The End of an Era

What can you say about a hundred year old shed? You can say that it has unassumingly carried out its tasks in all weathers, keeping the contents dry and safe faithfully through the years. You can say that it probably didn’t cost much, most likely nothing, when it was made back around 1915. It has sat for a hundred years on a concrete pad that was filled with old bottles and stones and crockery to make the concrete go farther. The big 10×10 hand-hewn beams must have held up a larger building before coming to this shed. Likewise, the siding boards had clearly been somewhere else before they came to rest there. The partition gate had previously been a feeder of some sort. The small outside livestock door was a cast-off from some long-gone barn.

For the earlier farmers it was a slaughterhouse, with a chute in the middle to hoist the pig up. Part of a rectangle of sheds that defined the yard behind our 200 year old house, it was located conveniently near the smokehouse. Later it was a machine shop and storage shed. When we arrived it was jammed with the cast-offs of an old farm, old hand-made tables and workbenches holding jars and cans of nails and chains and unknown parts of long-gone farm implements. Jarvie Keyworth, the last farmer who worked this land, died thirty years ago and had been a blacksmith for his neighbors for sixty years before that, so there were various bits of indecipherable metal objects, maybe they had not worked out or they were spares. We passed most of them on to, probably, China, where their good iron molecules are still holding things up and doing stalwart duty somewhere.

When we moved in, the roof of the southern half of the shed was caved in and stood all rickety in the foreground of our far western view. We took a lot of pictures of that wonderful view, and in every one of them the shed leans gracefully in the front, lending rustic flavor to the glorious sunsets. We put all our garden stuff, cold frames and tools and potting soil, in the intact northern half, and there it stayed because our livestock and house-winterizing and cheesemaking gobbled up our time so voraciously that we could have no garden.

The first spring we were here this shed was the pig shed. Our three piglets stayed in there for the first couple of months until they outgrew it, and we moved them farther north to a larger pen. After they left, we threw a lot of straw and hay in and it became the weaning shed for our first five weanling goats. That year we only had five kids and left them all with their mothers until well into the spring. When we took them away to wean them, there was a minimum of ruckus because we had waited so long. But by the third morning, the kids had studied their surroundings with careful goat curiosity very well, and managed to leap out of the high window, easily knocking the screen out. They hung around the door of the barn trading stories with their mothers through the gate until we came to bring them back to the shed. We put a better screen on the window and they stayed put until weaning was complete and we could move them back into the herd.

The second year we were here our son brought four friends home from college and they spent an epic January day taking down the half of the shed that was falling down. In the snow and icy rain they peeled off the roof with a large rope and tore it apart. The walls were resistant, but they worked on their task with sledge and saws and lots of beer. Anything they could salvage they stacked aside and the rest they burned all through the day to stay warm. My husband kept the inside fire burning, too, and kept the stove turning out masses of food, and at the end of the day the shed was a neat stack of siding boards here, metal roofing there, beams piled on the slab, and a small hill of ashes over there. Then these five young men, instead of trooping inside and collapsing near the fire, took a football down to the pasture slopes, which were glazed with ice by that time, and played flag football until it was too dark to see. Then they took the toboggan and flashlights and spent an hour flying down the lane into the lower pasture and slipping and sliding back up. After that they played cards until midnight. Ah, to be young.

So, for five more years the north half of the shed stood alone in the foreground of the sunset view. A couple of years ago we took everything out of it, moved on a lot of the garden tools, stacked the cold frames in the old barn, and got ready to take it down. We circled it with our sledges and prybars, and after a few taps, we decided we had other projects that were more necessary. So it slid away back down the priority list and continued to stand until this week, the metal roofing gradually blowing off sheet by sheet in storms, and the connections gradually rotting apart.

