Wake up. Walk the dog. Boil water, grind coffee beans, set the french press. By now it’s 6:15AM and I’m already late for my morning. Luckily, the sun still has about 40 minutes of slumber this time of year, meaning I have 40 minutes to finish my morning routine. This is my time before work, before the world wakes up. I check my email, I check my various social media accounts, I check the weather, the news, and my blogroll. I write. As I’m nearing the end, I’ll jot down all of my to-dos for the day in my trusted Moleskine planner. Of course, this pre-work ritual will gradually move to earlier and earlier times as the season begins and the day starts sooner. Though I’m happy to do it because I love mornings. I live for these solitary, creative dawn hours.
The hard work often comes in the form of habit, of training yourself to repeat and repeat. Luckily for me, routine is synonymous with farming. Everyday is a ritual. You wake, you dress, you walk out to the barn, you pull down four 50 lb. hay bales and cut the tightly bound twine with your pocket knife. Feed out the flakes, refresh their loose minerals and bicarb, pull any loose hay that’s fallen into their waterer. Survey the herd. Repeat in the late afternoon, and again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day… And then there’s the milking season, when your alarm chimes at 4:30AM alerting you it’s time for milking, your twice-daily 2-hour long ritual, for 300 days out of the year.
It’s in these rituals that good work is defined, and accomplished.
It’s valentine’s day. Sleep-in, snuggle-up, and kiss someone ya love.
Have you heard of shakshuka? No, it’s not a dance. It’s a dish, a Tunisian/Egyptian/Libyan/Moroccan/Jewish dish, depending on who you talk to. The college student in me is wide-eyed; this is everything that fascinates me about food. A single dish with an encyclopedia of variations, each one reflecting specific cultural traditions. Think borscht or adobo. Shakshuka can be spelled shakshouka or shakshuka or chakchouka. It’s prepared in a cast iron pot or a tagine. It’s sprinkled with salty cheese or sausage (never both).
I bring it up because I can’t stop cooking it. I happened upon the recipe earlier this year while perusing the beautifully curated pages of Kinfolk online. The ingredients are all things that I keep readily stocked in our kitchen. And although the ground is entirely frozen over at the moment, the ingredients are things that we produce, so I imagine this dish as a centerpiece on our summer table. Just in case you forgot that summer is a real thing, here is proof from our past:
Maybe you’ve wondered why a farmer who loves to cook is only now posting a recipe. There was a point in my life when I took pictures of close to everything I cooked, but I decided to leave that sort of thing to the pros. I decided that pictures of food, although stunning and inspiring, capture only a fraction of the story, leaving out the most important parts. There’s the ceremony. Like an un-choregraphed dance. From the counter to the stove top to the sink to the counter to the fridge to the spice rack. There are the more delicate moves. The slicing, the sprinkling, the stirring. There are the sounds. The cracking open of an egg, the grinding of a pepper shaker, the snapping of onions hitting a hot pan. The pictures often forget the emotion of the cook, the context of the table. Was the meal a response to a lover’s request, or to the weather? And what about the kitchen?
Shakshuka with Kale and Goat Cheese, from Kinfolk
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 heaping cup chopped kale
5 cloves garlic, sliced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chilpotle powder
1 (28 ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained
sea salt to taste
1/2 cup goat cheese
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon basil, chopped
Heat oil in a 8 to 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped onions, kale and garlic and stir until soft. Add cumin, chipotle powder and stir for another minute. Add tomatoes and their liquid to the skillet. Reduce heat, simmer for 15 minutes.
When tomato mixture has thickened slightly, stir in a dash of salt. Make a little hole in the sauce with a wooden spoon and crack egg into the cleavage, repeating three more times with the remaining eggs across the surface of the sauce. Cover the skillet and cook for 4–5 minutes, depending on how runny you like your yolks. Remove from heat and finish with goat cheese and herbs.
Serve with buttered toast.
