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Meet the Soapmaker Interview for SNIF

Recently, I was given the honor of being the featured soapmaker for a wonderful Facebook group called SNIF (Soapmaking with Natural Ingredients Forum).  My friend and fellow goat milk soap maker, Janelle Holmstrom from Jangle Soapworks, asked me a few questions about my soapy journey.  Here it is.

Meet the Soapmaker

originally posted in the Facebook group Soapmaking with Natural Ingredients Forum September, 2017

Christy Bassett ~ Barefoot All Natural Farm

By Janelle Holmstrom

May 2017 iphone pics 633

Please introduce yourself.  Tell me what makes you you.  What inspires you?  What makes you happy?

I am a thirty something (ahem) mother, homesteader, animal lover and soap maker. Those are the things that feel like me when I say them and the things that enforce my priorities.  But if I had infinite time I would be many more things too.  I like to stay busy and am almost always doing at least two things at once.  I am a seeker of meaning and a lover of life.

My true passion for the moment is milk. I am incredibly lucky to live on 7 acres in Massachusetts where we have carved a small farm out of the woods in our backyard and have transplanted 5 dairy goats and a cow.  One of my favorite parts of the day is my morning routine.  The first waft of the outdoor air when I open the screen door, the sound of the wild birds singing and the rowdy bucks calling as they see me emerge from the house.  I try to remember to take a moment then to look around then to assess the weather, appraise the state of the gardens, and appreciate the beauty and simplicity of this place we choose to call home.  Because once the work begins it’s easy to forget how truly lucky I am to be living this life, so close to our earth and our resources.

Then there is the click of the latch on the door, the creak of the hinges pronouncing my arrival, the waking of warm bodies and shuffling of hooves. I stop to kiss our family milk cow, Shine, on the lips as she peeks her humungous wet nose over the Dutch door of her stall to greet me.  The kids and does in the next stall begin demanding breakfast and the calf bumps the door impatiently as I gather the hay and feed.  I milk our two mature dairy goats by hand, and then, slowly, I rest my head against Shine’s side as I milk her out as well.

Shine

There is an unspoken connection between a dairy animal and her caretaker. Above all else there must be trust.  She willingly enters the stanchion to be locked into place, then allows a human to clean and examine her delicate udder.  And even further, she stands in place without protest- just the occasional over her shoulder casual glance, while I empty her body of milk.  It still gets to me every time I stand up with a full bucket to thank a generous animal.  I am humbled to be allowed such a privilege multiple times every day.

Kalina milking Shine July 2016

I remember when milking was new and foreign to me only 4 years ago. My fingers ached and my forearms felt like they might split apart.  But I never, ever, wanted to quit.  When I found dairy, it was like opening a door in the corner of a room that I never knew existed.  I did not grow up on a farm and had never even grown a vegetable until I was an adult.  But I did love animals and received a degree in Psychobiology (animal behavior, or the study of the connection between the mind and body for multiple species) from the University of New England in 2003.  After spending almost 15 years training assistance dogs for people with disabilities, I have begun to change courses and am very happy to be pursuing my love of all things handmade and homegrown.

milking into pail cropped for etsy

How did you get into soap making?  How long have you been making?  Tell us about your first ever batch of soap and what you mostly took away from that experience.  

As you might expect, milk brought me to soap. (And I have a hunch that I’m not the only one!)  We began our dairy journey with two full size Saanen goats, who each produced about 1 gallon of milk per day.  After the initial excitement of raw milk drinking, yogurt and kefir culturing, and cheese experimenting (I say this because there were not a lot of edible cheeses being made in the beginning), there was still a lot of milk left over.  One of the most well-known uses for goat’s milk is in soap.  So, I did some research, bought the supplies and made some soap!  And a new love was born.

Soap making is a little like magic to me. How can you take such pure, natural ingredients that would normally repel each other (like oil and water), sprinkle in a little creative vision (with a solid base in science) and create something beautiful and incredibly useful?  It’s magic I tell you.  (Or maybe it’s really the science.)  But in any case, it got me hooked.

