"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Monday, April 21, 2014

What's Wrong With These Pictures?

The pear tree is in full bloom. The sun is out and the temperature is near sixty degrees. This tree ought to be crawling with bees, but I haven't seen a single one. I haven't spotted one - not one! - honeybee yet this year. I've seen yellow jackets, and one lonely bumblebee, but not a single honeybee. 

No bees on the dandelions. 

No bees in the rhododendrons. Usually, these flowers are favorites of bumblebees, with a fair number of honeybees as well. Nothing so far. Nothing. 

It's scary. Colony Collapse Syndrome  has been around since at least 2005, and despite intense research, there is of yet no consensus on a cause. Most likely, it is due to a combination of factors including pesticides (especially nicotinoids, which has been banned in Europe for this reason), parasites, viruses, and possibly GMO pollen. 

This year, we also had an unusually harsh winter and a very late, cold spring. It's possible that many local hives simply didn't make it through. My friends who keep bees say their hives are active, so I know that most bees ought to have "woken up" by now. I wonder what the orchard fruit crop will be like this year with no pollinators out during maximum bloom time. I wonder about the garden. 

We used to keep bees, but when they died in a winter storm (Bad Bee News; Baby Broilers) we didn't replace them. The equipment and medicine is expensive, there is a fair amount of regular maintenance and work to be done which nobody was really excited about, and as it turns out I have a pretty intense allergy to stings. One sting will make an entire limb swell up and itch horrifically for three or four days. 

We may try again with bees, someday. We may have to. There may come a day when if we don't keep bees we just don't get fruit and vegetables. I hope not. I hate to think about a world without feral bees, but it may be just around the corner. Already, in case you didn't know, the nation's berry, orchard fruit, and nut crops, as well as many other crops (full list here) are dependent on managed commercial hives, trucked all over the country by a shrinking number of professional beekeepers. 
Without those beekeepers - who are routinely sustaining losses of half their hives every year, year after year - we will be a poorer and hungrier nation. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Day in Cheese Season (Okay, Half a Day)

A day during cheese season actually begins in the evening, when I make the decision whether or not to separate the baby goats from their mothers for the night so I can have milk in the morning. Checking the fridge last night, I saw that I had three quarters of a gallon of milk in the fridge, which would be enough to try making yogurt, but not really enough for cheese. Since I have some store-bought yogurt in the fridge, but no cheese, I decided to milk in the morning.

Right now I have two milkers, Flopsy and Polly. Each of them have a single buckling on them. They each threw twins, but Polly's doeling died, and I sold one of Flopsy's bucklings. Every evening, I have to go outside and catch the little buggers. Until recently, I was closing them in the mama barn during the night, but this had a few drawbacks. When Iris kidded, she needed the mama barn for a few days. I probably could have left the bucklings in there with her and the newborns - what harm could they do? However, there is another reason I wanted to find a different place to put them.

When I go out in the morning, I have a logistics problem to deal with. I have to get two babies OUT of the mama barn, and two mamas IN (one at a time, of course), because that is where the milking stanchion is. Once the babies are released, they will instantly run over and latch onto their mama's teat, and I will lose the milk. So I need to get them from  the barn into some other secure location. This other location used to be the adjoining small pasture, and the routine went like this:

- Open the mama barn door, keeping my body between the opening and the does, who instantly try to crowd inside, because they know that's where the food is.
- As the babies come hurtling by me, trying to get outside to their mamas, grab one.
- Shut the mama barn door before the other baby gets out.
- Carry a struggling, yelling baby goat fifty feet across the barnyard to the fence, and throw him over the top into the adjoining pasture.
- Repeat.

But bucklings grow quickly, especially when they are singles and are guzzling down a gallon or so of milk a day. Blizzard, the oldest, weighs about thirty pounds already, and chucking him over a four foot fence isn't easy. Also it is not uncommon that I get mildly injured somehow during the crush at the mama barn door - I've slammed my hand in the door; the mama goats stand up on me and knock me down; the baby goats struggle in my grasp and scratch me with their surprisingly sharp hooves.

the bucklings, Blizzard and Comet
Homero came up with the idea of putting them in the other pasture, with Rosie, at night. I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me. Maybe because until just a few months ago, that fence wasn't secure enough for goats. I fixed the low spots with cattle panels, and now the little guys can't get out. Suddenly milking is easy; I put the babies in with Rosie at night and don't have to think about them again until after I have milked both mamas.

Milking the mamas is another job. Polly, though a good milker with delicious sweet milk, has never learned to jump up on the stanchion. She will poke her head through the bars for food, and I can close the stanchion and trap her, but then I have to lift her hind end bodily onto the stanchion, which is annoying and difficult. Why she won't jump up I don't know; all the other goats do. Then she tries to squeeze her hind legs together and deny me access to her udder. Polly is giving about a quart and a half every morning.

Flopsy has a diminished milk supply on one side due to mastitis a few years ago, but even so she gives almost as much milk as Polly. She is much easier to milk, but all goats that I have ever known will start kicking as soon as they run out of food in the stanchion tray. I must always have a container of grain by my side, and as I milk, I toss scant handfuls into the tray. The idea is to extract maximum milk for minimum grain. Because there have been does in the mama barn recently for kidding, we have had to put the grain up on the highest shelf, and getting a container of it down isn't easy for me. I have to climb up on the stanchion myself, reach up over my head and pull a tote with fifty pounds of grain inside towards me, and try to scoop out a couple pounds without toppling it over on myself or falling off the stanchion. Maybe (and here's an idea that just occurred to me) a stepladder wouldn't be a bad idea.

Bibi with Iris' doling

7:45 Alarm goes off. Get up, wake up kids, pull on a sweater, grab two half gallon mason jars, and head out to the barn. Run through rigamarole described above, plus morning feed and watering.

8:15 Come back inside, curse at realizing I forgot to put on water for coffee. Put on water for coffee.
Realize it's okay there's no water hot because I have to use the Melitta filter to filter the milk anyway. Make a mental note to buy a second Melitta filter so I can make coffee and strain milk at the same time.

8:30. Yell at kids, try to think of something to feed them that I can make and they can eat in less than twelve minutes. Usually this means a banana smoothie and some bread. This morning, I have leftover beef vegetable soup from last night.

8:45. Kids out the door to the school bus. Milk filtered and put away in the fridge, coffee made. Homero and I have a few minutes to drink it and read the morning news.

9:00. Look around the kitchen and realize I have a solid hour of cleaning to do before I can begin the cheese making process, which requires a fairly spotless kitchen environment. Sigh heavily.

9:20. Make a deal with Homero that if he will clean our room, I will make him anything he wants for dinner. He chooses chiles rellenos, which means in exchange for his half an hour cleaning, I have to go shopping, and then spend about three hours cooking, and the children will all complain because they hate chiles rellenos. Oh well; I made this deal.

