Thursday, May 13, 2010


I am a little hesitant to write about how much I love morning milking, because Earl is likely to read it and most of the time, I like sleep more.

Every now and then I catch a glimpse of myself through the eyes of my previous self and I shake my head at the long list of things I never, ever thought I would be doing. Milking cows is not one of these items. I was never especially agricultural, but I like to work hard and I don't mind getting dirty, so it's not such a huge stretch as it might be if, for example, I knew how to walk in high heels or had a tinny laugh or anything. But this morning I milked the cows in my pajamas, and that is something I never thought I would do.

At bedtime last night, Earl looked like he'd been run over by a truck. He'd just come in from doing some concrete repair work after a long day of fencing and moving cows around. I suggested we split up the morning chores, one of us setting up the milkhouse and bringing the cows in, the other sleeping a little longer and then coming up to milk. "Naw," he said, "I'll be fine." But when the alarm went off this morning, Earl could barely move and I jumped into my boots and headed off to pasture #4, which isn't actually that far from the barn. I hadn't laid my barn clothes out the night before. Unlike Earl, I only really have one set of clothes I wear to the barn and it wasn't going to help move the world forward if I spent half an hour looking for them, so I went in my pajamas and a sweater.

It was quarter past four when I left the house and I figured I could be back in bed at five. I tried hard not to wake up all the way, plodding along, sometimes with my eyes closed, along the lane. The cows were mostly up and at the gate and I didn't have to say a word to get them moving. The water tub didn't have to move very far and I knew right where the new hookup was. There weren't any new calves and I had remembered to open and close all the right pieces of electric fence. I yawned and shuffled and was right on track until I turned to walk back to the barn behind the cows.

The sky was just starting to color up and the cows were a black silhouette against the pale yellowy green-blue that hovered along the ridge line. The birds, whose noise had seemed pretty chatter on my walk out, were suddenly putting on a symphony. It even smelled good. I took a deep breath of chilly but promising-to-be-a-t-shirt-afternoon air and thought, "Fuck. Now I'm awake."

So when I got back to the barn, I figured I might as well start milking. I had the same first rack of cows I seem to have every morning, Nefer, Cinder, Savanah, Fern, Tanna and Charlie. Cinder was the only high-maintenance cow, requiring some massage and ever-adjusting tension to milk out completely. She was born on our first anniversary and I've always had a soft spot for her, even if she is black and white. Earl came up as I was hooking up the sixth cow and we chatted and milked the next rack together.

The light was morning gold as I walked back to the house and even if I can't buy it in paint, it's my most favorite color and always will be. Since I wasn't going to get back to sleep, I thought maybe I was finally going to get a minute to offer up a blog post. And so I have, but I keep sneaking peeks at the sunrise over my shoulder. Just now, the first beam is lighting up the lashes on my left eye, making me all winky and sheepish feeling.

I'm pretty sure there are people who work their whole lives trying to feel about something the way I feel about the mornings on this farm. When I'm out walking around with the cows, there is not a single particle of my body wishing I was somewhere else. Not even bed.

But please don't tell Earl.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Lost in the Woods

Yesterday Earl and his brother, Billy, took the boys to check out the logging on the back of our hill while I got some long-overdue paperwork done. I was on the phone when they came back and didn't quite understand the magnitude of them asking me if I'd seen Cliffy and Jackson. Then next thing I knew, they were telling me that Berry was downstairs with Harley and Oliver and they were heading out. I didn't entirely understand that they were going to look for the boys, who I vaguely understood were walking back--along the road from Berry's house, I thought--and should have been here by now. I called after them to ask where exactly they were going, but they didn't hear me. They had already started to worry and were on a mission.

About half an hour later, the phone rang and it was Billy on his cell phone, saying that he'd found the boys' tracks and that they had picked up the snowmobile trail. He was calling to them, with no answer, but he was chugging along and figured he'd catch up with them soon, though he was a little concerned about the impending darkness and his lack of a flashlight. He'd call again if he had more to report. Okay.

It seems that they had all gone to the top of the hill, Kibling Hill, the height of land in Strafford, and that Cliffy and Jackson wanted to walk back to the farm the front way while Earl, Billy and the little boys went back to the car and drove around. They were wearing snowpants, down jackets, wool hats and socks, and new ski mittens. It was twenty-three degrees and not windy. Earl said they could. They wondered who would get back first.

But the skid trails, cut after the ice storm of 1998 decimated the hillside (and our sugarbush), can be a little confusing. And they got a little to the right and when it seemed that they should be going downhill, they ended up dropping off the other side of the ridge, toward the Mannings and Sharon. They found an empty hunting camp (about a mile from the farm), but near it was a snowmobile trail sign with a arrow pointing toward Strafford. So they went along on the snowmobile trail and that's where Billy found their footprints.

I, meanwhile, was completely freaking out. I had a piece of mail that had-to, had-to go out that day, so I called Ben, our tenant, and then Billy to say that I would drop off a flashlight-laden Ben at the road end of the snowmobile trail, run down to the P.O., go back to the end of the trail, park the car there, and run up to join them. Five minutes behind Ben, I started out, frantic and worried. It was getting dark and starting to snow. About 1/4 mile from the road, I found Billy and Ben walking back. Earl had caught up with Billy and then followed little footprints that left the snowmobile trail when it got near the farm. If they weren't back at the house, we would fan out in a grid and head up toward the trail from the farm.

They were back at the house, having arrived a few minutes before Earl. Cliffy rushed into my arms and cried. Jackson was fine, completely nonchalant about the whole thing.

The story is still unfolding. Somewhere early on, Jackson had made a suggestion about which way to go, and when they realized they were lost, he cried and said it was all his fault. Cliffy didn't want him to feel bad, so he said it was both of their faults. Jackson had a hard time keeping up, but Cliffy wanted to keep them moving, so he would go a little ahead, then wait. They left the trail once, but it didn't feel right, then they looped back. They cried sometimes. They worried in their heads that they wouldn't ever see the rest of the family again, but they didn't say anything aloud because they didn't want to other one to feel bad. Jackson said he was the worst brother anyone could ever have, but Cliffy said he wasn't, referencing Harry Potter's brother, Dudley. Jackson thought about it and said he was the worst brother a real boy could ever have, which Cliffy assured him he wasn't. Cliffy told Jackson they would get home eventually.

Then Cliffy recognized a rock outcropping that he'd seen when he was hunting with Earl this fall. The snowmobile trail turned but Cliffy had his bearings and knew they should go straight. They saw a set of cross-country ski tracks (which were made by Ben's visiting brother-in-law a few days before) and followed them into the clear cut, where they saw a house with lights on. They weren't sure what house it was, but they knew that houses usually have driveways and driveways lead to roads, so they trucked on toward it. At first they thought it was a little house up close, but it was a bigger house far away. And then they came across the field and realized it was Ben's house, and that our house was even closer.

And then it was fun again. They walked across the field, trying not to break through the snow. They talked about how they would tell the story. Jackson was hungry. Cliffy wanted to warm up.

They thought we would all be home, worrying. Jackson thought we'd forgotten about them. When they walked in and heard Oliver and Harley watching cartoons, they thought maybe no one was so worried. Then Berry told them we all out looking for them, so they looked for cell phone numbers to call to say they were safe. Then Earl came in and Cliffy saw him and could finally let out all his scaredness and cried.

I got back with Billy and Ben a few minutes later and Cliffy ran into my arms. He told us a little about it, but then wanted to talk about something else; talking about it made them feel that scared way again.

We had breakfast supper (their favorite) with a quadruple recipe of pancakes, sausage, applesauce, and omelets and they ate and ate. Earl told how Billy had left him messages in the snow, with arrows and the time, so he knew not to follow their loop off the trail, and knew that Billy was on the path, too. He told how he had caught up with Billy and how they had reassured each other with recollections of their own boyhood adventures in the woods. Cliffy and Jackson listened, and they liked the messages in the snow, but they weren't, and aren't, ready to think of it as an adventure. It was still an ordeal.

They were happy to crawl into their soft beds and doze off to a special double chapter of Farmer Boy. Cliffy got up around three and couldn't get back to sleep. He'd had a bad dream that gave him the scared feeling again.

And now it's a new day of sunshiny new snow. Cliffy is feeling more relaxed and more bits of the story are coming out. Jackson doesn't want to talk about it. It's hard to know how this will play out in their years to come. I don't think they'll ever forget this, the first time they were scared and no one came when they yelled help, far from home. I hope that they can get over the scared part and look back on it the way it seems to me, that two really little kids persevered when things weren't looking good. They kept thinking, they stayed together, looked out for each other, and they got where they were going. It's a proven recipe for getting out of tight spots and though I hope they won't need to, they might need to employ it again when they're older.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Nearly Artemis and the Milkapaloosa Product Line

When Cliffy was born, our friends, John and Janine, gave us a green lava lamp to use as a nightlight. I put it at the foot of our bed, which was the only place our recalcitrant newborn would sleep, and spent many all-but-comatose hours staring at it and nursing. When I wrote to thank them, I found myself not just praising it as a diversion, but describing the different formations it would make and my names for them. My favorites were when the wax stuff first gets hot and shoots a geyser of green that immediately cools in the not-yet-warmed-up liquid at the top, looking sort of like funnel cakes, Pennsylvania's answer to fried dough, and when a small bubble gets going fast and blasts right into the middle of a bigger bubble that's cooling and on its way down. If it was an especially eventful night, the little bubble might break the big bubble in two instead of being swallowed into it. Always I was routing for the little bubbles to hold their own.