Clean Slate May 2017

 Clean Slate goat milk soap.  Indigo and activated charcoal with essential oils of spearmint,  eucalyptus and cedarwood.

I’ve always been interested in how our left brain and right brain work together. We all have a creative side and an intellectual side.  For me, soap brings those two sides together in a tangible way.  It allows me to imagine and experiment with infinite combinations of colors, patterns, ingredients and scents.  But the vision is also firmly grounded in the reality of how those elements work together.  Keeping the balance of a mathematical recipe while pushing the limits of what that equation can hold is extremely exciting.  (Can’t we all relate to the exhilaration of a new soap idea and the anticipation of the cut after you make it?)

Tell me about some of the other aspects of your life that keep you ticking now.  Your family, your animals, other things that you make, how much is for biz and how much for personal pleasure.  

For me, my soap business is a way for me to support our way of life. Growing our own food and buying locally when we need to supplement is extremely important to us.  I want my children to know where their food comes from and to have some skin in the game so that they have a deep appreciation for what it takes to survive.  Human beings absorb a lot of resources and the current popular way of living is just to take and take without giving anything back.  This goes against the natural cycle of living seasonally and replenishing what you borrow from the land.  My goal is to live in balance with our local ecology.  To utilize what nature and agriculture can give us, but also to foster symbiosis and above all else leave this earth without adding to the destruction of it.

hen with chicks in yard

Animal welfare is also very important to me. One of the ways that I guarantee that the animal products we use in our home and business come from humanely, sustainably raised animals is to produce them ourselves.  In addition to goats and our cow, we also raise pigs, chickens,  and have had honeybees.  All of our farm animals have multiple jobs.  The pigs clear the land after we have cut trees for firewood, consume excess milk, whey or food scraps that are not palatable to people, and also create lard and meat.  The chickens eat bugs, encourage decomposition of fallen leaves and trees through their scratching for food, and also provide meat and eggs.  Bees pollinate our flowers and allow berries and vegetables to grow,  and also make honey and beeswax.  The goats and cow keep grass and weeds at bay, produce quality fertilizer for our gardens, and also make milk.

Pigs playing

We strive to have as little outside input as possible by following a sustainable farming model. But there are still costs that come along with owning a small farm.  We buy hay and supplements for our animals, fencing and hardware, as well as replacement stock as needed.  The money that the soap business brings in goes back to other local farmers and businesses, which strengthens our community.  We like to follow our cash flow and watch it come back around to build each other up.  I have made many new friends by getting to know the people behind the products that we buy.

Violet and Lilly

Tell me about your business name. What inspired you to take it from a personal level to a business level?

Our business is called “Barefoot All Natural Farm”. My husband is a barefoot runner- meaning he runs (on the road, on the track, on the trails) without shoes. (I go barefoot most of the time too, but I am not much of a runner.)  There is a whole movement dedicated to going barefoot more often to allow your feet to move how they were naturally designed to move.  In short, shoes hinder the way that we stand, walk and run which can lead to posture changes, alignment issues, and injuries.  By allowing your body to tell you what is comfortable and what is not, we can reconnect with nature’s design.

kids feet

We adopted this model for our business- follow the natural order of the world around you and stop creating problems by ignoring cause and effect.

You have such a multifaceted life.  How do you find time to soap?  When is your favorite/most productive time?  

Caring for our animals and our children do take up a lot of time. That in conjunction with working another part time job means that soap is squeezed in after hours.  I am a “midnight soaper”, staying up later than I should for a little me time to create beautiful things and contemplate new endeavors.  This is one of my other favorite times of day- when everyone else is asleep and nobody is requesting my attention.  It’s then that I find myself, almost every night, coming back to soap.  It is my creative outlet and the culmination of the work I’ve done throughout the day to source the ingredients.  Even if it weren’t a business for me I would still make soap.  But I do feel inspired that others appreciate what I create as much as I do and are dedicated to supporting my habit.

Can you think of anything that makes you unique in the soap biz?  A niche?  Something you feel particularly talented about?  Something that makes your soap recognizable to others immediately?  