10:00 Dishes washed and sink scrubbed; put milk to heat on stove. Remember to check recipe for cheddar in cheese making book. Search for cheese making book. Find book under a pile of homework that probably should have been brought to school to turn in. Also find an overdue library book. Check recipe; proceed.

10:30 Check laundry on the line in the playroom to see if it is dry; it is raining hard outside and there's no drying laundry on the outside line. Also no drying laundry in the dryer, which continues, annoyingly, to be broken. It's not dry.

11:00 Add rennet to warm milk. Tell husband proto-cheese needs to sit for an hour and I will go to the store to shop for ingredients for chiles rellenos. He says he's going out to the shop to work. Not cleaning our room? No, he says, he'll do that later. If you think you are getting any chiles rellenos before that room is clean, you've got another think coming, say. Have small spat. Get in the van, notice there's no gas. Go back inside to get money for gas. Kiss and make up.

12:00 Come home with ingredients. Realize I forgot to buy Melitta coffee filter. Roast chiles under the broiler and cut the curds in the cheese. Next twenty minutes: go back and forth between stove top and oven, turning chiles, and stirring curds. Burn fingers. Drain curds.

12:20 Remove chiles to cool. Peel chiles. Salt the drained curds and mix well, then wrap and put into cheese press. Stare lovingly at beautiful cheese press made for me by my husband for mother's day a few years ago. Feel bad that I snapped at sweet husband who made me excellent cheese press. Wallow in guilt for two minutes.

the beautiful cheese press
12:45 Realize I am starving. Eat cold beef vegetable soup off kitchen table, where the kids left it four hours ago.

1:00 Check recipe again. Per instructions, unwrap cheese, salt, turn upside down, wrap again and put back in the press.

1:10 Facebook.

1:30 Turn cheese one more time; crank up pressure on cheese press. Think about writing this blog post. Think about taking a hot bath. Vacillate. Feel vaguely guilty about not writing much lately; wonder who the hell cares if I write or not? Feel vaguely sorry for myself. Decide to write.

1:50 Finish blog post. Take a hot bath.

queso fresco with chives

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Goat Who Wouldn't Kid (When to Butt Out)

Iris, above, is the first goat I bought when I moved here. I was hurting for goats; I couldn't wait. Goats, as far as I was concerned, were the whole point of pulling up stakes and moving from the city to the countryside. It was late summer when we moved in, and late fall by the time I had bought a barn (Home Depot's largest model), put in fencing, and was ready to buy an animal. Not wanting to deal with breeding the first year, I looked for a pregnant goat.

Craigslist, as usual, was my vehicle. I put up an ad saying I wanted to buy a pregnant dairy goat - breed unimportant - and was soon answered by a local woman with a bred Nubian doe. She wanted an inordinate amount of money - $300! - but I was taken with goat fever and I simply decided to lie to my husband about how much I was spending. He has no idea what a good goat is worth, I rationalized. As it turns out, that woman actually runs a well-respected farm and her goats win prizes all over the tri-state area, but I had no way of knowing that at the time. Nor did the pedigree matter to me - she offered me Iris' papers for an extra $50 but I said no thanks, not thinking it would ever be important to prove her ancestry. I'm a homesteader, I said, not a goat breeder.

That was rather a dumb decision, I have since come to understand. For $50, I could have a herd of registered animals now, and each and every one of them would be regarded as quality breeding stock, allowed to be shown at agricultural fairs, and valued at some 25-50% higher than unregistered animals. Instead, I have a herd of beautiful, healthy animals, from good milking stock, and bred for hardiness, but only suitable for the smaller market of people who don't care about registries. It means I sell a lot of quality animals for meat instead of for show.

Nonetheless, Iris has earned her price many times over. That first year, she threw us twins, and one of them, Flopsy, I have to this day. Flopsy, in turn, has given us many kids over the years, including our prize buck. If I were to add up the value of all that Iris has provided in livestock, meat, and milk over the years - something I could theoretically do but not at this time of night - it would be a lot of money. Totally aside from her monetary worth, Iris is a great goat - smart, personable, and attractive.

She is getting on in years, however. A year and a half old when we bought her, she is now about eight. Goats live to something like thirteen, and they can theoretically keep producing until they keel over of old age. Iris is healthy, and she had a year off from kidding last year when we were in Mexico. When we brought in the buck, Paxton, last fall, he went for Iris first of all the does. He bred her within thirty seconds of entering the pasture, so it's clear she is still a fertile animal.

This spring, however, the other two does kidded first. Oh well, I thought, Iris must not have caught pregnant on the first go-round - I'll expect babies in a few weeks. I started to watch her. For a while, I was confused. I had been certain she was pregnant - like the other does, she got thick in the middle and developed a biscuity tail (that means that the skin of her tail got puffy and soft - a sign of early pregnancy). But after the other does kidded, Iris didn't seem to be developing at all - in fact, she was getting thinner. Her udder stayed stubbornly small and floppy. I couldn't figure it out at all and began to doubt she was even pregnant.

Finally, about a week ago, her udder began to fill out, which is unmistakable proof of advanced pregnancy. Usually, when the udder fills, you have only a few days until birth. But Iris' udder got bigger and bigger. Her belly got bigger and bigger. She was so poofy and huge she could barely walk. Her tail ligaments disappeared and her distal spine lifted up. Deep hollows appeared below her hipbones as the babies dropped lower and lower. I started to lock her in the mama barn at night, but every morning when I went out early to check, there was Iris, staring at me - no kids.

I had advertised her kids for sale on Craigslist, and a woman had already answered me with an offer to buy any doelings. She wrote me every day - are they here yet? No, I said, but I'm pretty sure today's the day. Night before last, I locked her in the barn as usual at evening feed, but I forgot to tip the milking stand on its side. I do that so that she won't be able to get up on the stand, stand on her hind legs, and reach the sack of grain stored on the tippy-top shelf, nine feet above the floor. So of course, that's what she did. When I went out first thing in the morning, expecting to see baby goats, instead I saw a lot of liquid excrement all over the place.

In case you don't know, when a goat overeats grain, she gets what's known as overeating disease (Enterotoxemia (Overeating Disease) of Sheep and Goats), or toxic rumen. To you and me, what that means is explosive diarrhea and massive amounts of gas. It's not a joke- goats can easily die of overeating disease - but Iris didn't get enough grain to be in serious trouble. Just enough to cause a lot of disgusting green liquid poo. Just what one wants when birth is imminent. I kept Iris locked inside the barn and bought a new bale of clean straw. I mucked out the poo-covered straw. I moaned and bitched and wailed and cursed the stupid goat. I wanted to beat her, but instead I brought out a pan of warm soapy water and a dozen rags and cleaned her rear end. Let nobody say I don't care about my goats.

