On life in the milk lane

P1030148My baby with the one and only bottle baby on the farm, March 2010

Many, many people find my blog because we all share an interest in gardening.  And gardening, particularly of foodstuffs, is wonderful, is fodder here for almost six years of blogging, and is of its very nature sustainable:  if I can continue to put seeds in the ground, those seeds will continue to become sustenance and seeds for next year, so repeat, repeat, repeat.

But:  gardening can be kind of boring.  (Can I admit that and still remain a member of the faith?  I often wonder.)

February has come and gone and it occurred to me that I have been a milkmatron (someone closer to 50 than 40 can hardly be called a milkmaid) for three years now.  Interestingly, I have been matron to one particular animal, one crabby doe whose parturition on 2/27/2010 elevated my status from casual animal owner to active teat-squeezer.  Yes, every day for three years, I have been milking one goat.


Actually that is skirting the issue.  In those three years, I have milked four goats, sometimes all four on the same day, sometimes even twice a day.  Today I am milking “just” two, once a day.  One goat though has been the constant.

It is a bit of luck that has caused me to milk this one animal.  The other three goats could never have been milked this long for various reasons (youth, health, and temperament factor in that calculation) and luckily those other three were not my first goat.  Not being a statistician I cannot begin to tally the hours spent or the gallons produced; all I know is milk is one of the great constants in my own life and that both tallies are “lots.”  Sure, I only go on daytrips now away from the farm.  It is a choice.  It would be an easy choice to have a different life if I had a goat-sitter.  Parents of youngsters often feel the same way, and pay someone for the honor of an evening away.  Me, well, there is nowhere I would rather be than here…though I suppose I wouldn’t turn the services of a goat-sitter away should one appear….

So yes, lots of milk becomes lots of milk products.  At this point I believe I have made 45 or so different cheeses.  I have made kefir, buttermilk, yogurt, cajeta, puddings, fudges.  Milk has found its way into any and all dishes; my very first use of it was crepes with home-grown eggs and home-grown, ground buckwheat.  I have flubbed more than a few gallons of product and somehow I do not feel bad about the time spent because the chickens, turkeys, and dog appreciate errors of this kind.

It is, boringly, a lifestyle.

But it is a good life.  I have given this one animal a good life.  We have established a solid routine, have a solid affection for each other and we do respect each other’s needs.  The other two goats here are also lucky, I think.  I have not established as strong a tie to either of them, so in the shifting sands of farm dynamics, their tenures here are not guaranteed (though I do like them both).  If this were a university, those two others better publish or perish.  Even Michigan’s rejection of collective bargaining is felt here too:  you all stand alone and are to be judged on your production.  It is a hard thing to swallow if you love your animals.  But I am neither wealthy enough nor emotionally crippled enough to become a goat-hoarder:  you must be productive to live here in my barn.

Of course I am gaming the system against the other two because 2013 is the year of No Babies!  Yes, one must need be pregnant and give birth to actually produce milk (something that surprisingly few people fully realize…where to place the blame for that?  our educational system?  or our squeamishness of mammalian processes?) so if I do not load a goat or three into the back of my now-decrepit 20-year-old hatchback, those goats will not become pregnant on their own, so…if I was not milking you constantly you will not magically lactate on your own either.  But I have calculated my needs, and my needs did not include goat kids this year.

I wonder where I will be and what I will be doing in ten years:  will my life include goats?  I read with interest a study that states that we are closer to being the same person within a range of ten years than twenty, and that, indeed, the folly of one’s youth is cringe-inducing.  So sure, twenty years hence I might laugh at the foolishness of my late forties self the way I laugh at the antics of my teen- or twenty-something self:  that person is miles away.  And she owned goats, and foolishly milked them every day.

I do not know.  But:  I know that a goat’s poo and bedding is FABULOUS for my garden.

Rinse and repeat.


On Mud Season

DSCN0420Parsnips are better for the mud and cold

I do love living in one of the temperate stripes of the planet that experiences true seasonality.  Four seasons are the given.  Living here on a farm, however, I count six!  Let us start with spring.  Spring, summer, autumn, mud, winter, then mud.

