I have this thing for ice cream. It’s kind of a love thing. One of my first jobs was at a local Friendly’s restaurant with perks of free or discounted ice cream during your shift. I was told that it wouldn’t take long for me to stop liking ice cream all together because I would be around it so much. They were wrong. Not. Possible.
Fast forward almost 20 years to today. I am a total ice cream snob. And it’s all because of a man.
When I first met Harley I was 21. Fresh out of college and new to Massachusetts. He was 24, not long out of boot camp and a relationship that ended badly. Victims of a blind date set up by my mom and his aunt (thanks guys), he took me out for ice cream. I had a feeling he was a keeper then.
Three years later we were married and venturing into the world of backyard chickens. So, naturally, I blame all of this on him. He had grown up with farm animals and knew what hard work looked like and the reward it brought. I was an animal lover and never could say no to a cute face. When all four chickens were killed by a fox later that year, I got my first taste of what I was in for.
Life on a small scale farm has been quite a ride. It’s full of highs and lows. Good times and bad. Richer and poorer. Sickness and health. Throughout it all, Harley has been there for me. While working three jobs, he still manages to find the time to build shelters, cut wood, carry water and haul hay. He listens to my rationales for adding animals and tolerates my rants about udder development or milk production. He is the one who makes dinner when I’m still in the barn after dark. He makes sure the kids are ready for bed while I clean up after chores. He waits for me at the chopping block when I tell him that we have a hen that needs to be put down. He covers the cost of gas when we’ve spent the last of the money in the bank. And he holds me when I can’t keep the emotion in any longer.
It’s our 10 year wedding anniversary today. When I look back at who we were back then vs. who we are today, the difference is staggering. Our bodies are scarred. Our hands are calloused. Our hair is greying. We are undoubtedly changed. But every experience that we have had together is buried in these signs of aging. As we slip further away from mainstream modern day culture, we rely more on each other. When everyone else thinks we’re crazy for turning down a grocery store hamburger at a BBQ, we can catch each others’ eyes and feel camaraderie in the reason why. We can come home and open up the freezer to find meat that we grew and butchered ourselves, remembering every emotional detail that went into it.
Living this way, so close to what sustains us, has slowed time a bit for me. The growing takes time, and we need to be present for that- for weeding, for watering, for feeding, for observing, for harvesting, for preserving. Each meal tells a story. And as we sit together as a family around the dinner table, we talk about where our food came from. A spear of broccoli can remind us of a dear friend from the farmers market. A slice of pork can help us recall an afternoon of playing with piglets. A spoonful of ice cream can evoke a story of milking together too late one summer night.
And speaking of ice cream, have you ever had homemade, homegrown, grass fed, naturally sweetened, seasonally flavored, AMAZING ice cream? If so, I’m willing to bet that you’re an ice cream snob too. Nothing compares to full flavored homegrown and homemade food. Mostly because it’s made with love and full of memories, which are even better than ice cream.
I’ve come to realize that life is about spending time with those you love while preparing to do more living. It’s cyclical. And I’m still prepping for lots more of it.
A song from our wedding, where we served “gourmet” ice cream cake for dessert. (Side note: I recently stopped at the fancy ice cream shop where our wedding cake was from in 2006 and was severely disappointed with the taste. I suppose they can’t hold a candle to 10 years of living packed into a pint of our own…call me a snob.)
Better than Ice Cream by Sarah McLachlan
Is better than ice cream.
Better than anything else that I’ve tried
And your love
Is better than ice cream
Everyone here knows how to cry
And it’s a long way down
It’s a long way down
It’s a long way
Down to the place where we started from.”
When we first got our dairy goats in 2013, I spent months falling in love with having our own milk supply and testing out every cheese recipe I could find. Some worked better than others and I discovered the strengths and weaknesses of goat’s milk compared with cow’s milk. Feeling like I’d conquered all there was to know about milk and cheese (ahem…), the next logical step was to learn how to make goat milk soap. That’s a thing that people with goat milk do, so I did it.
I didn’t really know why I should want to make soap and what the big fuss was over putting goat milk in a cleaning product (I mean, you do know that you can just drink that, right?). But I felt obligated to at least try to create one of the most popular goat milk products out there when I had so much of the raw material. When I did a little research on the process and looked through recipes, I found that many people who have dairy goats also have pigs, and therefore, lard. Lard is made from rendering the fat from a pig after it is butchered and is often times thrown away due to lack of demand for it. We just so happened to have a couple of pigs that were getting close to their end date, looking mighty wide in the fat department. Lard (or tallow) is one of the most traditional oils to use in soapmaking since it is typically readily available and can be raised and/or harvested just about anywhere, all over the world. It also creates a very mild, white and long lasting bar of soap. When the fat is rendered correctly, there is no scent to it and the saponification process changes the properties of the oils involved so that the end product is actually not lard at all. Plus it was free. This was sounding promising.
My first batch of soap was not beautiful. But it was soap. And it worked. It was a little like magic watching the hard oils melt on the stove top, the frozen goat milk liquefy once more upon contact with the lye, and finally the oil base and water base combine into a creamy thickening solution that solidified overnight. Magic I tell you.
I wanted more. I did more research. I made more soap. I created contacts and found mentors. Slowly my technique improved and I found my niche. I wanted to use as much of what we could produce ourselves as possible and it didn’t make sense to me to add a bunch of unnatural ingredients (like synthetic fragrance and artificial color) to such a wholesome product. I discovered essential oils, studied their proper use and experimented with scent blends. I also discovered that people had been adding natural ingredients to soap for a very long time (long before there even was such a thing as artificial color) for their beauty and skin benefits. Things like honey and maple syrup are humectants, which draw moisture to themselves and therefore the skin when they are used in soap. Exfoliants like strawberry seeds or cornmeal help scrub away dead skin cells and dirt. Herbal teas carry medicinal properties and add a hint of scent. And then there’s goat milk. I finally discovered what all the fuss was all about.
