"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Fruitocolypse (Or Pear-mageddon)

This spring, I was all aflutter over the lack of bees during flowering time (What's Wrong With These Pictures?) but the bees must have been there, because the orchard is going crazy. Above is one of my four pear trees, each of which is absolutely loaded with fruit. If I remember right (which I most likely don't) we have a Comice, a Red Bosc, an Anjou, and a Bartlett.

Three of the trees, including this one, are young trees we planted ourselves, but the fourth - the Bartlett - is a hoary old beast some sixty years old. It has on years and off years, and this is definitely an on year. It looks to have some five hundred pears on it. Some of those will drop off immature, of course, and others will be lost to scab or other infirmities, but that leaves plenty of pears for us. And the neighbors. There will be enough pears to feed the Russian Army, as my mother used to say.

Pears make good pie, and pears can be canned as sauce, especially mixed with apples, blueberries, and blackberries. Pears can be dehydrated (though I hate dehydrating stuff) and late ripening pears can be stored wrapped in paper in a cool shed.  Pears can also be fed to livestock (carefully; in moderation) and pears can be given away to friends and neighbors.

Alas, pears cannot be pressed for juice, at least not with the equipment I have. Pears turn to mush and gum up the works. I can throw a few pears in with a batch of apples, but I can't just press pears by themselves.

What else can you do with pears? Have pear fights? Ideas, anybody?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Poppy (Making Decisions)

This is Poppy. She was born on the farm, the unintended consequence of my adopting a rescue shetland who nobody knew was pregnant. We love her. We all love her, but I love her the most. I love her the way I loved my pony Bonnie when I was nine years old, a love that might only exist between a girl and her horse, or a boy and his dog. 

Poppy is a lot sweeter than Bonnie was, however. Having grown up being more or less continuously mauled by little girls, she is a sweetheart. She follows us around and nibbles on us; she greets me with a shrill whinny as soon as I step out the door in the morning; she lets herself be endlessly patted and kissed; she lets the girls sit on her without complaint. 

But she isn't what you'd call trained. Training a horse, even a pony, is a specialist's job - it just isn't something you can pick up out of a book and do on your own. It's not like training a dog - or rather, it IS like training a dog, but not a family pet dog. It's more like training a service dog (a service dog that weighs 700 pounds). There is so much that a serviceable, rideable or drivable pony needs to know beyond basic obedience. This is a wild estimate, but I'm going to say that your average riding horse needs to know some thirty or forty different signals. Not only that, but they have to be STANDARD signals. That is, I can't train my horse to do X task with some signal known only to the two of us, or she will never be rideable by anyone else. 

We have done what we can with Poppy on our own - most of her "ground work." That means she leads well, she can be haltered and saddled and groomed, she stands nicely for the farrier, she has been trailered a few times, etc. What we haven't done, because we can't, is train her for riding. 
The year before last, we were in Mexico. Last year, we mostly missed summer because we weren't moved in back here until mid July, and there was so much to do what with getting the house ready for the Tamagochis and getting them enrolled in school and whatnot, I just didn't have time or energy to think about training Poppy. 

This summer, Poppy turns five years old. It's high time to get some training on her. When I looked into prices for a real trainer, I knew that Homero probably wasn't going to go for it. There was one listing that was considerably cheaper than the others, because it was a girl just starting out her own training business. I met her, I went and saw her facility, and we agreed to send Poppy there for two months worth of five-day-a-week training, ground work and riding both. 

Then things started to go wrong. The girl sent someone to pick up Poppy, but she herself went on a three week vacation. When I finally managed to get ahold of her almost two weeks in and told her I wasn't paying for boarding, I was paying for training she said not to worry, she had other people doing work with Poppy. "She'll get the right number of rides," she assured me. 

But she didn't. Poppy sat around in a stall, getting ignored. I would have taken Poppy home myself, but I don't have a trailer. Then the girl changed her cell phone number and I had no way of getting ahold of her. I visited the facility, hoping to find her, but she was never around. Then one day she called me and told me she was getting evicted from the facility and would bring Poppy home immediately. When I started to discuss getting some of my fee back, she told me she would come to my house to give the rides and give my daughters lessons. Since I have "pushover" written on my forehead, I agreed to that. 

That was a month ago. 

Remembering my mother's adage "you get what you pay for" I realized I had a few options. I could 

A) pay for a real trainer (not likely - real trainers have high hourly fees and demand all sorts of equipment like a round pen and fancy tack that I cannot and will never be able to afford); I could 

B) decide that I like Poppy the way she is and just let her develop into a kind of semi-rideable pasture pet; or I could 

C) sell her. 

Even thinking about selling Poppy is painful. On the other hand, option B seems wasteful - almost immoral. Poppy is young, healthy, smart, willing, and good tempered. She could do almost anything in the right hands. For someone who wanted to put in the time and effort (and money), she could be a wonderful companion and working animal. My girls are not that person - neither one of them has expressed a serious interest in riding. They are much more into gymnastics, and both have made the beginner's team. At a competitive level, gymnastics sucks up too much time and money to allow for a second time-and-money intensive hobby like riding. 

