A Quick Introduction
January is a time for reflection. Particularly on a farm in New England, as it is the only month there’s ever any free time. As I plan out 2023, I thought it would be fun to revisit the adventures from 2022, which was our wildest year yet at Something Wild Farm. We moved here in May 2018, but didn’t really ramp up the farming side of things until May 2020, when the name for the farm landed like a bee on a flower. At that point, all we did was tap 20 maple trees and grow a few rows of vegetables in a raised bed by the side door. The back yard was a jungle of vines, ticks, and occasional wild animals springing out of the thistles like whales. Things have been a whirlwind ever since!
We knew 2022 would be a year of growth and challenge, but we didn’t realize how much we’d actually accomplish.
I was halfway through Joel Salatin’s book Polyface Micro as the new year struck, and it was the perfect book to be lost in during the late night reads before bed. In the book, Salatin lays out ideas for how to scale down his regenerative farming techniques to the homestead level, with an emphasis on livestock. Getting into livestock can be overwhelming, especially anything larger than chickens. Having underlined 75% of the book and then regurgitating all of it into my journal, I felt much more comfortable going into the year knowing at some point we’d be ramping up both our existing chicken operation (we had 3 hens and Roo) and ….probably getting something else. After reading Micro, I wanted sheep, I wanted rabbits, I wanted meat birds. I wanted pigs! Something would happen, we figured.
It was in January I got my supplies for maple sugarin’ season. In years prior, I’ve ordered from the usual companies and had it shipped. But when researching leaf-shaped bottles, I discovered Bascom’s in Acworth, NH. Apparently they’re the maple empire in this neck of the woods. I had visited in October to grab some bottles for Christmas sales, so I decided to drive back in the middle of January to get my supplies for the entire season.
I took Pip up for the long drive to Acworth from North Sandwich. First we stopped and played frisbee on frozen Lake Chocorua! What a fun time that was. We went the day after an ice storm, onto the wily backroads of New Hampshire. One thing about Acworth: it’s truly a place you can’t get from here. Once I turned off 89-N I completely lost track of where I was -- I just followed the app’s instructions. Every road had HILL at the end of it, and none of them were paved. Everything was iced over. From the road to the tops of the trees. I wondered if my Scion was going to make it. Pip sat resolute in the passenger seat, his quiet intensity keeping me sane. Suddenly we popped into the little town of Acworth, and I followed yet another steep hill up the mountain Bascom’s shop is on. For the ride home, I studied the maps manually and stayed on state roads. Piece of cake, really. But Maps likes to send us the .1 mile shorter way, even if it’s harebrained. Lesson learned.
Come February, I spent most of my days checking the weather to see when the thaw would come. When the sap would start sappin’. I got all my tubing set up, all my buckets ready, all my days off scheduled. Maple sugarin’ is a lifestyle. I tapped 100 trees (up from 80 the year before) so I planned to party.
I tapped President’s Day weekend then spent the next two weeks wondering if it would ever flow. I got so paranoid that Kay had to check our Instagram posts from 2021 to confirm it would happen. Of course, right on time, the sap flowed.
For all of March and the first week of April, if I wasn’t working or sleeping I was boiling outside at the Something Wild Sugar Camp. I smelled like smoke and sugar. I lugged buckets of sap through the foot-deep snow, mastering the art of postholing without spilling a drop. Excellent workout. I stood out in the snow, in the wind and looked at Whiteface, binging podcasts and Spotify playlists until 1 am. Roo and the hens kept me company. On the weekends, we’d have open houses and let folks come see the set-up. Part of our mission with Something Wild Farm is to be a part of the community, and part of that is creating a connection between people and food. We’ve met lots of neighbors and even some of our best friends simply from keeping the evaporator as a hearth for shaking hands and petting chickens.
In late March Kay wanted to take a ride to Tractor Supply Co in Plymouth. It was a rainy morning so I let the evaporator die back a bit and we drove up. We left with a box full of day-old Cuckoo Maran chicks. After we set the brooder up in our library, it was back to boiling in the rain. For the next month we raised our first batch of baby birds in a Sterilite tote next to our office computer and bookshelf. When we’d open the little brooder door and the chicks perched on top of the dog fence and try to fly around the room, I decided it was time to make the barn chicken-friendly. I built a giant brooder box with 2x2s and chicken wire. I also got the garden going – carrots, spinach, lettuce, radish, peas all into the ground the very moment the snow melts. I inspected the sprouting garlics and re-spaced the strawberries, to keep the runners under control and productive. Strawberries will 4x every year if you split them up just right! My initial investment of 48 starts turned into over 140. I’m a little terrified of how many I’ll find next spring!