Milk is naturally high in fat, vitamins and lactic acid. All things that your skin needs to remain healthy. The thing that sets goat milk apart from cow’s milk when used in soap is that the fat molecules in goat milk are much smaller (which is also why goat milk is naturally homogenized) than those found on cow’s milk. This makes it much easier for the goodness to be absorbed into your skin. Pure, creamy, restorative goodness. More magic. Does it ever end?
Another thing that got me hooked on soap is that it truly fulfills my need for a creative outlet. You can do so many fun things with soap and you never really know how they’re going to turn out until you cut it the following day. Colors, scents, seasonal ingredients, base oil blends, the list goes on. There is so much to learn and try that I doubt I’ll ever tire of it.
Lastly, this was something that I could sell. Legally. There are so many rules around what you can sell and what you can’t when it comes to homegrown items. Unless you are certified and licensed, selling dairy is an absolute no no. If you do not have your meat processed and packaged in a USDA approved facility, you cannot sell it. You cannot make anything for human consumption (including jam, baked goods, candy, etc.) unless you have a certified kitchen and a Serve Safe certificate. You can’t even sell dried herbs unless they were processed in a commercial kitchen by a certified maker. What’s a girl to do to help cover some of the costs of our backyard farm? Enter soap and skin care. Finally, something that I didn’t need to jump through a million legal obstacles to sell. That doesn’t mean that I could just whip out anything and shove it out the door. There are still legal things to consider, like proper labeling and ingredient usage. And of course there was the whole setting up a business name, bank account and record keeping thing. Not exactly the most fun part of having a business, but an essential part of having it be successful.
So far our business has been slowly, but steadily growing. I’ve been able to buy some of my base ingredients in bulk, which helps to reduce the overall cost and turn just a little bit of profit. I’ve started to figure out what is worth my time to make and what is not. I’ve learned when I can squeeze in soapy projects between family time, farm time and “real work” time. And I’m beginning to see that all of this working really depends on the people who support me. Wow, so much support.
I am so very thankful for the support that I’ve received from family, friends, coworkers, fellow artisans, neighboring farmers, local businesses, and even strangers. There are a lot of options out there for handmade soap. (Didn’t I make it sound awesome in the above? That’s because it is, and there are other people who have figured it out too.) Every time someone chooses to buy from me instead of from another vendor or from the supermarket, I am humbled. I know for a fact that people did not buy my soap because it was the best available when I first started out. Like anything you do, you get better with practice. I am still practicing. But I’m also getting better.
With the slow and steady growth that we’ve seen (because of you!), we were able to make our first non-soap related purchase this year with “soap money”. Up until this point every dollar that I’ve made from sales has gone back into buying supplies, paying vendor fees or expanding marketing materials. Slow and steady. But there was just enough extra this spring to cover the cost of our bees. And really, the bees will be providing us with honey and beeswax, which are key ingredients in many of the things I make, so I suppose they’re sort of, technically, “soap expenses”. It was a milestone for me. To see that this whole side venture thing might actually pan out.
With the idea that our business is growing, we decided that it was time for a new logo. One that was uniquely us and could grow along with us. I stashed some “soap money” and hired a graphic designer (Jaclyn Smith is amazing by the way!) to work with me on the creation of our new look. It had to feel grounded but modern. I wanted it to feel kind but not cutesy. And of course it had to include bare feet and goats. I’m excited to share it with you here first.
It’s perfect. I look forward to smothering all of our products with this image and updating all of our materials for the year. (I may have stashed some soap money for that too…) I’ve started using our new soap stamp from Laser-CutZ and some of you may have even gotten a sneak peak at the new soaps heading out with this design embedded on the front. I hope you like it as much as I do. Thank you all so much for believing in us and following along as we become the business we hope to be. You are making our dreams come true.
For many New Englanders maple sugar season brings back memories of grandparents boiling sap on an open fire, running through the sweet, dense steam and eating sugar on snow. My family didn’t have direct experience with collecting sap or making maple syrup, but the bright red sugar maple leaves lining our New Hampshire road will always remind me of home. Every mom and pop restaurant in the area served local maple syrup and we gave maple candies as gifts to out of town guests. The Sugar Shack was a well known attraction in the area and maple walnut ice cream was a top seller at almost every creamery.
But the kicker is that I DID NOT LIKE real maple syrup. It’s true. I made my mom buy Aunt Jemima Lite because I liked the glass woman-shaped bottle and sucked down gallons of high fructose corn syrup before adulthood along with other artificial ingredients that tasted sweet and poured thicker than actual maple syrup. It wasn’t for a lack of trying on my parents part- my mom was a die hard maple fan and my dad refused to even try the fake syrup. But the more they tried, the less I wanted anything to do with maple anything. I even resorted to eating pure Karo syrup on my pancakes at one point to avoid any potential for maple flavor to creep into my diet.
Now that I am an adult I see the error of my ways. Real maple syrup isn’t just about the taste (but oohhh…is it good…). It’s about the process. It’s an experience, a culture, and a memory. In the few short years that I have been a first row spectator at our maple sugar process, I have come to anticipate the arrival of the season with unbridled excitement. For me it means time spent with one another walking quietly in the woods collecting sap, inhaling the intoxicating sugary steam and crackling wood fire smoke with loved ones by your side. The process takes days at a time and lasts about a month in entirety. It is not a unique experience on our homestead in eliciting more than one emotion and allowing opportunities for learning and growth, but it may be the one season that encourages closeness, energizes discussion and evokes passion. There is something about snuggling in close to the one you love next to a burning fire while the dark and cold of the winter night encroaches around you. It makes you feel as though you could live solely on sugar and sensuality for the rest of the year. But I digress.