So, when the farrier (who is deeply embedded in local horse-culture) came last week, I asked him if he knew anyone who might be interested in Poppy. I said I hadn't made up my mind, but if the right person came along - someone who wanted a long-term commitment, preferably someone local - I would sell her. He said he'd keep his eyes open. 

But I haven't given up. I had an idea yesterday. There's a Facebook group I'm a part of, a local farmer's group. It has about three hundred members. I succinctly laid out our situation and said I was looking for a reliable person to ride Poppy two or three times a week for a reasonable fee. I figured there had to be some horse people with teenagers looking to make a few bucks or maybe some horse people who were currently without horses who would jump at the chance. 

I wasn't wrong. Quite a few people wrote to me, and one of them, a woman who was highly endorsed by somebody I know, is coming over in an hour or so to meet Poppy and talk about what she can and can't do and for how much. Perhaps Poppy can be a kind of high-level pasture pet - not a show horse, not a real working horse, but a rideable friend. That would be acceptable to me. 

Also, the farrier told me something that makes me feel relieved. I was under the impression that horses need to get their training while they are young, three or four or five years old, and that after that, they became much more difficult to work with. Where I got that idea, I can't remember, but the farrier told me it isn't true. He's routinely broken horses over ten years old. That means there's not the urgency that I thought there was - I can try a few more things and see how it goes. Here's hoping. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Let the Harvest Start (Ingenuity)

Today has been a food preservation frenzy, and it isn't over yet. In the morning, I took five pounds of assorted cheese, a small jar of cajeta,  and three dozen eggs out of the refrigerator and set out on my trading route.

I returned home two hours later with:

- a large bunch of Toscano kale

- a bunch of garlic scapes
- a baggie full of feathery dill
- a fistful of rainbow colored carrots
- a small head of cauliflower
- a bowl of ripe red raspberries
- a few pounds of beautiful yellow Rainier cherries
- three small fillets of freshly caught wild Sockeye salmon

and nine dollars in cash (for the eggs).

I am delighted with the results of this day's trade. To be perfectly frank, we are all getting a little sick of cheese over here. I mean, you can only eat so much cheese before it starts to have consequences. I keep making cheese because, well, the milk keeps flowing, and it's good practice. Tinkering around with my methodology has produced a much superior chèvre this year, for example.

But just as eggs pile up in April, so does cheese accumulate in June. And yogurt, and kefir, and cajeta. Last week I canned twelve cups of cajeta and yesterday I made another quart to take to a party.  My refrigerator has become more or less a solid wall of weird milk products. I am so glad to be able to turn some of them into produce, because as usual my garden is not thriving.

The afternoon has been taken up with processing the bounty. Half the kale was sautéed and stuffed into quesadillas for lunch. The garlic scapes went into the blender along with olive oil, parmesan, and lemon juice to make a pesto which I will freeze in ice cube trays. The cubes can be stored in a ziploc bag in the freezer and used whenever I want a quick and easy sauce for pasta or chicken.

I used the last of my chèvre, the dill, and some parsley and green onions from the Gleaner's Pantry  to make a delicious dip, with which we ate the cauliflower and carrots just now as an afternoon snack.
The cherries will be eaten out of hand. The raspberries went into a ziploc in the freezer, and will be used for smoothies, which is how I use up all the kefir I've been making.

The fish, which was caught in Alaska day before yesterday by a new trade partner who I'll call jelly-man (for his amazingly delicious pepper jelly), is now smoking gently over soaked hickory chips inside of my little Totem brand smoker. I marinated the fillets in a mixture of salt, sugar, paprika, cayenne, and rice vinegar, with a dash of soy and orange juice. They are small and thin, so I think they will smoke in just a few hours.

The smoker has been in the shed since last year, and being a lazy git, I had put it away without scrubbing it. When I took it apart to clean it, there were no wire racks inside. The drip tray and the chip basket were there, but no racks for placing the fish. I searched the shed, but couldn't find them anywhere. I thought I would have to put off smoking the fish until I acquired new racks, and I was annoyed because the fish were already marinated and I didn't know what to do with them instead.

Luckily, my husband is a pack rat who seldom throws anything away. In the shed there is a small, less than half-sized refrigerator which doesn't work. I don't know why he has kept it lo these last five years, but when I opened it up it had a steel rack inside it that looked just about the right size. Almost; I had to trot out to the shop and ask Homero to cut off an inch or so from one side, but when he had done that, the rack slipped neatly into the smoker.

As I sit here, the heavenly smell of smoking salmon is wafting in from the back porch. I can't wait.

Monday, June 23, 2014

High Summer Plans (Adios, Muchachas)

On thursday, my nieces, who have been living with us for the past year, are going home to Oaxaca. It's been a good year, and we have enjoyed having them here. The girls have been sweet and helpful, and have worked hard in school and in their English classes. Hopefully, they are going home with a pretty decent command of the language and with some understanding of life in another culture than their own, and also with stronger bonds with their cousins, our daughters.