As in every life, on our farm every action is connected to a vast web of other things. So we have another larger tumbling-down shed that is attached to the old barn. When we got here it was filled to the rafters with old sofas, boxes of books, a car windshield with bullet holes in it, hundreds of old window shutters, a huge stack of glass building blocks, you name it and we had it, mostly junk, junk, junk. It took us many hours and many trips to the dump to clear it out. This shed has high priority because it is potentially so dangerous. Rotten and poorly supported, it is overdue to fall down and if it fell down it is large enough to crush people or animals in its way. It also is such a potentially useful space right by the house and barn that we have big plans for it. But it had not made it all the way to the top of the priority list until last week. We decided that now as winter comes on we at last have some time to deal with it. But first, we had to take down the small falling-down shed, so we would have room to stack anything salvageable from the big falling-down shed. So the small shed had to come down. Everything in its order.

So on Monday morning the roof came off the small falling-down shed and then sides came down. It was remarkably easy because we had left it so long. Many of the joints were rotten and just came apart with a whack or two of the sledge. Now the parts are being sorted and stacked, as I write, and the beams are being piled on the slab. Soon we will just have a bare slab where so recently there was a useful shed. We hope to have another useful shed there again soon, but first it will be a staging area for the large amount of useful building material we will pull off the big falling-down shed. Soon, soon, by next spring, we will have a lot more usable space. What will we fill it with? More piglets? More iron parts? Chickens? I hope we can avoid filling it with miscellaneous stuff that will just sit there for the next farmer to dispose of. We have a lot of stuff but nothing near the kind of junk and rodent-harborage that were there before. The sheds that have been useful in the past and are now just a memory, will be useful again in the future. Can’t wait! Changes, changes! I hope we can build something for nothing that will last usefully for a hundred years!

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How to Walk Through a Tick-Infested Field

We have had an amazing tick season here. Since early spring we have had huge numbers of deer ticks in our fields and woods. We thought that the onset of freezing temperatures might slow them down, but morning after morning in the 20s have made no reduction. If anything, they are starting to panic at the thought of cold weather, and are out in force seeking that last meal before winter. The other day I took the herd of young goats for a little walk across their pasture and into the brushy borders beyond. Wow. I had to take thirty or more ticks off my clothing. I did get them all, since none were there during my tick check in the evening. A very creepy experience.

So I thought I might do the world at large a service by describing how to be safe in such an environment. Deer ticks, of course, are the carriers of Lyme disease. They are new to our area of upstate New York, a lovely product of global climate change. Probably they are worse because of the incredible 50-90% loss of many species of our small ground-feeding birds. A sad thing for many reasons, and also sad because of increasing numbers of ticks. Ticks look so resolute and they climb so speedily up your pants and shirt. But they mostly appear on the front of your clothing, so actually if you are ready, it is pretty easy to detect them and do them in. Deer ticks are about 1/16th of an inch in diameter, black and red, with eight black, speedy legs. The older ticks may be a little bigger, still black and red. Dog ticks and wood ticks are larger still, and very easy to see, but don’t carry Lyme disease.

So, here’s the scoop: First, be aware that you are going into an area where ticks might be. Brush, woods, even lawns can be great habitat. Wear light-colored clothing with a firm surface — no sweaters or knits as outside clothing. Tuck your shirt into your pants and your pant-legs into your socks. That way, when the tick starts to climb up, it will stay visible on your outer clothing and won’t have access to your skin. Take a small screw-top jar with an inch of rubbing alcohol in it. When you get out there, keep checking the front of your pants and shirt. When you see the horrid little bugs, pinch them tightly between the tip of your thumb and your first finger, drop them into the jar, and screw on the lid. Check yourself carefully every 50 yards or so, if you are walking through brush. If you have forgotten your jar, it takes a lot longer to crush each one between your two thumb-nails, but it is necessary lest they get their hooks on you. Just remember to bring your jar and it goes a lot quicker.