There is a sweet spot between winter and spring where maple trees turn stored starch into sugar in preparation for growing buds and leaves. And we can steal it. Well, some of it. Here’s a good link with more information. Maple trees make much more sugar sap than they need for survival, so it typically doesn’t hurt their production to take a bit of their product. When outdoor temperatures fluctuate between freezing and about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, the tree is “tapped” with a spout that allows the running sap to drip into a bucket or a tube.
The sap is then collected in a big bin until it is time to boil it. Kalina, our youngest, who is home from school during the day helps to collect the sap each morning.
When there is enough sap collected to fill a deep pan or pot, it is ready to be boiled to allow the excess water to evaporate.
Harley wrapped a copper tube around the stove pipe to act as a preheater for the sap before it flowed into the open pan, to accelerate evaporation.
Evaporation takes a while. We boiled about 80 gallons of sap to make 7 quarts of syrup and it took all weekend. The sap to syrup ratio will depend on the sugar content of your sap, with “sugar maple” trees having the highest sugar content.
Harley is the syrup guru in our family. He had wood that was leftover from his saw milling stockpiled by the barn just for this purpose.
One reason that I’ve come to really love sugaring season is that it forces you to take time. You can’t go far from a molten pot of boiling sugar water if you want to end up with a usable product.
You must wait for the water to evaporate from the sap until it reaches a sugar content of about 66-67%.
When it gets close to the end, the perfect temperature can be reached quickly, so it’s important to watch it carefully and test often.
Once the sap has completed boiling it can be removed from heat and strained.
After straining, it can be bottled right away or brought back up to 180 degrees Fahrenheit later and bottled for long term storage. We keep most of our syrup as a sugar substitute for use throughout the year. It can be used in just about any recipe where cane sugar is used at 3/4 cup maple syrup to 1 cup sugar ratio. We especially love making maple candy, maple ice cream and maple cream.
We may even have enough this year to sell a few jars. And stay tuned for a super special soapy project starring our own homegrown maple syrup!
CAUTION: This post discusses the death of animals and may be too graphic for some readers.
I stood on top of a fresh grave as the sun began to set and the earth hardened beneath my feet with the drop in temperature. The sound of three metal shovels spearing heaps of dirt resounding. I leaned against the handle of my own tool and watched my husband and children loosen packed gravel that the backhoe had left, then sling it into a hole that began as the size of an SUV.
I remember seeing my breath as I turned around to glimpse the vibrant red sunset through the trees on our neighbor’s property. Did they have any idea what had gone on that day, just a few hundred feet from their home? Did they hear the gun shots? Did they smell the blood? Did they see me kneeling? Did they notice the light from the lantern we carried through the backyard in the middle of the night? Did they feel the tension in the air? That day, we were burying our pigs. It’s not something that we planned to do. But it was something that we did.
Pigs serve many purposes on a farm, but the primary purpose is to provide meat. They can turn unwanted or excess food that doesn’t store well (or is unpalatable to humans) into nutritious, delicious pork in record time with an amazing conversion rate. We rely on our pasture raised pork to feed us throughout the winter since we do not buy meat that we haven’t raised ourselves or know the history of personally. Living this closely to our food supply is important to us. And we had just buried over 400 lbs of meat that was meant to feed us in the upcoming year. But more importantly than that, we had buried animals that we had carefully selected, protected, provided for and made plans for. Those plans of course, did not include a grave.
It’s probably hard for people who have not raised animals for meat to understand why I cried when we shot these girls, but wouldn’t have, if it were done two months later. I’m not sure I can give the feeling justice- but I will try.
When you raise an animal on a farm (or a homestead, as our situation allows), you accept the animal into your life knowing that it is very unlikely that the animal will live into old age and die of natural causes. We do this because we care for livestock animals and their humane treatment. All living beings deserve to live a natural and fulfilling life, no matter their intended use. But we also care for our family’s health and self-sufficiency. If one of these two things didn’t matter to us, it would be much easier for us to turn a blind eye to where our food comes from and how we source it, and also to support many more pets than working animals on our land. However, a limited budget and minimal space mean that almost all animals that we care for need to have an output as great (or greater) than their input in order to sustain our system. Pigs play a crucial role for us and many other farmers since their input to output ratio is so substantial. They provide meat, lard, fertilizer, rototilling and re-purposing of food, all in 6-7 months. They are a great investment, and if you can manage to keep a breeder sow going, you can have an excellent replenishing system in your own backyard. (Plus, who can resist the idea of teeny tiny piglets bouncing about?)
Last summer, we decided to take the plunge and purchase two gilts (female pigs who have not yet been bred), with the idea that one of them may grow into a worthwhile breeder for us. We had raised several sets of feeder pigs and thought that we might be ready for the responsibility of caring for a keeper. We researched breeds, critiqued our past experiences and analyzed our goals. Then, finally, we came across a local litter that seemed like the perfect fit. THIS would be the foundation of something great. THESE would be our girls. WE would be in charge of what our food system would look like. We just needed to to grow them first.
Growing pigs is not a difficult thing to do. Even though heritage breeds tend to grow more slowly than commercial breeds do, they still pack on the pounds rather quickly. A weaned piglet weighs about 50 lbs. at 8 weeks of age and by six months of age they typically hover around the 200 lb mark. This is a faster growth rate than just about any other livestock animal on the planet. The other great thing about pigs is that they are omnivores. They eat just about anything you can throw at them. Their nutritional needs compliment the ideal human diet, which means that they do well when eating kitchen scraps and homegrown food. However, unfortunately, their indiscriminate pallet can also get them into trouble. This is what we believe happened to our girls.