At the time, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I'm horrible at getting thank-you cards written, but when I do, I've got the formula down. First you praise the item. Then you describe its cool features and how much it's enriching your life. Then you thank the person for being so thoughtful. Usually you do this on a tiny little card that gives you room for one, maybe two sentences for each part. In the early days of motherhood, however, the idea of a trip to the post office was profoundly daunting. And so I had written an email. With no spatial limitations. And apparently I got a little carried away, three maybe four paragraphs, in my description of the cool features and the enrichment of my bleary new-mommy existence.

John and Janine thought it was hilarious, which confused me.

Earl said that sometimes (he was patting me on the back gently here) the things that are in my head don't make the same kind of sense to other people as they do to me. I had suspected that I was a little out of my mind, so I took his word for it and in the months and years that followed, if I couldn't stop myself from sharing the contents of my brain, I could at least stop being surprised at the blank stares that followed.

So all of this is a precursor to something I've been thinking about in another sleep-deprived state--morning milking. I haven't done much morning milking in the past nine years, seeing as I was pretty much nursing or pregnant the whole time and we had some employee help so Earl had a few mornings each week when he could sleep in (until six, anyway). Now the employees have moved on and Earl is a wonderful guy, but he's somewhat less wonderful if he's doing every morning milking and haying on top of that. My milking in the mornings is an investment in my marriage and familial happiness. Plus, I really like milking cows. And I like being up for a few hours when the phone doesn't ring and my brain is my own. What have I been doing with my brain?

Well, the thing I've been thinking about is making names for rock bands out of combinations of the cow names. I was thinking this the other day when I was writing out the milking sheet for the third rack in the parlor. The parlor has six milking stalls and the cows come in two at a time. Each set of six is a rack and when you get them all filled up, you write down who is in what stall to help track their general behavior (if Kila comes in last she's not feeling well, if Lilac comes in first, she's in heat) and to make sure that at the end you've milked them all. We bring them in two at a time, and when the cows in five and six are hooked up, the cows in one and two are usually ready to take off. So we think of them in pairs. And the other day, it was Nearly Artemis, Scarlet Coffee, and Dixie Peanut. Band names, yes? Two new age, one of them all female with a male keyboardist maybe, and a bad country band that plays the Holiday Inn circuit. This is funny and interesting to me. Some of the names are too weird to work with--Nefertiti, Buerre, Tesla, Urny, Natty, Pompy, Ullie, Snakey Kila and Tracta--but some are great and full of potential--Artemis, Cinder, Ambrosia, Honey, Spring, Peanut, Dixie, Lilac, Nearly, Sweet Pea, Charlie, Fern, and Jasmine.

I find there's really no topping Nearly Artemis for a rock band, but Lilac Spring would make a great air freshener, and Nearly Dixie could be a reduced-fat fried chicken dish. Charlie Honey would be a great title for a book about a boy raised in Virginia by a team of eccentric, doting aunts who make their money running 'shine and sewing prophetic crazy quilts.

This has been a challenging summer, agriculturally speaking. There was just enough corn that survived the crows and rotting under the rain to come up and look dismal. Most of the hay got rained on. Something ate every last strawberry in the kids' garden and Killdeer Farm, our regular supplier of strawberries for our ice cream, didn't have a single quart for us after the late frosts and June rain. But at four in the morning, the phone doesn't ring, there are no orders to take and no hay to bale. It's just me and the cows and the routines and rhythms of milking and a little mental time to play Scrabble with cow names.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Great Beef Cow Experiment Parts I and II

Part I

Earl has a scar on his forehead above his right eye. It's fading over time and you wouldn't notice it now unless you were looking, but for a year or so after he got it, Earl couldn't go to a party without someone doing the math on its size and proximity to his eye and brain and asking him, "What happened to you?" What happened was the second-to-last beef cow we tried to milk going psycho-ballistic in the parlor one day.

The Great Beef Cow Experiment began about a year before I met Earl. He was calling the breeder to come breed his heifers and thinking about calving ease. Calving ease is a column on the sire chart; some bulls beget bigger calves than others and smaller cows and heifers will have an easier time in labor if their calves are on the small side. Beef cows, who give birth out on pasture unassisted, generally have small calves. At the time, Earl was selling his bull calves at auction and they're worth more if they look like beef cows. A female beef cow/Guernsey cross wouldn't be worth as much as a straight dairy-breed cow, but her milk would be high in butterfat and she'd get a good price at the beef auction if turned out to be unmilkable. But Earl didn't really believe in unmilkable at the time. He has calmed down some crazy heifers in his time, and the three heifers he was thinking of breeding were from gentle Guernsey lines. And it would be interesting, you know?

Flash ahead nine months. The heifers calve with no trouble. Two heifers and a bull calf. They join the Guernsey calves and are a little stupid and skittish, but not outside the box.

Flash ahead two years to the first summer Earl and I are married. The first of the heifers has calved. She does not like to be milked. If Brandon or Biggie is milking, the phone rings between five and five-thirty in the afternoon. The Angus (her given name long forgotten) is in the parlor and ready for Earl to hook her up. No one else can get near her. This has been the case with other heifers, but Earl has been able to settle them down in a few days. The Angus does not settle down. Every milking involves kicking and tying her legs together with baling twine (just for the ten minutes she's got the unit on). After two weeks, she begins to recognize the routing and relaxes the tiniest little bit. Earl thinks there might be hope for her yet. The DHIA tester comes and samples the cows' milk. The Angus is milking at 5.8 percent butterfat. The next highest cow is Blossom at 4.9. We are hopeful.

And then a few days later, just before the second beef-cross heifer is due to calve, The Angus comes into the parlor, steps up into her stall like she knows what she's doing, and then proceeds to try to kick in Earl's skull when he tries to hook her up. Not a swat to make the pesky unit go away, not a startled reflex. An out-and-out, again-and-again air-let-out-of-the-balloon freak out session that leaves Earl dizzy and bleeding from the head. Fortunately, the next day is a Thursday--when the truck from Addison County Commission Sales is in our neighborhood--and a quick phone call makes the Angi, all three of them, go away. The Experiment is over. We declare success--we are still alive--and move on.

But it's not really over. We have a six-month-old Hereford/Guernsey heifer, the result of the breeder running out of Guernsey semen and Earl not wanting to wait a cycle to get Binka bred. The calf is originally named Bun but by the time she has her first calf and joins the milking string, no one is calling her anything but Fat Butt.

Fat Butt is a little unclear on the milking concept, but she likes to get her grain in the parlor and only needs to have her feet tied together for a few days until she relaxes into the routine. Even I can milk her, despite being pregnant with Cliffy and a little skittish myself. Fat Butt's monthly DHIA butterfat tests range from 6.2 to 5.9. We milk her for a few months, and then her beef-cow sensibilities tell her it's time to start making less milk for her baby and she decides to start kicking the unit off. And then she decides she doesn't want it hooked up in the first place. And then she doesn't want to be in the parlor for a second longer than it takes to finish her grain. This time we can call Paul Stecker to come get her for his organic beef business. Fat Butt sells for steak price but we are still ready to close the beef cow chapter for good.

Part II

When we started the creamery, we had no idea what we were doing, so we thought it might be a good idea to scale back a little in the cow department. We were only milking 26 cows when our truck brought the first glass-bottled milk to market in April 2001 and it was all we could do to find people to buy it. But word got out about the milk, stores started to call us and we had nowhere near enough milk for our orders. Organic cows aren't a dime a dozen, but we picked up a few cows here and there, some Jerseys from Tunbridge and Westminster, a pair of Guernseys from Johnson, two great Jerseys from Butterworks Farm up north in Westfield, including Nectar, whose great depth of body and beautiful well-balanced udder was inherited by her twin daughters, Honey and Ambrosia and then passed down from there. But it still wasn't enough.

And then we saw an ad in the Agri-View for organic Jerseys over in New York State. There were fifteen of them and they were a good price if you bought them all together. Usually when you buy a cow, you go visit the farm, talk to the farmer, see the animals, think about whether they'll transition well to your style of management, and then send a check and arrange trucking. But we had a little baby and it was summer and Earl was flat out and we bought those Jerseys without seeing them. And that's how we got Charcoal, the FBC (the BC part is for Beef Cow).

Charcoal actually wasn't that bad to milk. She's half-Jersey, by the looks of it, and stupider than she is crazy. Her first calf, Charlize, is half-Guernsey and only a quarter Angus and she's jumpy if there's something to be jumpy about, but mostly she's just a regular cow. Since then, though, we've been breeding Charcoal to Angus and letting her raise her calves in little pastures around the farm. Charcoal and her daughter, Cheryl mowed the creamery lawn, the area behind the corn crib, the Jerusalem Artichokes below the house, and the former thistle patch next to the equipment shed. Despite being close by and getting a little bit of grain every day, Cheryl is crazily afraid of people. When she was breeding age, somehow Earl managed to get her into the barn for the breeder, but she didn't take and she didn't want to stay in the fence and then Earl traded her to our neighbor for some lumber.