The final step is really important — in the evening before bed, go in a well-lit room and take off all your clothes. Carefully examine all your clothing, inside and out, to be sure you did kill every single tick. Then carefully look at your skin, every square inch, especially in any creases or folds. If you walk enough, you don’t have a lot of creases and folds! But you still have to check very thoroughly, to be sure you didn’t miss one. Have someone check the back of your neck and behind your ears, or use a hand mirror to be sure there are no ticks hanging on back there. They don’t generally penetrate deeply into your hair, so if your hair is thick, you just have to check the hairline all the way around. If you have thin hair or no hair, check the whole scalp.

A very positive thing to know is that if you follow the same trail each day for your walk, soon you will have swept up all the ticks and you won’t have to pick them off very often. We used to send our dogs on ahead and they would sweep the area, but they have both passed away in their old age, so we can’t do that any more.

There you have it. How to stay safe in tick country. Don’t let the little bugs keep you from walking in the woods! But keep yourself safe! And soon it will be winter and they will all be under the snow. Hurray!

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Those Sure-Footed Goats

There are many ways in which our beautiful goats demonstrate their sure-footedness. They make death-defying leaps from four and five feet off the ground when their darling herd-mates shove them off the ramp leading to the milking parlor. They dance across the pallets that hold their large hay-bales without breaking their legs. They romp up and down the hills in their pastures, turning this way and that at a gallop.

But perhaps the most elegant demonstration of their deftness is the goat-eggs. We have about eight laying hens who have decided for whatever chickenish reason that they belong in the goat-barn rather than the hen-house. They sleep up in the rafters and peck and scratch through the hay on the floor and in the barnyard all day. We value their input as fly-control agents, by their amazing alchemy turning the grossest, most disgusting insects that exist into delicious eggs. They lay their eggs in the hay-bunks, about four or five feet off the ground.

The goats play Pachinko with the eggs (and sometimes with the hens themselves), carefully nibbling strands of hay from around them so that eventually the eggs drop to the floor, which is also soft hay. We have never figured out the intricacies of their Pachinko scoring system. There the eggs stay, all day, until we come in at milking time to retrieve them.

So here we have 25 goats dancing through the hay all day long. At this time of year, the does are going in and out of heat and our fine buck Andrew is checking them ten or twenty times a day and settling those who are in heat. So there is all this wild activity in the goat-barn all day and far into the night. But those eggs on the floor? they are whole and unhurt among the threats of a hundred dancing goat-hooves, until we come to remove them in the evening. We marvel at one more little miracle on the grounds of Longview Farm.

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Heat Wave

When the weather is so hot, the goats are up and about with the first light and they use the cool of the morning for their most important pastime — no, not eating, though that is indeed very important to them. Their most important pastime is working on their hierarchy. They butt heads by the hour. They do seem to enjoy it so much. One will sidle up to another and shove her rudely. The other will shove back. Then they will say increasingly rude things to each other, escalating, escalating. One will back off and rear up threateningly and the other will stand fearlessly, sturdily to receive the blow. They both back off and rear up again and — bam — head to head. All around the barnyard pairs of goats are squaring off and butting heads. Each pair has a referee, a third goat who stands at right angles and watches the head-butts judiciously. Once one decides she doesn’t want to stand up against another’s abuse any more, she just wanders off, often to find another one to contest.

The hierarchy is too complex for us to completely understand. It has to do with age and size, and having a horn gives you an advantage, and if you lose today you get another chance tomorrow to move up. Goats who have lived together for six years are still working to see who is higher and who is lower. Nothing really comes of it except everyone knows where you stand. There is a slight effect on who gets to go into the milking parlor first, and who gets to eat from this hay bunk or that hay bunk. But it is all the same hay, and everyone gets into the parlor to be milked.

So after they have been milked and fed and they have eaten and worked hard on their hierarchy for a while, they settle peacefully around, some in the barn, some in the shade of the “Goat Pagoda” outside on the open hillside, some in the shade of the cheese room which overlooks the barnyard. They chew their cud and tell quiet stories while the small kids chase each other in and out and up the stairs and down. Then everyone has a good nap. About noon they all get up and have a deep drink of water, which is up to about the right temperature by then. They have another round of hay-eating and cud-chewing and a nice siesta.