Shortly after we had processed and packaged our spring pigs, we decided that it was time to move the gilts that were staying through the winter into the more secure area where our previous animals had stayed. Harley built a new wooden fence, strung the electric wire and hung a new gate. We cleaned out the hut and brought in fresh food and water. When it was time to move the pigs themselves, we simply opened the gate, shook a little bit of grain into a bowl, and they followed us willingly into their new enclosure. They were good pigs. They trusted us. Two weeks later, they were dead.
Winter had finally come to Massachusetts by the end of December. The mornings were frosty and the ground was frozen. A thick layer of ice pooled in the low spots that were once muddy wading areas used by the summer pigs for cooling down. The two newly adapted adolescent gilts spent a lot of their time snuggled up together under a hay blanket. When I brought their breakfast out to them one morning and neither of them came out to see what was on the menu, I chalked it up to the cold spell and made a mental note to check on them again later. After a quick round of chores and tending to the other animals, I returned to find a writhing pink mass paddling on the ice, snorting and panting while trying to regain her footing. Rushing into the pen, I fell at her side and instinctively began to try to push her up and off of the ice. Unable to get any traction between her skin and my gloves, I shrugged them off and slid my bare hands along the ice and pushed her as hard as I could, aiming for the textured snow, hoping that she would be able to stand more easily on a different surface. But 200 lbs of convulsing muscle that had no will to work with me was not budging. Her skin was reddening and her shivering intensified. I grabbed handfuls of hay and shoved them under her so that she was not laying directly on the ice. I went inside to wake Harley and together, somehow, we hoisted her back into the hut to warm up. Our thought was that she had somehow slipped on the ice and broken a bone or punctured a lung. It didn’t take long for us to recognize the signs of extreme distress and the rapid decline of her will to live. Less than ten minutes later, we dragged her back out of the hut and ended her suffering with a well placed bullet to the forehead.
We were still in shock that our seemingly healthy, almost fully grown, 6 month old pig was suddenly dead. It was a loss, but the adrenaline of taking action and the relief of ending such pain masked our sadness as we began to accept the most recent events. She was gone. Whether by a heart attack, a bad fall, or a bloated stomach- her body was unable to recover. Thinking that it was likely something physical that had caused her sudden turn for the worse, we butchered her body and consoled ourselves that at least her meat would not go to waste. I examined her internal organs and took mental note that her heart seemed to be an unnatural color and her intestines appeared to be bloated. But neither of those things was out of the ordinary for a recently deceased animal. Her carcass hung in two halves in the freezing mid day air by the time we went back inside to warm our frozen hands and wrack our tired minds.
Throughout this ordeal, our second pig lied quietly in the corner of her hut. We did not think to check her for symptoms, assuming that the stress of what had just happened was keeping her subdued. That is, until she started wobbling around. I stared blankly out the kitchen window in the direction of the pig pen as I continued to analyze what could have caused such a problem. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed our remaining gilt struggling to her feet and wavering back and forth as she stumbled back to her house. It was happening again. But differently. We had either caught this pig in the early stages of whatever this was, or she was showing more variable symptoms than the first pig had. We called the farm vet and described everything that had happened that day, hoping that this one- my favorite one, was able to be saved.
From the description of the symptoms, the vet concluded that it was very likely toxicity of some kind. The pigs had eaten something poisonous that was attacking their body from the inside out. But what on earth could they have gotten into? The ground was frozen and the only things they had eaten, to our knowledge, were things that we had fed them. They ate bagged pig grower grain and kitchen scraps. Is there a secret list of poisonous foods for pigs somewhere? We checked. The only thing that came up was raw potatoes, which we had known about before and avoided. There was a list of poisonous plants, a few of which we did have growing around the pen during the summer, but being 6 months after another round of pigs had dug up most of what was in the area already, we didn’t think there was much left for them to find. One potential that sounded feasible, was pokeweed, a common type of nightshade. During the winter when the top of the plant has died back, the plant stores energy in it’s roots, making the toxins (phytolaccatoxin and phytolaccigenin) that much more concentrated. Perhaps the pigs had been bored and managed to dig up some roots through the semi-frozen ground. The only other thing that we could think of was that their grain did get rained on in the back of the truck after we bought it at the feed store. It looked okay, but it was possible that the moisture encouraged the feed to become a breeding ground for mold and microtoxins that are not easily noticeable. In either case, these animals had became lethally ill after being moved into a pen that we locked them into, or eating tainted grain that we hand fed them. Did we poison our pigs? Was this our fault? The weight of this conclusion was beginning to build.
We were now faced with the task of trying to save our remaining animal. She was sick, but she wasn’t yet suffering and we thought there was a chance to treat her. Since her symptoms were more mild than her sister’s were, it likely meant that she had eaten less of the toxic substance and could potentially pull through. We watched her closely for a few hours. She lied quietly in the hay, shivering at times and breathing slowly, but heavily. By the evening her temperature had dropped to several degrees below normal, so we tried to warm her up with blankets and hot water bottles. She wasn’t interested in food or water, and was likely becoming dehydrated. The vet suggested that we try giving her activated charcoal to try to absorb any toxins that might be left in her stomach. I mixed up some charcoal with mineral oil and used a syringe to squeeze it into her esophagus, hoping it would not run down her trachea instead. She did not resist, but did not swallow either. The sticky black goo stuck to her gums and formed elastic strings between her lips as she opened her mouth wide with each breath. Her rib cage swelled as her lungs filled with air and she gasped audibly with every effort. Our good friends happened to have some Banomine on hand to lend us, which the vet also recommended for pain relief. This was to be my first experience giving a pig an injection. This medication should be given straight into the muscle, so I picked a spot on her neck that was easy to access and jabbed it into her. The plunger of the syringe did not depress, meaning I had not actually made it into the muscle. She had a thick layer of fat between her skin and her tissue that was blocking the end of the needle. I selected another area of her body and tried again. This time the medicine flowed freely into her upper thigh. Harley and I stayed with her a little bit longer, catching each others worried eyes in the darkness, stroking her gently and giving her encouraging words. I prepared myself for a night of worry and a dead pig by morning.
