Category Archives: Farming

Animals off Farm

photo 1The alpacas and kitty have left the farm. A friend took two of our girls down on Sunday, and we hauled the other two down to her yesterday. This is a good move for our alpaca friends, but it was hard to say goodbye after so many kissy and derpy faced moments shared with our four-legged friends. They have gone to live with the Shetlands, which made for a fun experience watching them adjust to life with sheep neighbors.

On the way back through town, we stopped again at the farm and picked up Watson, who appeared confused about the missing alpacas in his domain. He wasn’t terribly happy about the prospect of being in the van, but he quickly snuggled into daddy’s lap and is adjusting well.

photo 4 (1)As for us, as we drove away from the alpacas, whose ears were alert and forward, watching us carefully back down the drive, I felt a pang of anxiety. It was the realization that for the first time in a very long time, we are not farming. Not really, at least. And while I know this is temporary, it was a strange realization.

We leave Sunday for New York to close on the house. And while there, we’ll be visiting a couple of farms and families we’ve met along the way. It’ll help to focus on the next step, but in these quiet few weeks before the big move, it also gives us time to really reflect on these past four years. What a strange and wondrous ride it has been. photo 4

As we walked away from the alpaca enclosure, Chris put his arm around me, leaned in
close and said, “Now, the next leg of this journey really begins.” And I am reminded of the of the following:

“But what if I fail of my purpose here? It is but to keep the nerves at strain, to dry one’s eyes and laugh at a fall, and baffled, get up and begin again.” -Robert Browning

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Things to do when not farming…

The seed catalogs are piling up and it’s a constant reminder of how in flux we’ll be as of

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Identifying cool mushrooms…

June. It’s been a long time since I’ve not put in a large seed order, and frankly, I’m feeling a bit antsy about it this season. So, to take my mind off of what I won’t be doing, I’m thinking ahead to the things this extra time will provide in terms of opportunities for learning. An ever-growing, ever-bearing, zone 1-10 list of things to learn while not farming:

  • Tend to the travelling orchard
  • Improve spinning technique
  • Improve fiber processing set-up and technique
  • Experiment with natural dyes
  • Learn about medicinal herbs
  • Practice grafting techniques
  • Volunteer at school or public garden
  • Help a fellow farmer with farm chores, butchering, shearing, etc.
  • Learn old-fashioned candy-making
  • Focus on food preservation techniques:
    • Pressure canning
    • Smoking meats
    • Drying
    • Fermentation
  • Take a class in business planning for the fiber mill
  • Maybe, just maybe, learn a new knitting skill
  • Explore niche or value added markets
  • Take a botany class
  • Spend some time with growers using methods outside of your own, including conventional, biodynamic, and other permaculture or organic farmers and gardeners
  • Cut up seed catalogs to make art with the kids
  • Cut up seed catalogs to do some companion planting planning
  • Re-read Edible Forest Gardens

The list continues to grow and hope blooms eternal, so… suggestions are always welcome and may spring shine warm sunlight upon your gardens!

Something from Nothing

DSC_0026Ten years ago, I was living in the rural outskirts of Traverse City, building garden beds as a leisurely summer activity with my three toddlers. I could never have imagined how much my life would change in the coming decade. By the end of that summer, I began feeling ill with trouble breathing and nightmares about dying. In September of that year I was diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma and began immediate treatments, lasting into the following year.

Little did I realize that a single event, a phone call that I picked up while standing at the kitchen counter, in which a surgeon very plainly announced the diagnosis with little emotion in his voice, that my life as a farmer would truly begin. Not out of a desire to farm, specifically (although I have always wanted this life), but out of a need to find answers; alternatives to biocides used in fruit production.

This morning, I looked out at the calm waters of Lake Michigan and the sunlight spilling
over the hilltop through the windows, and felt my heart swell for the little apple whips beginning their first full season as individual trees. These trees represent so much more than the salvation of a single apple variety. They photo 4 (1)are also the culmination of a decade’s long effort toward restorative agriculture. Progressing toward a desire to save not only rare apples, but also to satisfy my own desire to see my children play among the orchard trees the way I once did as a child, but free from the worry of toxins.

Farmers, generally, whether they spray or use alternative growing methods, are some of the best people I’ve ever known. And this little travelling orchard is representative of not only my hope for the future, but of my admiration for my fellow farmers. I know the struggles we each endure regularly, the set-backs and failures that make this business challenging, and the pioneering spirit that keeps it all moving forward. Because this business of growing is as much about growing food as it is growing from within.