SNOW. Finally, there is actually snow on the ground. A friend is coming up from the city (no, not Plattsburgh) to spend the weekend with us and I was worried that he would be disappointed at the bleakness of our environment. Fear no more, the beauty of the place has returned. The cows were happily enjoying the snow snack. The goats on the other hand…
Here it is! My premier Bagging Up post. First things first, what exactly is bagging up? It’s what we dairy people say when an animal’s udder begins to fill with milk as they come close to giving birth. Bagging up is a signal to have all hands on deck for imminent action. A sign that babies are about to be born. That the season is about to begin. Obviously I’m using it here in a figurative sense…I’m not pregnant, but our business udders are bagging up for sure.
We’ve been talking about this figurative farm of ours for a few years now. We focused on answering the important questions: what will we call it? What will our logo look like? What color will we paint the barn?
But truly we have to start somewhere. We recently sat down to open the book on our farm, but twenty minutes in we were arguing and accusing each other of various injustices. The meeting was cut short. The book slammed shut. The dog taken for a walk. The headphones plugged in.
We realized that our trajectories travel at different speeds, and on somewhat different paths. I move steadily through projects and life, neurotically setting personal deadlines and constantly chipping my way toward an objective. Noah is forever starting and stopping, always sure to take breaks and appreciate non-work time. I thrive with the challenge of work. He savors his time off.
The question we should have been asking ourselves is, How do we want to farm? What do we value in life and in work? How do we want our farm to exist in a community? How do we want to exist in a community? The answers to these questions will lead us to a mission statement, or what some people would call a holistic goal. These written statements will guide our decision making and planning for the future. The key is to make these statements broad enough to allow for change and dynamism, but specific in their articulation of our values and personal needs.
Next up is evaluating our resources. What are our physical resources: What knowledge do we have? What friends or mentors or non physical recourses can we count on for advice and guidance? Once we’ve answered these questions, we then realize what things we need to gain or do in the near future. What are we lacking: What skills do we need to acquire or who do we need to hire? What resources do we need to accumulate? An example of a few specific items on our to-do list:
- call our local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office and register for low-interest beginning farmer loans
- learn to use Quickbooks
- understand farm insurance needs
Defining these questions and answers has helped to bring our trajectories closer together, and to split up the work based on our strengths. Up next: writing that mission statement and setting some long term goals. Want more information? Check out NE Beginning Farmers at Cornell, and Holistic Management International.
When I enter the barn at chores time, I’m lately greeted by a chorus of yells from the herd. But nothing’s amiss – their hay remains full, their water fresh. I think the goats are actually growing bored in their unemployment. They need to keep it together for just one more month…
It’s official, despite what the temperature and the landscape tell us, winter break is over. Noah and I had the unfortunate realization that this past month has hardly been a break at all…
This week marked the busiest week of the new year. Now we’re full speed into prepping the farm for the upcoming season. We spent this week emailing, writing proposals, working through issues, purchasing supplies, and cleaning everything. We ordered all of our CDT vaccines for the season, which amounts to around $300 worth. But these antarctic temperatures have proved troublesome in a new way: when we opened the box, the vaccines were frozen solid. This was not good. Freezing causes the vaccine to become inactive. Fortunately, Valley Vet was kind enough to send us a whole new set of vaccines for free, which should be arriving today. As I’m writing this, the thermometer reads 33 degrees F, a reasonable winter temperature. Despite our unwillingness to leave winter break behind, the cows are definitely ready for spring to come: they greet the tractor will bellows of disappointment.
Last weekend was the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York‘s – otherwise known as NOFA-NY- annual winter conference. If you’re at all interested in farming in the northeast, NOFA is a great place to start. Each state has their own chapter, and they’re rich with (free!) resources, including internship and job listings, farmer-mentor connections, and the like.
We made the two hour pilgrimage to Saratoga Springs for a long weekend of workshops, networking, and good food. We split up for the three days and attended as many different workshops as we could – Noah focused on vegetable and fruit production, and I spent my time at the business and livestock classes. The sessions offered plenty of variety, from brambles to poultry-breeding to meat yields to bookkeeping to cooperative farming to composting to high tunnels to farm insurance and even “farming with rocks” – we both skipped it, but goes to show there was something for everyone.