All day I hung about, waiting. I brought a book out to the barn and sat down in the clean straw and read and waited. Iris was in serious distress, but I couldn't tell if it was labor or just intestinal distress from the diarrhea. Her udder continued to fill, and by four or five in the afternoon it was tight as a drum. That is an indication that the goat ought to kid within a few hours. I was waiting for the string of goo - which is, just as you probably guessed, a long string of mucus depending from the vagina. Once the string of goo appears, you want to see kids on the ground within an hour. No goo was forthcoming, but Iris was acting like a goat in active labor.

A goat in active labor will scratch at the ground, making a nest. She will often lay down and get up again, stretch, and yawn. Usually, she will stay standing until the final stages of labor, when she may lay down to push. She grunts and curls her lips in a very distinctive way. Normally, goats kid quickly, and the entire process ought not to take more than an hour or two from start to finish. I called the vet at 6 pm, because Iris had been getting up and laying down, stretching and rolling for about four hours. I was pretty certain that the kids were malpositioned.

The vet said it was time for me to go in and see what I could feel. Was the cervix open or shut? What was the presenting part? I put on some of my husband's thin black nitrile gloves, soaped up, and lay down on the wet straw behind Iris and inserted my hand.

I'm no expert. Over the years, I've had to pull kids several times, but until yesterday I'd never gone in before the water has broken. I would not have, but the vet said it was time. When it comes to birth - caprine or human - I am a big believer in standing back and letting nature take its course. I think we most often cause nothing but trouble when we interfere with a process honed by millions of years of evolution. In this case, I felt that her cervix was wide open and that I could feel the bag of waters easily, but that there was nothing firm inside it. I could feel no fetal part at all - not hooves, which would have been normal, nor a muzzle, nor even some blank wall of side or hip. Just an empty, squishy bag. Clearly, there was no kid in any position to be born.

I called the vet back and said "I think I better just leave her alone for a while. There's nothing I can do, those kids have to come around on their own."

Now, if any mothers are reading this, they may remember - as I do - that when somebody puts their hand inside you when you are already in labor, it provokes some serious contractions. My pelvic exam made poor Iris go into some hard core labor. Maybe that's what did it - I don't know. But in any case, Iris must have been busy while I was inside the house for a couple of hours. When I went back out at about 8 pm with a flashlight, there were two newborn babies on the ground. They had obviously been born mere minutes before. They hadn't yet stood up. I ran back to the house, yelling for Homero and the girls, and brought back clean towels and iodine.

The kids were both a little bit worse for wear, due to the long hard labor. The little girl, brown and white spotted just like her mama, had inhaled amniotic fluid and was snuffling and snorting. I didn't have a syringe to aspirate the fluid - not that I really knew how in any case. I briefly considered placing my mouth over her nose and aspirating old-school, but decided she'd probably live without any heroic measures. It seemed so, because she was the first one up, and managed to nurse without any help from me. Her brother, black with brown points and a white cap and ears, was the worse off between the two of them. He was shaky and weak and it took him a good half hour to stand up. A healthy baby ought to stand up within five minutes. I held him up and let him have at the teat; I knew that with a belly full of milk he'd be just fine for the night.

I don't like to see babies born late at night - the normal time seems to be early in the morning. I always wonder how they will figure out nursing without being able to see, but I realize that is a primate's prejudice. The little kids can smell and feel their way to the teat even in perfect darkness.

This morning, the babies were doing just fine. They had become all fluffy, as kids do when they are healthy, and both were standing and nursing without assistance. I think we are going to keep the little girl. I need a new doe - in another post I will detail my thinking on the health of the whole herd, but for the moment I'll just say I'm delighted to have a good looking spotted doling. The lady who wanted to buy a doling will just have to wait until next year.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

It Rained a Murder

The weather has all of us in a funk. It simply will not stop raining for more than an hour or two. Yesterday I saw the sun and ran and did a load of laundry on the short cycle so I could hang it to dry before it started to rain again. It wouldn't have dried, but the wind is so stiff that it dried in just an hour or two, and when the rain began again I took it all in.

The yard looks like hell, the animals are living in a swamp, and I've had to replant my peas twice and it looks like I may have to do it again. I have a few seedlings started in the greenhouse, but overall it looks like this will be a very late garden this year.

My husband can't stand it. He hates the rain and cold with a passion, because he works outside most of the time. A fair chunk of the day he spends on his back under a car, and if he has to lie in a puddle that's not going to put anybody in a very good mood. He has begun to make noises about trying to get away somewhere warm. I can't say as I blame him. I'd like to go somewhere dry, at least.

I know I bitch and moan about the rain and mud every spring (and every fall) but in fact, we are at more than double the average precipitation for March. In a normal year, we expect a generous 7" of rain in March - this year we have received over 16". Really, frayed tempers and muddy boots are the least of it. The rain can have deadly consequences, as it did for the small community of Darrington, just a few miles south of us.

Unofficial death toll climbs to 24 in Washington state mudslide

A square mile of mountain simply slid down into the Stillaguamish river, taking some thirty homes and a hundred or more  people with it. The rescue effort has by now become a recovery mission, but the truth is that probably many bodies will never be recovered. The mud is more than fifteen feet deep in some areas, and the river is backing up into a lake, drowning more land.

And still it rains, hampering the recovery efforts, making the debris field unstable and too dangerous to search. Will it never stop? Will we ever be dry again, will we ever be warm? Sitiing here in my chilly, damp house, I am reminded of Tom Robbins' passage, in his debut novel Another Roadside Attraction, on the subject of the local rains:

“And then the rains came. They came down from the hills and up from the sound. And it rained a sickness. And it rained a fear. And it rained an odor. And it rained a murder. And it rained dangers and pale eggs of the beast. Rain poured for days, unceasing. Flooding occurred. The wells filled with reptiles. The basements filled with fossils. Mossy-haired lunatics roamed the dripping peninsulas. Moisture gleamed on the beak of the raven. Ancient Shaman's rained from their homes in dead tree trunks, clacked their clamshell teeth in the drowned doorways of forests. Rain hissed on the freeway. It hissed at the prows of fishing boats. It ate the old warpaths, spilled the huckleberries, ran into the ditches. Soaking. Spreading. Penetrating. And it rained an omen. And it rained a poison. And it rained a pigment. And it rained a seizure.”

If you want to help the families and communities devastated by the slide, you can donate to the Red Cross here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

State of the Farm (Spring Equinox)

When two feet of snow melts, it leaves a lot of water. For more than a week, there was a tiny running stream going out the driveway and into the ditch. As it warmed up, we passed from winter to spring, as marked by the beginning of mud season. The mud is knee deep out in the barnyard, viscous and hungry. Pulling my boot out of the mud takes real effort, and once in a while my knee joint slips out of place as I pull, being weaker than the mud. 

The thaw was followed by a few fair days, and even though I knew better, the warm sun tempted me to plant a packet of snow peas. I do this every year; I can't seem to resist the temptation to plant too early. Mr. B., my 80 year old neighbor who has had a farm stand for some sixty years, shook his head at me dolefully when I told him, over coffee in the church basement, that I had planted peas. 