It is very peaceful to go into the barn during siesta. It is hard to believe that just a few hours ago these peaceful goats were whacking each other with bone-jarring blows to the head.. One such blow would lay you or me in the grave. In fact, if you are accosted by a goat offering to butt heads with you, just say no, I don’t think so, and scratch its ears instead. It would win.

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The Big Storm

We went out to dinner in town last week for the first time in weeks. During the dinner there was a fierce thunderstorm with amazing winds. Several of the farmers at the dinner went out on the porch to watch the trees toss and stream in the wind, and admire the rain falling sideways. We didn’t think it was going to amount to much at the farm twenty miles away.

When we got home, I backed into the parking place where our car usually sits — but I couldn’t get out the door because there were a lot of leaves and branches in the way. There it was — half of one of our big hundred-year-old maples had been blown down into the 20-foot slot between the house and the barn,
only slightly bending one little corner of the barn roof. Ten feet one way or the other would have been a disaster, taking out either the living room on the one side or the goat barn on the other, with who knows what carnage among our goats. As it is, David spent the next two days out there chainsawing away so we could get in and out the goats’ gate. My peonies that grow next to the house are tossing their curls and talking excitedly about their near miss. Amazing luck, not having even broken a window.

The goaties think it was amazing good luck, too — one of their favorite snacks is fresh maple leaves, bark and twigs, and they made short work of the huge branches we tossed into the pasture. Yum, yum, munch, munch. Minnie, our oldest goat, who has been looking droopy and unhappy for weeks, ate her way through several branches and has more energy than she has had in quite a while.

Another big plus is the two cords of good maple firewood that was delivered almost into the door of our woodshed. The only bad part is having to clean up and losing the shade across our living room in August. All in all we think it was a big piece of good luck.

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Tiny Chicks

We had a remarkable event in the last few weeks. Over the years we have had occasional broody hens. This means that a hen who has been reliably laying eggs every day suddenly gets sulky and sits still for several weeks, without eating, drinking or laying eggs. If she survives she eventually quits her broodiness and returns to the flock and to laying. Broodiness is treated as a bother in laying flocks because it obviously reduces egg production. There is lots of information about “breaking broodiness” in books about chicken care. So we had allowed ourselves to be irritated by broodiness as henowners are supposed to be. But this year we had a better idea.

An active Aracauna rooster had come to us by accident the last time we ordered chicks from the hatchery. He grew up and has been our rooster for several months, leading the hens to food (as if they needed that) and regularly fertilizing them. We also have several Aracauna hens who all lay green or blue eggs, so we could easily tell which eggs are Aracaunas. So when one of the hens went broody and made a nest in the hay barn, we had a brainstorm. Let her have some fertile Aracauna eggs under her and see what happens.

Well, it takes 21 days of brooding to hatch eggs. So we waited, not very patiently. She kept grabbing nearby eggs and worked her way up to 23 eggs! She had to spread out so far to cover them all that she looked like a dinner plate with a chicken’s head sticking out of the middle! So we removed all but 10 and marked them to allow us to check every day and remove the new ones she had stolen. She gradually settled down to her task and brooded. She lay on the eggs all the time without moving, eyes closed, apparently dead except she was warm and would react defensively when we picked her up to remove the new eggs. How do they live without eating or drinking that long?

