Baby Talk

It’s been a long while since I’ve updated this here blog! Every time I let so much time slip I become anxious about getting back into it. It’s hard to decide how much to include in each blog, what is worth writing about, or what you all will find interesting. This year is turning out to be especially hard to blog about, because lots of really big things are happening! So I sit here looking at a (mostly) blank “page” on the screen and don’t know where to begin.

I guess the biggest news (so far) for those of you who haven’t heard yet, is that we are expecting our first child this summer. Late July to be exact. Which is absolutely the WORST time for farmers to be having a baby, but sometimes these things can’t be helped. I have spent the last few months marveling at how different my body is becoming, and how much it affects my day to day. And the baby isn’t even here yet (although it’s currently kicking me, trying to tell me otherwise). Other than increased fatigue, little things like my abs stretching out and becoming weak are affecting my ability to lift buckets of chicken feed or haul water. Andrew is pulling far more than his share of the weight around here these days, and I’m more than a little nervous about what the looks like as the season progresses, our responsibilities on the farm grow, and then this baby appears!

Fortunately we are friends with a wonderful couple (who are also new parents), who have quit their corporate jobs and want to try their hand at farming. Sounds familiar! We are currently scheming up ways for them to help us out this season so we can have some relief and they can gain some skills. I’m sure having babies together at the farm will be a nice bonus as well! Oh, and for those of you who are wondering, we are not finding out the sex of the baby before it is born. I recently told that to a farmer acquaintance and she said, “Oh, not finding out is the new thing!” Of course my smartass response was, “Uh, actually, it’s the OLD thing” hah. We’ve only had the technology to learn the baby’s sex before birth for about 40 years. It seems to us there are so few surprises in life (although we’ve certainly had our fair share!), and we’re willing to wait to learn all about our little one after he or she enters this world. So stay tuned for that big reveal!

In other news, Andrew and I were lucky enough to escape to Costa Rica back in January. It seems like ages ago. The ten lovely days we spent in the tropics were rejuvenating, but this long, wet Pacific Northwest winter continues to drag on. We have lots of new projects coming up at the farm, including building new portable chicken pens that will improve quality of life for our meat chickens (as well as ourselves!). We were awarded a grant to build these new pens and are excited about the change. We have also had many new goat and lamb babes born this season, our first piglets of the year made an appearance, we will soon have meat chicks in the brooder, and they will be followed quickly by the turkey poults.

Finally I need to mention that my wonderful grandmother passed away last month. I have written about her many times in the blog; she and I were close and I miss her. Fortunately she lived to be 93, and passed away peacefully in her bed after a few months of slipping away. I mentioned in my last post that I got to visit her before her mind was completely taken from her. I was able to tell her I was pregnant, and suddenly she knew exactly who I was and what I was telling her. She was so happy for me, and it was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears on the spot. I’m sad that our child won’t get to meet my grandmother, or his/her own grandmother Nancy. Yet bringing new life into this world as other life departs is a powerful reminder of my own humanity and mortality, and brings to light the important role we each play in the continuity of this wonderful world.

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The Golden Hour

There is a time of day I like to call the “Golden Hour.” I started noticing it a month or so ago, when the weather shifted towards winter and the trumpeter swans began flying low overhead.  Just before sunset, (at 4:15!), on days when the sun is shining and the frost lingers in the shadowy areas, the light hits the trees across the river and a brilliant golden glow radiates. Golden Hour is actually a misnomer, because the moment is brief; maybe five minutes lapse before the sun’s rays weaken and twilight sets in, turning everything to muted shades of grey. But in that short time I look around, take a deep breath, and absorb the last gasp of energy from the sun while I can. This is a moment that I believe only happens in climates where the seasons are distinct and change rapidly. I have seen it before, while going to school in Ohio or when I lived in the Eastern Sierras of California, but here on the farm it is different. Maybe it’s because I’m outside most of the time it occurs, but I think it is because I am in tune with my environment like never before. I can feel the seasons switching over, and the Golden Hour is like a beautiful warning. Take heed: winter is coming.

I suppose, (since everyone keeps telling me), that we have been lucky with weather this year. Having never lived in the Pacific Northwest I have to take their word for it. Though the mercury has dropped dramatically, with night temperatures in the twenties this week, the sun has made frequent appearances. Don’t get me wrong; there have been some blustery, grey, misty, and torrential days. But they are mixed in with marvelously clear, cold, brilliant days where the snow-capped peaks in the distance pull my gaze, reminding me of their quiet splendor.

