On January 1st, 2023 I carried my chainsaw through some shallow snow and began felling poplars. Some of our fields are in various forms of succession, dominated by twenty-year-old poplars – and it’s now or never. We must take the fields back. I don’t feel too bad about it; we are surrounded by woods. We maintain the sugar bush for maple syrup, and keep the firs and spruce for Christmas decorations. The white pines are as old and big as any in the area and for the most part, they will stay, too. Birch, beech, poplar, ash, there’s a little bit of everything out there. The pastures should be returned to pasture, so we can raise more chickens, sheep, and other ruminants. More pasture means more biodiversity.
After ringing in the new year by cutting and piling branches and logs into piles, I called it a day. On January 2nd, I woke up a little sore. Before leaving for work, I reached into my car to lug out a bag of chicken feed and tweaked my sore back. For the next week I was on light duty while my back healed up. Unfortunately, we had our first major snowfall and I never got around to cleaning up those fallen branches.
How time flies on a farm….
February brought some of the coldest weather we’ve had since moving here. A week of solid single digits and below zero cold. It didn’t stop me from going outside shirtless at night while pottying the dogs. It’s not the heat that gets ya, it’s the humidity, as they say. Unfortunately, a few of our young Rhode Island Reds weren’t cut out for it. Over the course of the week, two of them dropped dead in the coop. I had to bury them in the snow a quarter mile away in the woods and hope none of our local wildlife friends figured out where they came from. I checked on the burial site after the weather warmed up a bit, and all I found were feathers. Sometimes it hurts when a critter dies, but it also strengthens the flock. The remaining birds are resilient and haven’t had a single health issue. I’m impressed with how tough chickens actually are. They’re dumb as nails, but tough as nails, too.
I went to the NOFA winter conference in Manchester and saw Mark and Kristin Kimball of Essex Farm speak on the importance of independent farms and why they need the support of independent-minded consumers. We need to “nurtur[e] an ember of joy and wholeness that lies at the heart of our craft,” one of them said. I don’t remember which one. Kristin is an accomplished author and her husband Mark bounced around the stage juggling vegetables, reading excerpts from her book and directing our attention to the power point display, mostly photos of lush pasture and livestock: his canvas and his paint.
I slept approximately 3 hours before the NOFA conference, as I worked a late shift the night before at my job. Want to sleep in? Too bad, farmers don’t sleep in. I did my animal chores, and drove down to Manchester for the conference’s early start. I remember the coffee was good. I drank a lot of it. The most memorable moment of the event for me was when a farmer in the audience asked the presenter what trees we should be planting now for crops in 20-40 years when New England no longer has the climate to produce maple syrup. Interesting things to ponder over the next few years….
In March, the sap flowed like it always does – we panic at first it won’t be enough, then we panic that we have too much. Sugar camp was a success; I produced over 11 gallons, a personal best. 11 gallons is about fifteen minutes at a “real” operation, but we do everything by hand and small-scale here. I taught myself how to make maple candies and maple sugar, and of course, working on perfecting the syrup. In the house, Kay baked loaves of bread and taught herself how to make kombucha. We also found our first retail customer: Remick Farm Museum in Tamworth now sells Kay’s handmade salves and candles and lip balms.
In the middle of sugar season, my job at the power company called me away to Keene for storm restoration after an insane nor’easter that dumped three feet of snow on the area. I was gone for three or four days – it’s all a blur – and the entire time I was paranoid about keeping up with boiling all that sap. Fortunately, it stayed so cold that barely any sap flowed while I was gone. I did miss one day of NH Maple Weekend, but that’s okay. I went right off storm duty and onto vacation. Let the boiling begin!
While I was gone, all sorts of chaos erupted on the farm. It just loves to wait for the right time, doesn’t it? One of our sheep, Emelda, got her head stuck in the hay feeder. Our neighbor came over and used a pair of bolt cutters to cut the metal feeder off her poor little head. It wasn’t the first time she was stuck in there, either. I spent one of my sugarin’ days building a new hay feeder for the sheep that allowed them safer access to their second favorite food (corn is their favorite food).
Then, without delay, Romeo the rooster attacked Kay, escaped the coop, and disappeared somewhere into the barn like a serial killer in a horror movie. Fortunately, a family member was nearby and helped catch the godforsaken bird. Upon my return, I decided Romeo was no longer welcome here and I dispatched him one evening during a pleasant snow flurry. Into the crock pot he went. It was the most delicious chicken I’ve ever eaten. We are now a rooster-free farm. If we ever get a rooster by accident in a flock of layers, he will be raised for meat.