"Them peas'll rot in the ground," he told me. And I know he's right. It rained like murder the last three days. But what the hell - the exercise was good for me, it won't hurt me to repeat it in another week. 

The arugula in the redneck cold frame is doing better. The soil was so warm I had to take the glass off; then I had to put it back on to save the sprouts from drowning. The other bathtub is full of mixed mustards; they are further along than the arugula. The first vegetable and herb starts are available at the farm store, and I bought some italian parsley. They pack about a hundred seeds into a three by three pot; separating them is a laborious task. I did the best I could and planted a 12"x24" container with them. Hopefully that will keep me in parsley for the summer. I also have radish and carrot seeds on hand, ready plant whenever the next stretch of dry weather comes along. 

Rowan's boyfriend, P. (I must come up with a blog nickname for him) pays me rent in work. I charge him and Rowan each eight hours of work a month in rent. I think it's a fair deal - that's $100 a month at $12/hour, roughly. This month, he's been doing general yard clean up and last week it was dry enough to actually make a burn pile. We got rid of all the scrap wood - broken chairs, rotted lumber, fruit tree prunings - and paper-based trash about the place. It makes a big difference. I am planning a big party for May and I don't want the homestead to look like Arkansas circa 1936. 

Lucky for us, the annual breakdown of the dryer coincided with the start of spring. Homero made one attempt at fixing it that took him most of a day, but it still makes a hideous clonking and squealing whenever we turn it on, so I asked him to string some clothesline instead. Even if the dryer doesn't breakdown, I try to switch to air-drying during the warmer months. Why pay for electricity when the sun and the constant stiff breeze up here will do the job for free? 

More cleanup: there were three winter squash that didn't get eaten over the winter, and with the warm weather they finally began to get soft and icky. For a while I kidded myself that I could still save the seeds, but finally the mold took over and I threw them out on the compost for the chickens. This is what I call "spring cleaning" at my house.

Finally, spring of course means kidding season. Two of my three does have kidded already - both throwing twins. The last one is Iris. I'm thoroughly puzzled by her behavior. All winter I would have sworn she was pregnant. I saw the buck service her many times, and she failed to return to heat after his visit. Her tail skin got thick and doughy (a sign of early pregnancy) and as the season progressed, she got just as big as the other two. But they both kidded weeks ago. And Iris has gotten slimmer instead of bigger, and her udder remains stubbornly flaccid. Today she managed to slip out of the field through the loosely chained gate - something she hasn't been able to do for months. I can't figure it out. Maybe she lost the kid sometime over the past month and I missed the signs? But I haven't noticed any bleeding or discharge. I'm at a loss. She is still quite a bit bigger than the does who DID kid, so I'm not giving up hope. I'll just have to wait and see. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

New Frontier in Goat Care (Disbudding)

Polly's buckling, the survivor of the twins, is growing incredibly fast because he is getting all of Polly's milk. I didn't think one baby goat would even be capable of draining Polly, who is a prodigious producer, but this little guy is doing a pretty good job. Although only ten days old, it was already time to disbud him. 

Disbudding goats means burning the little horn buds off with a red-hot iron, an electric machine that looks like a giant version of the cigarette lighter in your car. Usually, this is done at about two weeks of age. It's a delicate procedure - albeit that's a strange word to use in conjunction with the phrase "red hot iron." It's quite easy to make mistakes. One can either be too gentle and hesitant, in which case the buds aren't completely destroyed and the goat ends up with weird, misshapen "scurs" instead of horns; or one can be too aggressive and damage the baby's brain. 

Even the veterinarian can make mistakes - a few years ago I lost a baby that I brought to be disbudded at the vet ( This One Really Hurts (Bad Year for Baby Goats)). The risk of killing a goat, along with the inherent barbarity of the procedure and the cost of buying a disbudding iron, combined to prevent me from attempting to do my own disbudding. Until now. 

Blizzard in a disbudding box

So far this year, I have three bucklings and no does (Flopsy kidded yesterday with adorable twin bucklings - photos to follow). Bucklings, especially unregistered bucklings, are not very valuable, being worth only about half as much as doelings. I listed my bucklings for $75 on craigslist. Disbudding costs $50 at the vet. You can see that it just isn't financially viable to take bucklings to the vet for disbudding. Doelings, maybe; I can usually get $150 for a pretty, spotted doe. 

In past years, I have taken my babies to a farmer to be disbudded, and so I have seen what it looks like without anesthesia. It's about like you'd imagine. But I decided I have to get over myself and give it a try. I was a nurse once - blood and guts and screaming in pain isn't supposed to bother me. 

In case you are wondering why we don't just leave the buds on and let them grow horns, there are a few reasons. With does that I plan on keeping, I do let them grow horns. Polly has horns and it isn't a problem. In fact they make convenient handles. Bucks are different, however. A horned buck can be a dangerous animal, especially during rut. My goats come from a line of large, heavy animals and a full grown buck probably weighs about 200 pounds. I don't want a horned buck on the property. He could hurt not just me or the kids, but the does. I have heard about pregnant does miscarrying because they were butted by bucks. Also, it's difficult to to sell a horned animal. And occasionally, a horned goat will stick his or her head through a fence and get stuck. That's not a fun situation to deal with. 

 For all of these reasons, I decided that this was the year I was going to disbud my own baby goats. I asked around among my friends, and a neighbor of mine, K., was willing to lend us their iron and their baby box. Homero and I showed up with Blizzard and a fresh hot loaf of zucchini bread. K. and her husband had the iron heated up already, and it was just a few minutes work to pop the baby in the box and clip the fur on his head.

Before burning the buds, you are supposed to use hoof trimmers (or something like that) to cut off the tips of the horn buds. For some reason, that part made me feel much more queasy than the cauterizing did. I made Homero do that part, but then I did the burning. I sat down on the box behind the baby goat, and while Homero grabbed his head, I applied the iron firmly to the bud, twisting back and forth and counting to six. Most people say ten, but I wasn't taking any chances on burning his brains. I could always re-apply.

However it wasn't necessary. You can tell when you are done by the "copper ring" around the horn bud - that's a shiny, copper colored ring which I believe is actually burnt bone. It shows up pretty well in the photo below. Then you use the side of the iron to burn the middles a little bit more - just a second or two - and then the little fried cap of skin comes off, and you're done. On that side, anyway.

the copper ring

A robust baby goat ought to stay conscious and actively struggling throughout the procedure. You don't want to render them unconscious; that's probably going to cause brain damage. After you are done, promptly return the baby goat to its mother - they should run right up and nurse for comfort. The thing to remember is that even if the baby looks like he or she has come through with no ill effects, keep a close eye on them for 48 hours. If there is going to be trouble, it will be the result of inflammation and swelling of the brain. Inflammation peaks about 48 hours after injury and then begins to decline. If you have Banamine, an injectable anti-inflammatory, that's a good idea. Ask your vet for dosage information.