We are in the second mud season of 2013.  My rubric is a simple one for determining it:  is the ground slippery, do your heels sink in, and are those hoses frozen?  Mud season.  2012’s second mud season began in November! This mud season switches to winter when it finally gets cold enough to hang the windows on the chicken coop.  (No frozen combs on the biddies please.)  It was mid-January when that happened, a final dip in cold accompanied by our usual snow…a never-ending, sometimes-melting, never-warm-enough-to fully-thaw snow which ended (at least I think) this week.

(This year might have the herald of a seventh season.  We tapped our maple trees for the first time on 10 January, for a quart of nice and dark syrup.  An aside.)

Many naturalists divide the seasons up further, looking for signs of things starting or ending (phenological signs) like the return of the whooping cranes and red-winged blackbirds (my own signs of spring) or the juncos (winter).  Gardeners can be even more discriminating:  I live for a first shoot of asparagus, a first ripe tomato, or even the first godawful squash bug.  Gardens have about 25 seasons by my estimation.

But yes, we had an actual winter.  Albeit it was a wee one, lasting maybe 8 weeks, still, it was long enough to keep me out of the gardens proper and fishing for sustenance in the greenhouses and root cellar only.  I have been able to hobble along with the basics for, what, the 5th winter in a row now, not needing to shop for vegetable staples like carrots, celery, broccoli or Asian cabbage; these things, though quite ugly and slug-slime-trailed, were still unequivocally edible in the greenhouses.

The skies were sunny and and it was warm a week ago Sunday, the last scrim of snow sluishing away, and you could find me in my boots with a hoe and a shovel, making dams and channels and trenches to speed the meltwater’s flow hopefully THROUGH said outdoor garden.  (Read about my perimeter garden trenching adventures here.  Yearly I now “only” need to get the garden’s water out and gone.)  Let us just say that clay soil needs help from its gardener, and no raised bed is too high, no path-borne swale too dippy, tripping hazards aside, in my quest for a puddle-free growing area.

There were four chicken backs (am I alone in having bags of these things in her freezer?  My husband always seems to draw the short straw when he goes down to fetch a chicken meal to thaw and almost always grabs a bag of these stock-making backs) bubbling on the stove inside, so I spied the ragged greens of carrots, leeks and turnips poking through the snow, and figured they’d be great to add to the finished stock for soup.

I am always shocked by the starch-to-sugar conversion process a vegetable undergoes after a trip through a deep freeze.  I mean, really.  The same seeds were used for both the indoor greenhouse carrots and the outdoor frozen, snow-covered carrots (and turnips and leeks) and my goodness those outdoor examples are like eating CANDY.  Seriously.  I had to up the acid content of the soup by setting out a shaker bottle of our verjus (green grape vinegar) to bring it back to dinner and not dessert palatability.

It happened again tonight when I found a couple ugly muddy garden kohlrabi:  my secret stir-fry what-is-THIS-morsel sucking up the sauce but imparting some shocking sweetness of its very own.

So though I cannot really abide Mud Season, it does hand us a few edible benefits.

DSCN0434Nix and I stay high and dry in the new greenhouse

On farm still lifes

P1110264Coat, in situ

While emptying the pockets of my barn coat before its regular trip through the wash recently, I thought about what an odd anthropological study its contents would make.  Between all the lint and straw, dirt and crushed bits of eggshell (whoops), what does all this junk say about, well, its owner?

There won’t be any study funded, surely; no penniless grad student shall pick through its contents; and unless Etna were to magically appear nearby, blow its stack and bury me in ash on my way to the goatshed with pockets still full, no future somebody is bound to wonder either.

Its contents:  Tiny box of strike-anywhere matches.  Box cutter.  Pliers.  Right garden glove (left missing).  Various bits of wire, T50 staples, small measuring tape, safety glasses.  About 5 types of screws, a few rusted nails, a large permanent marker, a few pellets for the pellet gun.  The aforementioned dirt and junk.  A penny.  A snack-sized plastic bag.  A twist tie.

(Sheesh, but honestly, no independent study would be needed.  Imagine I allowed ads on this blog:  The sidebar would now be filled with targeted ads of Daisy guns, home supply stores, tool companies, and poultry supplies.  Yep, you are welcome.)

Now, I wash this coat with extreme regularity.  You would too, I would hope:  owning such a cover-up is fairly sensible thing to do if one is often called to pick up something muddy, poopy or bloody.  It is a knockoff of a Carhartt canvas coat, with a zipper, probably three times larger than it needs to be, cloth lined, and it sports a few holes.  And EVERY time I wash it, I find practically the same things burdening its pockets.

