Saturday, July 31, 2010

My Garden Cart

For my birthday last year, I asked for a garden cart. It's like a wheel barrow, but much better. When I asked for it, we were co-housing and waiting and wondering if we really would get to have a bit of land. The garden cart was a way of stating that yes, indeed, it would all work out and I would have a reason for this most lovely tool.

One of the first things I did with my cart was move boxes from the barn to the house. Then, it helped haul trash from the garage and the house and the barn. Then I used it to haul all the wood from where it was dumped to the woodshed Jason built. It's hauled compost, brush, and children. Most recently, I've used it to haul water from the frost free hydrant to all the various trees and things.

It is my mechanical advantage.

Friday, July 30, 2010


Part of my very wonderful family drove all the way from Texas to see us last week. They stopped in Gettysburg and Intercourse on the way here, and they saw Niagara on the way home. In between, we had them here.

What with the temperatures already on the downward climb toward fall and the storms that settle in in late July, we did not manage to swim but twice. We decided not to do much driving while they were here since they drove over 4000 miles round trip. That left: chicken fence.

My aunt, who probably hung the moon between mopping the floor and catching fish when I was little, went right out the door with me every time I did chores after 6:00 am. And what we did most was move chickens around. Laugh if you will, but we were at a chicken crisis point during the visit, what with moving the new layers in with the older ones and getting the meat birds settled in their new digs.

My uncle kept Jason company, taught me the right way to use a riding lawn mower, kept the kids in line, and taught us how to replace a mower blade.

My cousin was just there. I don't mean like a lump; I mean like, every time I was wondering what to do, she seemed to be there doing the right thing. She seemed unflappable, even after spending hour after hour in a cramped car with her two children and her parents.

We also picked blueberries, 64 pounds of blueberries. Then, my aunt, my cousin, Jason, and I put up all the berries the children had not eaten. Surprisingly, even with five kids working at it, we had a lot of berries to put in the freezer and into canning jars.

There was also the water problem while they were here. How would you like to tell the extra five people staying with you that it might be best if they peed outside and flushed with a bucket when necessary? You might think the guests would blanch, but no! They just rolled with it.

And that's where we come to the part about choices. Jason and I choose to live this far away from family. We have a pretty clear sense of all that we lose by doing it. Yet- when I am with my family, I really try to imagine living right with them. Maybe they would feel suffocated by my desire to be right with people; maybe we would all hate each other after a month or two. I don't really know. I just know I feel an incredible longing for intergenerational housing and living when I'm with these awesome people. Still, I choose Vermont and land and cleaner air and more rain and fresh water and a kookie house and canoeing and skiing and local food and a coop and lots of other quirky people that make me feel less weird.

I just feel the weight of those choices more keenly in fresh absence of my family.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

To All the Chickens in the World

I like chickens. They make the nicest noises as you move among them and they tend to their business with such industry. When given the space they need, they're tidy and pretty to look at. It's fun to just watch them taking care of all their chicken business.

The chicks we're raising into a new batch of laying hens are particularly funny to us right now. They are able to get out of the fence, and they do. When we're sitting at the table, we can see them moving around in the back field. And they move mostly as a unit. One of them will have her idea for the day and take off running, and all the rest suddenly follow. It looks like they're on maneuvers. There will be a wave of chicks moving swiftly from the edge of the field to the coop then suddenly back to the trees. Or when we go out to feed them, they are finally learning that our arrival usually is for good tidings. They will come running to us, then suddenly remember they're still quite afraid of us and run away again. One or two roosters follow us pretty steadily as we do our chores until we look at them.

The meat birds seem sadly dumb at the moment. I remember thinking this of the other chicks so there is some hope they will have some personality. Meat birds, even the slower growing ones, hit a point at which their feathers cannot quite keep up with their body growth. Ours are at that point and look bald in certain areas. They are most definitely in an ugly stage. And, even though we have them on grass and move them along, they smell. Animals that eat and drink that much just make a lot of waste, and that waste has an odor. Still- I'm happy to see them growing so well.