Tuesday was one of those days, and it also happened to be the day we slaughtered our five pigs. I was worried most about this day, despite having witnessed the slaughter of cows, and having taken part in the slaughter of chickens and turkeys. We raised the pigs from little weaners, and they were an integral part of our life on the farm. Daily they frolicked, squealed, played, ate, scratched, escaped, ate, grew, nuzzled, snorted, ate, ate, and ate some more. I was worried that I had become too emotionally invested in the pigs, (I did name them after all), but throughout the process I understood that the pigs had gone from friend to food in the most humane way, and I now feel a sense of peace about the totality of the process. It doesn’t hurt that as pigs get older and bigger they get a lot less cute and cuddly! It also doesn’t hurt that I watched the birthing of a calf after all the pigs were slaughtered. In death there is life and in life there is death, and to me this is the essence of farming.

Last week we spent Thanksgiving with my father and stepmother in Sacramento. We took a road trip down there, and brought with us the dog, fresh eggs, a sack full of potatoes, and one half of a 30lb turkey. We have been eating our own chickens and beef since the spring and so I am used to the tangible difference between fresh, naturally raised meat and the kind you buy shrink-wrapped at Safeway.  Even with elevated expectations, this turkey blew my mind. The juice, flavor, texture…it was absurdly divine. If you have access to a nearby farm that produces Thanksgiving turkeys, I urge you to take advantage. Sure, you pay a lot more than you would for a Butterball, but you really are buying a different product. That’s true for all sustainably-raised meat, but if you consider it a splurge, do yourself a favor and splurge on the turkey!

In addition to our Thanksgiving getaway, I have recently traveled away from the farm quite a bit. My mom came in from Australia and I spent time with her and my brother and sister-in-law in Seattle. Then I flew to Portland, Maine with my mom and spent time with my sister, her husband and some more of my extended family. I had a great time visiting with everyone, and relished the easy access to a hot shower. I found myself getting “comfortable” living the city life to which I was formerly accustomed. I worried that it would be a hard transition back to farm living, that the cold would get to me and I would regret our lack of running water and dependable electricity. Fortunately coming back to Andrew’s warm arms made all of my doubts fall away, and I am happy to be back in my little house, sitting in the glow of the lantern as the fire rumbles nearby. As long as the Golden Hour keeps the “Big Wet” at bay, you won’t find me complaining!

Staycation on the Farm

You’re probably thinking this is going to be the fun Burning Man blog where I post a bunch of crazy pictures of semi-nude people having a blast in the desert. That is what I was hoping to blog about, but unfortunately we never made it to Burning Man. This one major thing really got in the way of our summer vacation plans. Namely: FARM. Yeah, that thing. Farmers really don’t get to go on vacations in the summer, and while we were “authorized” to take the time off, it just wasn’t possible to get everything in order so that we could leave in time. So, instead we stayed and worked on the farm, and enjoyed some quality time with friends and family who have been visiting us at the farm throughout the past month. Not exactly the wild, carefree, art-filled party I was looking forward to, but seriously who am I to complain? My whole life (other than all the back-breaking work), seems like one great vacation to most people!

Things on the farm are chugging along, but at a much less frenetic pace than before. The weeds, while still growing every day, are slowing down and we are having an easier time keeping ahead. While we have had to supplement our boxes with some produce from our neighbor (we learned the lesson of regular successional plantings the hard way!), our boxes have been full of healthy, high-quality, delicious organic veg and I am very proud of all we have accomplished. The pigs are growing bigger and bigger every day, and I get immense joy out of watching them frolic in the mud, grunting all the while in pure porcine delight.  The turkeys now have extra space to run about, and crack me up every time they gobble in unison at the sound of tractor engines and Andrew’s singing.

Of course as the animals grow, they come ever closer to serving their ultimate purpose: food. Last week I witnessed my first cow slaughter, and I was truly humbled by the process. The people who came out to do the slaughter were amazing: the cow was killed instantly and painlessly, and the carcass was broken down into halves within 30 minutes. At that time we had an 8-month old whether (little boy goat) with a broken leg that wouldn’t heal, despite our efforts to splint it. We asked the butchers to process our goat, and they were kind enough to oblige. On one hand it was difficult to observe the death of this creature that I had interacted with daily for months. On the other hand I felt really connected to the process of food production. The goat curry that Andrew cooked that week was phenomenal; even more so because we knew how healthy the meat was and how comfortable the life of the goat had been.