I was also still cleaning up the maple mess! And at some point in March I got called into my weather-sensitive full-time job for a week’s worth of overtime. Before I knew it it, the chicks were pullets and it was May! And what do you know, our order of 25 baby chicks showed up at the post office!
When I get hectic around the farm (trust me, it’s good times) I refer to it as hugger-mugger farming. This means I’m out there in a head lamp planting seeds or moving electric fence or doing whatever it takes, regardless of how stupid I feel for not being done yet. I took the concept from a Robert Frost poem called The Star-splitter:
So Brad McLaughlin mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming,
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a lifelong curiosity
About our place among the infinities.
I ain’t burning my house down (I promise), but sometimes it feels like the only option. Except for finishing the task at hand, no matter the time. Personally, I love it. I’m one of those people who savor adversity. The poem begins with an observation of Orion climbing over the horizon like a fence. I’ve been watching Orion climb the fence every night for years and feeling accountable beneath the great hunter, an astrological mentor for me. He’ll take hugger-mugger farming over sleeping. It’s barely spring, baby! The year is young.
On Earth Day, my Christmas tree collaborator, Richard, and myself did a favor for the landowner who lets us cut trees off his property. We cleared up a hilltop viewpoint of Whiteface from the cross country ski trails along the property. Maybe every few years we need to pluck out a big tree, but down below the view, we can see all those young spruces and firs ready to pop. We left a few birches at the viewpoint to frame the mountain. Hopefully that view stays special. We’ll keep it that way for now. It wasn’t lost on me that we cut down some trees on Earth Day, but I’ll defend some responsible forest management ‘til I’m blue in the face. When trees grow too thick they get nasty and start dying. And in drier areas, that’s how wildfires start. If you want to see healthy trees, go into managed forests or sugarbushes. They need air and room to spread out. So it’s a bit ironic, but you gotta break a few eggs to make an omelette....same goes for trees.
Over the winter, I let the four chickens hang out between their stationary coop and the mobile shelter, known as the Chickshaw (or just the Shaw), which I built in October ‘21 based on Justin Rhodes’ Permaculture Chickens plans. This off-road chicken RV is an excellent choice for uneven terrain, such as our Sandwich Range backyard. No birds of mine are gonna live in a barn when there’s grass to play in and bugs to hunt and eat. As May brought dandelions and winged critters, I moved the birds into the Shaw. I ran electric netting around them and moved them around every few days. They tilled up the un-used sections of the garden for me, then began tackling some weedy areas. In the meantime, Kay and I picked dandelion flowers and dehydrated them for later projects. We also picked ticks off ourselves and the dogs. I played my favorite game called What Will Roo Eat? Spiders, ticks, worms, I would just dangle them in front of him and he’d peck them right out of my hands. I also caught baby snakes, but didn’t feed them to Roo. Snakes are allies on the farm. The robins returned to the pastures and marched along, looking for snacks.
So I mentioned that I kept the Shaw inside electric netting, but I forgot to mention I didn’t electrify it. Rookie fatal error. One morning in early May I strolled down to the Shaw and stopped in my tracks. Choked up a bit. Roo was walking around outside the ripped apart Shaw, calm as ever. I found Brownie up under the porch, gettin’ by. Of the other two birds, only feathers. There were muddy bear prints on the side of the Shaw. I scooped the two birds up, scolding Roo for being alive when protecting Ladybird and Vivian were his g****d***n job, and tucked them into the coop, which is a castle compared to the Shaw. The song that came on shuffle during my drive to work that morning was Amos Pitsch’s thoughtful country rocker “Shift Toward Tenderness”….