But Charcoal had another calf in February. Chubby is 3/4 Angus and his sire, I'm guessing, was sitting down after the first word in the regional Angus Spelling Bee. Chubby doesn't understand the fence. Chubby doesn't understand people. He has no idea what either of these two forces are or even how to go about expressing his confusion. He runs away from people and through the fence. He runs toward people and through the fence. For a few days this summer, Earl had Charcoal, Chubby and our next-summer's Bull, Fermin, in a pasture within spitting distance of my garden. I could see them out the windows by our kitchen table, and I watched them like a hawk. Fermin did get out and into the garden one night, but he stayed in the pathways, eating the clover my smart-garden-friend, Shannon, planted for soil conditioning and weed control.

When Chubby broke free the next day and went on a full-farm adventure, it was time to rethink his compatibility with our operation. Aside from the cuteness of two-year-old Oliver looking out the window and calling, "Oh no. Chubby out. Chubby out. Mama. Oh no," the charm is lost on us. Chubby would be a strain on our marriage if Earl and I weren't in accord about how little we like him and how conflicted we are about what to do with him. On the one hand, he is a pain in the ass and a quick phone call would make him go away and net us a few hundred bucks. On the other hand, he's huge for his age, fattening beautifully, and be absolutely delicious next summer. Earl thought maybe someone would want to buy Charcoal and Chubby together if he listed them on the WDEV Trading Post, but no one called. Earl has been talking to his friend, Tom, about taking him, and hopefully Tom won't read this and we'll be Chubby-free in a few months, when he's weaned.

What to do with Charcoal is another story. She's not a bad cow, but not worth milking in the barn. She grazes areas that we would otherwise have to mow. Except for some hay in the winter, she doesn't cost us anything to have around. Maybe we'll breed her to a Guernsey next time round. Or maybe we'll have amnesia, brought about by too many kicks to the head, and think that maybe a Scotch Highlander would be a better option. Stay tuned for Part III.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hatch Day

I bought an incubator last spring. McMurrays Hatchery was sold out of chicks by the time I got my order together and I thought the forty bucks for an incubator would pay off handily if I didn't have to buy day-old chicks in the mail anymore. I also thought it might be a little fun.

But a forty-dollar incubator doesn't have a precision-controlled thermostat and I got the eggs a little hot and then put more eggs in and ended up with five live chicks, three of whom lived to adulthood, one of whom, Mr. Feathers, crossed the maturity finish line and pretty much died with the tape still stretched across his feathered breast.

I ordered chicks from McMurrays in the fall and those birds, the Rainbow Layer Assortment, have just started to lay. Some lay white eggs, some brown, but weirdly, about half of them lay shades of blue. The packing slip just says, "Rainbow," and I've spent all winter trying to figure out what breeds of birds I've got out there. I think I have finally identified the colorful Mystery Bird as a white-laying Rose Comb Leghorn by the white feathers around her ears. There's a Blue Cochin who looks like she's wearing 1970s fuzzy apres ski boots, a Golden Laced Wynadott, four Rhode Island Reds, three Barred Rocks, an Anconda, a bald-necked Turken, and a about a dozen Ameracaunas. Hence the blue eggs. In the course of trying to ID the birds, I read the catalog inside and out and got sort of interested in some of the breeds. Cuckoo Maran's lay chocolate brown eggs and I'm rather wishing I had a few of those. I'm even finding myself coveting chickens with the fuzzy head feathers, because a barnyard needs a little comic relief.

I realize, of course, that I'm starting to sound like a Chicken Lady. I just bought a book, The Joy of Keeping Chickens, by our pocket of the world's resident Crazy Chicken Lady, Jen Megyesi. I appreciate the technical components and Jen's storytelling, but when it comes to using the words "love" and "chicken" in the same sentence and the chicken is alive and not, say in Chicken Saltimboca, I just couldn't relate.

But I fear that I might be on the path.

For no good reason at all, I started the incubator three weeks ago. I took a few dozen eggs from my older chickens and a dozen from Nancy's Barred Rocks, filled the humidity tray and plugged it in. I did almost nothing else, except to make a note of when to take them off the automatic turner three days before the expected hatch date. Even as I was moving them, with their non-liquid weightiness, I didn't actually believe there were chickens in there, or if there were, that they would make it out of the shells alive to one day run around the farm and creep me out.

Even yesterday, as the first eggs started to move a bit, I was doubtful. And then there were little beaks poking through, opening and closing, drinking up the fresh air. I quick ran and googled chicken hatching to see if I was supposed to help them, but the internet was silent on the issue. The Chicken Hatching for Dummies website, apparently, was down for maintenance and no one who actually knew anything about chickens would think that a human being should get involved in the hatching process. But I couldn't help it. I'm a scab picker and a life-saver cruncher and on top of that, I thought maybe my chickens lay especially strong eggs and that the poor chick wouldn't make it out on her own. (In the livestock world, they're all female until proven otherwise, no matter how un-pretty they may be.)

So I helped a little bit, peeling back a little shell here and a little lining there, around the hole the chicken made with her beak tooth. Then I got worried about an egg that had been rolling around for hours without a pip. Bolstered by my successful extrication of Live Chicken 1 and Live Chicken 2 (and not humbled by Dead Chicken 1), I decided to crack it open, ever so gently, and help the poor thing out. Bad idea. There was too much liquid, too much yolk, and although it moved around and made a little noise, in a few hours I had Dead Chicken 2.

I tried hard not to keep checking on them, but even if I managed to distract myself and move on to another task, Oliver kept climbing up on the counter, threatening the whole operation with his toddler enthusiasm, singing, "Chicken. Chicken. Baby Chicken. Me see. Baby Chicken." And I should confess that the real reason I'm sitting down to write this on a day when my To Do list reads like an easy month for Heracles, is that I'm trying to keep from checking on the chickens. It's working, but it's hard.

Oh. I hear Oliver singing.

I promised myself I was just going to get Oliver and maybe set him snacking, but then I happened to see two new eggs pipped and one of them didn't seem to have broken through and I worried that my chicken friend had tried to get some fresh air but then got too tired to finish the job. So then I promised myself I was only going to make it a little teeny hole. But then the egg shell was sort of fun to peel off and every bit I did was saving valuable energy that the chicken could channel toward staying alive. But I stopped short of peeling off the lining, thinking that it would be best if the chicken undressed herself when she felt ready. So now there is a weird egg-shaped bag of wet, curled-up chicken in the incubator. Part of me feels helpful and part of me feels really stupid for creating such a pathetic, unnatural sight. And of course I want to go back and peel some more. But I promised myself I wouldn't.

What I did do was to give the dry, but-not-yet-vibrant hatchlings some Gatorade. When I got my first chicks, Nancy gave me this Kwik-Chik stuff that you mix with their water to give them vitamins and electrolytes. I used it a little, but I got it in my head that it wasn't organic and put it away to reconsider for a future batch. This fall, I tossed it in a rare fit of housekeeping (which was pretty much confined to the one shelf that housed this useful product). But a person who lets her kids swallow the toothpaste rather than give them supplemental fluoride is the kind of person who thinks, "Electrolytes? There's more than one way to skin that cat!" And so now we're conducting an experiment to determine the relative benefit of administering America's favorite sports drink to hour-old chickens. Preliminary results seem to indicate that the chickens don't think it tastes very good, but it is at least not fatal on contact.

I just went to turn the oven on to bake some cookies and happened to walk by incubator. The chicken-in-a-sac hadn't made progress, so I peeled her. It seemed like the perfectly right thing to do at the time. The other chicken was maybe getting kind of tired and I hate it when they die halfway out of the egg, so I peeled her two. Now they're resting from the ordeal, no doubt gearing up to be running around, all vibrant-like, when I check on them next, which I'm hoping won't be for a while.

Trying to give myself a project that would take a little time away from Chickenwatch, I took an inventory, to date:

4 eggs that candled clear and were pulled before the hatch
4 dead chickens
4 live chickens with a good, fighting chance
1 sleepy, strong-breathing chicken with decent odds to move to the Live-Chickens-With Fighting-Chance side of the box
2 sleepy, not-so-strong breathing chickens who may surprise me, but probably won't make it
2 wet, peeled chickens who have been completely disoriented by my interventions and don't know at the moment if they're alive or dead, but who happen to be breathing
13 eggs that feel funny if I pick them up, which I'm trying really, really hard not to do.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


When I was in my last semester of law school and a few months pregnant with Cliffy, I got a nasty anti-biotic resistant infection and missed two weeks of classes. All but one of my professors were understanding and supportive. The other one, who taught the largely-ridiculed required class, was not. Perhaps to flex his muscles and to compensate for the lack of students leaning forward, eagerly scribbling down his every word, this professor declared, eyebrows set in their most stern position, that if I missed one more class I would fail the class and not be able to graduate. I was stunned. I couldn't say, having never been pregnant before, whether I was going to have to miss any more classes and I had put rather a lot of effort into getting a law degree to come up empty handed. I figured whatever chip Bad Professor had on his shoulder, it wasn't worth hashing it out with him, so I had a little chat with the Dean of Students, who was kind, but not quite willing to say she'd override him until there was a protest in front of her.

It turned out not be an issue.

