And So it Begins…

Phew. Phew. Pheeeeeew. We have successfully accomplished three major tasks on our giant season-long “to do” list, and I can now let out three giant whopping sighs of relief. In the past two weeks we slaughtered, processed, and sold 90 chickens for the first time, we had our first CSA box pick up, and have finally moved our cabin into its final resting place. Each of these events provided yours truly with plenty of anxiety, and each one warrants a little attention.

Let’s start with the chickens. We had been raising these chickens from day one knowing we would be slaughtering them ourselves. The idea of slaughtering and processing chickens was not causing me anxiety; in fact I was looking forward to taking part in this ritual so I could better understand what it is I was actually putting into my mouth and body on a regular basis. The logistics of processing 90 chickens in two days, with (on average) three people working, was what worried me. We had to lug in a giant container of potable water since we haven’t had the farm well tested. We had to rent equipment (kill cones, a giant scalder, and a cool contraption that pulls the feathers out). We had to set everything up so we made sure to capture all of the offal for the compost pile, and keep everything sanitary throughout the process. I am happy to report that other than a few hiccups (like over-scalding a few chickens, and Andrew starting a fire), things went really well.

I have to admit that I did not actually kill any chickens. I was going to try, but between the fear I might not do it right the first time, and that I might cut myself in the process, I left it to Andrew. Instead I spent the days slicing into them and scooping out their insides. I am actually quite skilled at this now, and take pride in doing it well. Just like most difficult things in life, once I got good at it I rather started to enjoy it! There is something innately satisfying in preparing nutritious food, and while I get that healthy vibe all day with the veggies, I feel more connected to the great circle of life when I am dealing with a creature I raised for its meat.

Our second great accomplishment was having our first CSA pick up day. If you’re not familiar with a CSA, read my previous post for the run down. Each week our members get a full box of produce, and I think this first week went off quite well! We have been extremely lucky this spring with warm, sunny weather and our vegetables and strawberries are going gangbusters. The boxes were stuffed with gorgeous, bright, colorful vegetables including butterhead lettuce, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, zucchini, strawberries and much more. Throughout the day on Friday our members arrived, many with small children. We chatted, they visited our pigs and goats, and I felt a wonderful connection to this community, despite having only been here for four months.

 Last but certainly not least, we moved our “tiny” house into its permanent location (assuming it doesn’t roll away!). Of course when I say “we” I mean Andrew and Eric moved the house. Four different pieces of heavy machinery were put to work pulling, pushing, angling, adjusting, nudging, and heaving before everything was just right. I didn’t think I would have anxiety about the house moving, but when they actually started to move it my stomach jumped into my throat. There were a few moans and groans from the house and I could just visualize it tumbling down and smashing into pieces, taking Zephyr out for good measure (does that make me a pessimist?). Fortunately Andrew and Eric are extremely capable and creative, and everything went swimmingly, even if it did take three hours!  

I’d like to report that now we can relax a little and enjoy the fruits of our labor, but you know better than that. We’re farmers! We have to make sure we have delicious boxes ready every week until November 1st. We still have to finish working on the house so we can actually live in it, although I feel confident things will start moving along rapidly now that we can see how amazing our views will be. In the meantime you will find me huffing along with my fingers in the dirt, pausing now and again to squint up at the sky and wonder when the rain will come so I don’t have to drag sprinkler hoses around the whole farm. Can you believe this Cali girl just said that? Washington has certainly gotten itself underneath my fingernails, and I like that just fine.

Good Enough is Perfect

Famous sustainable farmer and author, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, has a quote that goes something like “when it comes to farming, good enough is perfect.” This is a piece of advice I am desperately trying to take to heart, although it is hard for me. Historically I have had an overachiever, straight “A”, quasi-perfectionist mentality, and when I see weeds growing amongst my vegetables I have an urge to pull out every single one. Which is completely ridiculous, because by the time I finished weeding the whole farm, I’d have to start all over again. And that would be fine, if the only job I had to do was weed all day. Thankfully, there are a million other things to be done, so I am learning how to best prioritize my tasks.

Every day we get to the farm in the morning and start with animal chores. Usually this involves moving the chicken “tractors” to fresh pasture, a process we now have down pretty well (although occasionally a chicken or two sneak out and we have to do some wrangling). We feed all the chickens, give them fresh water, and feed and water the pigs. We check on the goats to make sure they are all accounted for, something we never worried about much until one of our wethers (young, castrated male) went mysteriously missing, which just about broke my heart. Then we set about starting our other farm tasks, which usually means weeding in my case, and working on the tiny house in Andrew’s case.