As much as I liked having them here, and as privileged as I felt to have been entrusted with their care,  I would be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to them going home. This is nothing to do with the girls themselves, but simply with the fact that it has now been over two years since it's been just us - the nuclear family - in our own house.

The year before last, we were in Oaxaca living with my mother-in-law (see sister blog www.newtomexicanlife.blogspot.com). When we came home, we were in limbo for three months, renters still in our house, living here and there. And once we moved back into our home, it was only a few weeks before the nieces arrived for the most recent school year. During the year that they were here, we also hosted their father for some five weeks, their mother for three, and their grandmother for another three. Somewhere in there, my brother-in-law also came to stay for a few weeks. The number of people living in my house over the past year probably averaged out to about 9.5.

That many people puts a strain on the facilities - the washing machine, the septic system, the hot water heater, the refrigerator - and on the nerves, no matter how delightful they may be as individuals. Doubling the number of children in the house more than doubles the mess, the noise, the dishes, the laundry, and the gasoline spent driving them all hither and yon to double the number of activities. Even for an American, I require rather a lot of privacy and quiet time, and hosting several gregarious Mexican relatives at the same time and over the course of a year took a lot out of me. I wouldn't have it any other way - I married into this crowd and I'm damn glad I did - but I'm also ready for a rest.

Homero feels the same way. This spring, his fortieth birthday coincided with his niece's fifteenth - a major milestone year in Mexico - and I threw a very large party. I hadn't thrown a party like this since Rowan's fifteenth birthday, six years ago. We butchered a goat and I hired Mariachis. The house was scrubbed every day for a week beforehand and three women cooked up a storm for 48 hours straight ahead of time. My friends and relatives came from as far away as Philadelphia and Oaxaca. There were about seventy people, give or take. The party began at four in the afternoon with flowers and white tablecloths and wound down around two in the morning with Corona and kareoke around the ashes of a big bonfire. It was a huge success, but when it was over, Homero said "Amor, don't make any more plans for this summer, okay?"

Both of us would love to have a nice, low-key summer vacation, just hanging out at home with the kids. I hope we can, but already, less than two weeks since school ended, the obligations and plans are piling up. Hope and Paloma have been taking gymnastics at a local gym, and last week they tried out for the competitive team. Both of them made the cut - which means twice weekly practice and monthly meets in Seattle. Additionally, I recently earned my state interpreter's license and have started taking actual jobs and earning actual money - something I would like to do a bit more of in the summer when my farmwife/homemaker duties are on the lighter side. And although I just said that farm duties are lighter right now, this is, of course, cheese season - twice daily milking and cheese making twice or three times a week. Also, there is no forgetting that summer is preserving season - if we are to have berries, tomato sauce, pickles, cajeta, jam, and salmon next winter, I have to make it this July and August.

In addition to all these regular chores, here are some things I'd like to do this summer -

- Training Poppy. This is a whole 'nother post, but Poppy has had some training/breaking recently, and can now be considered "green broke." I have bought the minimum of tack needed - a bridle and a bareback pad - and want to get the kids to ride her around the paddock at least three or four times a week. Training the horse and teaching the kids to ride simultaneously is a complicated and expensive endeavor which deserves elaboration in it's own post, but suffice it to say that this is the summer I decide if it is worth the time and expense to keep a horse.

- Go to Victoria. I love Victoria, and I have never taken the younger girls. Homero and I took Rowan many years ago, but the littler ones don't know it. It's a great weekend trip, a perfect two-nighter. The  Royal Museum ( http://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca ) is one of the coolest museums for kids on the entire North American continent, and that's only one of many wonderful things to do in Victoria (another will be to visit our good friend Andrew).

- Go to the ocean. It's been years since the family went out to the coast - the little girls have never been, I don't think. I myself haven't been in at least three years, and that's just an unacceptable amount of time. We have the use, this summer, of my mom's very nice and comfortable, mechanically sound class A recreational vehicle, and I can think of no higher purpose to put it to than introducing my daughters to the mighty North Pacific.

- Put in a French drain and fix the far bedroom. The list just wouldn't be complete without a major construction project. While my brother-in-law (a contractor) was here, I asked him about the stubborn and recurring patch of mold in the far bedroom and asked if he could find the leak in the roof.

"There's no leak in the roof," he said. "That's water from the backyard. See the slope?"

Our backyard is higher than the house, and given the ridiculous amount of rain we get, there are several metric tons of eater sitting right up against the house foundations for most of the year. We need to take advantage of the dry season (July and August) to put in a French drain and reroute the water around the east side of the house to the ditch. And also to replace the moldy wallboard in the far bedroom, and hope like hell that the beams that sit on top of the foundation are not rotted.