Finally, our older hens are looking better. They are getting feathers where they had been pecked out. They are definitely happy to see us and hope for treats. We have different favorites, but no one likes the Buff Orpingtons; those two are too nasty to the other hens. One poor little hen gets her head pecked so often she's a bit bald. They have so much room, that the Buffs must have hunt her down to do their evil deeds.

But still, I like chickens.

Life With Cow

I'd love to put more pictures on, and I will, but not today.

We made a calf pen last week after three days of NO MILK! It is very strange to have a cow you are currently milking and then have to buy milk at the grocery store. The only stranger thing might be mob stocking your pasture with a cow and a lawn mower (more on that later). So, Jason and I said farewell to our company, got our water working (Thanks, Paul!), and built a calf pen.

When building a calf pen, you might think of a sweet little calf, with those lovely gentle eyes, and buttery coat. You might be imagining tucking that dear little calf in, almost as if you were tucking a wee baby into her bed. If your thoughts are headed that way, your calf WILL get out and drink her fill of that perfectly good milk her mother keeps just the right temperature just for her.

Our first attempts at separating Clover from her mother proved that point.

So on attempt number three, after we re-enforced the barn wall, the pen wall, the gate, and the locking mechanism (two chains and a board dropped across), we got a full bucket of milk. Violet and Clover are not pleased with our designs, and we have a some exciting moments morning and evening as we get them into the barn and Clover into her pen or as we're trying to milk Violet with her calf mewling pitifully. However, we know that if we're consistent, they'll finally accept the routine, because cows are creatures of habit.

We are also getting used to our early rising time. I guess we're creatures of habit, too. I have a very keen awareness of the already decreasing light, and I can see that it won't be too much longer before we need a lantern or something to attend us on our morning chores.

Fence moving is proving interesting as we try to find grass for Violet to eat. We would be in much better shape if we had mowed in May and more last summer, but that's not what happened. For this year, we're grazing her on any grass we can move her to without too much risk of her escaping. We've grazed her behind the barn and along the driveway; she's grazing immediately behind the house right now. If we could figure out a good way to graze her around the fruit trees, we'd put her there next.

The hope is to let her graze a small spot for one or two days, and then to move her to a new spot. This is where the "mob stocking" comes into play. If the area is small enough and you put enough animals on it, they graze what they want and poop or trample on what they don't. The lawn mower makes up somewhat for the fact that we have only one cow whom we cannot reasonably put on a small enough area to call it mob stocking. Ideally, this time of the season, each grazing area should have 40 to 60 days to recuperate in between her visits. Unfortunately, we're having trouble giving things this much time. We just do not have very good grass at the moment, so she gets free access to hay.

Someone asked recently if I like having a cow. I am not in the enjoyment part of our relationship; it's too draining at the moment. As we walk to the barn each morning, I am playing out scenes of her menacing us with her horns and our reactions. Sometimes, it's so easy I feel giddy with relief. Then we have evenings and mornings like yesterday and today when Violet gets downright pushy about her calf or about her carrot. I've gotten much more pushy, too, so I think it will get better. I hit her with my stick last night and she straightened up and I slapped her this morning. I do not like that part.

It feels very strange to be rude to this animal that eats grass, utterly inedible to humans, and turns it into milk- a delight, a beautiful food readily made into so many delicious things. We just take this from her and her calf (who will also grace our table); it seems the least we could do is respect her and treat her gently.  On the other hand, when I have my body pressed close to her and she's swinging her horns around, I want very different behavior. I am nowhere close to her 800 pounds and I need a clear way to communicate "Knock it off!" to her. Many wise people told me, "Hit her and carry a stick." That's what I do. I hope it's not always this way.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Two Down

A friend once told me that farming meant we would accidentally do cruel things. So, I felt only slight guilt when I relished the death of the caterpillar that I found on a newly leafless little pear sapling. I've tried to make chicken slaughtering as panic-free as possible. I've tried to make any animals that depend on us as comfortable as possible to make up for whatever mistake we were bound to make.