Other than the daily animal feeding, our schedule is pretty varied and loose. Usually what happens is we discover something that needs fixing right away, and all of the things on our “to-do” list get bumped. For example we might discover that the goats’ hooves need trimming, and so we’ll spend a couple hours catching them and trimming hooves. Recently we decided that the pigs had outgrown their pen, so Andrew spent two days building them a “pig palace” and a new enclosure, putting our own abode on hold. There’s a kind of feeling on the farm that we’re always putting out fires, or staying one step ahead of imminent disaster. At first I worried that this was due to our novice status, but I’m starting to see that this is the nature of farming. You are at the mercy of the elements, trying to harness nature and encourage the “good” parts while avoiding the “bad.” Sometimes there’s not much to be done but panic, scramble around fixing things for a few hours, and then stand in front of a patch of overgrown weeds, wheezing while silently cursing your aching back.

Our farm operates as “CSA” based, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. What this means is that people pay up front for a weekly box of produce, and that box is expected to be varied and plentiful. It’s wonderful because it allows community members to become a real part of the farm; in our case all boxes are picked up at the farm so people can come meet us and see where their food comes from. The pressure is on to make sure we are providing high-quality produce with a good variety in order to keep our members satisfied. I was beginning to have some anxiety about the approaching deadline when our farmer neighbors stopped by to have a chat and see how we were doing. They were impressed by how far along many of our vegetables are, and reassured me that we were going to have very happy customers. I feel relieved about that now, although we will have to work hard to make sure the weeds don’t strangle out some of our younger crops before they have a chance to get established. Part of the challenge of farming is timing; you need to ensure that you have harvestable crops every week throughout the season, and that you always have a good variety in rotation.

Our other impending deadline is our first chicken slaughter, which is only one week away. We have been talking to lots of experienced people, watching videos, reading books and blogs, and learning as much as we can about the process. Unfortunately the only real way to know what it’s going to be like is to actually do it, so we mostly just have to wait until the day comes and then dive right in. For the most part I am excited about this. I believe that it is important to understand that a chicken breast is actually a piece of meat that came from a living creature, and to be able to slaughter the chickens we raised from the day after they hatched is something I will take pride in.  Although I do think that pulling intestines out of a still-warm carcass with my bare hands may take some getting used to!

In the meantime, we will keep chasing our goats, laughing at the pigs, enjoying the delicious young zucchinis and beets, and marveling at the scenery. Oh, and when the rain lets up long enough for the ground to dry out, we will get back to hacking at those weeds!

The Only Guarantee in Life

Compared to my last post, which was a celebration of all things wonderful in regards to finding the love of my life, this post may seem a little macabre. Working on a farm means that we are responsible for creating life. We plant seeds and provide water and nutrients so that they may grow big and strong and plentiful. We feed, pamper, and nourish our livestock so that they will also grow big and strong (and tasty!). We are now well into spring, and life brims at every turn. Flowers are blooming, bees are buzzing, and our plants and animals are growing in leaps and bounds. This is amazing to witness and I am so thrilled to be a part of something so fundamental. There is, of course, a flip side to all of the energetic, tangible, vibrant life that abounds on the farm.

Death on the farm is not a rare occurrence. In the few months we have worked here we have become quite accustomed to several forms of death. Rodents die almost every day on the farm, some by our own hands. Even more succumb to Zephyr, whose favorite hobby is digging up their nests and toying with the young. Rats, mice, and rabbits have all met this fate (although the weasels are proving too smart for him!). We have also had more than a handful of chicken deaths. Some die as chicks for various reasons, whether they are sick, or too weak to fight for food, or they get crushed by the others when it’s cold. We have also had larger chickens die expectantly. But still…when it’s a chicken, it’s not so hard to get over.

A few weeks ago, we had to put down one of our pigs. She had only been in our custody for a few days, and was sickly from the beginning. We were fortunate in that we had not really formed any kind of bond with her yet, but still. A pig is an intelligent creature, and pulling the trigger is no easy feat. And yet, all five living pigs are destined for slaughter. (I will have to come to terms with this, especially since I plan on eating some of the delicious pork I had a hand in raising!) And today a lovable little calf named Lucy died. She was bottle fed and hand-raised by Eric’s twelve-year-old son, and it was incredibly difficult to see him struggle and mourn this loss. Unfortunately this is a big part of creating life. Every living creature must die, and sometimes they die when we do not want them to.