I'll be watching young Blizzard for any signs of trouble, but I expect he will be just fine. And I feel fine, too. It wasn't anywhere near as hard as I'd thought it was going to be. I actually had serious doubts about whether or not I would be able to do it, when push came to shove. But I guess once a nurse, always a nurse - the screaming  didn't bother me much at all.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

No More Hay

We are out of hay. We still have a need for hay - it will be another month before it dries out enough that I can put the animals out on the pasture. At least. This year I tried to keep the heavy hooves off the pasture all winter long - the horses went into the sacrifice area in late October or early November and they haven't been out since (except for a few sunny winter days that I brought them out onto the front lawn). Since we were in Mexico last year and the horses were boarded out, the pasture got a nice little rest. There were only three goats on 2.5 acres - well within the carrying capacity of the land. I wanted to extend that rest and generally start treating my pasture better.

My husband kind of messed up my pasture plans by insisting on a cow against my better judgement (Imaginary Cows). A calf is not as heavy as a horse, but a good deal heavier than a goat, and plenty heavy enough to damage wet pasture. Even so, keeping the two horses off the pasture all winter ought to go a long way towards resting the land.

But it also means we use more hay. Even in the dead of winter, around here there is always green grass to be found, except for a few weeks when the ground is actually frozen hard. Animals out on the pasture will graze. In the sacrifice area, we have to feed 100% hay all winter long, and it adds up.

The best time to buy hay, of course, is during haying time. If you are willing and able to jump in your truck and go pick up bales right behind the baler, you can often get first cut local hay for as low as $3 a bale. Better quality for $4. But this year we had no truck during haying season. An elderly farmer friend of ours saved some twenty five bales for me at cutting time prices until I could find a vehicle, but he is no longer able to help toss hay, being something over 77 years old. My husband was gone (for some reason, I can't remember why now) and I had to do it myself. Now, a healthy 40 year old woman ought to be able to toss 25 bales of hay and then stack them in her own barn without too much trouble. Each bale weighed between forty and fifty pounds. It's hard work, but it ought to be doable.

I, however, am a gimp. At that time, I had very recently blown my anterior cruciate ligament (collateral ligament?) and was barely able to walk. Rowan was pressed into service and between the two of us we managed to collect, transport, and stack the hay but it was one big bitch to do it. I took a lot of ibuprofen that night. That twenty-five bales had to feed two horses and four goats - three of them pregnant. It lasted until early January, if I remember right. About three months.

When we were nearly out of hay, I searched Craigslist and found a source of local, well-priced hay. Sadly, a small local dairy is going out of business and selling off the barn full of hay - having already sold off the calves. Homero and I went out and brought back another twenty bales. We figured that if twenty-five bales had lasted us three months, another twenty ought to last the rest of the way until spring.

But no. As it turned out this year, we had terrible, bone-chilling cold snaps and heavy snow and ice that lasted for weeks. I just read that this february is either the coldest on record in Bellingham or the fourth coldest, depending on how you measure (average daily lows or average daily highs). Also, the hay we bought - while green and good smelling - was for some reason very light. Each bale only weighed in the neighborhood of thirty pounds. I guess it was quite a bit dryer than the hay we bought earlier in the season. The animals went through it at an amazing speed - and today, we are out.

Forty-five bales in nearly five months isn't really so bad. It's only a little over two bales a week. And a total of $250. That does not, of course, amount to what it costs to feed the animals over the winter. Oh no! We also have to buy grain for the pregnant goats, chicken food for the chickens, and alfalfa pellets for the poor half-paralyzed calf that can't eat regular hay very well (for an explanation, see Rosie Pony Update (And Notes on the Cow)). If I figure the same rate of feed - two bales a week - we only need another dozen bales to get us through to the time I can put the animals on pasture.

However, I am once again without a vehicle. Sigh. We have one working vehicle and Homero took it to work. Tomorrow I can get some hay. Today I'm tiding them over with greens from the Gleaner's Pantry and stale bread. For one day, it won't kill anybody.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Buck Up (Doe Down)

Yesterday morning, I sent Rowan out to feed the animals because my knee had slipped out of joint as I tried to put on my boots. There was still several inches of snow and ice on the ground and I didn't fancy my chances of getting to the barn and back without doing myself an injury. Soon, I'm going to write a whole post about the sorry state of my body and how I manage (or don't manage) to run the farm while being partially to mostly crippled. But not today. Today I'm telling the story of the new baby goats.

Rowan came running back to the house and said "I think you're going to want to come anyway, mom, Polly had a baby!"

The little girls ran out ahead of me, and as I was struggling through the snow, Paloma ran back towards me, shouting "There's two, but one's dead." Right behind her came Hope: "No, ALMOST dead!"

When I finally made it out to the barn, I saw Polly with a beautiful, strong baby buckling at her side, standing up and nursing. He had obviously been born quite some time ago, as he was dry and fluffy. On the ground nearby was a spotted doling, flat out on her side and, to all appearances, dead.

I cursed myself. The evening before, at second feeding, I had seen and remarked to Homero that Polly's udder had filled up and the babies had dropped. This means birth will be soon; but I checked her tail ligaments and I could still feel them easily. There were no telltale hollows on either side of her tailbone. I thought it would be at least 24 hours and probably more. We left her in the main barn, with the other animals. Then she gave birth sometime during the night, or more likely in the early morning hours. By the time I got out there, the little doeling had been lying on the cold, wet straw for at least two hours and probably more.

With the girls' help, I grabbed Polly and the buckling and put them into the mama barn. Then I picked up the doeling and brought her into the house. She was breathing very slowly and had her head curled back on her shoulders in what I call "the arc of death." I never like to see a kid with its head thrown back like that; it is a very bad sign. Most likely the little thing was already doomed, but I did what I could.

I heated up the oven to 200 degrees and then popped her in, first, of course, turning the heat off and leaving the door cracked. I went back outside and got some colostrum (the first milk) from Polly - making sure the buckling was nursing well, which he was - and drizzled it into the doeling's mouth with a tiny syringe. Over the next few hours, I repeatedly warmed up the oven, fed the baby, and rubbed her and talked to her.

I didn't have a car, or I could have gone to the feed store for lactated ringer's solution and given her fluids subcutaneously. Also I could have picked up a garage tube and tried to feed her nasogastrically. I've never done that before and the chances are good I would have killed her by pumping fluid into her lungs instead of her stomach, but at that point there was nothing to lose.

For a little while, things seemed to be looking up. She cried several times, and struggled to lift her head. Her mouth warmed up inside, somewhat. But then she just died. One time took her out of the oven she was alive, and five minutes later she was dead.