And yesterday morning, we made our first cruel error.

The month old chicks are in a chicken tractor that's about 8 feet long. We move it one to three times per day because they love to eat the bugs and grass seeds they find. They quickly learned to walk along with it when we slide it forward. One would occasionally squawk, but we'd stop and check and everyone would be fine. However, yesterday morning when we scooted it along, there was a squawk, and it was not alright.

For some reason Soup did not scoot along with the tractor and his leg was very broken. At first we thought he might be fine and just watched to see what he would do. I should mention here that Soup had been shaping into a confident, friendly rooster. He was first at the door when we changed food or water and he never ran away from us. He never fought with the other roosters, and he never was attacked and did not attack chicken or human. We assumed it was because every other chicken understood he was the boss.

There he was, top rooster, wounded in the coop, and the chickens did what chickens do. They attacked him. As soon as that started, we hopped into the coop and got him out. That's when we discovered that one of his legs was actually dangling. Oh, how we wanted to just walk away and act like nothing happened. But we didn't. Before 6:30 yesterday morning, we had killed our best rooster.

Then, when I was tending meat birds, I discovered a limping chick. I'm not sure how injured this chick is, but there is no way it can compete for food in a group of meat birds. I was ready to euthanize another chick, but Phaedra stepped in and wants to nurse it back to health. I really wanted to say no; I was really clear with her that this bird has no chance of becoming a pet. Yet, I remembered a friend who apparently tended animals all through childhood, and her mother supported her and I knew the chick could get no worse a deal with Phaedra than it would get with me. So I relented. Even if the chick dies under Phaedra's care, no one has lost anything more.

I figure these animals are still getting better care than almost any other animal I've ever consumed. That knowledge is not exactly assuaging my guilt and grief.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Oh Company!

We had some lovely company this weekend. It was a college friend we had not seen since Ezra was a baby, and even then, it was such a brief visit. She arrived Friday and stayed through this morning.

The funny thing to me is how very easy it was. We have been cursorily in touch, but we slipped into a fluid comraderie. She dove right into our work as if she had never stopped chopping veggies with us a few times a week. She chatted with the children and claimed space when she needed it from the children or the dogs.

I just like having the sort of life that people can always join. I like that we have the room to move over at the table or put bedding on the couch or floor. I like knowing people who just step right in, and I like that the people I knew even long ago in college are the sort to do just that.

So, come on up! There's always room for more!

Thursday, July 8, 2010


We're in real summer now. We've had temperatures in the 90s all week. And before you Texans start razzing me about how hot it is there, remember, we just do not air condition much up here in the far, cold north. So what do you do when it's 98 outside and 92 inside?

First, we try to get outside work done early. It's not that that work can be completed before it gets hot; there's too much to do and not a lot of shade in the pasture and garden. If I'm outside as the sun creeps over the hill between here and Mackville, I can be eased into the coming heat like a frog in a pan of heating water.

Second, we show some gratitude for having these temperatures during swimming lessons. Last year, and almost always say those in the know, it was mighty chilly during swimming lessons. Some parents even sat in their cars instead of on the beach while their children turned blue in the water with the wind whipping around their wet hair.

We also giggle over the excuse to go to the beach every day when it's this hot. We're not shirking on our house and garden chores; we HAVE to take the children to swimming lessons. And Caspian Lake feels truly heavenly on days like this.

Also, we try not to cook. It's a good time to eat all that abundant lettuce before the heat turns it bitter. Sandwiches are a lovely thing. Refried beans and tortillas are an easy meal. Hot dogs and other grillables are a nice option, but your local coop might run out, especially during the week following July 4th.

We try to buy fans, but if you wait until day 4 of the heat, you can forget about buying a fan in Vermont. Fans are a seasonal item, like snow boots, so once they run out, you have to wait until next year.

Finally, we watch the garden. Blight is less likely in this weather, so I say a little prayer over the tomatoes and sing "Uncle Aiken".