Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Brand New Last Century

On the morning of my first batch of hand-made hay, I stopped to see a friend, retired dairyman Quentin. We settled up an old trade. His rhubarb and composted manure for our jam and chicken. Then Quentin gave me some valuable encouragement and resources at just the right time. He kindly pointed out that it was quite possible to make hay by hand and had been done thus for a thousand years before machinery. What's more, he happened to have, and was willing to part with the most basic tools I would need, IF I could find them amongst the dusty accumulation. For the tools we made another trade. One crooked old hay fork for a pint of our pickled beets. He pointed toward his coveted bull rake, an antique wooden hand tool with some broken tines, but still operational. Quentin couldn't part with this family heirloom, but he did loan it to me for the day. We agreed that I would bring it back and he would show me how to fix it properly. Good enough.
My friend Sean and I went about raking the hay into piles. Just as we began loading up to go home, it began to rain. As the rain steadily intensified, we realized that this loose hay does not need to be as perfectly dry as a modern compacted bale. Being loose, hot air could easily dry the hay if we flip it later. So we worked quickly and quietly, marveling at how good we have it at this place in the land of the free. Noting that the laborers of yesteryear wouldn't have thought this nearly as great as we do. None the less, picture books show old farms with loose hay stacks great and small everywhere. A century ago, haying was less restricted by wet weather, and thus made more regularly, in small batches. The hay was piled as needed in a barn, or on the field using a thatched pattern to shed water aside. On this day we took the hay to Sean's barn and made an inviting pile to jump in.
When we were done, we agreed on a trip to the gorge at Brockways Mills for a swim, a gutsy choice as the rapids were full. This was a super-scenic adventure full of waterfall massages well worth the slippery rock climbing.
At home I was welcomed by the earthy tang of pickled beets, Lucy and her friend were hard at work in the kitchen.
In the evening, Sean came over and with more friends we did feast. There was brand new produce: roast carrots, potatoes, and a simple salad. Lentil soup, our own chicken liver pate and finally, red and black rasberries in cream.

Monday, July 20, 2009


Wet weather eventually clears up. So then what? Caught off guard and with no sunglasses, I found myself frantically grasping for projects I've been saving for the sun, but couldn't help but wonder what other summer bounty might be passing me by. From the road I could see that the local haymakers were hard at work rambling through their fields. I got a phone call from my friend. Like us, he's got a few sheep and no hay in the barn or money to speak of. A hay shortage, with varying degrees of expensive, poor quality hay will cause desperation. He suggests that we seek to make hay by hand. A novel idea. For us little guys have got big arms so it's doable, ha ha. But, in a perfect world we would partner up, buy the essenstial, modest equipment; tractor(s) mower, tedder, rake, baler, wagon, and make a good hay business because it is possible and we like it. Unfortunately the initial startup cost is at least $10,000 (angel investors inquire here). Meanwhile, he says he cut a swath of grass with his weed wacker, hand flipped it with a fork to dry, and raked into bundles which he then just stuffed into his volvo. I'm intrigued. At my friend's house we picked ripe rasberries for jam and talked about our haying potential. He would cut the hay, we'd both dry it, roll it, and load it with forks. Then I would transport it home in our truck. But the question is, how do we get it safely into a loft? Whew! I just don't know if it's worth the trouble. The old school fellas would've used a dump rake, wagon, block and tackle. We haven't got any of that either, but the feeling that we should be reasonably able to make enough hay by hand to feed ourselves persists. As one farmer we worked for used to say, "there is a solution, we just have to find it." So we're going to get on the field with no equipment and make some hay. This could be the wave of the future.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hay Fever

When mother nature gives us lemons, we're supposed to make lemonade right? Sounds nice, but here on East Hill and elsewhere around New England, too many lemons are causing the pale complexions of farmers to pucker. I'm talking about RAIN. Too much of this good thing makes stockpiling dry hay impossible. Of course, farms with livestock need a certain amount of hay in the barn to carry them through the following spring. Here in Vermont, that means we need to put at least 7 months worth of hay in the barn in 4 months time. Seasonal mood swings during our precious few warm months can put tractor operators on the hot seat, wondering what it will take to make lemonade this year. If the days aren't hot enough, dry enough, or long enough, they've got to find another way. Prayer? No...err...maybe. More like drastic diversify. For example, if the weather won't cooperate with farmer John, maybe he'll make more firewood to make up the difference it will cost him to buy hay from elsewhere. Or, maybe he can wrap the wet grass in air tight plastic to make a fermented hay. Legend has it that a crafty hay witch will sweep up hay while it snows in November given half a chance. The more creative potions he/she can cook up the better. Seasonal quarks are dangerous to crops and with a global climate in flux, there may be no such thing as normal anymore. Let there be no doubt, that where there is perseverance in agricultural pursuit, wry humor and stubborn creativity make the difference from year to year.Which way should we diversify next, rice or watermelon? Leave your idea in the comment box below.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I Feel Like Chicken Tonight

Greetings! Our first chicken processing day came and went without a hitch. We are pleased with our first crop: 81 birds are safely in the freezer. Thanks to the many people who picked up their chickens fresh and got an idea of how this exciting process works. Also, thanks to Lucy's dad Ron for his photography and moral support.