What an odd life this coat has.  It never leaves the property, unless it accompanies me on trips to the butcher (poultry often are muddy, poopy AND bloody, poor things).  But it is part of my uniform.  Interestingly, I never leave the property in the uniform, either.  So it’s a secret uniform, wherein I transform from mild-mannered white collar El to Super Farmer El.

Not that I don’t think I look fabulous in such dowdy he-man-wear; I do.  I find it helps to have a bit of an attitude, especially when one is prone to slip in chicken poo, fly dramatically through the air, and land firmly on one’s rear end.  May as well dress the part of a superhero.

On extended absences

P1110221December flowers (calendula, good for hand cream) inside a snow-surrounded greenhouse #2

Ah, wherever have I been?  I have noticed that most blogs which go dark do what I just did:  no warning, just a waning quantity of posts and then poof!  no new posts.  For most bloggers, the end is unintentional.  I am not quite sure if I wish to end FGtW, but I have not been keen to post to it.

To answer the question, I have been where I have always been.  We have added homeschooling to our list of daily tasks, and like most start-ups, it has been overwhelming, mostly because nothing else in our lives has changed and we still have the same holes to dig or get out of every day.  I will say this about choosing to school one’s child fully at home:  It feels complete, full circle.

P1110206Sit and spin a while with us (Daughter’s Lendrum and my Ashford Traddy.  Dyed wool at right above blending hackle…lots of low-tech fun).  The front porch has become a fiber haven.

With the turning of the calendar pages come harvests made and plantings begun.  The garden calendar is as cyclical as all others.  Sometimes I flatter myself because I have been able to eke out larger harvest windows for many things (via season extension or milking through or even leaving a light on in the coop for three extra hours of ovulatory trickery in the egg birds) but most days I understand that these tricks, these hoop-jumps, are less time-saving than lifestyle-making.  I couldn’t HAVE a year-round CSA without the greenhouses, a traditional dairy calendar says I would be done with milking* about now, and no extra light means two eggs a day, and not thrice that.  It is simply a matter of commitment.  I want this so therefore I need to put the work in to make it happen.

P1110217Chickories and lettuce in the newest greenhouse

So when visitors marvel at the amount of labor they perceive is required to keep this place afloat, I kind of snicker inwardly.  I realize that, partially, it is the infrastructure that confounds them.  It sure looks like a lot of gardening, and wow, three goats a-milking?  And I will admit that often I am very tired.  But really, I have a secret.

Truth be told?  Global warming has saved my ass on most harvest windows.  It sickens me, but it is true:  the usual cessation of farm-related tasks that attends winter has simply occurred later and later each year.  We only just harvested our honey** this week:  the kitchen remains quite sticky.  And I finally cleared out the oldest greenhouse on Saturday.  On that fated day, baskets of green and hot peppers were pulled from living plants, forty pounds of sweet potatoes were unearthed under fading vines, and about 250 pounds of curing squash made the wheelbarrow commute from greenhouse to root cellar.  These tasks (honey harvest, pepper/sweet potato harvest and curing squash) should have been completed in October, not mid-December.

P1110209Livvy checks if the fence is live (it is) while T-bell and Cricket look on

So, sure, I have figured out some tricks.  I think most of human innovation involves some risk-taking, be it on a personal scale or a more species-wide one.  I still think high-nutrient food-growing is a terribly important thing, that our current system of growing food is horribly broken, and, if one is willing to risk it, a person who grows food for her own family’s consumption can scale up to year-round, then scale up to growing for others.  It really is not that hard to do once you have mastered the basics.  If I, with my rather limited time, can produce enough food for six other families on top of what I already grow for us…well, you get the picture.  Doing so, however, might not allow for much blogging time.

But I am still here.  And the gardens still grow.

P1110204Yarn fun

*we now have three goats:  T-bell, Cricket and new girl Livvy, a prima donna of a purebred doe.  I have elected to not breed them this fall, and instead continue milking them.  T-bell has been milking continuously since Jan ’10.  Of this writing, I get about 9 pints per milking.