A core value for my company, as well as in my life in general, is to include at least one local/homegrown product in everything that I create (and the more the better). It’s a way to keep me grounded to the reason for doing it all, as well as to educate others about the importance of producing and supporting locally.  My tagline is “Sustainable.  Ethical.  Local.”  Sticking to those guidelines when selecting ingredients for my soap helps to keep the products natural, support the virtues of our region, and gives us control and insight over how they were produced.

OMH soap 3

Oatmeal Milk and Honey soap made with our own lard, goat milk,  honey,  beeswax and propolis.  Annatto and zinc oxide with benzoin resin and oats.

Wow, Christy,  you amaze me.  You have taken some mundane questions and turned them into literary magic.  I leave your words feeling inspired and revitalized and encouraged for the future of our existence.  As there start to be more and more people like you,  we do have hope.  I know it!  I will take my shoes off and attempt to walk a bit more in your footsteps today,  and everyday.

Thank you for your words of inspiration, dedication to our craft and for sharing some insight into your world.  I love it!

You can follow Barefoot All Natural Farm on Facebook, Instagram, Etsy and Christy’s blog at www.barefootallnaturalfarm.com

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Better than Ice Cream

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.

Wedding picture.jpg

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

“Your love
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.”

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The Sweet Life

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.

Maple tree tapped with a plastic tap and bucket.

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.

Harley actually had rigged up a system to pump the sap from a lower bucket to this elevated bucket with a spout.
Harley actually had rigged up a system to pump the sap from a lower bucket to this elevated bucket with a spout.

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.

Sap boiling over a fire, evaporating.

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.

Copper tube preheat-er.
Copper tube preheat-er.

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.

Sap deepening in color as water evaporates.
Sap deepening in color as water evaporates.

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.

He worked from early morning to late at night- tending the fire and watching the sap.
He worked from early morning to late at night- tending the fire and watching the sap boil.

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.

Using a refractometer to measure sugar content.
Using a refractometer to measure sugar content.

You must wait for the water to evaporate from the sap until it reaches a sugar content of about 66-67%.

IMG_3449
Using a hydrometer to check sugar content.

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.

Removing the finished sap from the heat.
Removing the finished sap from the heat.

Once the sap has completed boiling it can be removed from heat and strained.

Straining finished syrup.
Straining finished syrup.

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.

The finished product
The finished product

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!

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The Weight of the World: Part 1

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.

The whole family helped to bury our pigs.
The whole family helped to bury our pigs.

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.

The girls shortly after their arrival to our home.
The girls shortly after their arrival to our home.

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.

Eating is what pigs do best.
Eating is what pigs do best.

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.

Blood on the ground at the feet of our recently deceased pig.
Blood on the ground at the feet of our recently deceased pig.

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.

I had my eye on this girl from day one.
I had my eye on this girl from day one.

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.

Her eyes stared up at us, even after death.
Her eyes stared up at us, even after death.

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.

Pink piglet.jpg

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The Poultry Complex

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.

Kalina helps line up nails for Daddy
Kalina helps line up nails for Daddy
The floor makes a great outdoor dance studio.
The floor makes a great outdoor dance studio.
Harley runs the wood through the sawmill.
Harley runs the wood through the sawmill.
I love the rough cut boards the most.
I love the rough cut boards the most.
Playing barefoot in the sawdust is one of the many perks of having a sawmill.
Playing barefoot in the sawdust is one of the many perks of having a sawmill.
Boards are transferred to the project.
Boards are transferred to the project.
Walls go up. The kids thought it was cool to "be inside but outside at the same time."
Walls go up. The kids thought it was cool to “be inside but outside at the same time.”
Reclaimed wood on three sides.
Reclaimed wood on three sides and reused windows for light.
Kalina and Harley admiring their work.
Kalina and Harley admiring their work.
Once the reclaimed boards were used up, Harley cut the rest of the boards to length by hand.
Once the reclaimed boards were used up, Harley cut the rest of the handmade boards to length by hand.
No power tools in the woods.
No power tools in the woods.
Next layer on.
Next layer on.
She definitely didn't get her bravery on heights from me.
She definitely didn’t get her bravery on heights from me.
One man work crew.
One man work crew.
Metal roof goes on.
Metal roof goes on.
 Checking out the new entrance.
Checking out the new entrance.
Need a few more boards for finish work.
Need a few more boards for finish work.
The chickens move in!
The chickens move in!
Roosting area being put to good use.
Roosting area being put to good use.
Guillotine door for outdoor access.
Guillotine door for outdoor access.
Feeding tray trial.
Feeding tray trial.
The feeder can be filled from the outside.
The feeder can be filled from the outside.
Outdoor pen for times when they need to be protected from predators.
Outdoor pen for times when they need to be protected from predators.
Solar panels for additional lighting in the winter.
Solar panels for additional lighting in the winter.
An old cabinet re-purposed as a nesting box.
An old cabinet re-purposed as a nesting box.

