Winter is winning. I catch myself day-dreaming of visiting any point south of the equator. Of vacationing, sitting on a beach, roasting in the sun while reading a book. Of sweating, because of the atmosphere, not because I’m throwing hay under 10 pounds of clothes. I want spring so bad that over the weekend it was 40 degrees and I celebrated by opening the windows of our cottage and basking in the tepid breeze. I even put on a long skirt willing the thermometer to rise. It did not…
Our first goats are due in 8 days. We’ve cleaned the kid feeding buckets, we’ve mucked out the barn, we’ve stockpiled towels, collars, water buckets, castrating bands, ear tags, and bottles. And now we wait. Most of the goats will freshen (give birth) within the first two weeks. We expect to have over 60 kids by the end of the second week of March. This is a good thing: it’s the difference between 2 weeks of barely any sleep or 4 weeks of marginal sleep. Freshening requires the most vigilance out of all of our kidding season tasks. We wake-up throughout the night to check for any labors: first check’s at midnight (yes, we’re asleep before then)…and then again at 2AM…and again at 4AM…and again at 5:30 AM as I start my day. Daisy is due on March 6th. She’s a mild mannered matriarch, large bodied and healthy, and a big producer to boot. Here, she shows off her baby bump.
What were dairy farmers doing in the early 20th century? The New York Public Library digital archives has the answers.
I discovered the NYPL collection while driving to my farm business class. I was listening to Design Sponge’s Grace Bonney talk inspiration over at Heritage Radio Network, and among the myriad of apps and magazines, she mentioned the NYPL’s archives as a classic source of design inspiration. (Plug: Grace Bonney’s podcast is a must listen! And check out the rest of HRN’s podcast offerings for more ear candy.) A quick search for dairy and milking produced these crazy cool pieces of history:
A farmer hand milks his goat on a wooden stanchion. We use the same contraption to work with our doelings.
A dairy farmer reviewing records – most of our records are digital.
A man attaches the milking machine in the 1940s. Our 21st century “claws” and hoses are made of silicone and rubber.
The milking parlor.
Bottling milk. Our creamery is only slightly less industrial, but the uniform rivals our hair nets and lab coats.
I live for the tradition and history of agriculture, so I was totally nerding-out over the archives. For more vintage ag pics, see what the folks at Modern Farmer have dug out of the Library of Congress.
P.S. for pictures of modern dairy life, follow me on instagram, aka insta-goat
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!