As of this morning, our new crop of chickens are 2 weeks old and have hit the pasture running. We are on track to raise a higher percentage of birds to market weight this time. We hope our learning will continue and that results will improve with every trade secret we collect.

Save the date of August 15, the next processing day. However we do have freshly frozen chickens for sale at any time from now on.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Raw Milk Class

With the recent passing of the new raw milk bill, dairy classes are popping up all over the state. Many of them are hosted by Rural Vermont, and some by NOFA. Helena Wu, a locally-based midwife and herbalist, is coordinating a series of "DIY" classes to be held at Anjali Farms this summer. I am teaching a class on the health benefits of raw milk, and yogurt-making using such. We'll get to touch on the health-giving effects of fermentation, too. I have been experimenting with different methods of making yogurt, and can share my experiences with you.

Cool fact: Oliver has long been a sufferer of severe allergies, every year since he was a boy. In fact, his mother used to take him for weekly shots! Since this winter, he regularly has been eating generous amounts of raw, unfiltered honey and raw milk. So far this summer, he has not experienced any allergies. He even cuddled a cat without effect! We believe it is the natural immune-strengthening milk and honey that have made this possible.

Saturday, July 25 from 10-12
$15 per person
Participants will learn about raw milk, and get to taste it, too. Learn how to make yogurt, a naturally-fermented food. Leave with 1 quart of started yogurt, brochures on raw milk.

Please bring a cooler or wool blanket for incubating your yogurt when you leave.

Anyone interested, please contact me at 875-1218.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Control of Nature

The weather people are calling for more rain, as if they've already forgotten how wet it has been through June and now the middle of July! What short memories! It's difficult to understate the importance of heat when growing food in a place with such a short built-in growing season. Rain, in excess, will dilute plant nutrition. In turn, grazing animals eat less nutritious food and thus grow slower. If Lucy and I were settlers, in the covered wagon sense, cast away from civilization, fending for our lives. We would depend on the food we could raise and store up for the long, hard winter. Were that not enough, our health would suffer. Plant and animal "performance" is linked, a chain reaction in response to environmental conditions. Food preparation can only take us as far as our experience permits, then uncontrollable forces take over. Forces of nature; weather, predators, disease... Whatever the disaster, the sooner we can get on with enjoying the present the better. I have come to do chores and found piles of bloody feathers on the ground. Now, when I walk down the path to check on our animals, I worry about what terror I might find. However, as participants in the business of life, death, and chicken in a bag, we all benefit from preparation and efficiency. On the other hand it's important to remember to be flexible and have fun. Our awareness of potential problems should not overwhelm the joy and privilege we could otherwise enjoy. Trying to find a balance between the actual and the imagined is of paramount importance because life should not be a reaction to dread. It should reflect the conditions at present, with equal regard to potential pitfalls and possibilities. There is no more effective way to learn these humane lessons than by coaxing food from the ground.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Grounds

The sheep got out following a stormy night. This is the second time I was out early rushing through static fog looking for them. A wire, the source of electricity to their fence was broken and far flung down to the ground as if a deer or moose had run through it. No fence posts were disturbed, nor were there any definitive tracks to follow. So without a trace of evidence to suggest which way they might have gone, I cruised around some nearby fields on foot with no luck. Too foggy to see a fluffy white sheep anyway. So I asked my neighbor, a hunter, for help with tracking the sheep. We studied the fence perimeter for signs. Nada. Last time they got out they traveled a whole mile up through woods. With that capability for wanderlust fresh in mind, we decided to search the closest fields of our neighbors farm and the forest between. We agreed to meet up after an hour and so we set out through the woods.

East Hill Farm sits on a dome-shaped pile of rock at one end of East Hill. Fields were carved down and all around out of the beech tree forest to grow corn for dairy cows, back when the price of milk was good in the 50s. The house we live in was built with milk money in those days. With so many possible places, finding sheep on any given day would conjure the old needle in a haystack saying. Add fog and we've got 360 degrees of nothing.

The sheep left no trace. From home I notified the town clerk, the police, and all the neighbors I could think of, just in case. Lucy came home on lunch from milking cows after I had just finished my egg and toast. Though concerned, we tried to relax and wait, helpless in the blinding fog . We plotted our next search with a topographic map at the kitchen table. Suddenly, Lucy looked up from her coffee and said calmly, "there they are..." And there they were chewing cud outside our window. The fog was so thick you could hardly spy them. A sight for sore eyes! They came and got us!

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Real Work

by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.