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.

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Madam Christy

 

Stormy, one day old.
Stormy, one day old.

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!)

Violet resting in the barn
Violet resting in the barn

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.

 

Windy working hard at her second job of clearing weeds.
Windy working hard at her second job of clearing weeds.

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?

Wish us luck.

 

Stormy, our first baby goat. 2014.
Stormy, our first baby goat. 2014.

 

 

 

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The Birds and the Bees

I walked in on something the other day.

It was turkey sex.

Oops- did I just blurt that out without warning?

Okay, here’s a disclaimer. You must be 18+ to read this post.  Or at least have had “the birds and the bees” talk before you go any further.  No, there aren’t any risqué pictures or pornographic descriptions.  But let’s just be up front and say that this is a post about reproduction at it’s most basic level.

So.  There we were.  It was awkward for all of us.

I had just finished my morning routine in the barn and entered the turkey pen to refill their water bucket and make sure that everything was okay.  I do this everyday- smash out the ice that has frozen overnight and pour the remainder of my 5 gallon pail full of water back into it.

Tom Turkey 3 2014

I was thinking that it was strange that none of the turkeys were out and about, as the tom typically greets me at the door, strutting his stuff, with the two ladies not far behind.  I had barely staggered into the shelter when I noticed them.   They were on the ground, just beyond reach of the morning sun’s rays beaming in from the east. The tom was perched atop one of the hens, shifting his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other.  The hen was about as flat as she could get with almost 30 lbs. of poultry on top of her 15 lb. frame.

Now- before I go on, you must know that this is not a regular sight on the farm.  Turkeys are not as prolific as chickens (or rabbits, or goats, or just about any other farm animal.)  They come into season only once per year and are much more private in their “activities” than other animals.  In fact, the Broad Breasted White turkeys that are raised on commercial farms are too large to physically reproduce at all, and must be artificially inseminated.  There is visible sexual dimorphism even in wild turkeys, and the females are sometimes injured when a much heavier male attempts to mount a smaller female.   We’ve had Standard Bronze turkeys for several years now, and one of the reasons we like this breed is because they can reproduce naturally.  But making baby turkeys is no easy task. We made it all the way through breeding/nesting/hatching last year, which means that there was obviously some successful reproduction going on behind the scenes, but I had not witnessed it first hand.

turkey hen

I didn’t know what to do.  Continue with my chores as if I hadn’t seen anything?  Slowly back away and leave them to it?  Pull up a seat and peep on our tom?  But they still needed water.  And hey, this was exciting stuff- I don’t care how weird it sounds for me to admit that I was curious about how it all went down.

So I froze.  I stood very still, not quite making eye contact with either of them, even when they looked back several times to see if I was still there.  The tom continued stepping back and forth on the hen’s back, making some slightly worried noises, almost as if he was fretting about how to continue.  This went on for a good five minutes, and I was starting to wonder if the hen was able to breathe alright under all of that weight.  As much as I wanted baby turkeys, I didn’t want anyone to get hurt in the process.

It seemed pretty obvious that this was new to them.  These turkeys were born last spring and had never gone through a breeding season before.  The courtship was done, the time had come, and neither seemed to know what to do next.  Now it was getting really awkward.

I figured that maybe I was giving them stage fright, and decided to be on my way.  I swapped out the water as quietly as I could and started to back out of the shelter.