That seems like a summer's worth of stuff, at least. I notice that I've put all the fun stuff first. That is, in fact, how I intend to do it. If I have to spend thousands of dollars and a couple of weeks freaking out about mold and rot, I can at least do it with a nice tan, after I've taken my kids to the beach.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Cow Caper (Good Neighbors)

Yesterday as I was returning home with a car full of girls from their various lessons - gymnastics for some, English for others - I got a call from my next door neighbor with the giant house.

"Your cow, she is on the road," he said.

"Oh no!" I yelled. "I'll be right there, I'm two minutes away!"

For those of you who don't know, the road in question is a state highway that runs from I-5 on one end ten miles west to a major refinery on the other. The speed limit is 50 mph, but in actuality big rigs full of gasoline, propane, and god knows what other fossil fuels careen down the highway at 65 plus, all day long. I thought of one of those trucks hitting my poor stupid cow and smashing her to a paste, then erupting in a giant fireball, or jack-knifing and spilling 10,000 gallons of oil all over the hillside. I pictured a ten car pileup. I visualized the next day's headline: "Imbecilic farmer loses livestock; causes worst tragedy in years."

"Keep your eyes peeled," I told all the girls, but nobody saw the cow during the three minutes it took us to get home.

As I pulled into the driveway, I saw the cow being led back into the paddock (the gate was wide open) with a small crowd of neighbors behind her. I screeched to a halt and began a dance of gratitude, thanking everyone around me abjectly for catching my cow and thereby avoiding a terrifying accident and a lawsuit of hideous proportions.

My good neighbors chuckled and told stories of escaped animals from their youth. They waved away offers of reward. They headed off across the fields home, leaving me standing there feeling foolish and grateful.

I have no idea who left the gate open or when. Statistically speaking, it was probably me.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

New Trade Route

The trade network has been pretty much dormant since I got back from Mexico. We made that one great trade last summer - a baby goat for four turkeys ( Turkey Trade )- but nothing the robust networks I had going on a few years ago ( On Trading and CanningMaking Trade Goods (Gratuitous Canning Advice)Recent Trades and a Good Idea).

Then a new trading avenue opened up; I was invited to join a Facebook group of local farmers looking to trade goods and services. So far, it has only resulted in two actual trades - my pork chops for fresh cow's milk, and then my empty canning jars and some fresh cheese for these lovely canned plums, above. Since I have more cheese than I know what to do with, I asked people on the list who might be interested in some of it - as a free gift, from one neighbor to another, NOT for sale, which would be illegal. It's not illegal, however, for you to give me some of your extra snap peas. Not in exchange, you see, but just because you have too many of them. Just as I have too much cheese. Ahem.

Seriously, the legality of trading is so nebulous and cobwebby I don't even want to look into it. I'm sure it's illegal, just like EVERYTHING ELSE I want to do. Especially trading milk products. That probably would get me five to ten in the state pen. Please don't tell.

Please. I'll give you cheese.

I've already written a post about the legality of trading and admitting myself to be a scofflaw and an unrepentant participant in the informal economy (State of the Trade Network 2010 (What's Your Perspective?), so I won't go into it again here. But I am still interested - what do you all think about trading? Do you do it? Do you report it to the IRS? Do you think it ought to be regulated?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Mystery Mortality (Milk Glut)

In the last two weeks we've gone from four baby goats to only two baby goats. One of them was served at our big party, so that was an expected death (and very delicious he was, too; I'm thinking in the future we may choose to butcher at 4 months instead of seven). However the second death, that of Flopsy's buckling Comet, was a complete mystery.

Comet was one of Flopsy's twins, born in March. The other buckling was sold intact for a very decent price and presumably is doing just fine. Comet was wethered and was marked as a meat animal, but that didn't stop him from being a favorite because he was so cute. Usually we don't name animals we plan on eating, but this little guy's white spots on a black background gave him the name Comet.

Comet was perfectly healthy and never ailed a day in his rather short life, until the last day. In the morning we heard him screaming and walked out to look for him in the tall grass. He was standing alone, sides heaving, with green frothy vomit all over his head and neck. Goats do not vomit. They just don't. In all my time raising goats, I have only ever seen them vomit from severe carbohydrate overload, and that obviously hadn't happened here because the barn where we keep the grain was closed and locked. 

As the day progressed, Comet kept screaming, almost continuously, and wouldn't eat, drink, or nurse. There was no more vomit, but he frothed at the mouth and dripped saliva. He was not pooping, though he would strain and heave. His symptoms seemed to be almost exclusively GI related - no neurological symptoms, no staggering or looking up at the sky like goats do when brain damaged. He got progressively dehydrated.

We spoke to the vet, of course. I thought of plant poisoning - we do have several poisonous plants on the property, but the goats generally leave them alone. I mentioned tansy, rhododendron, and hemlock, but the vet said none of those would cause vomiting, and would produce neurological signs. He suggested that a blockage was much more likely and said we should bring him in for exploratory surgery. He also said that vomiting was quite likely to cause inhalation pneumonia and that he would need antibiotic treatment quickly to avoid death from that cause. 