In other news, we now have a deck for the tiny house, and the electrical is now completely set up so I can actually charge my phone in an outlet (at least when the sun is out!).  Things are starting to get more and more home-like, although we still don’t have a shower or a flushing toilet. While the weather remains mostly warm and summery, we have had a few severe storms that serve as a nagging reminder of the impending winter. The long sunlight hours were short-lived and I miss them already. The sunflowers are starting to die, and I know the grey will move in permanently before I’m ready (will I ever be ready?). Thankfully we are planning an Australian get-away for a big chunk of winter, so we’ll get to have that summer vacation we missed in this hemisphere. In the meantime we continue to fill our CSA boxes every week, find some time to play, nourish the animals that will nourish us in kind, and thank our lucky stars for this crazy, wonderful life we have managed to cobble together.

The Busy Season

When we first started working on the farm we kept hearing about how the “busy season” was coming up. Having never worked on a farm before, we could only nod and imagine what that might mean. We both had done ample research on the type of farming we wanted to do, and of course the popular farmer image is that of a harried, sleepless, underpaid, overworked, beleaguered, and weathered soul, so we weren’t completely unprepared for the work ahead. But nothing can really prepare you for the types of days we’ve been having this week. They’re the type of days that involve us driving back up to our apartment at 8 PM, killing the engine, and just sitting in the truck too tired and numb to open our doors or unclick our seat belts. They’re the type of days that have us slaughtering chickens, harvesting vegetables, sanding and staining hardwood floors, and organizing volunteer days at the farm.  They’re the type of days that have us wrangling goats, collecting eggs, slopping out goat’s milk to the pigs, and then working on irrigation. This is indeed the busy season, and though we are surviving, it is exhausting work!

Thankfully these past few weeks we have had some help in the form of Kyle, a recent ag school graduate who is nomading across the country in search of practical hands-on farm experience. Kyle hails from Houston, Texas and is following the “good weather” while he can. He has oodles of book knowledge and lots of great ideas about what plants to use as cover crops, how to use mulch to prevent weeds, and has been a great asset to us on these busy busy days.

The weather has indeed been “good” up here. It’s been sunny, warm, and breezy: wonderful weather for going to the zoo, working in your hobby garden, or taking a nice bike ride. For us farmers who are outside every second of the waking day, the sun is getting to be a pain. I never thought I would say this, but I’m desperate for some rain, or at least some grey skies. The irrigation system at the farm is not up to snuff, and I am stressing about our plants not getting enough water to thrive. A little rain would go a long way! Our 300 gallon rain barrel is also nearing empty, and so finding water sources to replenish turkeys and even to wash our hands involves extra walking or turning on gas-powered pumps.

There is a constant anxiety involved in farming, or at least involved in Greenhorn farming. The biggest concern (other than water of course), is what the heck is going in our boxes this week? We’re still learning how to plant at the right times to ensure we have ample produce when we need it. Fortunately we’ve been lucky (or successful?) enough that we’ve had pretty good-sized yields. On our most recent pickup day someone did mention that our boxes looked a little “light” this time around, and I agree. We had such a wonderful spring that our earliest boxes were lush and overflowing with a huge variety. We still have quite the selection, but it doesn’t exactly match our previous hauls. This is all part of the CSA. Sometimes crops fail, or weather turns, or elk trample your seedlings. As members of the farm, our customers know that we are doing all we can, and sometimes there is less, while other times there is more! If everyone loved cucumbers we’d have nothing but smiles…that is one bumper crop we can’t seem to stay ahead of! I can’t complain though; nothing beats a cool cucumber with sea salt on a hot summer’s day!

In other news, my family had quite the shock a couple days ago when my father had a massive heart attack. I say “massive” because that’s what I’m told, although I spoke to him and he sounds pretty good, no, especially good for a guy who required CPR by heart surgeons the day before. My father is in general a healthy guy who walks around a lot for work, so this was not something any of us expected. My siblings and I are all headed to Sacramento to visit with him this weekend. I am not happy about the circumstances, but I am looking forward to some quality family time, and to be honest a little break from the farm is probably not a bad thing either. Poor Andrew will be on his own for a few days, but I think the time apart will also be good for our relationship. Working and living with your spouse requires a true partnership, and like any partnership sometimes a little distance here and there can make all the difference.