And nature has its way with you
You die just when it wants you to
And everyone's so screwed
Will help you carry through
I listened to it three times on my drive to work and it’s been stuck in my head all year. Was #7 on my Spotify playlist. Got me through the week. I doted heavily on Brownie and Roo quite a bit that week. I thought about why I thought I had any sort of immunity to nature doing what it wanted around these parts. I had literally just had a conversation with a neighbor at the evaporator about bears attacking his coop. Anyway, I got my energizer ordered. I let Brownie and Roo free range around the yard when I was home, but kept them in the coop area for now. It worked out anyway, because it was time to introduce the cuckoos. At this point, I had the three cuckoo pullets on the left side of the barn brooder and the 25 baby birds on the right side. In case you’re wondering what 25 baby chicks fresh out of a USPS box, with beaks freshly dipped in water and fresh bedding and warm heat lamp….they are wild party gremlins. We were glued to the brooder for a few weeks as we watched Chicken TV, the only channel worth watching.
The cuckoos were ornery at this point, a bit older and ready to go be hens. Brownie had essentially stopped laying eggs after the bear attack and she was irritated by Roo, who needed more hens to pester. But you shouldn’t let roosters pester hens until they’re 16 weeks old. We moved the Cuckoos into the coop after a few afternoons of hanging out in a tiny greenhouse by the front door. As soon as the Cuckoos moved into the coop, we moved seedlings into the tiny greenhouse. Always moving things around on the farm. All infrastructure has multiple purposes, if possible. This is something I gleaned from Polyface Micro.
I started over 700 seeds in one afternoon in May. Onions, scallions, more lettuce, kale, squash, cukes, calendula, and other flowers. I direct seeded more carrots, arugula, and turnips. I already had tons of squash and onions indoors ready to go and I had planted potatoes and sweet potatoes as well. Our neighbor Megan (of Your Neighbor’s Flowers/Caldera Edge Farm) hooked us up with lots of extra flower starts with which I filled every nook and cranny of the garden. I had excellent pollination with all our fruiting crops, so I think I have her to thank for that. Another neighbor in town was dividing rhubarb, so I snagged a few of those, too.
Beneath all the insanity, we were plotting something exciting: sheep! Kay had done her research and wanted Romneys and wanted them from a particular farm in Peterborough. Around my birthday in May we spent a weekend in Deerfield, MA and toured the historical homes. Oh, and it happened to be Sheep Weekend down there. We met some Romneys, watched some herding dogs, toured some colonial homes, had some fancy dinners, and drove home refreshed and excited. But first we stopped in another Deerfield – the one in NH – and visited the Sheep & Wool Festival. We met with Mary, the breeder of the Romneys we wanted. A sweet lady in a tye-dye shirt surrounded by bags of wool, we talked for an hour and walked away trusting her entirely. She (and her booth partner whose name I forget, but he had a cool cowboy hat with wool on it) educated us more in that hour than any book or video we watched.
We originally wanted two lambs. TWO. But after chatting, we were convinced (not upsold, they insisted) we should get three. Same amount of work and happier flock. Sign us up. We were also offered some of the older mamas, but we left unsure of that. As the week went by, we decided we’d take two of the mamas, both ten years old. We could butcher them if we didn’t want them, no big deal. Mary offered them for free, as a favor to help the lambs learn how to be sheep. So now we were at FIVE sheep. Easy peasy.
A week later, we drove to Peterborough in the Blazer. “Will sheep fit in the back of the Blazer?” we had asked Mary. She seemed to think so. Okay! Let’s go for it. Hugger-mugger, baby! I backed the Blazer up to the barn and we hung with the flock. Romneys are bigger than we realized. Mary pointed out the lambs we’d be taking, all born in February. One tiny buffalo, an even tinier buffalo and a white frilly thing who was neurotic from the start. Loading the lambs into the back of the Blazer was pretty easy – one of us would grab the neck, the other the butt, and we lifted them up and in. Then we rounded up Kiriava, one of the mamas. I lifted her top half onto the back of the Blazer and Mary scooted her butt, then I helped lift her in. She hopped in after she saw her lamb inside. The Blazer was already...crowded...but sheep are like clowns, you can fit a lot in there. We loaded Sheep #5 into the thing and closed the doors. Her son wandered by and helped us. Raised on the farm, he lifted the darn thing by himself and chucked her in. We closed all the doors and while the Blazer gently rocked around as the sheep figured out what was going on, Mary exclaimed loudly in her cute, authoritative way, something along the lines of Oh, Shoot! We had loaded the wrong sheep. We loaded Roxy, who was not the mama to the big buffalo. Mary leveled with us: we could keep Roxy. She didn’t have a lamb in the flock, it was sold weeks ago. Easier than unloading her/every other sheep and starting over. We found Emelda and managed to get her in through the side door. That put us at SIX. Six sheep in a Chevy Blazer on the top of a hill three hours from our farm. We relaxed for a moment and watched her cat walk up to us crying. It had bird poop on its head. Dummy. After purchasing some beefalo (yes that’s a thing) and paying for our new woolly ladies, we hopped into the Blazer and began the insane drive down the hill toward 202.