All of the death on the farm makes me think about my own mortality, and how we as humans cope with this. Scratch that. We as Americans (or other Westerners). We have, in my opinion, a seriously messed up perspective on death in this country. We push it away and ignore it all our lives, until BAM there it is, in the form of a lost loved one. We avoid thinking about death. We avoid participation in any death rites (let the funeral home and undertakers deal with that!). Most of us avoid preparing for death unless we are given a prognosis and we know our time is limited. With all of this avoidance, it’s no wonder death is such a tragedy to us. We are slammed with the emotions all at once, and at the same time are stuck dealing with the logistics of planning, and paying exorbitantly, for a funeral. There is no real closure in this process either, other than maybe throwing a handful of dirt into a grave and walking away.

When I was just out of high school one of my equally young friends passed away. His family wanted some kind of closure, so they requested to watch his coffin be buried completely. This, unfortunately, was performed by a backhoe. You can imagine how traumatic it was for us all to watch noisy, heavy machinery bury our friend in the earth. In other cultures family is directly involved in the funeral rites. In India, Hindu family members bathe, clothe, and arrange the body of their loved ones before they perform the cremation themselves, in a specific way according to custom. This seems much more logical to me. It allows the family to grieve over the body, and be personally connected to the process of letting go.

Recently I was listening to a podcast in which a cool, young mortician was interviewed. She has established something called the Order of the Good Death, which was created in response to the screwy Western cultural fears about death. Here is a link to their mission: http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/category/mission

I cannot say that I am “mightier than thou” when it comes to matters of death. I have not delved deeply enough into this topic to have completely resolved my fears and anxieties…after all cultural knowledge is hard to unlearn. I am excited to know that there are potential options out there that do include more direct involvement with the death of loved ones, and I am hoping to expand my knowledge on the subject over time.

In the meantime I do know that I would like a “green burial,” where my body can be placed into the ground, uninhibited by concrete or polished wood. Matter is matter is matter…my energy is neither created nor destroyed but merely transferred. Let those worms use me to create new life! Who knows, maybe someday my energy will wind up feeding the spinach that finds its way onto your plate. What could be more significant than participating directly in the great Circle of Life?

I’m curious to know about your thoughts: please share in the comments!

A Year to Remember

In October 2010 while living in San Diego, on a whim, I decided to raise some money to attend a fundraising camping trip out in Joshua Tree National Park. I was newly single, working full time, attending school, and looking for a fun new way to meet people and get outside of my routine. That fateful weekend was when I first met Andrew, who was a guide on the trip. He seemed pretty cute under his greasy, dirty bandana and scruffy facial hair, but I wasn’t sure this hippie kid was for me. He tried to impress me with his knowledge of the constellations, and over the next several months would take me on late-night excursions to nearby hilltops to observe the cosmos free from the glare of city lights.

That was the first indication I had that maybe there was more to Andrew than dirty feet and a freewheeling lifestyle, but it didn’t stop there. I often found myself listening to his philosophical rants, not quite understanding his logic but fascinated with his interest and curiosity about matters of the mind and soul. His hugs were (and are) incredibly warm and comforting. He has wonderful, crinkly laugh lines that light up his face and soften my heart. He is incredibly stubborn, and loves a good argument, but is quick to apologize when he gets overzealous and accidentally hurts my feelings.

Andrew has changed me in ways I never expected when I first met him. Or rather he has allowed me to change and grow by encouraging me, nurturing me, and exposing me to new and exciting things. In the past two years I have gone from a dissatisfied, rather bored, uncertain consumer to a confident, energized, adventurous producer. Starting with our first Christmas together, we decided no store-bought presents were allowed. We rarely stray from this rule. That first year I gave him a painting of his dog Zephyr. For his birthday last week I commissioned a cool guy I found on Craigslist to make a BBQ out of a burn barrel. It sure beats wandering around the mall, trying to make a mass-produced item “fit” my unique, one-of-a-kind, wonderfully picky husband!