Well, that wasn't going to happen. Here I had an animal with a cash value of approximately $75 to $100, and treatment options began at several hundred dollars, with, of course, no guarantee of a good outcome. We decided to give Comet the day to start showing signs of recovery and to put him out of his misery if he continued the same or worse. Since he wouldn't drink, he was getting very dehydrated. He began to pant heavily and collapsed.

In the belief that a blockage was the most likely explanation, I decided to try and drench him with some neutral oil. I was terrified that I was going to pour a pint of oil into his lungs and kill him, but he was pretty close to dying already and I figured I couldn't very well make things worse. With Homero's help, we slid a tube down his throat and poured in some oil, and Comet thrashed weakly and fought us off the best he could. 

I don't know if his efforts exhausted his last reserves or if we did, in fact, kill him by our "treatment" but within a half hour he was obviously close to death, still crying weakly, so we went ahead and euthanized him with a .22. Poor little guy. 

We thought about having the vet do a post mortem, but Homero said he could do it himself, at least look for anything obvious. We skinned and prepared him for butchering as usual, but instead of throwing out the GI tract intact, Homero dissected it. I was expecting to find a fat, red gut, evidence of a torsion or a severe blockage, but everything looked completely normal. His intestines were slim, pearly grey, and just about empty. The liver and gallbladder were normal as well. Homero even opened up the rumen and checked carefully for any foreign objects, but there was just nothing to be found. 

The only odd thing we did find is that one of his lungs was swollen and covered in petechiae (small blood spots, showing that there had been a hemorrhage). The lung was abnormal enough that it might have explained his death, but of course I suspected I might have caused that myself by pouring a bunch of oil into it. It is also possible that he inhaled something and then damaged himself trying to cough it out. Severe coughing can cause vomiting in people, I don't know about goats. I thought eight hours would be too soon to show evidence of inhalation pneumonia, but maybe not. My farrier told me they once had a horse die in less than a day from that cause. 

I haven't the slightest idea what killed Comet. Well, I know what killed him - a bullet to the back of the head. But I have no idea what made him so sick. It could have been anything, from plant poisoning (a friend sent me a page from an old goat medicine book that detailed symptoms of rhododendron poisoning, and it was oddly accurate. It mentioned the screaming, the vomiting, and the labored breathing. I don't know why the vet said rhododendrons don't cause vomiting) to some kind of allergic reaction to a bite or sting. I am, however, pretty sure it wasn't a contagious illness because every other goat on the place is healthy as pie. 

It's been three days now, and no other goat has shown the slightest sign of any illness. On the contrary, they all are sleek and plump, and giving large quantities of milk. Now I have two in-milk does who have no kids on them, and so I am milking two goats twice a day. Once, long ago, I sold off all my kids young and then spent the next four months chained to the milking stand, and I swore I would never do that again. Goats must be milked every twelve hours, rain or shine, unless they have kids to nurse. I am bringing about two gallons of milk a day into the house, and it is a constant challenge to figure out what to do with it. 

A couple of days ago, we made cajeta (sweet delicious goat's milk caramel sauce - for a recipe visit  http://www.everything-goat-milk.com/cajeta.html), which used up a few gallons. I have several pounds of cheese in the fridge, and right now there is a whole pillowcase full of chèvre hung up to drain outside. It's a damn shame I can't sell any of this cheese. Good friends and neighbors are encouraged to drop by with containers. Feel free to bring any surplus garden vegetables you have. I'm particularly fond of snap peas. 

It's tough to lose an animal without knowing why. I'm sorry Comet suffered so much. I wish I knew what happened so I could try to prevent it from ever happening again. But at least I can be reasonably sure it wasn't due to any gross farming error on my part. The other healthy goats attest to that. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Littlest Huntress

Hope is ten, nearly eleven. She is a tall, graceful, athletic girl; just entering the stormy adolescent years. She is strong from gymnastics, an active and nimble thinker, and like many young girls her age, hotheaded and strong willed. For months she has been lobbying us to get her a BB gun. It seems her best friend has one, and she just has to have one too. She wants to hunt.

Sometime earlier this spring, we decided the time was right, and I bought her a mid-range air rifle - neither a toy nor a high powered weapon. It takes some real muscle to pump up the air pressure, and it is capable of firing BBs at 800 feet/second. We set up a target down in the bottom of the back pasture, and laid down the law about safety and seriousness. She would get exactly no second chances, we said - break the rules, and the gun goes bye bye for a long long time.

For about six weeks, we made her shoot only at that one target, and only when an adult was nearby. Hope grumbled and repeatedly asked when she would be allowed to actually hunt, but she followed the rules. She got pretty good, too: she could sometimes shoot a bottle cap from twenty feet away, and a tin can from twice as far. Yesterday, after chasing several rabbits out of the garden, Homero told her to go ahead and try to shoot one.

Rabbits are a plague around here. When Ivory was younger, they had a healthy respect for her and stayed away. Once in a while, she would catch one, but it takes a young, quick dog to catch a rabbit very often. As she got older, they got bolder, and now that she is twelve, she simply lays in the sun and pricks up her ears as they run past.