While I spend my time inside air-conditioned buildings avoiding the 100+ degree Sacramento heat, I’ll be doing a mental rain dance with visions of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker as my goalposts. I’m not confident the rain will come, but I do believe that we will endure this “busy season.” While it might not be the most graceful of farming ventures, it will be just enough to whet our appetites for the season ahead. There’s a common refrain among farmers that goes something like: “next year we’ll do it this way.” Andrew is full of these ideas, and while I often roll my eyes and snip at him to focus on the year at hand, I am excited for the growing possibilities that await.

Tipsy Pigs, Goat Pee, and New Friends

There’s a great line in Downton Abbey where the whole family is sitting around the dinning table chatting and someone mentioned something about traveling on the weekends.  The old rich matriarch, played by Maggie Smith, gets a befuddled look and interrupts with, “What is a week end?” I can relate to the question, although my slant is different. While the Dowager Countess has never worked a day in her life, and therefore cannot fathom why someone should recognize the end of the week, we consider ourselves lucky when we get a few hours off on Sunday to go fishing or visit with Andrew’s family.

To be clear, this is a self-imposed work schedule. There is always so much work to do, and we get antsy if we feel like we’re missing a good weather window for farm work. We also feel like we should be working on the house whenever possible, although we’re still miles away from moving in. We decided to camp out in the house last weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful memory foam mattress that normally sits up in the loft taunting me. It was a beautiful, clear, peaceful night and I swiftly fell asleep cradled by foam and serenaded by owls. Obviously now we now even more anxious to get moved in, and it’s especially difficult to go bed every night on our lumpy, uncomfortable futon!

So while we don’t take much time away from the farm, as I sit here writing this Andrew is on his way up into the mountains for a quick rock climbing trip with a couple of fellas. Side note: whenever I open my laptop I find Andrew’s open windows that he forgets to close and they always make me chuckle. Today’s gems are two Wikipedia pages about “Petrodollar warfare” and “Military-industrial complex.” What a cutie! While he’s gone I plan on getting some weeding done at the farm, and trying to clean up our apartment so that he can come mess it up again with all his climbing gear when he gets home.

We’ve had a few fun animal developments at the farm these past weeks. The goats are stubborn as always, and while I generally enjoy their company, my boot was recently peed on by Laney (the most stubborn of the bunch) and then cut myself on barbed wire while untangling another goat. Meanwhile our turkeys outgrew their brooder boxes and were dying for some fresh air, so Andrew constructed a turkey aviary on skids so that we can move them to fresh grass every week. All 25 turkeys are happy and healthy, and I adore the strange little alien chirping, whirring, and clicking noises they make all day.

The pigs are growing with astonishing speed, with the lone exception of “Tiny” who seems to be stuck as a rather petite pig. I can relate to being the little “squirt” of the bunch, but as far as bacon and ham go we would really prefer she put on some weight! In order to add protein to their diet we worked out an arrangement with a local distillery (skiprockdistillers.com). They buy grain from the farm for some of the liquors, and now they are giving us the “spent” grain after they have sucked the sugar (which turns into alcohol) out of it. What’s left is almost pure protein sludge, and we’ve been adding it to the pigs’ grain for some added punch. The remnants of alcohol don’t seem to bother them either, and they romp and frolic all morning under the sprinkler when the weather is hot.

The other good news is that we have started making friends with our farmer neighbors. Andrew thrives on his alone time, but I have what he dubbed “twin syndrome” in that I recharge best when I spend quality social time with good people.  I guess he has a point; when you’ve shared the womb with someone you’re probably most comfortable in the presence of others. On the 4th of July we were invited to a BBQ at the farm next door called Bob’s Corn, which apparently a huge institution around here come October. Bob, his wife Sarah, and their five girls are a hoot, and come around often on a golf cart to chat and watch the pigs play. I’m alternately excited to see what their farm looks like in October, and terrified for the crowds that will descend into our peaceful little corner for the corn maze, pumpkin patch, and bonfires that go until midnight!

Next to Bob’s is another small CSA-based farm that is managed by a nice guy named Vince, and he invited us to his house to meet his wife Anna and watch fireworks. We sat in lawn chairs in their backyard chatting while people all across the valley spent thousands of hard earned dollars on glorified dynamite (which, by the way, has been making Zephyr a basket case all week!). As the air turned crisp and the sky darkened, I sipped on some hard apple cider and tried not to think about the early morning of harvesting that awaited. Sometimes a little fatigue is worth the delight of making new friends, and while my body may be dragging my spirits are miles high (at least until a goat pisses on me again).