My other two does are due to kid anytime now. Homero helped me divide the main barn into two stalls with a cattle panel, so that we have another separated area for a mother to kid in. I have plenty of dry straw. Sometime today I should go to the farm store and pick up a gavage tube and some LR solution, along with a larger syringe. Just to be prepared.

Every year I struggle with timing breeding for the right kidding time. First of all, it isn't always easy to find a buck so sometimes I have to take him when he's available, even if it isn't ideal by the calendar. Secondly, who knows what the weather's going to be like in March? Sometimes we get snow here in April. Thirdly, I like to have babies earlier in the spring rather than later for a variety of reasons - 1) it gives me a longer milking season before the weather turns cruddy again in the fall; and 2) it gives the kids longer to grow to eating or market weight by autumn. If I had babies in mid-May, none of them would reach a decent eating size before November.

But it's a trade off. If I had babies in mid-May, I could worry a lot less about finding chilled, dead kids on the ground. Mostly, I'm terribly pissed off at myself for not locking up Polly in the warm, dry mama-barn that evening. I won't make that mistake again soon.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Snowstorm 2014 (Photos)

The children have been complaining about the lack of snow this winter since, oh, mid-December. Boy are they are happy today! It's been snowing steadily - and at times, heavily - for about 24 hours now, and there are no signs that it plans to let up anytime soon. 

This is my favorite kind of snow. It isn't actually that cold out, so we can be outside for long stretches of time. There is a breeze, but not a gale, so the snow is falling more or less straight down and not into our eyes and down our necks. 

These pictures were taken this morning - a good six inches has fallen since then. The ponies were initially excited, running and kicking, but now they are taking refuge in the field shelter. The goats hate snow and won't leave the barn, not even when I open the feed storage. And the poor chickens are miserable, huddled in their nest boxes with the snow piling up around them - we never did finish fixing the roof. All I can do is keep giving them dry hay. 

The kids have been in and out of the house all day, tracking clods of snow in and drinking copious quantities of hot chocolate. Phil decided to take the mower deck off the kubota so he can drive it around in the snow and pull the children on out little plastic sled. He's working on that now, we'll see how it works. 

Glad we have the pickup now - without the 4x4 we wouldn't be going anywhere. Not that we have plans to go anywhere, but on the other hand we are running out of hot chocolate. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Signs of Spring

This picture was taken last week, at my local park by the river. Chunks of ice were floating merrily along downstream, but this bush - whatever it is - is in full bloom. The only thing I know of that usually blooms this early is forsythia, but that's yellow. Anybody have any ideas on this?

The alder catkins have been out for some two weeks now. Even if I couldn't see them for myself, I'd know they had bloomed by the number of people sneezing and wiping their eyes. Luckily, I am not allergic to alder or any other plant, as far as I know. I feel for those who suffer seasonal allergies; it must be like having a head cold all the time - something which I can especially sympathize with at the moment, as I have one.

Then, today as I was doing the evening feeding, I heard at least two separate frogs. The first frogs of the season! Without seeing them, of course I don't know exactly what kind of frogs they were, but a quick glance at the Washington state department of fish and wildlife page on frogs suggests they were almost certainly Pacific Tree Frogs. These tiny and adorable bright green frogs are also called Peepers and their song is one of the earliest signs of spring.

Another sign of spring - itchy garden hands. Two weeks ago, during a short stretch of sunny days that heated the greenhouse right up, I placed a sheet of pane glass over a claw foot bathtub full of dirt to make the annual Redneck Cold Frame. Then I waited for the dirt to warm up. Three days ago I went to check and it seemed pretty warm to me. I did not, however, apply the traditional English method of checking the soil temperature that I heard described by an English lady on the radio the other day. "Just take your knickers down and sit your bum down. If it feels nice and cozy, you're ready to plant!"

I used my elbow, and although it might be just a wee bit hardier than my nether region, nonetheless I decided to go for it. I planted arugula, which is what I usually plant first thing. The Idiot Gardener says I shouldn't plant arugula this time of year (he calls it "Rocket") but I don't have to listen to him, as he is an idiot. Just to cover my bets, I will plant mixed mustards in the other bathtub next week.

How about you? Any signs of spring yet where you are?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Function Over Form

the calf keeping me company

Recently, I made a fairly large purchase: a dozen cattle panels. I have a long term goal of eventually having all my pastures fenced and cross-fenced with cattle panels, instead of with the droopy, non-functional field fencing we put up when we first moved here. 

After MUCH research, some of it by trial and error (The Forever Fence (Is It a Myth?)) I have made the discovery that cattle panels are the most economical and effective form of fencing for goats. Goats like to stand up on field fencing, which is why most of ours is now mashed down to a height of about twenty-five inches. That is a height which obviously provides no impediment to a goat who wants to be on the other side. It would be marginally cheaper to replace the old mashed down field fencing with new field fencing, as opposed to using cattle panels, but it would be a LOT more work, and no guarantees that the new fencing would last very long, either.

Cattle panels cost about $37 apiece, here, with tax figured in, and are 16 feet long. The dozen I just bought cost  $440 and are just sufficient to re-fence one side of the smallest pasture. At this rate, I will achieve my goal approximately six months before I die of old age. Once, I did find a whole bunch of cattle panels for sale at $20 a pop on Craigslist, but that situation turned out to have a few drawbacks, as well (Cattle (Panel) Rustling).

Today is a beautiful day, sunny and somewhere above fifty degrees. This fact, combined with a general lack of aches and pains when I woke up this morning, convinced me to get out and put up the panels. Dragging a sixteen foot long, wobbly panel through a gate and across a muddy field is not an easy task, and after I had done it six times I went to go find Homero and ask him to help me with the other six. We laid them out along the old fence, and then I went back and tied them to the fence posts using - what else - baling twine.

Every winter, we go through forty-five or fifty bales of hay, and each one has two lines of twine holding it together. When I was a child, these were made of natural jute, but now, of course, like everything else in the world, they are plastic. And very durable. I have pulled these bright orange strings out of the compost pile after years, and they are still just about as strong as ever. They do pile up, too; my work today demanded some thirty-six of them, and I had no trouble at all finding that many here and there about the place.

It would make sense to go back with some wire cutter and actually remove the mashed down field fencing. I'm not sure what it's good for at this point, since it is almost impossible to restore it to it's original shape, but aesthetics alone dictates I eventually get rid of it. The fences are quite a sight as they are now - tangled up, bent, tied together with string, festooned with horse-hair and the occasional plastic bag.... pretty, no they are not. But after today's work, they are a little bit more functional.

Ivory enjoys the sun

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Cold Casulties

We have no snow on the ground - this picture is from a few years ago - but the past week has been intensely cold. Cold for this part of the country, of course; I know that for many of you, 15 or 20 degrees fahrenheit is downright balmy in February. Our position on a high, bare hill near the water makes things extra chilly around here. We get the unobstructed wind off the sound and with the windchill it feels even colder.