I stayed in perfect health, arriving early to every class, taking my post in the back row, where I glared unrelentingly at Bad Professor, who seemed, to his credit, genuinely disoriented to be the target of such pointed seething. (At least he didn't habitually thrive off student hatred.) I was prepared to glare until graduation--being a girl who can hold a grudge--but I didn't get the chance. The Patron Saint of Knocked Up Law Students took things into her own hands, and two weeks later Bad Professor got some sort of horrible illness of his own, missing the whole rest of the semester. The school scrambled to cover the classes, but much time was missed and in the end the make-up sessions were made optional and we were offered a pass/fail, take-home exam.

The point of all of this, is that this led me to believe that there is a God and She is vengeful.

And last month I came to believe that there is a Chicken God, too.

Mr. Feathers, as you may remember, killed his father, Buster, and took over rulership of the coop a few months ago. Grawp, Mr. Feathers' smaller, skinnier, less-impressive brother, might have moved from gamma chicken to beta chicken, but you really couldn't tell. Mr. Feathers did the crowing. Mr. Feathers did the mating. Mr. Feathers puffed himself up and preened himself while he blocked access to the water bucket or grain feeder. Mr. Feathers took over Buster's spot on the highest roost. If Grawp roosted at all, it was on top of the nesting boxes, with the hens.

And then one day Mr. Feathers was dead. Just like that. He woke up, crowed his little chicken head off, and then apparently fell over, dead. No sign of malice. No sign of disease. He was still big and heavy for his size when I got his body out of the coop. Maybe a heart attack? Hard to say with chickens. In any event, the coop was silent for a day while the hens gave their thanks to the Patron Saint of Chickens Who Don't Want to Be Led About By a Vain, Patrocidal Rooster and also to the Chicken God, who doesn't like to see the jerks win anymore than the rest of us do.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Deer Butchering Ordeal or Another Thing We Won't Be Doing Again Soon

Sometimes I have bad ideas. When Jess shot the deer this fall and I thought we should cut it up ourselves, that was one of them.

It wasn't just any old deer, it was the mythical Monster Buck of the Brook Road and it dressed out at 168 pounds, second biggest to check in at Coburn's Store all season.

I had first seen The Monster Buck four years earlier when he and a girlfriend ran across the road on the last afternoon of rifle season. We were on our way to the hardware store, but I threw it in reverse, bundled baby Harley in the backpack (the older boys were with my folks) and Earl hatched the plan. I would walk the ridge line on the far side of Field B and try to give the buck a reason to turn left into the thicker woods. Earl would get his gun and take the truck to the end of the road and head in on the snowmobile trail. We were out the door in less than a minute, all oranged and excited, but all we found were hoofprints that were so far apart they must have been made by a mock-speed deer who crested the ridge before we took a step in his direction.

We'd seen him a few times since then, with his distinctive curved rack, standing in the road the day after hunting season, proud and defiant. In the middle of Field 19 in the middle of the summer, enjoying the alfalfa we grew just for him. Under the apple trees on the hill, feasting unafraid. The rest of the Brook Road hunting community had seen him too, and talked about him in the guarded, give-nothing-away manner of hunters, mushroom gatherers and bargain shoppers everywhere. He was the deer that was too smart to get shot and everyone wanted to be the one who was just a little bit smarter.

Well, not everyone. I might walk a ridgeline on a little mission to help Earl, but when it comes to actually seeing a deer in the woods, I'm thinking Bambi more than supper. It would have been fine with me if the monster buck continued to entice and thwart the hunters for the next decade. The thing is, though, that the La Fleurs were after him too, in force, and it got to be important that that buck end up hanging in our rafters, not theirs. I'm not so keen on the La Fleurs because the patriarch once, inexplicably, called Earl lazy for taking a nap at the end of a 100-hour work week and because they drive on our fields and road hunt.

My sister, KJ, and her husband, Jess, live in Shelburne but they spent ten years in Jackson, Wyoming and Jess spent a lot of his time fishing and elk hunting around Teton County. Now they have 9-acres and see the occasional deer in their woods, but it's not the sort of place you could have a Hunting Adventure, so they've come down to the farm for the first weekend of hunting season since they moved back East. I make what I think are hunter comfort foods and KJ and I discuss the great issues of the day while kids run around. Jess and Earl don't usually hunt together, but they make plans and compare notes and share what they see.

The first day of hunting season was wet and miserable, but they went out anyway, to no avail. The second morning started with a deluge, but then they thought it was starting to taper off and Earl and Jess went into the woods to be between where they thought a deer might want to spend two days of rain and where they thought he might want to go when it let up. And Jess was right.

I heard the pop around seven-thirty and got the kids up and dressed in case there was hauling to be done. Earl came back when he heard the shot from Jess' direction. By eight they were on their way to pick up the deer on the Ranger, Cliffy and Jackson squeezed in the middle of the bench seat. They gutted it in the woods and brought it back to hang in the heifer barn.

The rest of the story should have been that we bled it out, loaded it into the truck and brought it to Hill's Meat Cutting to be picked up week or so later, cut and wrapped. But the Hills didn't answer the phone and we were hesitant to drive all the way to Fairlee with my not-unproblematic pickup.

So I suggested we cut it up ourselves. I have this new kitchen in the slab (this area in the house that in a house that wasn't built by hippies in the 70s would have been a garage, except that it's never had any cars parked in it and for the previous ten years was mostly a home for chest freezers and spiders). It's not fancy or anything, but it has a big 3 X 6 worktable, an electric knife sharpener and an industrial meat grinder left over from when Earl's mom butchered all their meat when he was a kid. I'm a girl who gets excited about having the right tools for a job and I like to use them. Come on, I told them, we can do it! Isn't it part of the primal experience? How long could it take? With three of us working? (Three of us meant me and Earl and Jess. It's pushing KJ's comfort zone to take a chicken out of its package and extract the little bag of innards.) They weren't convinced and still thought the Hills would call back, so Jess and KJ went home and the deer hung from the rafters. Turned out later that the Hills' plan for not getting too much work in a year when Clint has a new baby was to not answer the phone for a few weeks and only take drop-bys.

So six very cold days later Jess drove down and we had a cutting-up party. Sort of. The problem was that the deer was frozen, so Earl thought maybe if he put it in the unfinished outer room on the slab that the radiant cement floor would thaw it.

And so the deer hair entered the house.

For three hours, the boys rolled the deer every twenty minutes, to almost no effect. When Jess and Earl went to skin it, the task involved vice grips and much swearing. They tried to be really careful, but when the big hunks of meat came off the deer, they had hair on them, and what should have been a fifty-minute job of slicing steaks and grinding burger instead became a four-hour hair-removal project. Earl seemed to think that the hair would dissolve into its essential proteins in the meat grinder, but I was dubious. I know my little sister and one deer hair would be a deal breaker for her, so I dutifully pulled the multiplying-under-my-eyes strands off every bit of the wet meat that passed before my eyes and intercepted several batches that Earl had deemed good enough for the grinder.

There's not much more to say about it. It sucked. And it sucked for a long time. Earl left to do chores and I had to put Oliver down for a nap and Jess was so demoralized by the project that he was unable to carry on in my absence. Finally, at almost six, Jess loaded his measly beer box of meat and the still-frozen deer head (for possible taxidermic mounting if my sister relents) into the back of the truck and headed out, no doubt hoping he wouldn't have anything to do with me or my great ideas for quite some time.

Later that week, I took the car to get its oil changed. As I did my best to keep Oliver and Harley amused and out of trouble, I happened to see a flier taped on the door. "Got a Deer?" it asked, and listed the prices for cut and wrap services on different-sized animals. 155-170 lbs. was seventy-five dollars. Seventy-five dollars? Jess bought lard, freezer paper, and freezer tape and drove about 170 miles in a big truck back when diesel was through the roof. I just started to do the math, but I had to stop when I got to us having paid thirteen dollars for the privilege, never mind the other work that didn't get done.

And then there's the deer hair. It's February now, and I'm still finding hairs. In the venison jerky we made. On my sweaters. In the bottom of the toy box. Between the couch cushions. In Oliver's diaper.

Our beef supply is getting low and soon it will be time to put one of the steers in the freezer. When I mentioned to Earl that maybe we ought to do this ourselves, he looked at me like I was crazy. But you know, I'm a terminal optimist, which Earl defines as persistence in the face of overwhelming evidence that success is unlikely. But I've got this great table, a knife sharpener and an industrial meat grinder. And I figure we've learned a few things. The cowhide, for example, would not enter the house.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cooking at RockBottom & the Mythical FTS Cookbookbook

The following entry, as Earl pointed out, has essentially nothing to do with the creamery and would not inspire anyone to buy our milk and ice cream, which, if you don't know, are truly amazing products of great effort by hard-working, interesting people and beautiful and patient animals. None of which will be discussed below. And so I will be calling the Web Guy in the morning and asking him to take down the link between the creamery website and the blog. Because it's really important for people to keep buying our products (and it would be great if just a few more families, like maybe 162, started drinking our milk regularly), and because I only like writing the plucky stuff, I think I had better break the link then spend some time writing copy for the website itself.
I'll get started on that first thing tomorrow. Tonight, however, it's all about The Cookbook.
I heard on the radio a few years ago that the average man thinks about sex every seventeen seconds. I asked a few men and they said that seemed about right. One, who I had previously suspected of using his time to ponder the future of agriculture in Vermont and the nature of true sustainability, said, "Well yeah. At least." I'm still pretty surprised about that, but informal research seems to be supporting the idea. Go figure. Me, I think about food.