And then…he did it.  He left his contribution to the next generation atop her back- where there was no chance of the sperm ever meeting up with a developing egg.  Ever.

Was it a height problem?  An anatomy problem?  An inexperience problem?  I don’t know.  But I do hope they figure it out on their own.  Artificially inseminating a turkey is not on my to-do list.

Turkey rear 3 2014

Since then I’ve been making lots of noise when I approach the pen.  “Hello!  It’s just me…here to change your water!  Hope I’m not interrupting anything…”  I haven’t had any other awkward moments since.

But, there was a little glimmer of hope this week.  A single egg lay in the corner of the shelter, behind an old window.  The light shone through the glass, as if to highlight this first egg as a sign of fertility and potential success.  We added some straw to that corner of the shelter and hoped that it would encourage her to return.  I found another egg there today.  Time will tell if these eggs are fertile, if the hens become broody, and if we will have baby turkeys this spring, after all.

The first turkey egg of 2014
The first turkey egg of 2014

In the meantime, I’ll continue to give the tom a knowing wink and an encouraging nod each time I exit the pen.

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Life is Better on the Farm

I didn’t start out as a farm girl.  I like to call myself an import.  That sounds fancier than a wanna-be farmer or a naïve, middle class white girl.  But really, that’s what I am. Or at least that’s who I was.  I grew up as a pretty typical American, I would say.  We had pets (but not animals…I’m told there is a difference), shopped at the grocery store, went to work/school and came home to our family.

I had (and still have) parents who love me and did all that they could to bring me up to be an upstanding, well-educated citizen.  I’ve had some great experiences and have learned a lot about life, love and the world around me as I’ve grown into the current me.  My parents are two of the most important influences I’ll ever have in my life.  I wouldn’t change a thing about the way that I was raised or where I came from.  But that doesn’t mean that that’s where I want my story, or my growth, to end.  And I’m sure they don’t either.

In the more recent years since I’ve become an adult, I’ve become a wife, a mother, an adult daughter (there is most definitely a difference when you add the adult part there), and a professional.  With each new chapter of our lives we learn a little more about ourselves and what type of “wife”, “mother”, “daughter” or “professional” we’re going to be; which subset within those groups we belong to, and which we want no part of. Some times in our lives require us to be more focused on one area or another. But ideally, we want all areas to be fulfilling and meaningful.

We all want our lives to be full of purpose.  That’s the age old question, right?  What is the purpose of life?  Don’t worry- I won’t tell you that I have that one all figured out.  But I have seized the essence of the question and am holding on for dear life.  Literally.

I saw a quote recently that really hit home.

Truth

Living a life of purpose is up to interpretation, in and of itself.  But for me, a life of purpose means finding something that you believe in whole-heartedly and standing behind it in all that you do.  Sometimes that something can change throughout your life.  I know that there are many things that I’ve jumped on board for on and off over the years.

But this whole farming thing is different.  There has been a running theme throughout my maturation that has really stuck with me- which lives are worth living, which lives are worth maintaining, and which lives are worth changing? I think these questions apply to all life forms, and since life is the basis for all else, it’s worth being dramatic about.

#quote #inspiration #people

Being responsible for life and death on our little farm, and witnessing the entire life cycle first-hand, is as close as I’ve come to really understanding the depth of those questions.  Each life (whether plant or animal) has such a unique path that it takes.  There is no way to explain the feeling that comes with watching so many lives in detail.  Except…maybe…living. Having these experiences on the farm has allowed me to cope with, and appreciate, other areas of my life. It magnifies struggles, milestones and celebrations. I think having this little farm has made me a better wife, a better daughter, a better mother and a better professional.

This life of sweat, dirt, blood, exhilaration, sacrifice and thriving- it’s representative of life itself.

I don’t want to be stuck in a cubicle, wrapped up in paperwork, oblivious to the meaning that can be found in all that we do.  I want to be thinking.  I want to be feeling.  I want to be living.

How about you?

This post was shared on The Homesteaders Blog Hop

http://faulkfarmstead.com/2014/03/homesteaders-blog-hop-4/