My Side of the Mountain

Last night we gathered near the fire to begin reading My Side of the Mountain, a story published in 1959 by J. Craighead George about a boy leaving NYC for his grandfather’s abandoned farmstead in Delaware County, NY. As with any group story hour in our house, there was much interrupting for the first few minutes, but after a while, even the toddler settled into the rhythmic tone of the book.

schoharieIn many ways, we’re seeking much the same – a simpler life in the Catskills, working on those tasks and chores that bring us meaning. I think most people can relate to that desire on some level. Even the kids relate. The girls began asking about building a tree fort that they could stay in overnight and before long I listened to my two eldest daughters debate the merits of eating fish eyes over collecting dew, if dehydrated. (I’ll never regret sending them to an outdoor education school over traditional middle school, if only for these conversations).

While driving East through Canada, I was struck at how anxious I felt. It used to be that on long treks like this, I would rely on road signs to get me to my destination. And while I would periodically get lost, most often I ended up exactly where I needed to be. Somehow, with my printed map, GPS on the phone, and even built-in GPS in our car, I actually felt more vulnerable. I’ve grown so accustomed to using this technology, perhaps, that trust in my own instinct has faltered some.

I think about what the boy in the story, or pioneers of long ago had to navigate their way. The stars, word of mouth, stories. Risk of starvation, illness, dehydration, death ever present. And yet, they did not stay put. They left the cozy cabin of the big woods for an unknown life on the plains, or the shelter and safety of the city for the mountain, or the stillness of routine in a place that was sufficient for the insecurity of achieving that experience that is ultimately satisfying- a life lived outside of careful navigation. A life that explores those paths that are revealed in getting a little bit lost along the way.

Last night, I listened to my husband’s kind voice carry through the room and closed my eyes to remember what the clouds looked like when they circled the rounded mountains of the Catskills, or the way the sunlight played at sunset with those steep angles, knowing that one day I would be able to share more than just the story of this magical place with my family.  Though I will never, ever eat fish eyes.

Letter to the Greater Schoharie Valley

The woman in the photograph is my great, great grandmother, Rose Render. She lived onphoto 3 (1) a farm in middle Michigan, raising her boys and her livestock on her own, without the help of modern conveniences like electricity and running water. My mother remembers going to Grandma Rose’s for dinner, enjoying chicken raised on the farm and processed by our grandmother’s own hands. My mother described her visits to the farm as travelling back through time. The tiny, sturdy farmhouse walled off to the approach of a fast-paced modern era.

I assume the desire to farm runs deep. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, save for that year I wanted to run for president in the seventh grade. Some of my earliest memories involve planting radishes and pumpkins in a garden beside my mother’s house, beside the neat rows of cherry trees that stretched out for miles in three directions.

We’ve faced hardships as farmers. We’ve lost animals to predators and had to learn to harvest our own birds for meat. We’ve had animals get out of the paddock to explore the lake or visit town. Last year, we lost nearly 200 apple trees planted with love, by hand, to a brutal spell of unprecedented cold winter that followed an equally brutal drought. I’ve wept in the soil for these losses and questioned many, many times why we do this thing called farming.

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The answer always comes back to the successes. Grafting apple varieties on the brink of extinction in order to preserve this unique living cultural landscape. The raising of sheep, of alpacas, of learning to shear by hand, of washing these fleeces with great care and following this education down to carding each, and learning to spin so that the farm could support raising these beautiful animals. The reward in each of these feats far outweighs any set-backs.

Farming has also taught me to follow my instincts, to see failures as opportunities for growth, to find strength in vulnerability, and to be bold, despite the risks.  And this next bold move has taken us down some narrow roads – exploring the limits of our own fears and anxiety as we venture forth from Michigan to New York. Last fall we sold our house imageand have been staying with family as we make trips out east to locate a farm where we can finally put down permanent roots.

It has taken several trips out, but we finally feel comfortable in saying we would like to land in the region of the Schoharie valley, somewhere between Canajoharie to the undulating, aged mountains that rise up from Roxbury. And we’re seeking help. We’ve met with farmers, and are currently putting out feelers for any farmer or land owner who may be considering selling their farm. We are hoping to locate a farm with a house (we love older homes and are not afraid of renovations) with as few as four acres (more will be put to good use). A barn is not necessary, but a barn or outbuildings are a plus.

IF you know of anyone who may be able to help us, please feel free to share our email address healingtreefarm@gmail.com. We appreciate any help and look forward to becoming NY farmers this year! Thank you._o4xWwwKByO91WVxwu-cQcT7gkqweBxIjtCdCjO2G2U,NuqeJjwABcK9WcVXgvNf4Tkear9KK_FbgJqF45848_s

Hobbits, Unicorns, and a Cow Goddess

I just returned from another trip out to New York, this time to explore the Schoharie valley and Delaware County. This trip, thanks to the farmers who housed me, really invigorated me.  I think I’ve been feeling a bit disconnected from farming, despite the daily regimen because we’re currently partially uprooted. Being on a farm started by a woman and witnessing the incredible foundation she has built, along with the connectivity she fosters with neighboring farms, has really inspired me not to “begin again,” but to continue with this mission forward to build a farm and fiber business.