Let me tell you, we take driving down hills for granted. Try doing it with six standing uncomfortable sheep inches behind your driver’s seat. I could feel them breathing on me. They were peeing and pooping in the back of this old Blazer freely and it may or may not have been a little too much like a Gallagher show. The sheep settled down once we got onto the highway and could drive a comfortable 40-50 mph. We started laughing hysterically, or maybe just I was. It was insane. At some point I had to stop driving because I felt like I was fraying at the edges. Kay carried us home. I was having irrational fears the sheep would somehow bang the door open and escape. We backed up to the electric netting and opened the back. The sheep flew out like dolphins jumping out of the sea and began crushing grass, which I had let grow all spring for this very moment. We lit up the fence nice and hot and let the sheep chill out. Around six pm we went out to shuffle them into the barn. Rookie mistake….we should have funneled them straight into the barn. When sheep don’t know what the barn is, no amount of corn is going to lead them anywhere. They broke the no-longer-hot fence and ran all over the back yard. Fortunately it’s mostly fenced in, and we chased them around for a half hour, on the verge of tears and nervous as hell. Sheeps in woods = byeeeeee.
Eventually we were able to grab the lambs and drag ‘em back into the netting and electrify it. Roxy and Emelda were fairly docile and complied once the corn was accessible. Kiriava, a scrawny, angry old lady death stared us and wouldn’t be caught. Then she just laid down and played dead. I dragged her into the barn a few feet at a time and swore. Once she heard her baby in the barn, she got up and followed. Soon we had all the sheep in the pen, eating corn and drinking water. That was the only time we’ve let them wander outside of netting. Maybe someday, folks. But we’re not there yet.
Just a week later, we had another break out. This time on a Sunday morning. There was a small gap between the fence they were in and the fence we were funneling them through and two sheep escaped: Roxy and Clover. There’s an art to guiding the sheep by running around them and touching their pressure zones. You don’t go at them, you go around them. Watch herding dogs. When you don’t have a herding dog (technically we do, but they are just pets with no herding experience), you must be the herding dog. This particular morning, though, Roxy led the way and our two escapees ran all the way to the road. They cut right at the road and I caught Roxy in the front yard. Clover hung around and waited and finally we got them to curl around the house into the back again. Once they saw the pasture they went back toward it. I had to chase them around the netting a few more times but eventually got them back in. These days, if I had an escape, I’d handle it much differently. But back then, we were still learning how it all works. These days, the sheep follow us around like the shepherd and shepherdess we’re becoming. The corn (a.k.a. sheep candy) certainly helps!
I took a week off in early June and fixed up the Shaw. I turned it into a battle ship, adding extra framing and hardware cloth. I even added cattle pen to the bottom, so if a bear tried to reach up and in, its arms couldn’t get through. The Shaw is now much heavier and harder to clean, but worth the extra work. It’s not a bear feeder – it’s a mobile egg production facility. A chicken vacation home. I fixed it up on my birthday weekend then went down to Boston with my friend Bill to see Waxahatchee. When Kay thought up the name Something Wild Farm, I didn’t think it was a coincidence that I had just been obsessing over Waxahatchee’s single “Can’t Do Much”….
When you're missing me oh what do you see
Something wild that you think you'll never be
Something safe that you could tend to and lead
Something versatile to fill all your needs
It was literally the same day in May ‘20 I discovered this song that Kay came up with the name. Seeing Waxahatchee was a great time for me. It’s good to get out once in a while! I don’t like going to cities, though. I’d rather wrangle loose sheep.