The conference represented a culmination of the past four weeks, which we spent pouring our energy into planning for our big idea. I like ideas. It comes with the territory of being a farmer – everyday presents new challenges that beg for innovative solutions. But turning your ideas into reality is difficult. There are distractions, there are too many details, there’s a lot of fear. Our big idea is, of course, to start our own farm. But geez, where to even begin? We’ve been cultivating our agricultural know-how over the past two years, but that’s only 50% of owning a farm. The other 50% is arguably more important, because as farmers we’re also full-time managers and entrepreneurs. It’s the area where we need the most help, as our business plan thus far has been something to the effect of:
FARM BUSINESS PLAN
1. Milk goats and grow vegetables
Right, probably not gonna work. This is the way it goes for a lot of beginning farmers. In the spirit of blogging, I’m going to share all of our business start-up prep in the next year in a series of blog posts called “Bagging Up: a bootstrapper’s blueprint for building a farm business from the ground up.” Part of the series includes the addition of a bookshelf where I’ll list any books or resources that prove useful, inspirational, or entertaining. Stay tuned!
Learning a new skill is daunting. Especially when that skill is traditionally governed by men with a lot of knowledge, talent, and brawn. It just wasn’t in my cards to learn the ins and outs of a toolbox as a kid. I wasn’t invited to tag along on home improvement projects or ceremonial wood chopping. My chore was washing dishes while my brother’s was mowing the lawn.
I fear the shop because of what lies inside: countless screws, nails, bolts all with specific purposes and tools to match; various saws; lots of oils. I mostly stick to the drill because its use is clear and its simple to say. I could navigate my way around a circular saw for a simple cut, but that’s the extent of my fix-it savvy. If I wanted to build a new set of hay feeders for the kids, well tough luck unless one of the guys is around to show me the ropes. That’s ok, I’m happy to relinquish authority and take direction. But I’m happier self-sufficient. Aren’t we all?
I’m committed to learning the basics of construction. I want to build a mobile housing unit for our doelings so they can live out on pasture during the summer months. The idea is to build something sturdy enough to house rowdy goats in three season weather, but light enough to be pushed (with lots of effort) or tugged along by a tractor or gator to rotate them throughout the pasture. This isn’t something I dreamed up; the inspiration came from some very talented farmers who built a prototype of sorts while we were working at Consider Bardwell.
I broke open our copy of the aptly named, How to Build Animal Housing, and a quick perusal of our library’s shelves produced How to Build Small Barns and Outbuildings, an apparent classic for the small-scale homesteader. Before I began drawing up the plans, I had to jot down a couple of numbers. How many doelings would I need this house to hold? And for how long? We plan on housing around a max of 10 doelings this summer, but I want to accommodate for growth (farming rule of thumb), so I planned for 20. The idea is to put the doelings out in the house once they’re weaned, between May and June. As long as these antarctic conditions don’t last the whole year, our timing should coincide with the pasture’s growth. The doelings will stay out in their house for as long as the weather holds, which will hopefully take us to early December. We’ll include a set of closable doors to shut them in on particularly cold nights. My initial drafts:
A few other things we took into consideration:
- Ease of cleaning – I imagined how we would go about cleaning the house. Would we use shovels or pitchforks? Should the floor be slatted? Is the door wide enough to comfortably pitch their pack into the bucket of a tractor?
- Feeding routine – how are we going to feed the doelings their hay and grain twice daily?
- Feeder design – we need grain feeders that are easy to clean (of course) and hay feeders formatted to prevent two common manger problems: 1) goats jumping into the top of the feeder and getting their dirty hooves all over the hay; and 2) getting their heads or limbs stuck. For the grain feeders, 4-inch PVC cut length-wise is a common DIY trough, and it works pretty well.
- Rain-water catching system – it’s a free resource, why not utilize it?
The reality is, when it comes to goats, the best laid plans mean nothing once they’ve pointed out all of the flaws, which they will inevitably do. It pays to be able to think like a goat, which after 2 years we’re getting pretty good at doing. When in doubt I always ask myself, “Can I f*ck with this?” If the answer is at all yes, then our work is not yet finished.