Waking to find a dead pig probably would have been easier. Instead she was worse. Her breathing had slowed to only once every 4-5 seconds and her temperature was below 90 degrees F. I didn’t even realize that was possible. One more call to the vet confirmed that it was indeed possible, but that it meant that her organs were shutting down and death was imminent. We took one more look at each other and nodded, separately, that it was time. Harley squeezed into the hut with her, removed the blankets that we had carefully covered her in, and turned her body so that her face was looking out the door at us. The thing about shooting a pig is that you always do it when they are looking straight at you. There is no way to avoid eye contact when you are aiming a gun in between them. You have to be absolutely committed to the act and make peace with the decision of taking a life before you raise the rifle.
She didn’t have a lot of fight left in her. Her body twitched, her legs paddled and blood dripped down her forehead. After it was done, we dragged her body from the hut and took some time alone. I examined her organs and her stomach contents, desperate to know the cause of her illness. There was a lot of grain, a few pieces of plant matter, and some leftover kitchen scraps from our dinner the night before. Nothing out of the ordinary. And so we buried the girls. The one that we had butchered the day before was also likely unsafe to eat if she had been poisoned. Two beautiful animals and hundreds of pounds of meat consumed by the land instead of our family.
I cried. I cried over losing a pig that was destined to meet the same fate in the end sooner or later. Even then I thought it was ironic. “I’m crying over a stupid pig” I said. But we both knew that she wasn’t a stupid pig. It was my anger, disappointment, frustration and guilt that was talking. So much guilt. It would be easy to say that there was nothing we could have done, that things happen and we shouldn’t blame ourselves. Some very well meaning people told us that very thing. But I believe it’s up to us, as guardians and caretakers for these animals, to question every decision and every action we make concerning their care. We made some good choices and, obviously, some bad ones. We chose to ignore the pokeweed that had grown around the pig pen, knowing that it was a toxic plant, but observing that the other pigs hadn’t tried to eat it, so we thought we were safe. We chose to feed grain that had been rained on, knowing that moisture plus food is a recipe for rancidity, but since it looked and smelled okay, so we thought we were safe. We chose to neglect the second pig after the first one died, assuming that she was fine and whatever caused the first pig’s problem was a non-contagious accident, so we thought we were safe. I wonder a lot about what would have happened if we had made different decisions in these cases. What if we hadn’t moved the gilts into the other pen? What if we hadn’t fed that questionable grain? What if we had checked the second pig sooner, or called the vet immediately? What if…
You could drive yourself crazy with that question. I won’t continue to beat myself up over it, but I won’t ignore it either. We learned a lot from this experience and we will do our best to make better decisions as we go on. Living life this close to our food supply is not only eye opening, but emotional and HARD. It is not for everyone. But it is for us. Every lesson we learn makes us better at it. Playing with lives is no joke and the amount of responsibility we feel is oppressive at times. But we go on. We live and we learn and we grow- feeling the weight of our own little world on our shoulders.
Sometimes Harley gets these big ideas in his head and I don’t believe he’s actually going to do it until it’s done. He is amazingly efficient, creative and productive. What would we do without him?
Way back in September, Harley started working on upgrading our existing turkey shelter. When we first moved in, the old run down shed was obviously on its last legs. It had been used as a run-in for cattle in the past, but we used it for our turkeys. This year we didn’t have much luck hatching poults, so decided to butcher our remaining birds and start over with a new coop next year. The other goal for the upgrade was to get the chickens out of the the barn so that we could free the second stall for ever-growing Shine and baby.
This new “poultry complex”, as Harley likes to call it, would house the chickens on one side and the turkeys on the other. There is some risk of cross-contamination of a disease called “Blackhead” when you house chickens and turkeys together, so the two areas would need to be separated by a wall to limit interaction, and have two separate outdoor areas. This fall Harley focused on building the chicken area.
In his research, he found out that chickens need about 15 hours of light in order to continue laying eggs. Since this area is mostly wooded, we would need to supplement with artificial light. Because we want eggs. But there is no electricity in the woods, so we would need to find a way to power the lights off-grid. Enter solar panels and LED lighting. Apparently, LED lights cover a more complete spectrum than incandescent or fluorescent lights, which leads to happier, healthier and more productive layers. There is some interesting research on the effects of LED lighting in poultry farming. Here’s a great link with more information on the study.
We were able to source a decent amount of reclaimed lumber from a family friend who was taking down an old structure. The rest of the lumber came from our own property. Harley cut the trees, moved the logs, processed them into boards and nailed them all by hand. All while the kids and I watched and took pictures. Here is a summary of the progress. It was pretty awesome to see it come together.
And now we wait. The ladies stopped laying for a couple of weeks due to the move and adjusting lighting, etc, but they’ve just started to give us a few eggs a day again. We hope they like their new digs.
: an official order that delays the punishment of a prisoner who is sentenced to death
: a delay that keeps something bad from happening
: a period of relief from pain, trouble, etc.
Definition from Merriam-Webster Dictionary http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reprieve
This November has been unseasonably warm. What would typically be the start of the wood burning, coat clinging, ice breaking New England winter has actually been…pleasant. Daytime temperatures have been consistently in the 60’s, with a few days even reaching over 70 degrees.