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Isadora, the Adorable

The farm where I stayed (had to make this trip out alone so Chris could tend to the alpacas), is technically East Branch Farm, but most of the locals know it as Straight Out of the Ground, a beautiful property with a goddess of a guernsey cow, who is the apple of Farmer Madalyn’s eye, for sure. And it’s easy to see why. Look at that adorable face!

In addition to farming, Madalyn also co-produces a radio show called the Farm Hour Radio.

The mountains are nothing short of magical. The roadways and farmland trace their contours, and in the mornings, mist hovers over the valleys, leading me to look for hobbits and unicorns as much as farmland.

Madalyn connected us with some good folks and resources for farmers and reinforced the awareness that New York is a good state for agriculture. Beneath every county sign I passed, the words “Right to Farm” appeared prominently. The soil in the valleys appears good and the prospect of a fiber mill feels welcomed.

photo 1 (2)Moreover, the locals are fiercely loyal to their agricultural roots and at one stop, in a village where we had been told we could not house our alpacas, a local business owner stormed down to the local village office and demanded to see the ordinance. When the village couldn’t provide any specific wording ruling against alpacas, she called me and said, “You can have your livestock here.” Can’t help but love these folks.

I would like to say we have figured this whole thing out, but after an inspection revealed some significant issues on the house we were under contract to buy, we are once again looking for the farm. However, despite this setback, I feel more confident than ever that we’ll find the right place, because more significant than where we will land is that feeling of where we belong. And it’s there, among the mountains and the hard-working farmers of the Schoharie, where we feel most at home. Looking forward to calling this place home.

Last trip out, we traversed Sharon Springs, where an inspiring couple revitalized a farm into an enterprising business. Madalyn told us it’s not only a thriving business, but they even had a television show. Check it out below. Also, living in the region, a woman I look forward to meeting at some point in the near future, Shannon Hayes, the Radical Homemaker. And so much more I would like to share, save for the time to write it all down…

If you don’t know them already, the Beekman Boys are fabulous.

Begin again with the Beekman Boys:

A day in the life…

We are a family of six. That translates to two kids per parent. Factor in a dog, cat, and four alpacas, and meal planning/preparation, and you can see how a day goes by very quickly for our household. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love farming, but this kind of farming is unique for us. We do not live at the property and without electricity and running water, we have to make daily trips hauling materials in during the winter months over-top heavy snowfall and no matter the weather, and as often as two to three times daily.

photo 1Water is carried in three-gallon drums. We fill it at home and carry the water uphill through the snow because there is no way for our car to traverse the drive this time of the year. It’s good cardio, but not half as good as the 50lb bags of pellets or the even heavier dense hay we carry bale by bale.

A hay shortage this year meant we could not stock up as we had done previously, but thankfully we found a really good supplier just 12 miles from the farm. Today, we’ll haul in another load, bale by bale, through the snow, uphill the whole way. I’m just grateful it’s good grass hay (harder to find with such high demand fphoto 3or alfalfa mixed bales in our area).

Yesterday, was a straw day. We stack two bales on the Prius roof once a week for bedding. The straw is light and not as difficult to maneuver, but takes time, like anything, when traversing heavy snow.

The daily tasks at the farm include the removal of the evening dung-pile (it’s amazing what an alpaca bottom can produce in a day), watering of the animals, a daily ration of pellets (a treat and supplement), hay feed, and feeding the cat, who has taken up residence with the alpacas. They form a harmonious grouping. Cats and alpacas pair well together and the cat keeps the mice away from the feed and I often find the cat and the alpacas nestled together in the deep straw bedding.

Next comes the dumping of the collected dung outside of the barn, then a walk around the perimeter to ensure the fence is in good order. Usually a few nuzzles and snuggles are exchanged and that concludes the first round.

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Another aspect of having alpacas is the grooming. We do not groom their fiber, but we do keep their nails clipped, which is not a very pleasant process for the farmer, unaccustomed to wrestling a 200-lb animal during its routine foot-care.

This summer, I learned to administer both IM and SQ injections for vitamins and vaccines. Also not my favorite task, but part of the routine care of the animals. There’s the shearing, but that’s a biennial event for Suris, and thankfully one we can hire out (though we successfully sheared two on our own – I may be slightly stretching the use of the word “successful” in this instance).

Farming is not for the faint of heart. And farming in this fashion is reminiscent of something older. At times I am working in complete darkness, by feel, and other times I find myself breathing standing before the large looming barn with the feeling time has stopped in this place altogether. It’s a peaceful feeling and I am grateful this special place has been preserved for many future generations to experience and enjoy.