The strawberries and raspberries started coming. We’d go out and pick whatever we wanted. Our neighbor’s young son would come over for a visit and pick all the fruit he could find. Someone had to learn the difference between ripe and unripe fruit! The elder flowers bloomed and we made cordial. Mix that up with a little tonic water and you have a mocktail worthy of a summer (or a winter) night.
We decided we needed a new mailbox. But not just any mailbox: Kay found a chicken-shaped mailbox. And while I begrudgingly agreed, I knew it would be a marvelous mailbox. The dreams we had of decorating the chicken with seasonal costumes were too good to pass up. We also can now say "We're the house with the chicken mailbox!" which is very fun to say.
We noticed every night when we brought the sheep in, Kiriava was coming in slower and slower. She was already really scrawny looking and probably wasn’t long for the world. Mary even warned us she might drop dead. I had a butcher date scheduled for Kiriava and Emelda in September. Can’t mess around with those butchers – just get ‘em booked. Well, one afternoon Kiriava just laid down and didn’t want to get up. The poor old girl, I shook her up and we got her halfway back to the barn and she sat again. Nothing was budging her. I dragged her into the barn. She heard her lamb and tried to get up. I laid her down near the sheep and they didn’t seem too cool about it. Aster sat with her for a while and I accepted reality. Man, I thought losing some chickens sucked. I googled how to put a sheep out of its misery with a 22LR. I’ll spare you those details. Aster said her goodbyes and I removed Kiriava. I told her it was going to be okay and I thanked her for living with us. I made things happen and dealt with the emotional consequences. It was a hot evening and I didn’t have much time, nor any experience butchering, but I managed to take a few cuts off the carcass and then I buried the rest out in Compost Alley, which is off the logging road. Literally the next day, the stress in our flock disappeared. Kiriava never settled in with us and it’s possible the stress of the move is what did her in. She was ten years old, which is old in sheep years but not that old. I mean, she had just had a baby. But she wasn’t the healthiest looking thing. Emelda is also ten, but is very robust. We decided to let Emelda live through this year. She has the vigor of a grandma that likes to go hiking. Kiriava was a bit more like the grandma who sleeps in front of the TV and you wonder if she’s still alive.
Come July, the garden started going crazy. Volunteer cherry tomatoes, chamomile, and purslane introduced themselves, adding to the productive chaos. I hopped on the riding mower and with the sheep, began clearing actual chunks of land. Our land is not very mowable. I even had a pro with a bush-hog call the job off and tell me to have a nice day. Too many rocks. Riding the mower back there was like the scene in On Golden Pond when Henry Fonda has the kid lay on the front of the boat looking for rocks. The only question is….does our yard have a Walter?
We nicknamed the 25 pullets the Cheeps and moved them into the Shaw. I fenced in the Shaw but kept both the Shaw and the coop within clucking distance of each other. Kay identified our breeds as ISA browns (“Golden Comet”), barred rocks (nicknamed the Rockettes, in honor of Roo, who was also a barred rock), and Reds, probably New Hampshire Reds. I can never remember, so I just call them the Reds. And it turns out that we were given another rooster. We named him Romeo. He was tall and lanky and shiny and beautiful. A goofy teenage bird.
We wondered if the flock was big enough the two roosters could co-exist. But also, Kay really disliked Roo. He was….an a-hole. I sort of liked it. I could go out there and wrestle him all day, then pick him up and coddle him like my own little Mike Tyson teddy bear. Roo and his flock had a traumatic existence before they were gifted to us – neighbor dogs would pick them off. His flock used to be 13. When we got them, they were a gang of six. And now they were two. But the point of this farm thing is to do it together and have fun. So decisions about roosters would have to be made. And as much as I wanted to defend Roo’s honor, he was still alive when two of his hens weren’t and I wondered what sorta rooster he really was. Anyway, we still had some time.