No rabbit, however, can run 800 feet per second, and it seems they are no match for Hope's eye, either. Within a half hour of being given permission, Hope came running back to the house yelling that she had killed a rabbit.

"Where is it?" we asked.

"Out here!" she answered, and she went galloping over the grass with Paloma bouncing behind her. I followed slowly, and saw the girls come to a stop, circling and looking down. They bent over, then sprang back up with sharp little cries of alarm, arms flying.

"Is it dead?" I yelled.


"Then pick it up!"

After a few false starts, Hope picked the rabbit up by the back legs and trotted back towards the house. Homero and I bickered briefly over who was going to skin and dress it (I won; he did it) and we praised Hope lavishly.

I didn't really want to eat it (I've had wild rabbit before  - The Land Provides, part 1 - and I'm not too crazy about it) but we had talked to Hope before about eating what we kill and killing what we eat, and she would have been rightly appalled at our hypocrisy if we hadn't cooked her first kill. Moreover, she deserved us to make a big deal out of it. It IS a big deal.

I marinated the jointed rabbit (it probably weighed all of a pound, skinned and gutted) and braised it in beer with collards, onions, peppers, and corn kernels. The vegetables were delicious, but the rabbit itself was, as I expected, tough and bland. Maybe next time I will try a pressure cooker.

Oh yes, there will be a next time. Hope went back out and shot another rabbit ten  minutes after the first one. I convinced her the second rabbit was too small to eat (it was tiny) and that she shouldn't feel bad tossing it into the tall bushes; if it didn't become food for us, it would surely be food for something. The law of nature, I explained, is that "wherever there is something to eat, there will be something to eat it." If I remember, I got that out of Dune, from the planetary ecologist Kynes.

I really am proud of my middle child. She is beautiful, and growing up, and dangerous. She is at that frightening and lovely age when she is coming into her power, all unaware. She is stunning in her pride, and in her unconscious grace. She has already left her infancy behind, and in another year, or two or three, she will suddenly be a young woman. And in a few years after that, the cares and preoccupations of womanhood will take over, and the last traces of her childhood will be gone.

Artemis, most chaste and perilous Goddess, be with my young huntress. Help her learn to guide her arrows wisely, and lend her your fierceness and your unapologetic pride. Run with her through the trackless woods of adolescence. Protect her, and set your hounds on anyone who would try to cage her or make her doubt herself. Be her wild friend. Light her way with moonbeams, and let your silver laughter ring through her dreams.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Self-Administered Supplements (Separating the Sheep from the Goats)

Goats need regular mineral supplementation, just like cows and horses do. For cows and horses, you basically just buy a salt-lick. These are cheap, available everywhere, and formulated for cows and horses, the most common and highly valued livestock around. You can get medicated and unmedicated salt-blocks, you can get them in white, red, blue, green and grey, and in every size from five pounds on up to fifty. 

Most farm stores also carry sheep minerals. Usually these are in the form of a fifty pound bag of loose minerals, rather than a solid block, and are meant to be poured out into a trough and left for the animals to nibble on as they choose. For the first several years I was here, I thought these were adequate supplements for goats, as well. Sheep, goats, what's the difference, really? In every livestock book out there for the smallholder, goats and sheep are lumped together as "small ruminants." Even the vet does the same thing, for example advertising a "small ruminant" workshop every spring. Usually, these things are geared more toward a sheep than they are toward goats. 

Goats are... well, the "goats" of the farm world. They are the low animal on the totem pole. Few veterinarians are trained specifically in goat care (if you don't believe me, take a sample of opinions from any ten goat owners). Farm stores seldom carry items targeted for goats, be they hoof-trimmers, disbudding machines, or feed and minerals. The prevailing attitude towards goats seems to be that they are tough, independent animals that don't really need active care; just throw them some hay and whatever you have and they'll be all right. 

It is true that goats are often shockingly neglected. I think it stems from many people not even knowing what a healthy goat in the prime of life actually looks like. Dairy goat breeds are supposed to have short, sleek, shiny coats - not shaggy coarse hair. They ought to be pleasingly plump, with visible hipbones, but no sharp projections anywhere. Their hooves ought to be dainty and short, not long and certainly not curled or chipped. At all times, goats should be active and sprightly, never lethargic or weak. 

In order to maintain this good health, one of the things they need, it turns out, is a mineral supplement formulated specifically for GOATS, not for sheep. Goats need a higher level of copper in their diets than do sheep (http://www.extension.org/pages/19383/goat-nutrition-copper#.U3wKeF6BlQY) and if fed sheep supplements over a long period of time, they will become copper deficient and susceptible to parasites. Parasites are a complex problem in goats, with many more factors in play, but copper levels are an important one. I learned this the hard way. 