As someone who loves autumn more than any other time of year, this extended season is more than welcome. It has allowed us to finish those last few outdoor jobs that inevitably get put off until the last minute.
Harley has been spending every spare moment trucking firewood to the house and building a new chicken coop for our layers. I’ve been preparing for the busy holiday season by making as much soap as possible to bring to the few small markets we’ll be selling at next month.
The kids have been “helping”. While they are still too young to actually be of much real help, I think it’s an extremely valuable lesson for them to watch their parents constantly busy and being productive working with their hands. Passion and work ethic exude from this home, qualities that I want my children to inherit.
The beautiful weather has drawn me outside too. And due to my more flexible work schedule, I’ve been able to be there to watch our children play. It seems that self-entertainment is a rare quality in this new generation and I’m thrilled that our kids excel at pretending, cooperating, and being creative in their play.
While clearing the last of the brush from the pasture-in-progress, Jacob and Kalina made up their own game. From what I caught, they were going on a trip to the beach (complete with wood bark “cell phones” for taking pictures of their travels) but got caught in a swamp on the way and made Shine their pet crocodile.
I couldn’t come up with some of this stuff. But being there to watch it play out gives me huge amounts of insight on how they’re developing, how much they understand and what interests them. I was even invited to play a few times, as were the animals.
In essence, most of our animals are still children too. We have a very young herd, as only Violet is fully mature. They must think it’s normal farm practice to get caught up in a game of “catch the bad guys” or “escape the muddy mud pit”.
I do feel a little bad for the bucks at times since they have to look on through fences and electric wire. But we really don’t need everything within reach impregnated 5x over. (If you haven’t heard yet, Violet is expecting! Oops…) Plus they are quite stinky this time of year. Rutting bucks are sweet. From a distance.
But they do get some attention. I just save them for last so that I can shower after I touch them. 🙂
The sun’s strong rays have made a lot of extra opportunities possible. But we’ve also had to delay some work. There is one task that must be done near freezing. Slaughter.
Since we believe it’s important to personally complete the entire process of raising a meat animal humanely as well as ending his life quickly and as stress-free as possible, we also butcher and package the meat ourselves. When it comes to processing pork, the carcass must be cooled and hung in refrigerated temperatures (below 40 degrees) overnight. We don’t exactly have a walk in cooler in our house. So that means that we need to wait for outdoor temperatures to stay within food-safe range for at least two days in a row.
So far, no such luck. But I suppose that depends on which side of the fence you’re on. The boys have been reprieved. For now.
It feels like a lifetime ago that we didn’t have these beautiful white goats in our lives. But in reality, it has only been two and a half years since our barn was empty (save for some chickens). We met Sara and Carl Davis of Oak Hollow Livestock in the spring of 2013 when we finally decided to take the plunge into at-home milking. I didn’t know anything about the different breeds of goats out there and mused even less about the dairy world. We had owned a couple of pet Nigerian Dwarf wethers (neutered males) in the past, but they certainly didn’t make milk, and I wrongly assumed that all goats were the same.
As I stood in Sara’s kitchen the day we went to meet Violet, an American Saanen that they had for sale, I stared out the window at the stark, stoic shapes lounging in the sun. They seemed a little bigger than I had expected, but it was hard to tell from a distance just how large they were. “Do you like this breed?” I asked Sara. “The Saanens? I do. Their milk is very mild, not goaty at all. And I’m really picky about milk.” She replied. “Plus they’re really quiet, which is nice if you live in a neighborhood.” So far, so good, I thought.
We gathered up our children (she and I each had two under 4 years old) and paced out to the goat pen. As we approached, a couple of the does got up and walked slowly to the gate. They didn’t yell and jump around like our Nigerians would have. They maintained their dignity and quietly assessed us with kind, but careful eyes. One took a long sip of water and then raised her head and blinked as if preparing herself for the formal introductions. There were three adults and two kids in the pen.
One of the kids trotted excitedly to the fence, squeezed her face through the mesh barrier and bucked her little bodily around so vigorously that I was sure she was stuck. But moments later she popped through the other side and trotted over to us. “She’s a bottle baby” Sara explained “And she thinks we have food for her.” Jacob, then only three years old, gripped tightly onto my legs as the little goat bounded over and then nibbled my jeans looking for a source of milk. I squatted down with Kalina in my arms and gently stroked her neck. But that lasted only a few seconds since the kid immediately jumped up on my lap, worked her way to Kalina’s face and began suckling on her nose.
Sara opened the gate for us and we entered as a group, me holding on to Kalina and Jacob holding on to holding me. She closed the gate behind us and then made her way through the animals to Violet. Guiding her over to us by the collar, she told us about this doe and her extremely gentle nature. “We just don’t need three in milk now that our yearling is fresh.” I didn’t comprehend at least three of the words in that short sentence, but I gathered that they had more milk than they needed for their small family.
Violet was sweet. She stood still and let us pet her while we spoke. She chewed her cud and looked around and sniffed us softly as the children became more comfortable around the herd. These were the biggest goats I’d ever seen. Violet’s back nearly reached my hip and I had to bend my elbow to scratch her cheeks. They were slightly intimidating since I was used to miniature goats about a quarter of their size. But the overwhelming calm that they exuded gave me confidence that we had found the perfect family milk goat.
We left that day with a plan to find Violet a friend so that she wouldn’t be alone when we took her home in a few weeks. The second goat would be smaller, I envisioned. Since it would be mostly just to keep Violet company, I wasn’t overly concerned about breed or production ability. But as I perused the web and circled ads on Craig’s List for miniature mixed breeds, I wondered if buying a goat with unknown history from people who had no vested interest in what the animal was bred for was really the right choice. Sara seemed to know what she was doing. And she chose Saanens for a reason. I chose to trust her expertise and decided that we were on board too.