If I had to put a figure on how much time I spend cooking or thinking about cooking, including animals and vegetables yet to born, grown, harvested and eaten, I'd say maybe 30% of my waking hours, maybe more. Some of that is because of the sheer volume of food that gets consumed around here--three meals, plus snacks, for six people and guests, every single day. The rest of it is because food is simply the most interesting thing I can possibly think of. If I can't fall to sleep at night, I play the alphabet game, thinking of ingredients that start with each letter--(Artichoke, Banana, Cassava Melon, Daikon, Eggplant) or recipes I hope to master someday (Asparagus Risotto, Banana Cream Pie, Chicken Cordon Bleu, Dal, Eclairs). I always fall asleep before Zebra Tomatoes or Zabaglione, but I have them at the ready and sometimes ponder whether the Zebras, which are ripe when they're green, could hold their own in a blind taste test or how Zabaglione differs from more traditional English custard.

When I don't have a specific food quandary, I think about the FTS cookbook. FTS stands for--WARNING, PROFANITY AHEAD, GENTLE BLEADER--Fuck that shit. As in, "Divide cold butter into eight pieces and blend into flour and baking powder with a pastry cutter until mixture resembles a coarse meal." Fuck that shit, man. I will instead suggest putting the butter in your back pocket while you do five other things and then, when it's good and soft, stir it into the flour with a whisk. Put the bowl outside in the cold or in the freezer while you do three other things, then dump the milk in, and you're most of the way to fluffy biscuits without ever having to chase a cold lump of butter around with the constantly bending tines of your pastry cutter, if you even have a pastry cutter.

Then I think about how anyone who would benefit from my time-saving biscuit trick would probably be put off by the extra step of putting the butter in his or her pocket. Perhaps even just the length of the explanation itself would be off-putting. Then I think that maybe I should just write my suggestion to Cook's Illustrated magazine and try to win a free year's subscription and hope that the people who used to make pastry cutters can find meaningful work in another sector. But I can't quite bring myself to mail it in, because if I give all my tricks away, even for a $24.95 subscription to a great magazine, what will I have left for the cookbook?

There are other suggestions and recipes, of course. There's Meatballs With Clean Hands and Tofu That Doesn't Suck and a whole imagined chapter on Cooking With Ketchup. The tips include how to shop with children (You are a military outfit on a reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines. The general has given us a list of the items we need to bring back to headquarters. They must be smuggled out by jeep, driven by corporal Oliver, who cannot be trusted and must not see anything that he will want to eat right away.) and how to buy your beef--whole animal, in the freezer, take out three cuts at a time, hamburger for right away, steak for the next day or two, and a roast to throw in the slowcooker for the weekend so the house smells like heaven on earth when you come in from skiing or milking the cows.

The Cookbook could also be a pathway to character development. I envision the personal growth that would come from working on the seafood section. Currently, my recipe for family-style fish involves driving the family to a restaurant that I have called to verify has at least one item on the menu that had legs and letting Earl and the boys indulge their oceanic appetites while I eat a hamburger or piece of chicken. I just don't think of fish as food, and I know that's rather pathetic. Fish is a super-healthy, very-interesting-in-recipes protein source and I would do well to suck it up and learn how to cook it. The mythical Cookbook's hard-nosed hypothetical editor would force me to include fish and I would become an expert at cooking swimmy things, maybe even start eating them myself and the big empty spot in my repertoire would vanish.

So that's it. The cookbook. You'd think I might spend a little more time on developing the business and work on positioning us to withstand the hard times ahead. Or how to get through to Harley that plugging in the Christmas lights is an inappropriate activity for a four-year-old, even if he is Being Very Careful. And I do try to concentrate on the bigger picture, but then I get hungry. I glance briefly in the fridge, but then find myself spun around, staring at my cookbooks, wondering at the possibilities within.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

27 Random Things

1. There is a chicken in a cardboard box in my kitchen.
2. The vet says the chicken's knee is dislocated and that she will need to be in the box for quite some time.
3. This is not a situation without olfactory impact.
4. Oliver is starting to talk.
5. Just now he has come to say, "Need Help." Much pointing. "Stuck."
6. The toy is rescued.
7. We are back in business.
8. The market for our milk and ice cream, so far, is staying strong.
9. Thank God.
10. Thank Vermonters.
11. We have ordered enough seeds to grow food to feed our family for the whole year.
12. If the yields are decent.
13. If we manage to get it all harvested and put up.
14. Lot of ifs in this farming game, that's for sure.
15. Chronicle, the Boston TV show that did a thing on the farm and creamery, just called to say we'll be on next Monday at 7:30.
16. I was sort of hoping my fifteen minutes of fame would be for something more thrilling.
17. Involving skiing, or helicopters, or firefighting, a fabulous invention or a book tour or maybe all of them at once.
18. At least the high school classmates I saw at the reunion can see that I wasn't making it all up.
19. Because when you tell tall tales of your fabulous success at high school reunions, naturally they would be about milking cows and gutting chickens.
20. Earl is at the Vermont Farm Show today, talking with farmers and feed dealers and equipment salesmen who stand, universally, with their feet very far apart.
21. When I went to the farm show, years ago, I was glad I didn't have Tourette's Syndrome.
22. There were all these men, puffed up, standing in front of posters of the daughters sired by the bulls whose semen they were peddling.
23. They call themselves Genetics Brokers or AI (Artificial Insemination) Technicians, but we call them cowfuckers around here, and I was glad I could keep that to myself.
24. At the co-op today, someone asked me about the cow I'm feeding in the poster of us on the wall. I didn't recognize her markings and puzzled for a minute until I noticed a shadow in her undercarriage.
25. "Oh, that's a steer," I told him. "We ate him."
26. And you know, it didn't go over so well.
27. I wish vegetarian idealists would wear signs or something.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

In Search of My People

I was at my 20th high school reunion, telling my second story of the night about people who had tried to claim me as members of their group, but who I wasn't in a position to understand or appreciate. "These are not my people," I explained. Wendy, who I grew up with but hadn't seen for twenty years, said that there seemed to be a lot of people who weren't my people.

She had a point.

I thought it best not to try to defend my orneriness, which at least I realize isn't defensible, so I told her The Green-Armed Sweater story, which goes like this:

When I was 19 and taking a little break from college, I moved up to my parent's ski house in Jackson, NH to be a ski instructor. One rainy January day, the lifts closed early and I went to North Conway to buy a chunky Guatemalan sweater that my parents had given me the money for as a Hanukah gift. The store I went to had just opened that fall and was in a little building behind the Eastern Slope Inn that probably used to be a carraige house. It was owed by a brother and sister named Michael and Michelle and was filled with wool and cotton, batik and fanciful weaving. It was heated by a small woodstove and smelled like wool and patchouli.

Michael was the only one in the shop and was delighted to have a customer. He joined me by the sweater display and decided that I should sit on the bench by the woodstove and he would show the sweaters to me until I found the exact right one. I've never been all that particular about my clothes, but I accepted the offer on its friendliness and sat down. There were over 100 sweaters and as we made our way through the stacks I felt like I had to make some comments about them. This one was perhaps too groovy earth-motherly for me, another perhaps not enough. You get the idea. Then Michael began to unfold a sweater that originally held great promise. It was mulberry red yarn with a natural-wool yoke flecked with ochre and the brightest blue. And then Michael shook out the arms. And they were inexplicably green, like the sea green crayon in the Crayola pack, from the elbows down. There was nothing to do but laugh in ridicule.

Michael laid the sweater out and explained that he was also bewildered by this sweater when he first saw it at the show in Boston, but then he thought that it was the exact right sweater for someone. He told me he didn't care if it stayed on the shelf for 10 years before that person came in, but he wanted it to be there when they did. I'm not sure if Michael was hoping that I'd be the sweater's person, but it was clear that I wasn't, and clear that the sweater needed to stay on the shelf, waiting for its home to find it. I bought another sweater and went home.

"So you see," I told Wendy, "there are people in the world who are perfectly nice, interesting even, and yet they're just not for me. Best to steer clear lest I distract them from finding true appreciation in someone else." I thought it sounded good. But then the reunion was over and Wendy didn't answer my emails anymore and it was time to rethink.

On the one hand, everyone wants to find a few people, or maybe even a group of them, who understand and appreciate them. On the other hand, it's sort of a cheap and easy way to not deal with people to waive them off with a promise of greater appreciation elsewhere.

Now, it's not like there's a line of potential friends outside my door. This all happens in my head, after all. Still, I like to try to make the best use of my time on the planet, morally, ethically, spiritually--all that. And when I think back to the people I thought were green-armed sweaters--Michael (the sweater guy himself), some coworkers and classmates, the entire state of Oregon except for Gloria and Kori--it sort of occurs to me that it's likely I was far less charming to these folks than they were to me. And with that comes the inescapable truth--it is I, not them, who was the green-armed sweater. And when I think back on high school and a lot of college and the not-so-great jobs and the boyfriends who were incapable of abstract thought--that was time on the shelf.

All of which leads me to the feeling that made me try to write this: enormous, eternal, fill-the-room, holy-shit-think-of-the-alternative gratitude to Earl, who understands me perfectly and loves me anyway. And to Kate, Margaret, Bernadette and my sister with whom I can negotiate the big questions of the day and never fail to be amused, inspired, or humbled. So while I proceed through the world leaving a wake of snickers and perplexed expressions akin to a dog hearing a high-pitched noise, it's nice to know that our world of diversity has room, even blog space, for those of us who are knit with incongruent yarns.