Come summer I did a lot of metal scrapping. I cleaned up some old farm properties, met some cool old farmers, made a few bucks and got some free useful stuff. Beyond daily critter chores (feeding, watering, moving netting, moving critters) and watering the garden/harvesting crops, July and August are pretty lazy around the farm. Lots of trail running and swimming off the Bennett Street Trail with Wilder and Pip. I spent a lot of time canning green beans and pickles. I cut some trees down and chopped firewood. Freezing even more green beans and peas and purslane. We harvested garlic scapes, potatoes, berries, and began picking off carrots and kale and lettuce and cukes. The salads were epic. The cuckoos started laying eggs in August. Suddenly our two eggs per week from Brownie became 3-4 eggs from our little flock. Occasionally one of the cheeps would escape and we’d have to hunt under brush piles in the sugar bush until we could find her. The barred rocks are extra flighty. Once I found one at dusk roosting on the wood pile. Glad I found her. The ISAs are fairly easy to catch. Docile little birds.
The hunt for hay began in early summer. I bought a trailer so I could put the Blazer to work and I found good hay in Center Harbor. I made two trips and self-loaded 30 bales at a time, stacked as high as the Blazer on the trailer. I also found some old bales at a neighbor’s place in Whiteface, as well as from the esteemed Helen Steele in Wonalancet. She let me hang out for a while and meet her sheep, after I loaded up a bunch of year-old hay into the Blazer. I believe she told me her pastures have 21 species in them. That’s a sheep salad bar. I’m proud my sheep eat hay from the most iconic postcard picture corner of New Hampshire. I love driving around with a trailer full of hay on a summer evening. It feels right. And I love carrying bales up to the loft and hand-stacking them. I was disgusting after, but it was a workout for the ages. My workout and running schedule took a hit this year, but I only got bigger and stronger. Not complaining.
In August, we woke up to a toppled trash can in the barn and a few cedar shingles knocked off the animal barn. Bear. Some feed bags from the trash can were found in the woods, torn apart. The birds were all safe – the fence was hot. We set up the cameras outside and the very next night we caught video of Chonker Bear sniffing around. But the netting worked – Chonker Bear didn’t touch the birds. I touched the hot fence a few times over the course of the summer by accident – it’s zingy! I don’t recommend it. It’s not so bad, just weird and numbing for a second. You get the voltage but not the amperage, so it isn’t anything too dangerous. Just irritable. And what’s interesting about electric fence, is that you gotta be standing on the ground to get zapped. If a bird walks into it, it’ll get zapped and run away, but if a bird flies into it, it’ll just fall off and be fine. That’s literally what being grounded means! All electricity needs to be grounded to flow. A local bird could fly and land on the electric netting (just like birds can land on power lines) and not get zapped.
One day, our friend Bob stopped by on his moped and hooked us up with some peaches from North Sandwich! I canned a bunch and also made a zingy peach jam with our own maple syrup. The elder berries came in and I spent countless hours picking them and going insane because that’s what picking elder berries is like. I experimented with some elderberry preserves, but it’s like a taffy. It’s delicious, though. I froze a dozen pounds of them for winter projects. Elder syrup, elder wine? Our blueberry bushes were pretty productive, too. We also found something on the property called carrion berry but they were gross and mealy.
Kay went on a trip with her mom to Alaska and I decided it was almost time to introduce the two flocks together. The Cheeps were 18 weeks old and I finally got an egg or two to prove they were gonna do their jobs. I hung up a killing cone and grabbed my favorite critter, Roo. A few hours later he was in the stars with Orion. Or, well, in the freezer. But he will live forever on the farm. The job’s yours now, Romeo. He’s handled the flock well, after a rough patch duking it out with Brownie and the cuckoos. One cuckoo, in particular, Circe, is a big girl and she don’t take no riff-raff. One of our cuckoos seems to have been injured and limps, so we named her Leggy. Brownie has been grumpy ever since the bear attack but we love her. She remains the matriarch of the flock and has the right to live as long as she’s healthy.
Moving the four adult hens into the Shaw with the rest of the flock was easy, and by September they were out on pasture. Better late than never. I tried grazing them after the sheep, but the were wrecking the pasture, turning it into wasteland. So I sent the birds off on different adventures, clearing land that hasn’t been grazed at all yet. That land could handle them better. The eggs started coming. I was intimidated by the idea of 10-20 eggs a day (we now have 27 hens) and I began eating…..a lot of eggs! We started self-consciously asking coworkers and neighbors if they were interested in buying eggs and almost all of them were so enthusiastic about it we were shocked! We decided if we were going to sell eggs, we needed to do it right, so we bought nice cartons and made a label and began washing the eggs.