The animals have been suffering some. We haven't finished rebuilding the chicken coop and the poor birds are more exposed than I would like. The other day we left the door open so that they could seek better shelter inside the bigger barn with the rest of the animals. That maybe wasn't such a good idea: the next morning I found a chewed-up leg, just the leg, from one of the speckled hens. I don't know what kind of predator caught her, but it was something cold and hungry, that's for certain.

Rosie Pony's eyes, which were looking much better for a few weeks, are back to being all gummy and sticky, and I think the cold wind has a lot to do with it. I don't want to bathe her face in this weather. Even if I use hot water, she'll get chilled within minutes. Other than that issue, the ponies are the least affected by the cold of any of the animals. They are a little chubby and have warm, fluffy coats. The other day I wasn't wearing gloves, and halfway through chores my hands were so cold I slid them up under Poppy's mane to warm up. It was so warm and toasty! I didn't expect that a horse's mane was such an excellent insulator.

The goats, on the other hand, are not as cold hardy. The pregnant ladies are losing weight, even with extra grain and alfalfa pellets. They will be fine - this cold snap won't last much longer - but the little buckling, Haboob, is in serious trouble. There is something wrong with the little guy, and I don't know what. He never did grow very much, and everybody picks on him. Poppy, the biggest bully on the farm, even bit a chunk right out of his ear! I knew he was thin, but I didn't realize how thin until Homero came in a few days ago and told me he was worried. Haboob had fallen down.

The poor little guy's bones are practically sticking through his skin. I'm not sure what's wrong with him, but it's not just cold and hunger. He's a case of failure to thrive, and the cold might do him in. I put a jacket on him and closed him up in the warmest area I have with unlimited food and water for a few days. I also wormed him. He seems better off for now, but I worry about him. He's never going to be robust.

Meanwhile, I'm carrying water in buckets and feeding everybody extra hay. Inside the house, we are keeping warm with hot soup and wool sweaters, because we are getting pretty low on propane and need to conserve. I set the thermostat at 62 during the day, but it never feels that warm! Why is it that 62 degrees on a sunny day in April feels like heaven, but 62 degrees inside my house on a cold day in February feels freezing? The only ways to keep warm are 1) to take a hot bath, or 2) to go outside for a while and then come back in.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Imbolc - Repost

Welcome February 2nd, a day of many names in many traditions!

In what is probably the very oldest and most universal tradition of all - the solar calendar - February 2nd is one of the cross-quarter days, meaning a day that is exactly halfway between a solstice and an equinox. Believe it or not, ancient astronomers knew the dates of the solticses and equinoxes more than six thousand years ago. Today is halfway between the winter soltice and the spring equinox, and in the Northern hemisphere used to be marked as the first day of Spring. Indeed, only a few days ago, I noticed that the pussy willows were grey. One of my neighbors has a large pussy-willow, and I had to stop and ask her if I might take a few sprigs for my altar. I have them in water, and I'm hoping they will root and I can plant them on my property. It should work - willows are notoriously easy.

Other unmistakable signs of early spring I have noticed are robins (I saw a whole field covered in them the other day, driving home)...

witch-hazel in bloom at my sister's house...

...and the plaintive cry of the killdeer, looking for a nesting site. Killdeer are handsome shore birds who breed in sandy or gravelly uplands within a few miles of the beach - which perfectly describes my property. Their piercing cries in the evening and their swift, low, straight flights across the twilit ground are hallmarks of February and sure signs of the coming nesting season.

In the Celtic, or Pre-Christian European tradition, the first cross-quarter of the year was known as Imbolc, the beginning of the season of "emerging." It marked the time that the first sprouts began to emerge from seeds and bulbs, and especially the time that sheep and goats begin to drop their lambs and kids and to produce milk. It is the time that the world begins to emerge from the long sleep of winter. It is the season of waking. In modern celtic tradition Imbolc is observed with white candles on the altar to celebrate the return of the light to the world.

It is fitting, therefore, that when Ireland became Catholic, February second was commemorated as St Brigid's day. Brigid of Kildare was a real person, a contemporary of St Patrick, but the woman was named for an old Celtic Goddess, Brigid. Brigid the Goddess has always been associated with fertility, and more specifically with lactation and the fruits of the breast. In olden days she was the maiden, the young feminine divine, the nubile virgin ready to be made fruitful by the divine male. Her name, in fact, is the derivation of our word "bride."

In more modern Irish Catholic tradition, St. Brigid is the protectress of dairymaids, of cattle and kids, and the one who blesses the making of butter and cheese. Pregnant women and dairy farmers pray to her to this day, and many people believe that "Brigid" is one of the oldest, original names of the Divine Mother and venerate her as the Creatrix. She wears the youngest of the triple faces of the Great Goddess.

February 2nd is still a sacred day in the Roman Catholic church calendar, known as Candlemas. Indeed I was rather surprised when I asked my Lutheran pastor about Candlemas and learned that she knew nothing about it, at least by that name. Today marks the day that Jesus was presented in the temple, the day that Mary's period of ritual uncleanness after giving birth was over (forty days) and she was permitted and required to present her firstborn son to the priesthood. Since I am a very fledgling Christian I cannot provide gospel verses, but I bet Christians among you can find them. The event of Jesus' presentation to the world - his Christening, if you will - is very appropriate to the old theme of the holiday, the theme of beginnings, of emergence. Christ emerged from his mother's womb and was born to the world of men on this day.

Of course it is inconceivable that such an ancient and deeply rooted holy day as a cross-quarter would be ignored by the Catholic church; no doubt it was consciously appropriated. That doesn't matter to me at all. I am perfectly happy to celebrate Imbolc, Brigid, and the Newborn Babe all at once. I am delighted to have pussy willows and white candles on my alter, along with a few of the first eggs of spring and soon, the first crocuses and perhaps soon, a small vial of the first milk. In a month or so, I will have the cross of the risen Christ.

Right now, my favorite goat, Iris, is within days of giving birth. I see no conflict between the rites of Spring on my farm and the sacred rituals of the Chruch calendar. It may seem strange to others, but it is not strange to me that Iris reminds me of Mary, heavy with child or newly delivered. Mary was, as I am - as Iris is - a female animal, channeling life through her body, guiding a spirit into flesh. We are all of us examples of the ongoing process of creation, most joyfully evident in this season of Imbolc.

Thus is the world renewed, year after year.