Friday, December 26, 2008

R.I.P. Buster

Buster, the rooster, died on Christmas Eve. I thought I'd write a few words of fond memories, but I couldn't really think of any until today. In the three days since Buster's passing, I have found a new appreciation for the scrawny little loudmouth. Although he was annoying and loud, he wasn't aggressive and he probably didn't eat very much. Mr. Feathers, his successor to the Chicken Throne, is making Buster look pretty good by comparison.

An hour or so after Cliffy discovered Buster and took him out of the coop, I went to feed the chickens the lobster shells from Jackson's special birthday lunch. Mr. Feathers, who used to just cluck and peck at his food or water like the rest of the chickens, was strutting and attacking the hens and generally making a big show of throwing his weight around. My first thought was that I missed Buster, but I was already kicking Mr. Feathers across the coop, staring him down and then tipping back my head in a pretty good rendition of Buster's most triumphant crowing.

I don't really want to be Alpha Chicken, but I can't have an aggressive rooster around my kids. The options are to put Mr. Feathers in his place as perpetual Beta Chicken, or eat him. It's sort of cold to be plucking a chicken outside right now, and after the Deer Slaughter Ordeal, I am not allowing dead animals in my house without first removing their fur or feathers. So I'm giving Mr. Feathers a chance by being a jerk to him. If it doesn't work, maybe we'll get a day in the twenties to make quick work of him. I could make Coq au Vin, whose name I think has been shortened from the original French for "Aggressive Fucking Rooster Cooked in Wine."

But this was supposed to be about Buster. Buster was a skinny chicken with white feathers, gray-green legs, and a plumey black tail. He liked to crow and he didn't bother the hens or people. He didn't eat much and I never had to kick him. Rest in peace, Buster.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Oedipus the Chicken

Every night each of the boys chooses a bedtime story that Earl or I read to them. Cliffy is making his way through the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Harley likes Richard Scarry or Jan Brett. Oliver is all about his little tractor board book. And Jackson likes Greek Mythology. We've made our way through Mt. Olympus and the trials of Heracles and Hera and Zeus' little love spats and I've noticed a few trends. For one, the honorable figures are not always, or even often, victorious in their conflicts. Secondly, the Oracle of Delphi seems to foretell all the bad stuff that's ever going to happen, but the doomed characters fight like the dickens anyhow. And I've also noticed that sons end up killing their fathers on a regular basis. I've been figuring this is because mythology takes the stages or conflicts of life and personifies them--the unattractive Hephaestes got dealt a bad hand in the looks department, but he works long hours at his gold- and silver-smithing and makes articles of stunning beauty. Gossipy, shallow Echo ends up nothing but a voice following a self-centered Narcissus around until he is so spellbound by his image in a glassy pool that he grows roots and becomes a plant that leans over to admire its reflection in water. And tyrant fathers who rule Olympus, or Thebes, eventually get ousted by their sons. The author doesn't offer up moral lessons so much as he just seems to be saying, "Hey, it happens." And fathers who think they're all powerful will eventually start to weaken with age and their sons, who've grown in that image, will have to be a bit forceful out of the guns if they're to be respected by the populace. Killing, well, that can be a metaphor, but a little bit of public roaring is usually in order.

So tonight, when I stopped in to refill the chickens' water bucket on the way back from the barn, I saw that our chicken coop is locked in a little Zeus/Cronos drama of their own. This spring, I incubated about thirty eggs and ended up with three live chicks who have since grown to adulthood, a white rooster, a black rooster, and a speckled hen. Lacy, the hen, just started laying, which is a pretty good indication that Mr. Feathers and Grawp are also sexually mature. They are all big and flashy and have magnificent combs. Mr. Feathers was the first to sprout his rooster decorations and is by far the more dominant of the two. I thought they might start fighting soon, so I didn't let Grawp in after the last warm day I let them out, and he seems happy to roam about and make boastful crowing noises signifying nothing. Mr. Feathers and Buster seemed to have worked out some sort of arrangement and didn't seem to be paying much attention to each other.

Until tonight.

When I was closing the coop door, I heard an awful squawking and thrashing from the corner of the coop. I looked behind the door and saw a skirmish that at first looked like one chicken with its head stuck, trying to get loose, but was really Mr. Feathers beating up on Buster, who had his head stuffed in the corner. And yes, all their feathers were ruffled.

I'm not sure how old Buster is. He was with the Rhode Island Reds I got from Berry when Cliffy was in first grade and I think he came from a coop of older birds. He can't be any younger than five, and is probably six or seven, which is getting along in chicken years. Lately I've noticed that his plumage is looking a little shabby and that, next to Mr. Feathers anyway, his comb seems a bit droopy. When I pulled him from the corner, he seemed defeated, which I guess he was, but he wasn't that upset about it.

Mr. Feathers, for his part, was all puffed up and threw back his head for a long crow. And though I'm exactly Buster's biggest fan, this pissed me off. It might be the natural order of things, but I am part of these chickens' order, and I gave him a little shove with my toe and crowed right back at him. After three years of Buster's incessant announcements, I do a pretty good imitation and Mr. Feathers was suitably alarmed. I thought I watched his status with the hens drop a notch and I thought about putting him in exile to roam the heifer barn and manure pit until Buster passed on from internal failings. But then the idea of being alpha chicken to these birds hit me and I made a hasty retreat. I take care of them, but I don't want to, you know, get involved.

I don't know what I'll find out there tomorrow. Could be Mr. Feathers was just establishing his dominance and will leave the bumbling old Buster to himself. Or maybe in chicken politics, Buster has to go. Maybe Buster will rally and Mr. Feathers, impressive comb and all, will find himself at the bottom of the pecking order again. Regardless, my plan is to bring grain, change water and send a well-gloved Cliffy to collect any carcasses.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

We Are Powerless

The power went out yesterday morning just after four. I know this because I had woken up with Earl, who was on his way out the door to the barn, and was thinking through the day, wondering if I should get up or go back to sleep. I did eventually get back to sleep, but power outages come with their own work list, and first I had to find and hook up the corded telephone, light a candle in the boys' room so they wouldn't be scared if they woke up, and call the power company. The power company has a new feature where every call registers as a customer effected by the power outage, and you get to hear the running total at the end of the call. I was caller number one. Later, when I called with the account numbers for the barn and creamery, we were up to five and then ninety-two.

The corded phone was a bit of an issue. We used to have only a corded phone a few years ago but then something mysterious happened to its jack and then the kids were playing with the phone started working sporadically. I bought some cordless phones and now the Find-the-Phone Game is so deeply entrenched in our family dynamic, we wouldn't know what to do without it. I found the phone and hooked it up, but didn't get a dial tone. I remembered all the abuse the handset took from small children who like to pull on squiggly cords, so I thought maybe I'd try replacing it with one from the old fax machine. Bingo. We had a dial tone, but the new handset wouldn't fit in the cradle to hang up the phone. Hmmmm. What to do? I thought about trying to make a clip of some sort, but then, in a rare moment of embarrassing clarity, I realized I could use the broken handset to press down the button. So when the phone rang, which it did about 87 times yesterday, I ran over to it and said hello in the dead handset. Every single time. I tried to practice, even, rehearsing what I would do like downhill ski racers mentally taking themselves through the course at the top of the hill. No use. If you called yesterday, you probably heard a distant hello followed by confusion followed by my frustration at being an old dog unable to learn a new trick, then a cheery, "Hello!" to cover it all up. And if you called back five minutes later, you probably heard it again.

I used to love power outages when I was a kid. We ate interesting things cooked on the woodstove or the stove in my mom's camper van. We used candles and extra blankets and the house was so unbelievably quiet. I don't remember the power ever being out for that long, maybe a few hours. Certainly, it was on by morning. I still loved power outages when I met Earl, and we fell right in step with the Y2K drama, planning our post-electrical world. Then the power went out for four days after the remnants of a September hurricane came through and I handled my desperation for a shower so poorly that Earl, who had married me only a few months before, was no longer enthusiastic about our unpowered future. Thank goodness it was all hype. I know I could do it if I had to, and lord knows I don't get a shower every four days anymore, but those nice appliances do a lot of work that I just can't imagine having time, or inclination, to do. I don't mind washing dishes by hand, but laundry? I like to press the beepy buttons on my front loader, toss in a tablespoon of soap, and move on with my day.

I think the boys are enjoying this outage, though it's hard to say. They were home from school and played with Legos and art supplies all day, with frequent interruptions from me to pick up the floor, lest we step on pointy toys in the dark. They got a metal bowl, filled it with snow and melted it on the woodstove so we would have a way to wash our hands. They stirred it with spoons, slurped it like soup, and eventually decided to add the soap right to it, mostly because the idea of not adding something to a pot of water didn't seem right in BoyWorld.

They are nestled in extra covers right now, Saturday morning, and seem unbothered by the rumbling generator or anything else. Today I think I'll read to them from Little House on the Prairie and maybe we'll make bread and bring it to people who have electric stoves. Or maybe the power will be on, and we'll watch the Muppet movie that just arrived from Netflix and air pop some popcorn.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Best Parts about Being a Farm Kid by Cliffy Ransom

One of the best parts about being a farm kid is catching chickens. They go lots of weird places and we have to chase after them. We jump over things and run down hills. Then we grab them by their legs and put them back in the chicken coop. It's fun to chase them all around and jump over stuff.