Anyway, eventually after three weeks one of the eggs started to peep, then a little hole appeared and got larger and larger, and then another egg started to peep and so forth. After a couple of days five little bright-eyed chicks were hopping and cheeping in the nest. The change in the hen was amazing! She returned to life with a snap. She sat up looking about fiercely. Her energy popped back. Her eyes got bright again. The next day she led them off the nest and showed them how to peck and scratch and find food and drink (we helped out by putting a little chick feeder and chick waterer near the nest). She covered the babies up again at night and led them about during the day, showing them how to be chickens. We didn’t have to do anything! They ornament our whole yard and lawn. She brings them out while she looks about vigilantly. Up, down and all about she stares, fiercely guarding them. They are doing well. For the first week or so she sat over them at night in a corner of the henhouse. Then one night we couldn’t see her as we went out to close them up at dusk. David looked all around and was amazed to find them up in one of the nest boxes, at last two feet off the ground with no obvious way for the little chicks to get up there. We are going to do a stake-out at dusk one of these evenings when we have time, so we can see how on earth she gets them up there. What a mystery. What a miracle it all is. An every day miracle. Farming.

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The Smells of the Farm

When you think of the smells of a farm with livestock, you might wrinkle up your nose and wish it smelled better. We think that should be different, so we pay close attention to carrying capacity and avoid situations where the smells get bad. So at this time of the year, the whole farm is permeated with lilac smell. Throughout the yard and all the chicken areas, all you have to do is raise your nose into the air a little bit and you can sniff that magic spring smell of lilac. I think there must be special neurons in the brain that vibrate only to the springtime indescribable smell of lilac. Ours are humming at a fierce rate right about now! The only chicken area that doesn’t smell of lilac is inside the henhouse. That must mean that we need to get more chips to cover up the winter’s hen manure. Once it is covered up and mixed in, the bad smell goes away. Once you have done your chores in the chicken areas, it is time to go into the goat barn. The smell of goat barns is proverbial for really bad smells, but not our goat barn! Despite the very wet and rainy and cold spring, our goats have been getting out of the barn most days to go eat grass, flowers and weeds out in the pastures. The goat barn has a wonderful smell of sweet hay, a deep dark smell with licorice overtones and a long grassy finish. I love to walk from the lilac yard-smell into the barn with its reminders of the difficult but excellent hay season of last summer. The hay is still green and sweet, and the goats love to eat some before they go out to eat fresh grass — it is good for them to do that, as it prevents bloat and grass tetany and other dread disorders. Then the next chores involve a five-minute walk down the hill, through the smells and sounds of the pasture and woods, trilling birds and honeysuckle. The path down the hill goes right through a honeysuckle thicket and the flowery odor lifts you right off your feet and explodes pleasantly in your heart these mornings. Ahhh. The chores down the hill include feeding the pigs their morning whey and looking in on the recent weanlings in the Goat Mahal. The pig area ought to smell awful, right? Pigs are also proverbial for smelling bad. But if you move them often enough — which for us is about once a week– they never build up enough manure and mud to smell like pigs. And do they appreciate it! They run around their house in circles, flapping their ears and generally looking like flying pigs. And the beautiful young weanling goats are well-protected in their spacious shed, and though they still miss their mamas and the adult herd, they love the new quiet and peaceful smells and sounds of their summer camp where they will stay for the next five months until they are almost adults. Today they will be going out into the lower pasture for the first time since they came down here four days ago. They have been bored but are getting used to being their own age-cohort and evolving their own small herd of eight females. I have to go set up their fence now so they can go out. I wish you could share the wonderful smells and sounds of the lower pasture and the rest of the farm. Lovely.

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Rain, Rain, Go Away, Come Again Some Other Day