Eggs do not need to be washed. In fact, they can sit on the counter just fine if they are unwashed. Chickens lay a shelf-stable product. But sometimes eggs have little bits of muck on them and not everyone likes that, so we wash them here in the States. The stuff in the stores might even be bleached or sprayed with other chemicals. Have fun with that. In Europe, if I recall, they aren’t even allowed to wash eggs. Eggs are just sold as is. Maybe lightly brushed off, but their natural design is that they don’t need to be kept cold to stay fresh. That said, we wash our “For Sale eggs” and keep them in the fridge. But there’s always a bowl of unwashed eggs on the counter for ourselves.
The real garden harvesting began in late September and October. The final potatoes and sweet potatoes, squashes, onions, and turnips started filling buckets. Oh, and garlic! We couldn’t eat the lettuce and kale fast enough, so the sheep and chickens got a-plenty. The sheep love kale and every day after work I’d pick some kale and feed them before heading into the house. The deer started wandering into the yard at night, spooking me with their glowing eyes from the poplars. Someday I’ll hunt a few, but I’m not ready yet.
As November approached, we had campfires out back and had our friends over. In one surreal moment we watched a Starlink satellite float over us and we wondered if this was the end times. (It wasn’t.) The evening of our friend’s Halloween party, I went out to the Shaw to tuck all the birds in a bit early so we could leave before dark. The birds did not want to go into the Shaw and I had to catch them one at a time. It’s easy to catch birds when there are 28 to catch, but as that number got lower, they took longer and longer to catch. With 28 birds, they take one minute each to catch. But with 20 birds, they take three minutes each to catch. And at 10 birds, they take five minutes each to catch. The final few birds took ten minutes each to catch. The entire process took an hour. Those barred rocks are little banshees. It was a good workout, though, before I dressed like the March Hare and accompanied my lovely Mad Hatter to a costume party in Effingham. I was particularly proud of the boutonniere we made out of frost-murdered flowers and scraps of hay. We’re all mad here. Sometimes we just wear fake bunny ears and drink coffee out of tea cups until 1 am. Being mad, I made lots of bad jokes all night to fellow party-goers. My favorite goes like this: You know of Nosferatu, but have you met his brother Yesferatu? He’s much more agreeable. The jury’s still out on that one.
In mid-November we shift to the Christmas tree operation, co-produced with Richard and Megan from from Your Neighbor’s Flowers/Caldera Edge Farm. This is our second year and it was overwhelming how much support we got. The wild North Sandwich Christmas tree is a winner. A beautiful, simple thing that matches the aesthetic of this town as well as its ethos for a sustainable, local, and authentic presence. We toured the property we’re allowed to cut in November and made our plans to cut after Thanksgiving. We are restoring a grove that was clear-cut a while ago and is growing back a big mess. By thinning the trees out and allowing light in, we will carve it into a healthy microcosm of ecological beauty and happiness. Last year we had access to a small tractor and used mostly hand saws to cut the trees down. This year we used chainsaws but dragged the trees out on tarps. Then loaded up the trusty Blazer and drove ‘em to the stand.
Between runs to the lot to cut some trees, we also were making goods at the farm to sell at the holiday fair. I bottled up some maple syrup from my reserves. Kay is a wreath-making machine and was also making salves, candles, lip balms, and ornaments with dried citrus. She had orders for other Christmas decorations like garlands and kissing balls. I was still collecting crazy piles of eggs, trying to make wood chips and bag up leaves before it snowed so I had bedding for the animals. A friend of ours in Tamworth gave us twenty bags of raked-up maple leaves, which have lasted all winter as extra animal bedding. One strategy to mitigate animal smells in barns over winter is to build deep bedding. As Joel Salatin says, it creates a “carbonaceous diaper” to sop up all the pee and poop. And come spring, it will be ready for the compost pile….and eventually the garden!
I was still cleaning out the garden, too! Kale can’t be killed and I was out there every few nights taking hearty doses of the hefty green for dinner and critter snacks. I grazed the sheep in some weedy areas right up to ‘til first snow, and even after, as the south-facing hills melted off quickly.