The polar vortex is back. It’s -14 degrees F. Even my dog protested at the outside temperature, treating me with the fastest bathroom break in dog history. We moved the goats back to their roomier barn during last week’s thaw, only to move them back up to their enclosed loafing barn yesterday afternoon. When will this madness stop? The doelings seem nonplussed:
The goats have come into their final trimester of pregnancy. I can’t believe that we’re already here. It means we’re a mere 50 days away from the onset of kidding season. It means our winter respite is nearly over. And yet we still have so much to do. Winter has hardly felt like a break at all.
The goats’ mid-sections grow wider with each day. I look at a select few of them and wonder if it’s possible for them to get any bigger. (And it seems it is.) This is the time when the kids do the most growing. It’s especially important that we keep a close eye on mama’s health as most pregnancy issues pop-up during this final stretch. Pregnancy diseases run the gamut from chlamydia to miscarriage to the awful sounding pregnancy toxemia. Our best defense is prevention. We’ll bump up their nutrition and begin top-dressing their usual first-cutting hay with protein-rich second cutting. (Second cutting is exactly as it sounds, it’s the second cutting off of a hay field.) When we walk through the barn in the morning we survey the sleepy bodies and take note that everyone is chewing their cud or happily asleep. We ensure that they can all get up and walk to the feeders. We check their back ends for diarrhea. If all looks good, we let them be, and survey them again at evening feeding. Winter is a great time to be a goat.
When was the last time you wrote a letter? My grandmother and I have been mailing letters back and forth between the U.S. and England for about 4 years. She sent letters to me across the country and back, and I’d send a response to the same village an hour northwest out of London. I love writing letters because they are a welcome break from the digital communication we’re submerged in everyday. Your handwriting matters. The paper matters. The color of the pen, the size of the envelope, the image on the stamp. Letters are reason to stop and think about your day, your life.
Here is my proposal: I want to write you letters. Yes, real, handwritten letters mailed in envelopes through the post office. I’ll write you a letter at least once a month. Depending on your interest and commitment, it could be more. The exciting thing about a pen pal is letters are just the beginning – you could get cards, postcards, small packages, mix CDs, books, magazine clips, etc. That’s the essence of snail mail communication, it’s not about what’s happening right now, it’s about the relationship. So, if you’d like to be my pen pal, send me an email at stephaniefishes [at] gmail [dot] com and expect a letter in the next week!
This weather is crazy. Last week I truly thought that our goats would revolt if there were any more -20 degree days. Seeing them huddled and shivering in their pole barn broke my heart into a few pieces. What broke my heart even more was knowing that all of their energy was going to keeping themselves warm rather than growing their babies. On the coldest night last week we decided an emergency move was in their best interest. So commenced operation Goat March, which was incredibly difficult as their milking lane was completely iced over – we couldn’t even open the gates. We had to coerce the goats to walk out of the front door of the barn into darkness, and down the farm road. It was not fun, and took about an hour and a half. But they were much happier in their warmer loafing barn.
Luckily for us the polar vortex has passed (which makes this weather situation sound so much more intense). The temperature has warmed to a consistent, balmy 32 degrees. The ice is trying its darnedest to melt, which is creating gross muddy pools of ice water all over the farm.
In an earlier post I talked about how a farmer, by necessity, becomes brave to handle any and all weather. That still stands, but I admittedly failed to mention that we have a lot of help from our gear. Having the right clothing makes all the difference. When you have the right gear, you can brave just about anything. Check-out our mud room:
Here are my five winter gear essentials. Keep in mind good gear is not cheap, but consider them an investment – gear should last a handful of seasons before needing replacement.
- Number one is sturdy, warm, waterproof boots. I like the Wetland Muck Boot. I actually wear these for three seasons (fall through spring) and switch to a lighter-weight work boot for summer. I feel invincible in my boots, fearing neither puddle, poop-heavy goat pack, nor muddy walkway.
- Number two is socks. Socks make the experience. I’m notorious for wearing out the heels in my socks, so I was excited to find Darn Tough socks made next door in Vermont. Besides being pillowy soft, they have a lifetime guarantee. They say, if you can wear out a pair of Darn Tough socks, they’ll send you replacement ones for free. Yah, it’s real, and it’s awesome.