**we have four hives this year.  Of the four, two are healthy and two are not (probably need to be replaced in the spring).  We leave them their honey through the winter, taking the top super off…four supers are about four gallons of honey, in this, an awfully stressful, year.

On seasonal freak-outs

What’s hoppening?  Like everything else, even the heavily-pruned hops vines are frightening in their output at this time of year

It happens every year at about this time.  Despite my best efforts, the garden overwhelms me!  Once the corn begins to tassle, I simply need to put my blinders on and ignore the weeds.

Granted, I am able to keep the beds weed-free.  I just need to find the beds amongst the uninvited foliage.

Dinosaurs in our midst:  juvenile bronze turkeys doing their morning perambulation.  They, and five home-hatched chicks, remain the only baby fowl on the farm

This feeling of being overwhelmed somehow does not stop at the garden gate.  Other cyclical tasks, once eagerly anticipated, are forgotten.  This year it’s the meat chicken order.  (You would think that a woman who is tied to her computer all the work-long day would maybe give the emptying freezer some consideration, but no.)  Granted, this year has been ridiculously hot and dry, so every week I would mentally think “next week shall be cooler (thus I can place the order).”  But weeks continue to go by and I begin to feel like this:

Is it an empty nest if it is just chickens?

On life without rain

Lookee!  Rainbows above #3 AND raindrops on the lens

You know, growing as we do here under clouds for three-quarters of the year, you think would enjoy the sun.  I do!  Those long hours of unimpeded solar rays hitting my garden’s leaves?  Heavenly.

But it’s the Severe Drought I admittedly am not terribly happy about right now.

The skies occluded, darkened and broke on Saturday evening.  I stepped on the back deck, inhaled that still-familiar yet longed-for scent of rain, and surveyed all the rain-sensitive items that I had allowed to accumulate for the month and a half of cloud-free skies.   Hurriedly I retrieved them all, throwing them higgledy-piggledy into any dry space (back porch, garage, tractor shed, goat shed, new greenhouse) and then proceeded to the garden.  I went into the garden IN THE RAIN and  turned on the hose to water the garden as usual.

Yes!  Welcome to El’s Glass Half Empty world in Drought!  Frankly, I did not care what I looked like, slowly getting damp myself while I soaked the ground of the beds.  It stopped raining not a quarter of a turn through the regular watering route.  In other words, I was right to worry.  Though the open land was rung-out-sponge damp, the ground beneath the boughs remained bone-dry and cracked.  Regular resumption of hose duties in the garden remains the standing order.  I am thankful for the electric pump, frankly.  (I bow to the pump, low bow, salaam.)

I will not recite the litany of ills that attend a drought.  But I will say it is all very strange.  And…the car is filthy.

On seed production

Copra onion blossom:  this F1 original seed, purchased/planted in 2007, is five generations removed from its hybrid origin.  Does this make it a non-hybrid yet?  It is a great yellow storage onion nonetheless for me.

With all the green pressure of seeding, growing and harvesting one’s own edibles, I will tell you it makes sense to go a step further.  You should harvest your own seed.

Forellenschluss lettuce

My first true (read: overwhelming) harvests of 2012 happen concurrently with the first harvests of next year’s seeds.  I allow, intentionally most of the time, lots of my spring veg to go to seed.  Many are biennials and thus won’t seed until this, their second, spring, but most are simply live-and-die annuals hellbent on reproduction in this, their only, year of life.  So I keep a store of paper lunch sacks handy and I snip off dried seedheads, marking the bags with a permanent marker as to what the heck they are, then I fold these bags to store in the basement for next (or maybe later this) year.  Roots, lettuce, brassicas, spinach, alliums, herbs.  Who needs a seed store when you have your own store?

The above is an example of inadvertent seed saving and seed starting.  About a month ago I deadheaded some Russian kale (the red, toothy kind) and left the seedpod branches on the ground to pick up later.  Well, it looks like I have my fall kale started already!  whoops.

Also, the ridiculously hot temperatures have lifted (joy) but one of the casualties was the artichokes.  The very thought of steaming them steamed me, so I let them flower.  Beautiful relative of the thistle, huh?

My go-to guide for all seed saving adventures is Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth, et.al.  There are other guides out there I am sure but this one is handily grouped by plant families and has relevant information about a plant’s suitability for growth in your particular area of the US.  If you know of others, please leave them in the comments.  Happy harvests!