One year ago Andrew and I took our vows of foreverhood, among friends and family in the beautiful desert where we first met. Since that moment, my life has been nothing but a whirlwind of awesomesauce. Yeah, that good. Obviously there are moments where we argue, or where things are difficult. We are human, and we are both stubborn. But when I take a quiet moment to think back on how much fun, adventure, love, joy, and warmth I have experienced this past year I am blown away. This has certainly been the best year of my life, and I know that from this point forward it is only going to get better. With Andrew as my partner, I am confident I can navigate this crazy world blissfully and with a passion that only he can inspire.

Happy one year anniversary my Love! Here’s to many, many more!

Bucking Around on the Farm… (Just Kidding!)

My body aches. Just like I predicted it would, and just like I expected, I am happy about it. Sure, I don’t wake up every morning excited about the prospect of sinking 100 nails into plywood, but hey. It means that soon I get to live on a beautiful farm with my husband and pets, and roll out of bed to greet the resident goats, chickens,  cows, and pigs (coming soon!).

So far the house construction is chugging along. It takes me about 12 swings on a hammer (with both hands…that sucker is heavy!) to sink a nail, while Andrew does it in three or four whacks. So for the most part I do what I can and then move onto other farm chores when my arms fall off. Which is fine by me…I really enjoy watching seeds sprout and being involved in new growth. When the house is completed I will write a blog dedicated to the process, with the help of Andrew. I know there is a large community of “tiny house” enthusiasts out there…so stay tuned for insights and photos about our construction experiences!

Speaking of the tiny house…while we have been living “simply” in a borrowed apartment (it’s actually a single-wide mobile home), I still look around me and see all this stuff that I know won’t fit in our ~300 square foot home. There’s not a lot of fat to cut either…it will be interesting to see how we manage. We’re hoping to figure out a good storage system for under the house, since it is up on a trailer we have about four feet to stash stuff away, assuming we can make sure it is watertight and rat proof!

It rains a lot here in Washington (duh!), and the ground soaks it in very quickly. Mud is constant, and I wear my fashionable pink plaid mud boots (AKA my “sh*t kickers) frequently.  Initially I was worried that the weather would slowly leech away my will to live and farm in Washington, but I was wrong! Thankfully we have enough sunny, warm days mixed in to keep me happy. When the skies clear the views of the neighboring Cascade Mountain Range is spectacular! We set up drip lines for our hoop house that drain from a tank of collected rainwater, and we are also starting to plant outside, so I now see rain more as a beneficial life force rather than an inconvenience. I do hope it doesn’t snow again though…we got four inches the first day of spring! It was beautiful, and thankfully the sun came out and melted it all by the end of the day, but I had a little bit of a SoCal hissy fit and decided to work in the warm greenhouse all day.

Most of our days are spent planting seeds, seedlings, starts, running irrigation lines, and building the house. But for me the real excitement comes with our new animal additions. We now have a family of eight goats! The buck is a Kiko, a cool breed with a beard, gnarly horns, and the ability to forage well without much interference. There are three does (Boer breed), and four kids which are mixed (called GeneMasters for some reason!). Three of the kids are male, and the other day we banded their testicles so that they will constrict and fall off, making them “wethers” instead of bucks. These three will be sold for meat eventually. I think I can call myself a farmer now…I carried kids over to a pickup truck while Andrew and Eric (our boss) did the deed. The poor kids carried on, and their mothers did too, but as soon as they went back in the pen it was as if nothing had happened. What a dramatic bunch!

Zephyr absolutely adores the resident livestock. Every morning he gets pumped up for our ritual visit with the goats. When little Lucy the calf is around he touches his nose to hers and sometimes even gives her a lick. The combination of running around all day, and some training with his new shock collar, has made him a really well behaved pooch. The only times we have to worry about him is when we leave him alone in our apartment. We hide the trash in the bathroom, put away any and all food, and recently learned the hard way that we also must make sure there are no dirty dishes in the sink. But otherwise he has really “matured” insomuch as a dog can mature. Mostly I think this is just a much better lifestyle for him, and his behavior is a reflection of that.

Every day there is one incident or occurrence that reminds me about how lucky I am. A beautiful red sunrise over purple and white mountain peaks.  Getting to eat lunch every day at home with my husband. Listening to frogs happily chirp away as I plant strawberry starts in a field. Listening to my husband whistle as he hammers away, oblivious to my contented eavesdropping. There is something so wonderful about being outside, working in the dirt, and using my body as much as I can. Sure it hurts, and I get cold and grumpy sometimes. But when the clouds part and I see Mt. Baker off in the distance, I can’t help but pinch myself and wonder how this life came to be.