For a long time, after I initially requested it, my local feed store carried Purina Goat Minerals, and my goats loved it and ate it up with relish. But for some reason, since we returned from Mexico, Purina Goat Minerals are no longer available locally. My store didn't carry any goat minerals at all and tried to sell me sheep minerals again, but I insisted that they get me some goat stuff. What they came up with (I misremember the name and do not choose, at this time, to walk out to the barn and take a look) is presumably perfectly adequate from a nutritional standpoint, but the goats don't like it. In order to get them to eat it, I have to mix it with grain and molasses. 

The goats seem, however, to have found another source of needed minerals. I often let the goats out to browse outside of their pasture on sunny afternoons, and whenever I do, the first place they go is the fire pit. While I can't make much of an educated guess about the chemical composition, much less the copper content, I can say that the goats eat up the wood ashes with alacrity. Yesterday we burned a bunch of scrap wood and cardboard that was lying about the place, and the ashes left behind must have been delicious, because the does were fighting each other for the best spot. 

I'm not worried that they might poison themselves, because we don't burn treated wood, plastic, or other trash. I'm only a little bit concerned that I am not providing them with enough loose minerals, or else they wouldn't be so crazy about the fire pit. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Spring Pictures (Voyeurism)

It may be the middle of May, but spring is finally in full swing here in the upper northwest. We have enjoyed nearly an entire week of very warm, sunny days. Yesterday I took a walk around a beautiful residential neighborhood in Bellingham, cruising the alleys and checking out the backyard gardens.

Although I am only a few miles north of Bellingham, my homestead has a very cold microclimate (as I think I may have mentioned once or a thousand times) and it is always surprising to me to see just how much further ahead the season is downtown as compared to here.

Irises are my favorite flower. I have gorgeous giant blue irises in my yard (a few years ago I traded eggs for bulbs) but they haven't bloomed yet, they are still stately green spires. These irises were lovely in the afternoon sunshine.


Bleeding hearts


I don't grow flowers - except for that one clump of irises and the rhododendron bushes that line the front path I am content with wildflowers on my property. But it was lovely to see the flower gardens surrounding the beautiful old homes on my walk yesterday. I am a bit too practical for flowers - unless it's edible I'm not really interested in growing it. But these flowers almost make me change my mind. Almost. 

There are plenty of edible-oriented garden in the downtown areas, as well. That's one of the reasons I like to walk the alleys - most people plant their flowers out front and their vegetable gardens in the backyard. I would say nearly every home has something edible planted - a fruit tree or other perennial - and about a third have an actual garden of some sort.  Favorites in our area include:


Raspberries; so many homes have a line of raspberry canes running along the back of a shed or the alley. These are in bloom. The flowers are not impressive, but there were plenty of bees. Grapevines are also a popular item, and now are just putting out their fresh green leaves and tendrils. 

I have definite voyeuristic tendencies when it comes to other people's yards. I like to look and see how they have things organized and think how I would use the same space for food production. All those little flower bushes could be blueberries, for example, and that weedy space on the side of the porch looks just right for a chicken coop.... I'd train a grapevine over that carport, I think, or use that sunny lawn space for raised beds...

I can't be the only one who does this. Mentally rearranging other people's space is a fun exercise, but the truth is I have plenty of actual rearranging to do here at home. Last week I went to a giant plant sale and got a lot of plants, cheap. I have to get them into the ground soon. I bought a flat of roma tomatoes (which can finally be set outside) and several containers of strawberries. I'm running out of garden space... but that's another post. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Warm Weather Work (Slug Shoes)

Today brought the first real warm weather of the season, by which I mean I'm pretty sure it was over 64 degrees fahrenheit. In any case it was warm enough that I got rather sweaty doing some digging out in the garden.

The potatoes that I planted as an experiment in tubs in the playroom back in january (Spud 'Speriment (Potato Poetry)) needed to be hilled already, which I did, digging up some nice black dirt from the oldest, backmost part of the compost heap, now five years old and covered with grass. I also did quite a bit of transplanting. I transplanted some sage and some thyme from black plastic into pretty, porch-worthy containers. I moved some globe artichoke starts from the greenhouse outside, and I moved the greenhouse tomatoes and peppers into larger containers. 65 degrees notwithstanding, I don't trust the weather enough to move tomatoes outside until June.

After all that shovel work, my back was aching and I needed a stretch. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed the tiny white cobwebby beginnings of a tent caterpillar infestation in the orchard. Tent caterpillars, for those of you lucky enough to live somewhere they don't, are a thoroughly disgusting form of insect life with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Tent caterpillars are one of those mysterious kinds of bug that has some multi-year life cycle, making it difficult to predict when they are going to show up. Like locusts. The lore of my youth said that every three - or five - or seven years there would be a bad infestation. That doesn't even leave much scope for accuracy, but what I can say is that we have lived here for seven years and these are the first I've seen.

This link will tell you more about tent caterpillars and what kind of unholy chemical hell you can unleash on them if you are so inclined (http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/caterpillars.htm). I prefer to walk the orchard on fine evening such as this, and when I see a tent, I bend over and grab a dock leaf, or a plantain leaf, or some other broad and sturdy leaf; fold it into my palm, and squish the little fuckers manually.

