the side of the Interstate while his father was loaded into an ambulance after a terrible accident and we waited for his grandfather to arrive.

I have seen much in my short time with her.  My red is much more faded and dull than when I arrived almost nine years ago.  I have been torn by tree limbs, burnt by errant campfire ashes, melted against the side of a boiling sap vessel and each time repaired by her capable hands.  Two of my zippers are broken and the Velcro on my front flaps and around my sleeves barely holds closed anymore.  Still I am present for morning chores and sledding with the Little man.  Soon I will be relegated to my place inside next to the back window.  I may not have too many more years left as I am getting thin and dull and my fabric is getting to the stage where it will not be able to be repaired any longer.  Until then, I hope that she will keep me around for a couple more years so that I can be witness to more of this amazing life here in Northwestern Vermont.

I think I have been a pretty good jacket!