- Number three is work pants. I like Dickies Women’s Original 774 Work Pant. They’re just basic, cotton-polyester pants that are great for layering.
- Number four is a warm baselayer. I was gifted a set of Patagonia’s Capilene 3 Mid-Weight bottoms last year and now I swear by them. They’re expensive at full price, but I’ve found past season and overstock pairs for 50% off. I own three pairs, and wash them often. Still warm as a wood stove.
- Number five is a heavy duty jacket. I bought an off-brand canvas jacket at a feed supply store (Lakin Mckey) but I can’t seem to find it online anywhere. Nevertheless, Carhartt makes a great work coat. I don’t worry about it being waterproof in the winter as any rain typically comes down as snow or sleet, which is manageable.
Some extras: Thrift store sweaters. I’m all about layering. That way you can strip-down as you work. There’s no better way to warm up than to sling a few 50 lb. hay bales. A neck gaiter. They’re a little weird, but they cover up that exposed part right under your chin, and when it’s uber cold, it helps to be able to pull something over your mouth and nose. I like Smartwool’s gaiter and Buff’s Original all purpose. Buff also makes great headbands. Cleats, for extreme ice walking. And finally, a good vest. Again, perfect for when it’s above freezing but still cold enough to layer over a heavy wool sweater.
First things first – we had to rouse ourselves from bed at 2:30 AM yesterday morning to load our last batch of meat kids and our milking culls onto the trailer headed for the slaughterhouse. It’s a strange enough experience waking from a deep sleep, but what could make it even more surreal is loading some of your goats onto a trailer never to be seen alive again. Needless to say Monday was a weird day. We got the hanging weights around noon, and I set to work putting names to the numbers to see how much meat our goats produced. From the 23 meat kids, the average hanging weight was 25 lbs., which is 3 lbs. below the average hanging weight for the kids we sent in October. With this in mind, we’ll aim to send all of our meat kids in October and November of this year when they’re around 6 months old.
In other news, I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about my generation. While I was driving to Plattsburgh to run some big-city errands, I tuned into On Point with Tom Ashbrook (via VPR). This weekend’s episode was all about the much debated millennial. Like the rest of the world (apparently), I’m just as intrigued by the goings-on of my peers. Who are we? What do we want? Am I just as disoriented and simultaneously determined as the rest? The answer, according to Ashbrook and his guests, was a resounding “Yes.” Phew.
I remember the decision to leave my 10-6 job answering phones and writing copy for a mail order meat company in Brooklyn. My parents were sure that this could be a career-killing choice, that companies look down on a potential employee that jumps from job to job. My older family members, prompted by the fact that I am the first one to complete a university degree, implored me to get a job “at a for-profit, like in sales” and to leave my “gardening” as a hobby for the weekends. Everyone was convinced that I was wasting my pricey college degree. At the time I was bummed at their lack of enthusiasm, and I often questioned my decision. It’s true I was making more money at 22, fresh out of college, then I will probably make in the next 10 years, if not ever again. I have skills that could be easily applied to a lay-man’s job: I’m swift with record keeping and new media, I’m organized, I’m highly type-A. Maybe I don’t have a lucrative career in the traditional sense, but at a quarter century, I at least have a rich bank of life experiences. A perfect example, this is how we spent New Year’s day of 2013, hiking our way out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon:
Instead of “team members” in a conference room, these are my colleagues and this is my office:
How my generation measures success is not the same as my parent’s generation. We’re no longer excited by the prospect of a steady job right after college; we need something more, be it travel and adventure, service, or entrepreneurship, or all three. We’re politically disenfranchised. We’re consumed by money only because we have very little, which is not to be confused with materialistic.
In retrospect, my decision to leave Brooklyn to begin farming was actually quite status-quo. I know of other young people entering the alternative workforce, or embarking on adventures of meaning. We have a lot of questions about the world, our country, and ourselves. And the only way we see fit to answer them is to experience it all. What are your thoughts on the millennials?