It's an unpleasant job, squishing caterpillars by hand. Nobody said homesteading was always aesthetically pleasing. I never promised you a rose garden. However I will say that today, squishing caterpillars in the warm, slanting sunshine with a carpet of dandelions under my feet and the orchard blossoms forming a fragrant cloud about my head was considerably more pleasant than squishing caterpillars was last week, when I was doing it in a frigid drizzle.

Times like this, I sometimes wish I had a boy child, who might actively enjoy such work. When I was small and we lived on a small farm, my father put a bounty on slugs in the springtime. Slugs are one of the many banes of a garden, and my dad didn't like to use chemical control if he could help it. He preferred to pay us kids to deal with them. Many's the dewy morning I was sent out with a salt shaker. Because we all liked to go barefoot in the springtime, we all, of course, often had the unpleasant experience of stepping on a slug.

Even today, I have a visceral memory of that awful, unexpected slimy squash, followed by the grim discovery that slugs just don't wipe off. A squished slug forms a sticky plaque that endures for days. Me and my sister, whenever we stepped on a slug, would emit high pitched squeals and run to the gravel driveway to commence the futile task of scraping our feet. My brother, on the other hand, actually enjoyed stepping on slugs.

I remember him stomping around the garden, about nine years old, defiantly barefoot, squashing every slug he could find. He said he was going to make himself a pair of slug shoes. He covered every square centimeter of the soles of his feet with that thick, sticky, durable, dark brown substance otherwise known as slug guts.

Really, who hasn't stepped on a slug? I pity the child who never has. As horrible as the experience is, at least it means I'm walking on grass. What are those kids stepping on instead, cigarette butts? I'm glad my fingers and thumb know the feel of a mass of tiny caterpillars meeting their doom between them. I'm glad I know that bug guts are greeny-yellow; that spit bugs spit on bladderwort; that buttercups feel greasy; that garter snakes stink but don't bite; and that push comes to shove, I can always make shoes out of slugs.

Friday, April 25, 2014

New Pasture (No More Monkeys)

A couple of weeks ago, during a short stretch of good weather, Homero and the Unofficial Farmhand (hereinafter U.F., also known as Phil, my daughter's live in boyfriend) spent the day fencing in the orchard.

The orchard occupies about a sixth of the easternmost side of the property, a section about sixty feet wide by 100 feet long, just big enough for about twenty fruit trees. At last count, we had three pears, three cherries, three plums, two big hazelnut bushes, and four giant old blueberry bushes that aren't doing very well and probably ought to be uprooted and replaced with more apples. This area is also home to my rhubarb plant and to a mess of raspberry canes I got a few years ago from my sister.

And to a whole lot of grass. 60 x 100 equals 6,000 square feet of grass, which at this time of year is a lot of biomass. The grass is about knee high at the moment - fresh and green, squeaky clean and bright glossy green. It looks so healthy I almost want to eat it myself. For years, I have wanted to fence in this area and use it for the ponies - it can't be used for the goats because they would, of course, prefer the fruit trees. My does are big ladies and on their hind legs they can reach a good seven feet high. They would kill all the young fruit trees in about fifteen minutes. But I can't stand to see all that good grass go to waste under the mower blades when it could be transformed into meat and savings in hay over the winter.

This spring has been so very cold and so very wet that we had to wait until a) the ground thawed, and b) the ground dried out a little before I could have the U.F. drive fenceposts. It was just two weeks ago that both those conditions were met, along with the third condition of my bank account having enough money in it to buy T-posts and four foot woven wire no-climb fencing.

Half the fencing was already in place - there was already a fence between the backyard and the orchard. Years ago we realized that if we wanted an orchard at all, we would have to protect the young trees from goats. I say "realized" as though it were a spontaneous development; as though it hadn't taken us six dead trees to come to the aforementioned "realization." Alas, it did. The fence deciding the orchard from the backyard went in some five years ago.

All we needed to fence in was the eastern boundary of the orchard, and the short southern side. That's about 160 linear feet of fencing, plus some 18 T-posts. Fencing comes in a 100 foot roll and it costs about $125 per roll. Six foot T-posts are eight bucks apiece. Throw in the fence clips and I dropped over $300 at the feed store. Even so, the men ran out of fencing about six feet short. I'm not sure how that happened, unless the rolls are short, or unless I am VERY bad at pacing off distance. Luckily, just like any farmstead, there are several bits and pieces of fencing laying around and we were able to find one to fit the gap.

Now every morning when I go out to milk, I also take the calf and the pony and put them into the new orchard pasture to graze. The stupid dairy calf gads not yet learned to walk on a lead and it is a difficult task to get her into the pasture, but she is already filling out a bit about the hipbones. I was nervous she would eat my raspberry canes, and actually it seems that yes, she is eating them. Luckily I have other raspberries in safer areas, and she doesn't seem to care about the rhubarb. Here's hoping that 6,000 square feet of grass is enough to fatten up one shrimpy, gimpy dairy calf by autumn.

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.