Another good part about being a farm kid is riding in the delivery truck with Daddy. Sometimes Larry is sick and I get to ride with Daddy when we take the milk to stores. I do the part where I carry the clipboard and crates that aren't all the way full. It's fun because I get to listen to the iPod and talk to Daddy and to see what's in the back of the stores.

Another good thing about being a farm kid is climbing on the machinery. You can see in the tops of stuff. I like to climb on the grinder-mixer because it has lots of things to climb on and the corn picker. I drew a picture of me climbing on the corn picker. The triangles are the things that the corn goes into when the picker pulls them off the ground. Daddy says they're called snoots.

I also like going to the barn to milk with my Mama or Daddy. I like to go to the creamery to get chocolate milk and to throw down hay and to turn the grain auger on to fill the grain bin. I don't like it that my brothers don't help much, but Mama says they'll help more when they're bigger.

So you can see, it's fun to be a farm kid.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Timmy Takes the Controls

I didn't burn down the house today, but I came close.

I had some milk and sugar on the stove for some cakes I'm making for a teacher-celebration thing later in the week. Harley and Oliver were playing with stuffed animals on the kitchen floor when I went to get the cocoa powder from the pantry. Ten seconds later I was back, scooping the cocoa out of the plastic bag I had set on the cold burner next to the pot. I was on cup number three (this is a big celebration requiring lots of cake) when POOOOOOF the burner under the stove ignited, instantly melting the bottom of the two-gallon ziploc bag. I quick threw the bag into the sink, not realizing it was bottomless, and cocoa powder went flying everywhere. The good news was that the five-inch-thick layer of cocoa powder extinguished the fire before I could see that the burner was on and turn it off. The bad news was obvious, and everywhere.

Apparently, either Oliver had turned the knob or I had somehow managed to it with hook my pocket, but the gas to that burner was turned on a little bit. It must have collected under the bag enough to pool over into the neighboring flame. I'd like to see the play on tape, but alas, the episode remains un-photodocumented.

I still had a cake to bake, though, so I measued out the last of the cocoa powder, stirred it in, and set about cleaning up. I was able to salvage a few cups of the cocoa before it was time to get the vacuum cleaner. We bought our vacuum cleaner at a janitorial supply store and it has a nice long hose for just this sort of thing. Most of the cocoa powder was on the pooooof burner, but some had gotten near the cake-pot and I noticed that it glowed a little when I sucked it up. No worries, I thought, all the cocoa powder I'm sucking up behind it will put it out, no problem.

When Earl came in the house, having smelled what he thought might be burning flesh from the heifer barn and called for me, expecting the worst, I didn't answer because I had the water running and the fan on. He looked all around the house, imagining some horrible scene. When he found us out in the new kitchen on the Slab, I had a new bag in the vacuum cleaner, was wiping down the last of the burners, and had transferred the cake batter to a mixing bowl. I could have been whistling. The old vacuum bag was outside the french doors, finally extinguished after three pots of water, and Harley was all excited to tell how he had crawled--randomly, like a baby showing off--when he saw the smoke, because that's what you do in a fire.

Earl pointed out, of course, that the vacuum cleaner pulled a lot of air, and oxygen, in with the smoldering cocoa powder. Did I remember the fire triangle? Heat, fuel, oxygen? Well, yes, just not in the moment. But my lightning-quick reflexes had the vacuum cleaner dismantled, bag out and out the door before the plastic started to melt. And there really wasn't all that much smoke. Our vision, for example, had not been obscurred.

It's not coming across so well here, but the whole thing felt like random weirdness in the midst of me baking this cake--which turned out beautifully and proceeded through its steps without a hitch. I've been reading this book about a college for evangelical christian kids who think of God as guiding their every step. I've been imagining God as sitting in a room full of switches, like an airplane cockpit or the radio station I worked at in high school, only bigger to handle all the infinity. So I'm thinking that maybe, for a nanosecond around twelve-thirty this afternoon, God got up to take a little well-deserved coffee break and maybe his visiting nephew, Timmy, happened into the room, knocked the auto-pilot control-lock switch with his elbow, and started pressing buttons.

Maybe tomorrow's news will be full of stories from the AP wire,--cats inexplicably trapped in refrigerators, cars that come out of gear and roll off embankments, random small explosions (Timmy's favorite red button)--across the globe. The New Testament seems to be carrying the day, because there hasn't been any lightning or earthquaking. Timmy, and I, have apparently been forgiven. The house, after all, didn't actually burn down.

Chicken Harvest, Round One

This all started innocently enough. We were at Michael and Margaret's house for a party Memorial Day Weekend, and Michael mentioned that these interesting meat chickens that he thinks he'd like to try this summer are much cheaper if you buy 100 or more at a time. Would I want to go in on an order? I don't think about where I might put these chickens, what I'm going to feed them, or how they're going to get dead. I think, roast chicken is an easy, healthy meal that the children love! A chicken each week, with a week off for camping and another for Thanksgiving is fifty birds? That's great. I'm in.

But really, we're in, because where to put them, what to feed them and how to get them dead are all things that I figure Earl will have some good ideas about. I know I play my cards and Earl knows I play my cards, but I also know that if I ask Earl about if has any thoughts about where we might put 50 meat chickens, he will. And he'll make it happen and I will be very grateful and he will tell me I'm easy to please. I suspect that sometime before Earl met me, someone told him that wives require lots of careful handling, have long lists of home-improvement projects, and require regular gifts of diamond jewelry. I'm not like that, of course, but I sometimes think Earl is holding his breath, waiting for me to walk past a store window and say, "Oh, honey, look!" So when I ask if we have a place to raise 50 chickens for 12 weeks, he takes care of it and think he's getting off easy.

And so, when the chickens that Michael had graciously offered to brood were ready to pick up at the beginning of August, Earl had moved the mobile coop, aka The Moop, into place. He and the bigger boys even went over and caught them and carried them back across town in cardboard boxes. We set up a play yard and a feeder and an automatic waterer and we were in business. Those chickens ate their weedy yard down to putting-green stubble and ate every bit of food scrap I set in their dish, leaving behind only the PLU stickers on citrus peels or the paper-thin rind of the watermelon. They clucked and ate and grew and got out and Cliffy caught them and put them back in. And then the roosters started to crow and even the smallest bird looked, to my x-ray imagination, like it was bigger than a supermarket chicken and it was time to think about moving them into the freezer.

We didn't actually have 50 birds. Tom and Jessica wanted some birds, too, so we ended up with 37, but one died in the first few days and another one died about a week before Harvest Day. I asked Earl once what chickens die of and he just shrugged. He can list off 100 bovine illnesses and potential causes of death, but chicken health, even to someone who has had chickens around most of his life and helped his brother with an 800-layer operation, is not a matter of interest or concern. Individual chickens just aren't valuable enough to worry about; if they start dropping en masse, then you can the vet.

We did Michael and Margaret's birds first. It was the same day as Earl's birthday party, but we figured we could make it work and I, for one, was grateful for a reason to get away from my looking-way-too-messy-to-have-a-party-in house.

I had wanted to know a little about what I was doing before I got there, so Earl took the boys' chicken puppet and demonstrated the gutting procedure. Earl had described the whole process, catching, killing, scalding, plucking, gutting, and bagging, to me and I was, and am, completely sure that killing is not for me. I would like to think that I'm biologically predisposed to protecting and nurturing life, but really, I'm just a wuss. The moment that life leaves an animal, even a fly, is horribly magic to me and I don't see as I have any business being involved in something so cosmically charged. I apparently have no problem asking Earl to do it, though, which suited us well because it turns out that Earl thinks gutting is the least desirable task. I was so grateful that I wasn't going to have to chop any chicken heads off to keep up my end of the bargain, that I decided that I was going to be a willing and efficient gutter if it killed me.

And I was lucky. It was a sunny day so I could wear sunglasses (for protection against some unknown, visually-communicative bad chicken thing that could happen to me if I looked directly into their eyes) and it was cold so I could wear layers of chicken-contact-preventing insulation. Earl found some latex gloves that went most of the way to my elbow and we were in business.

In addition to being a poultry guru and super-great guy, Michael is also a doctor and a teacher and his gutting demonstration was detailed and perfect. Within a few carcasses, I was scraping out the lungs with two fingers, blooping the gizzards into the bucket in one swift scoop, and wrapping the esophagus and trachea around my fingers and yanking them out from the back.

I was, and am, totally amazed at how easily the interior parts of a chicken, and I guess a great many animals, come out. I liked to think of one's internal organs as anchored in place, perhaps able to sway a bit, like a suspension bridge, but occupying a definite address within the body. Turns out, though, that "to spill one's guts," is an entirely apt expression--all those intestines and livers, kidneys, and stuff just come pouring out when you open their encasement, like a mixture of just-caught fish and wet spaghetti.

It probably should have seemed gross to me, but it was just so interesting . I didn't even squinch my nose, except for the time that I didn't make my lower cut deep enough, and the chicken's rectum stayed anchored so my scooping motion emptied the contents of the intestines instead of the intestines themselves. I was nicely positioned to avoid the stream and managed to keep the ickiness entirely on the outside of removable parts. I squinched, then took a deep breath and moved on to the next bird with the grateful feeling of crisis averted.