As luck would have it, in the meantime Sara and Carl had decided to sell “Wendy”, one of the other kids that was born at their farm that year. She was three months old and ready to be weaned, but had been dam raised and didn’t want to stop nursing from her mom. Moving her to a new home was the easiest solution, and since Violet was already coming with us (and we needed a second goat), keeping them together eased everyone’s transition.
Wendy became Windy when she arrived home with us. She was quite skittish, not being imprinted on people the same way that the very forward bottle kid we had met the first day was. But she was curious and slowly settled into her new surroundings. We worked together on routine and she followed in Violet’s veteran footsteps, watching morning milking and taking her turn eating on the stand each day. Before long she was bred and we waited, a little scared and a lot excited, for our first kidding. We learned together as we entered the world of breeding, kidding and raising animals for milk production.
She had a single buck her first year, which taught us how to say goodbye to an animal that we purposely bred and raised. This past year she gave us buck/doe twins. Again, we said goodbye to the boy since we didn’t need anymore pet goats. But we chose to keep her little girl, Hailey.
We entered Windy in our first ADGA goat show this summer and saw an entirely different side of the dairy goat world. So far we seem to fit better in the backyard milker category rather than competitive showing, but there is certainly value to the work and commitment that dedicated show breeders exude. We benefit every day from the selective breeding for milk production and conformation that has been done by breeders like that.
Windy has become a beautiful doe and it’s been a pleasure to watch her mature. She is a shining example of what a Saanen should be- sweet and gentle but strong and productive. I can only hope that Hailey follows in her footsteps. So far, so good. 😉
With Shine, our heifer, expecting her first calf in April and four dairy goats that we planned to freshen (come into milk after kidding) this spring, we found ourselves in a similar situation to the one that Sara and Carl experienced when they decided to sell Violet two years ago. Too much milk and too many animals for one little family.
So we made the difficult decision to sell Windy. She has fed us, taught us and kept us company. We raised her, fed her and kept her healthy. But we didn’t do it alone. All along Sara from Oak Hollow Livestock has been there supporting us. She is always kind, knowledgeable and responsive to any questions or requests for help we’ve had. (And there have been a lot of them…sorry Sara!) I’ve told her one too many times that I don’t know what we would do without her. But truly, she has been our savior guiding us into a life of self-sufficiency through the care of our animals.
By a twist of fate, at the very time that we needed to downsize, Sara and Carl felt the need to grow. They were looking for one more mature milker to add to their current herd. Enter Windy. Things have a way of working out. And as I felt the strain of giving up something that I loved, an animal that I had considered part of our extended family, Sara stepped up yet again.
Windy has been back at Oak Hollow Livestock for three days now. And although she will always have a home here, it feels like she has really gone home again. She was with us to teach us a thing or two. And that she did. She also left us a beautiful gift- Hailey, who will remind us of her patient, sensitive and soulful mother each time we look into her kind, but careful eyes.
“I don’t know how you do it all” was becoming a daily topic of conversation for me. From coworkers to family members to friends I hadn’t seen in months, everyone seemed to think that I had added more to my plate than one person could reasonably manage. I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t feel especially overworked or overrun. In fact, I was pretty happy with the variety my life included working full time, managing our mini farm business and taking care of my family. But as time went on and I continued to add “just one more thing” to my list of responsibilities, I began to see a decline in the quality of my work. I was doing many things, but I didn’t feel like I was doing anything particularly well.
It’s one thing to neglect your laundry pile (which I most certainly did), but it’s another to neglect your children, your spouse or your animals. I didn’t do it on purpose. And it didn’t get so bad that kids were going hungry or my husband forgot what I looked like. But there was a change in my relationships with my family. The busier I got, the less time I devoted to listening, to playing, to helping, to enjoying. My days became longer as I started chores earlier and worked on projects later. I was using the term “in a few minutes” all too often when my kids asked for my attention as I was trying to get something done. Those few minutes turned into thirty, forty, sixty minutes and by the time I had a pause in my forward momentum, their interest had turned from wanting a push on the swing to playing by themselves in their room. I was losing them. And I was missing their childhood.
But I noticed. There were a few gentle nudges from my ever patient husband that he was out of clean shirts, or times when he stayed up late at night after getting home from work at 1:00 am doing dishes because I hadn’t gotten to them before I collapsed into bed. But there were also more subtle signs that made me stop and question how I was spending my time. My daughter’s hair was suddenly long enough to braid. She was coming home from daycare with nail polish and new hair styles, and I had never even thought of trying those things with her. My son was coloring elaborate pictures of dinosaurs and writing stories about his mom planting flowers. But I didn’t know half the names of the dinosaurs he wrote about or notice that he misinterpreted the vegetable seeds I was planting for flowers. If only I had taken the time to explain or involve them or just plain notice. But I finally did.
I noticed that they were growing up right before my eyes…or more accurately, behind my back. If I had kept up at this pace I would have run the risk of missing out on my favorite childhood ages. So I reassessed. What was really important? What made me happy? Who was really important and what made them happy? How could I do more of those things?
The answer, of course, involved giving something up. I loved my job. It was what I went to school for, what I moved to Massachusetts for, and what I had always dreamed of doing. But- I had done it. What I hadn’t done was raise a child or mold a family. I had never unselfishly put someone else first. And I needed to. But I also wanted to retain my self-worth, my creativity and knowledge base. Amazingly, as I sat and reorganized my priorities, I found those things in our family and in our little farm.