This picture above is my favorite icon of the pregnant Mary. It is painted on the ceiling of a church in Huatulco, Mexico, and is advertised as the largest vision of Mary in Mexico - which is saying something. Having been there, I can tell you biggest or not, it is big. And beautiful. In fact I think this is my favorite church among all those I have visited in Mexico, land of a thousand gorgeous churches. This pregnant Mary (see the small blue fetus, floating upside down in her mid-section?) is so serene, so calm. May the spirit of Mary, of Brigid, of Iris enfold you this season, and may you take great delight in the awakening and the emergence of new growth this early spring season!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Spud 'Speriment (Potato Poetry)

Today I was cleaning out the kitchen drawers. There's a big drawer on the bottom, lined with brown paper bags, that I use for potatoes and onions. This drawer tends to get a little, um, icky after a while, filling up with onion skins and soft, sprouty potatoes. This tendency has intensified somewhat since I started going to the Gleaner's Pantry (Scavenge City (Gleaner's Pantry)). Turns out that I sometimes bring home more potatoes than we can actually eat before they grow long, pale whiskers.

Of course, as long as the potato itself is still firm, not flabby, it is perfectly permissible to rub the whiskers off and cook the potato as usual. Often I do that. But this morning, as I was excavating the drawer, I came across a pound bag of lovely little fingerling potatoes that had sprouted. Previously, we had eaten several bags of these fingerlings, and so I know they are wonderful potatoes: nutty, dense, creamy, and delicious. I remember thinking "I ought to try to get ahold of some of these for planting this year." So, of course, when I found them all sprouted and ready for planting, I had to think about what to do with them.

It is still January. January is a ridiculous time to plant potatoes. Not only will we certainly have a few more hard frosts, but even if we didn't, the wet ground will rot any potatoes that I plant too early - meaning, before the end of March. Ask me how I know this. Yes, because I have repeated that elemental error several times in my pre-spring gardening ardor.

Other things I know about growing potatoes, in no particular order:

- people say they are the easiest of crops to grow, but I haven't found that to be the case. In only two of my six years here have I had a really good potato crop.

- people are also always saying that you can grow potatoes in containers easily, but I have not had luck with that, either. My two good crops both came out of the ground, and out of containers I have harvested only small, rather disappointing crops.

- it is strongly suggested in gardening books on my shelf that one buy seed potatoes for planting and that one does not use grocery store potatoes for planting. This is because seed potatoes are guaranteed free of various diseases and viruses, whereas grocery store potatoes are not. Nonetheless, anyone as cheap as I am (or, if you like, as frugal) will not like to waste grocery store potatoes that have become inedible, but will try to salvage them for seed. That's what my dad always did.

- "chitting" is the process of pre-sprouting your potatoes, i.e., what naturally happens to any potato left in a dark drawer for too long. I was somehow completely mistaken about the meaning of this word, and thought it meant just the opposite: rubbing the sprouts OFF of your potatoes sometime in january so that they would not go all soft and flabby and would still be viable for planting come spring. (http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/greensprouting-potatoes-zb0z1203zlon.aspx) I got this idea from reading some memoir, the title of which I cannot now remember, by a woman who grew up in Iowa during the depression and described "chitting the potatoes" as her least favorite job as a child. Going down to the cellar and handling the pale, soft, spidery potatoes gave her the heebie-jeebies, she wrote, but if the sprouts were not rubbed off, there would be no seed potatoes for the spring planting.

So here I had all these adorable little chitted potatoes, all ready to plant, and it is still january. Seeing as how it was either plant them or throw them away (I have a serious potato surplus at the moment; and none of my farm animals relishes sprouty potatoes), I decided to perform an experiment.

The south side of my house has an enclosed porch with floor to ceiling windows. It isn't quite a sunroom, because there isn't ever quite enough sun up here to justify that title. But it is a large space with lots of light, protected from freezing temperatures. I thought, why not fill a couple of big black plastic pots (of which I have several dozen) halfway up with dirt and straw and throw those potatoes in? I could place them by the south windows and just let them be. What's the worst that could happen? So now I have a couple of twenty gallon pots in the "sunroom" planted with fingerling potatoes, which are officially the first planting of 2014. We'll see how it goes.

On a related note - I have only ever received material recompense for my poetry on one occasion. That was when I entered a poem into the WashingtonState Potato Commision's annual Potato Poetry contest, back in 1999 or thereabouts. I won. I won an apron, several potato cookbooks, and various sundries which I misremember now. Here is the 1998 (or thereabouts) prizewinning potato poem:

My dad planted potatoes
in old tires
all along the long side of the yard
and us kids grubbed them up
all summer
some as small as marbles
with thin, papery skin
some bigger than our child sized fists
The clean, cottony inside
of a baked potato
is such a surprise
or at least it was to us
who had prized them just that morning
asleep from the mud

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Productive Day (Chores)

The past few days we have been enveloped in a thick fog. Visibility has been so poor that we can't even see the neighbor's house across the street. It's chilly and wet and dispiriting after a few days, not to be able to see farther than the length of you arm, hardly.

This morning, however, the fog blew away by ten a.m., and a gorgeous blue sky emerged. The mountains came out and it actually got quite warm. Days like this in late winter always get my blood moving and make me want to work outside. I've been stuck inside with my seed catalogues for far too long - time to get out and do something!

Today I pruned the fruit trees. Or rather, I took the long handled pruners and a step ladder and gingerly cut off a few twigs here and there. I am a very timid pruner. I have a general idea of what a pruned tree ought to look like, and I can recognize a sucker when I see one, but that's about it. Generally I just try to open up the inside a little, and take out small branches that are growing at very acute angles from the trunk or which are crossing each other. The pear trees in particular have a very strong tendency to turn into thorn bushes after a year or two without pruning, and I try to slow that process down, at least. Also, I don't really like being up on a stepladder which is slowly sinking into the soft ground and reaching out past my balance point with heavy, sharp clippers. I can imagine all too well those clippers sinking into my liver when I land on them after falling off my tippy ladder.

Another job that involves sharp blades: we trimmed the goat hooves today. They weren't too bad. As usual, Flopsy's front hooves were grossly overgrown and warped, but they always are. For some reason those two hooves, out of all the hooves on the farm, grow at an amazing speed and want to curl up, as though they were horns. The most difficult part of trimming hooves today was getting the goats to jump up on the milking stand. It's been two years since any of them were milked, and they seem to have lost the knack.

I held the pan of grain up high, above the feeding trough, and the goats would rand with their front feet on the stand and poke their heads through the slats. Quickly, we'd slam the slats shut and trap them. Then Homero would have to bodily hoist the rear end of the goat up onto the stand. I hope they remember soon, because I can't lift their hind ends and I can't ask Homero to help me every milking. Stupid goats.

Last big job completed- the chicken coop is rebuilt. I'll post pictures soon. Homero built it, a few years ago, out of particle board. I keep telling him that particle board doesn't work in our climate, but he buys it because it's cheaper than plywood. Of course the boards crumbled and fell apart, and we haven't been able to contain the chickens for a while now. Finally I went out and bought plywood and had Phil rebuild the coop as his rent for the month of January (Next post: the unofficial farmhand). Last night we locked up the chickens for the first time all winter and this morning collected a couple of eggs. Very tasty.

It feels very good to get some serious farm work done. I'm tired. And grubby. Bath.