I had been prepared to be freaked out and to deal; I figure that after four rounds of childbirth, I can breathe my way through just about anything. But really, it wasn't that bad. I even flipped my sunglasses onto my head so I could see better inside the body cavities; turns out that a chicken without a head can't make potentially-fatal eye contact. I still couldn't imagine touching a chicken leg bare-handed, but I had my gloves and you know, those legs a convenient handle for moving the birds from station to station.

Even if I wanted to freak out, which Michael and Earl would have no doubt understood, Michael's neighbor, Ann, was there--just because she was interested in the process--and I felt I had to uphold an imagine of farm life that does not include chicken-induced hysteria. At one point Michael mentioned, as I was gutting away, that he was surprised I wasn't in the house with Margaret (who was the all-important babysitter of the team), after reading about my chicken issues on the blog. Ann looked a little confused to be hearing about cyber matters at the gutting table, and I quickly swept the matter aside with some tough talk about being up for anything, lest my cover be blown.

We plowed through those twenty-something birds and were on our way home by one. We did a little work on the house and I frosted the cake. Our friends all came over that night and Earl was all aglow with a house full of people wishing him happy birthday. I thought I would tell lots of stories about the chicken harvest, but there wasn't that much to tell, and I wasn't sure how much gut-spilling talk was appropriate over plates of pork vindaloo and macaroni and cheese. Still, I have to admit that even with the wonderful party, gutting chickens was the highlight of my weekend--a new skill, a tough-girl skill even, under my belt. Round two was scheduled for our house the following weekend.

Bring it on.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Things I Learned From a Dying Chicken

We have these five-week-old chicks, my impulse buy, that will hopefully someday relieve my anxiety about whether the chickens will have laid enough eggs for me to bake a cake. There are 30 of them, the Rainbow Layer Special pack plus 5 Barred Rocks. The chicks live in a nice little pen in the outer reaches of the Slab and are generally growing well.
One of the chicks, an Araucana, had a deformed beak that didn't match up to close properly. It looked sort of like the curved clippers you use on dogs' toenails. I've only raised two sets of chicks and I've had an Araucana with a messed-up beak in each one. In each case the chicken seemed to do just fine for the first five weeks or so, until the other birds got old enough for social ordering and started to pick on her. That's what happened with this one. I was looking at her in the morning, noticing that she wasn't growing quite as well as the others. I thought about separating her but, as Earl pointed out, her beak wasn't going to fix itself with nurturing and she'd either work it out or she wouldn't. When I checked back a few hours later, I found her smushed into the shavings, other birds stepping over her.

I thought she was dead and reached to pick up the body. And she moved. Of course, I was reaching to pick up the body with a paper towel because I am convinced that skin-to-chicken contact could be lethal to me. Especially skin-to-dead-chicken. But she was only mostly dead, and I set about trying to revive her. I got out some warm water and dissolved some sugar in it and, in the absence of an eye dropper, fed her some drops with the finger-held-over-the-end-of-a-straw trick. I brought her in the greenhouse where it was about 90 degrees and I tried to get some life in her. I won't keep you in suspense. She died anyway, but she seemed to breathe more comfortably for a short time. I'd like to think I brought her some comfort in her final hour, but I can't say that with confidence. I did, however, get to spend some time close up with a chicken that I was sure wasn't going to move and make fatal contact, so I learned a few things.

First, I learned that chicken eyelids are below the eye and come up to close.

Second, I learned that chickens can snore. Or maybe just dying chickens who have been fed drops of sugar water with a straw can snore, hard to say.

Third, and most notably, I got to see a chicken's tongue. I don't know that so many people have seen a chicken tongue, but I'm pretty sure the producers of horror movies have seen them. You know in a scary movie how sometimes a person will be walking through the woods, la dee da, and notice a hole and wonder, "Hmmm, that's odd. I wonder why there's a hole here?" And suddenly this long, pointed tongue will come out of the hole and wrap itself around the person's legs, dragging him/her to a horrible death? That tongue was a chicken tongue. And if a character was fighting his/her way through a host of horrible and fantastic creatures, and just when it was looking good for our hero, one of them appeared out of nowhere and roared a terrible roar, opening its mouth to reveal hundreds of razor sharp teeth and a skinny, wiggling tongue that you, the viewer, will see in your nightmares for weeks to come, that tongue was a chicken tongue. It is a truly frightening body part and I hope my experience with it is limited to this one episode.

So there you have it. Perhaps these little tidbits of information can help you win a trivia game in the twisted future our country seems headed for, though I, for one, hope it never comes to that.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


I know, I know, I haven't been writing blog entries lately and I'm letting my committed readers, both of you, down. I'm sorry.

The problem is that all the decent stories of late are unbloggable, either because they hinge on the such a thorough immersion in farm life that they would never resonate with the general public, both of you, or they involve other people in way that I won't write about.

There haven't actually been that many good stories anyway. The current farm routine is for Earl to wake up and milk the cows, come back and help get the kids off to school, do farm stuff all day, except for lunch (or the occasional break, like yesterday when we took a decadent hour in the middle of the day to watch the last innings of that miraculous Game 6 that we were never going to stay awake to see, even if it hadn't seemed so hopeless for the Sox). He fixes machinery and gets it ready for the winter, builds and moves fences to get the cows out onto hayfields and to make the most of all the grass before the cows go on winter feed. Then he comes home around 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon and either helps me with supper or sits on the couch, depending on where I'm at and how completely whipped he is. For my part, I wake up and try to think if today is the day I'm finally going to get the onions, carrots, beets and potatoes out of the garden, or get the bills paid, or get the floor scrubbed. I get up and wake the kids and help with breakfast and pack lunchboxes and help the kids get dressed, hunting down socks and shoes and warm jackets, all of which have been tossed aside in the warmth of the previous afternoon. Should I go on? Aren't you bored? I feed and water all my different chicken projects and I talk on the phone and answer e-mails about business stuff, or the million things I keep trying not to volunteer for, or sometimes, even, to a friend. I take care of Oliver and try to make sure he has at least five minutes of laughter every day so he won't grow up to be a grumpy old man, and if Harley is home that day, we try to make cookies or do some project so he's not just constantly being schlepped around my work. Before I know it, it's dinner and bedtime and I fall asleep nursing my unweanable youngest child thinking maybe tomorrow will be the day that I finally get the garden in, pay the bills, or scrub the floor.

Yup. Sorry about that. I had tried to spare you.

Instead, I have decided to find some safe ground and do some cow profiles. I can slander the herd without hurting their feelings or disrupting my social future, and no one but Earl will know if I embellish.

I thought I would start with Taffy.

Taffy just turned nine, which is pretty old for a dairy cow. She looks great, though, and has the strong leg set and good body depth that are associated with bovine longevity. She makes a lot of milk and it's high in butterfat and very high in protein. Lifetime, she's 3.94 % fat and 3.45% protein, compared with national averages of around 3.3 and 3.0, respectively. It's not off the charts by any means, but spread out over her seven lactations, it's a solid performance.

Taffy wasn't born on the farm. Some of our favorite cows--Sweet Pea, Buelah, and Grushuna--have started their lives somewhere else. They happily joined the herd and understood that Earl was there for them and they, in turn, have been there for him. Taffy is a different story. She was born on Livewater Farm in Putney and apparently liked it a lot better than she likes it here. She was a few years old when she came here, and she's been here for almost five years, but she's still not over it. If you meet her gaze, which is hard to do because she mostly refuses to acknowledge our presence, her look is one of resigned contempt. She is not a favorite cow.

Taffy kicks. Not always, not even often, but sometimes, and there's no telling when that's going to be. Usually we say, and truly believe, that the cows are never the problem. If they are unhappy, it's because someone, or something has made them that way--an unpredictable action on the part of the humans, physical discomfort, or a disruption to their routine. Taffy, however, can come into the barn on the calmest, most routine day of the year, leaving one lovely pasture, about to return to one even lovelier, step into the parlor, wait for you to get close, and then try, with one swift, well-aimed shot, to smack you across the barn. Two seconds later, she acts like nothing happened. If she could, she'd be whistling.

Taffy is a Jersey and that may be part of the problem. We bought her at a time when we were very short of milk and saw an ad for organic cows for sale. Organic dairy cows are rather hard to come by, and Bill Acquaviva, of Livewater Farm, is known to take good care of his animals and to be a good guy. Organic Guernseys, our favorite cows in milk composition and temperament, are very hard to come by, so a Jersey like Taffy, who at least would have high butterfat, was very interesting to us. We worked out a fair price and Taffy has stayed healthy and milked well, so financially, she's been good for us.

From a having-fun-in-the-barn perspective, the only good thing about Taffy is that she looks a lot like Selma. Sometimes I'll milk Taffy and think I'm milking Selma and I won't realize until Selma comes in later that I was actually milking Taffy, only without the usual fear for my life.

Earl came back from the barn this morning and I told him I was writing about Taffy.

"Taffy is a bitch. Why do you want to write about her? he asked.

"Because she just calved and she's timely," I replied.

"Sylvia just calved and she's a sweetheart."

"Yeah? How many paragraphs could you write about Sylvia?"

"Um. Maybe one."

"How many could you write about Taffy?"

"Probably three. At least."

So there you go. Profile on Taffy.