-the goats and cow and pigs and chickens and turkeys
-my aging heart dog
-friends and family
How lucky am I to have the privilege of living in a place with the people and animals that bring me happiness? I had found my answer in simply spending more time at home. With a leap of faith and a promise of a much tighter budget, I reduced my time at work by half. I was surprised to notice that work was not my only source of satisfaction anymore. I was laughing more, playing more and getting to know my children. Of course, this trial would never have been possible if I didn’t have the financial and emotional support of my extremely hard working husband. He has listened, encouraged, and assisted- all the while allowing me to find my own way back to my family. Because of this opportunity, I have fallen in love with my children as individuals. Those two little people in our home depend on us to help them find their path in this world too, and now I’m here to help them.
I wanted to share some memories that we made this summer, after my change to a part-time work schedule. These, and many more, will be embossed in our memory bank forever. And you can’t put a price tag on that. I hope that these are just the beginning of a new chapter in our lives where mommy is fully present.
I almost died tonight. The pigs almost ate me. I could see it in their eyes- they were sizing me up, contemplating whether or not the effort of bringing me down would be worth it. I would be nothing more than a tasty side dish after they knocked the feed bucket out of my hands and trampled me into the mud. They were probably wondering just how much they outweighed me by these days, (nearly 200 lbs each), when I tripped. It wasn’t pretty.
The sun seems to set impossibly earlier each day in the fall, and it was fully dark at 8:00 when I finally made my way out to the barn tonight. An LED lantern dangled from my middle finger as I gripped a five gallon bucket filled with food and water in each hand and shuffled my way to the pig pen. I could barely make out their snouts in the moonlight, but could hear their snorts and glimpsed their tap dancing feet as they anticipated their dinner arriving…finally. Evening chores are typically done around 6pm, so you can imagine what a ruckus a 2 hour delay at meal time might create- especially when you’re dealing with animals that are known for their voracious appetites.
It was either luck, the counterweight in each hand or the will not to become hog food that kept me upright. I stood less than an inch from the electric fence wire, arched back and eyebrows, with an upheld pail in each outstretched arm as both pigs snuffled around me looking for dropped morsels. As I caught my breath, I noticed the wire bouncing behind me. I must have bumped it with my jeans.
What could have been left of me
It was a good reminder that these little piggies that we brought home only 6 months ago are not so little anymore. And they aren’t sweet lovable pets. No, I don’t think they would have really tackled me to the ground and started eating me alive. But they are in this relationship for the food. And so are we.
Just a few more weeks and we’ll see who comes out on top.
Five long months of waiting. In comparison to the 11 months that alpacas carry their babies for, or even the 9 months that humans do, I guess 5 months is not an unreasonable amount of time to sit around twiddling your thumbs while you wait for a baby goat to arrive. But it sure felt like it.
What I didn’t think about when we first decided that we wanted a dairy goat of our very own, was that we weren’t just signing up for the responsibility of that one animal’s care. The dairy industry has a cute but demanding by-product. Babies. It seems obvious when you think about it- in order for an animal to make milk, she must first become pregnant. Then she has to carry the baby successfully, deliver the baby, feed the baby and then FINALLY we can (probably) take our share of whatever milk is leftover.
Luckily I didn’t think it through too much before shelling out the cash for the first doe in milk I came across. (Who, by the way, just so happens to be a perfect fit for us. Just didn’t want you to take my sarcasm as a statement of disappointment in our choice. Violet is as sweet as they come. And so is her milk!)
Stumbling upon an available doe already in milk, without a wee one sucking her dry, seemed like a perfect opportunity to buy the goat and get the milk for free. What I didn’t realize was that that milk supply was going to need to be replenished sooner or later. Most dairy goats are only kept in milk for 10 months out of the year. They are bred in the fall, while still in milk, and then dried off about half way through their pregnancy so that their bodies can devote all of the energy needed to growing a baby (or 2 or 5). Goats like to multiply.
That meant that we had also just signed up to be breeders. Wait, what?
I was not qualified to be a breeder. Breeders are supposed to be knowledgable and experienced in the breed that they’re working with. They’re supposed to have long term goals and gut feelings about pairings that have yet to take place and kids that have yet to be born. I’m also pretty sure that it’s a requirement to be able to deliver a breech baby with your eyes closed and one hand collecting colostrum before you can officially call yourself a goat breeder. Okay, well, if nothing else, you’re supposed to be breeding with the primary purpose of making more quality animals. Aren’t you? I just wanted milk. Crap, I was in over my head.
Although we had had a couple of pet wethers before, we had never had a registered animal, and had most certainly never had plans for breeding. This whole new world of possibilities, choices and responsibility for creating life was overwhelming.
Things like the careful selection of a sire, tracking heat cycles, transporting the doe to the buck on just the right day (which for me meant calling out of “real” work on “the day”, and driving for 3 hours with a screaming goat the back of my truck), monitoring the pregnancy, making sure vaccines were given at the proper time, helping to deliver the baby (NBD), raising the kid, and then deciding what was to become of the kid after it was raised were all things that I learned about on the fly. Had I stopped to think through all of the details of what our future entailed before I jumped right in, I probably would have frozen with fear and inadequacy on the spot.
But sometimes that’s how you learn best. And it’s certainly how you find out if you want to do it again. For me it was exhilarating. The anticipation, the planning, the not knowing exactly what you would get. I got hooked.
This year I’ve put a lot more thought into a breeding plan and have sought out proper baby daddies for each of our girls ahead of time. (Is that proper goat-breeder terminology? I think so. Probably.) I don’t want to be a backyard breeder cranking out poor quality animals just because I like goat cheese. I respect the level of expertise needed to do this properly and I intend to do the best I can to add useful animals to this world while still being mindful of our ethics and purpose. I know it will be a work in progress as I gain experience and knowledge. But isn’t that what life is all about?