For the final weeks before it snowed, I left the Shaw in the garden so the chickens could till it up real good. Once it snowed, I dragged the Shaw up to the barn (it took me an hour to move it 50 yards – one of those Can’t Pay For Workouts This Good workouts) and got the chickens into the barn for the year. I let them out every day into a run, crushing kitchen scraps and other special snacks. In a modern version of What Will Roo Eat (though it’s now What Will The Birds Eat?), I recently discovered they love pulled pork. Chickens are omnivores and need to eat protein as well as greens and grains. Our birds eat everything – grain, veggies, herbs, meat, leftovers, leaves, weeds, grass. Everything. They are happy ladies and they lay amazing eggs. While most people’s chickens have stopped laying (generally) for the year, ours are all less than a year old (with the exception of Brownie) and will be laying all winter! Next year will be slower, though, and we will probably get more birds this spring to keep production up.
I typically don’t like it to snow until after Christmas, so I can get my never-ending hugger-mugger chores done. Heck, I was riding the mower in December. Gotta take every opportunity to get this yard cleared up! But its fun when it snows and I can wander the yard and see what sort of wild animals leave mystery tracks to give me nightmares. One night I took the dogs out and we saw a stoat in the barn. It didn’t have access to the chickens, but I’ve been setting traps trying to catch it. Did I mention the chickens like to eat meat? That includes mice. Chipmunks, too. I respect stoats, so if it leaves us alone, I will leave it alone….for now. But hear me clearly, stoat: Chickens are very good at making tiny little bodies disappear. Don’t test me.
We sold our trees and wreaths and farm-made goods from the Fine Arts Craft Gallery parking lot at the Sandwich Holiday Fair in December. It was a wild success. Friends were made, connections were made, business was made, future plans were made. Community was made, honestly. We felt welcomed into Sandwich by folks we’d never met before. The folks of our town are hearty, I must add. It was cold and windy and rainy and nasty out for most of the weekend and they were out anyway, determined to enjoy the weekend.
The next weekend we helped host the Cocoa Celebration at the tree stand at Caldera Edge Farm, which is a chill family-friendly event around a campfire as as thank you for patronage – and a social gathering for anyone in town who wants to meet their neighbors. It’s important to our family (and our neighbors!) that we keep the community-building element of our operations engaged. That’s why we’re here, truly. Everything else is just a means to that end. Happy, strong, resilient Sandwich is the end game.
No rest for the weary. As the Christmas holiday approached, we got hit with back-to-back rain/ice/snow events and my job at the power company came a-calling. I spent every day from December 11 until December 30 working. Kay held down the fort marvelously. But when I rolled home at 10 or 11 pm, I went out to the barn and snuck the sheep snacks and counted the chickens and thanks them for their eggs.
I never even mentioned in this entire write-up that we’ve been slowly remodeling our kitchen. When we bought the house, it was a ramshackle collection of random cabinets and appliances, most of which didn’t work or were disgusting. We gutted the entire kitchen last year and have been slowly piecing it together. Every month I got one more project done and last month it was the cabinets. Kay installed all the handles and while I was working the Christmas storms, she put a lot of our packed gear away. We have plywood counters for now, but we somehow pulled that whole year off without a real kitchen. As we sit in the shadows of a new year, we realize how much easier being productive is going to be.
We can do a lot with our lives – we just need to stay focused and determined and engaged and excited and remember our purpose. And then it’s all easy – and fun. I’ll take a little time this January ‘23 and reflect on the lessons I’ve learned over the last year on this farm. I also binge-watched Yellowstone. While I won’t be taking anyone to the train station anytime soon, I appreciate the mindset of Do What Needs To Be Done To Save The Ranch. I can channel that a little bit, I think.
Pretty soon, it will be time to exhale and go hard right into the next tempest of chaos that is life on a farm. I love every second of it.
Editor's Note: Hamilton the cat was upset he was not mentioned once in this entire write-up, even though he is a crucial cog in the machine that keeps SWF running. He is our Night Shift Supervisor. If he wasn't catching the mice -- or making biscuits in the bed -- would we even still be a farm? He thinks no. He also keeps Rich company late at night when the hugger-mugger farming isn't quite done. So to honor Hamilton, here is a photo of him hard at work....