What a wet spring we are having. I keep a journal and over the last seven years we have had mostly dry springs, where wells go dry and farmers have trouble getting their corn to sprout. Now we are having a very wet spring. Instead of worrying about our well going dry, we are worrying about the pond overflowing over the lawn and drowning the hens. The humans and goats are grouchy, but the pigs are in their element — mud! They arrived about two weeks ago and we put them down in the lower pasture in a funny little pig house to keep them warm and dry. They have learned all about the movable fences. No coyote has gotten in and eaten them. Life is good! They have already rooted up a big area of the pasture. Today we moved them and reseeded the section they had rototilled. We were hoping they would help us get rid of an area of bedstraw and spotted knapweed, but they failed utterly to root those up. So we are pretty sure we are still going to have to dig them up individually to get rid of them. Too bad. A good idea that did not pan out. The gang of piglets are still pretty cautious and run away quickly. Their senses are focussed right in front of their noses, so they can’t see us coming until we are uncomfortably close. Later in the summer, when they outgrow everything else on the farm, they aren’t so cautious, and tend to run towards us and try to knock us over instead. But now, they are afraid of us and everything else. Despite this, they are still having a great party rooting up the pastures and happily making mud. Little pocket piglets. They have already about doubled in size, and soon they will be much bigger. But for now, they root along in a line, letting no worm escape, very cute down in their pasture.

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Spring goats

The coming of spring is one of those things that has been described and effused about for so many thousand years that it is hard to say anything new about its newness! The miracle doesn’t get any less miraculous for all that it is the same as all previous springs. Our young goats bounce through the green grass with the same charm and energy described in the Song of Solomon, where the poet describes the hair of his beloved being like the herds of goats coming down from the mountains. What a strange simile, until you actually see a herd of goats coming down a hill, following a close-braided trail through the green grass. The young goats march in the vanguard, bounce, caper and show off, then the yearlings move more carefully down, but still light as air and barely touching down, then the mothers appear with dignity, placing their hooves carefully in the worn trail through the grass. Pleasure is obvious in their stride, walking in the warm sun and green grass and the herd moving as a unit down the hill, so graceful and pleasant to the eye. Solomon enjoyed it and we do too. How much else we have in common with those who have come before.

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Carrying capacity

“Why don’t you have more of these gorgeous orange and delicious eggs?” say the customers. “Because 35 hens approach the carrying capacity of our land,” I say. And the same is true of our roasting chickens and our pigs and our goats. Carrying capacity.

So what is carrying capacity? Carrying capacity is the number of an organism that a given piece of the environment can support indefinitely without degrading the land or negatively affecting the organisms. So, if you can raise 35 hens on a given piece of land, and then you add another 25 in order to provide more of those delicious and beautiful eggs to your customers, suddenly the dirt starts to show between the grass leaves, then there is more dirt than grass, then there is no grass, then the dirt starts to wash downhill. Since our beautiful farm is on a steep hillside, the law of gravity works harder here than if we were on a flat piece of land. So when the dirt starts to wash downhill, that is some washing!

We found our carrying capacity for hens by surpassing it in the third spring we were here. Our hens like to roam, and they will easily go 100 yards in any direction foraging for the bugs and plants that make them hale and hearty. So we found that they denuded an area about 50 yards in a radius from the door of their henhouse. The back yard was just dirt and shale bits. The washing was significant. So we did two things.

First we built a new henhouse about fifty yards down the row of old barns so they would have fresh ground. Well, we had no idea how demoralizing it is to hens to move their base of operations. They took weeks to recognize their new henhouse as home. When we opened their door in the morning, a line of desperate hens would trudge up the hill and around back to the closed door of the old henhouse. Then in the evening when it was time to go to roost, we had to carry them one by one back to the new henhouse. We would close them in for three days, which is supposed to be the amount of time it takes for hens to become at home in a new place. But they didn’t. It took a couple of weeks for them to settle down, and their suffering was obvious.

So then we decided to let natural pruning take its course. The fox was happy to assist us over the next few months, and we also sold some of the older ones, who still laid a few biiiig eggs each week, to friends looking for a few hens to help out in the yard and give a few eggs. So over the course of time we returned to the carrying capacity of that piece of land. It was very hard work toting unhappy hens every evening, and we hated to see them being so upset. So we are going to build a mobile henhouse to move them about the farm without so much suffering. But it has to be light enough to move without a tractor because we have decided not to have a tractor for various reasons.

So in a lot of ways, as you can see, it is better to hold the line on carrying capacity rather than go overboard and have to back up. That’s the lesson for this week.

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