When Kay visits the chickens, she sits on a rock and they clamor around her, waiting to be held and petted. She is the chicken whisperer. One day, she came home with a few Australorp chicks. She had to call multiple stores to find some. They’re big, friendly black birds with a penchant for exploration. After a few weeks of grazing the perimeters of the netting around the adult hens, they fit right in with the flock. The ‘lorps do have an independent streak, though, and all year I had to wrangle them up and put them back in the netting. I’m not sure where they were laying their eggs outside of the netting, but I found the pile of egg shells a few hundred feet away from the pasture – someone’s unwashed dishes.
Spring starting sprungin’ and we had the lambs sheared. They went from absolutely wild fluffy beasts to aliens. It was alarming, actually. Who are these sheep? They aren’t Clover and Mittens and Roxy. But as the year progressed, they turned back into fluffers. Cleaning wool is tedious work. In the fall, I began teaching myself to card. I hope to learn how to needle felt this winter and have some fun. It’s a great activity while watching football. Kay also procured a spinning wheel and is learning to spin yarn. We hope to have more wool products available someday. I hope to wear mittens made from Mittens, myself.
In May we collaborated with our neighbors (Your Neighbor’s Flowers) on a plant sale. They sold flowers and we added herbs and lettuce starts. It was fun to get plants in our neighbors’ backyards and front porches and we hope to do it again next year. I slowly started planting our own garden, but knowing it’s just a homestead garden, I could afford to be lazy. Things don’t really ramp up until June around here. I had trays and trays of starts in the house, though, beneath grow lights. In the meantime, I had a road trip planned.
I drove down to Virginia for the Rogue Food Festival at Polyface Farm. I toured the farm on the back of a hay wagon with hundreds of people while farmer Joel Salatin showed us his forest-raised pigs, mobile chicken tractors and salad bar beef. Knee-high pastures and countless farm ponds. It’s a beautiful place in the Shenandoah Valley. We saw speakers from all over the country talk about topics related to Food Freedom – including congressman Thomas Massie, the author of the PRIME Act, which would liberate small abbatoirs and other meat processors from certain federal USDA requirements. There are very few places to slaughter animals for retail sale and this bottlenecks the entire country’s supply of meat. Small farms are forced to sell animals by the half or whole, which isn’t reasonable to purchase for most consumers. Small farms get their meat slaughtered at inspected facilities, but they aren’t “USDA” facilities. If the meat is safe to buy as a half or whole, it’s probably safe in retail-sized parts. If you recall, during the covid pandemic, the huge meat plants were shut down for various reasons and meat disappeared from the shelves in the grocery stores. If the PRIME Act was in effect, there would have been a lot more variety available on the market. Food resilience is an important topic these days; hopefully the PRIME Act gets some traction someday.
Before visiting Polyface, I toured Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. I’m a nerd for the Founding Fathers and their philosophical and political writings, but I’m particularly interested in the ones who were obsessed with agriculture, Jefferson among them. They knew it was crucial for America to develop its own agricultural enterprises and markets, to retain independence from Britain or other possible conquerors. While it's awful he was a slave owner, Jefferson’s plantation was a gigantic agricultural laboratory. He covered his little mountain with every tree imaginable, many of which are still there and are humongous. I passed them with wonder, letting my hand slide across the bark and studying the sunlight pass through the leaves. I toured the gardens and was allowed to sample alpine strawberries by a cute little old lady curator who made me pick my own (but wouldn't let me pick any unripe ones). I also discovered a beautiful speckled lettuce (Aleppo) which I grew in our garden this year. I had other plans to stop in Philadelphia and tour other historical gardens, but after such a weekend, all I wanted to do was get home and farm. I drove 13 hours straight and did animals chores into the dusk.
And then the dandelions came. We picked thousands of dandelion flowers for our hand salves. Kay made a dandelion wine which according to reports, was quite boozy. It seemed to be popular with our friends who sampled it. And when the dandelions come up, the potatoes go in. I planted over 100 row feet of potatoes. How many pounds did I grow this year? You’ll have to read on to find out.
And with the dandelions comes pasture. Not long after we picked the ‘lions, we released the sheep. The chickens went into their chicken RV and toured the lands. The garden went in. I installed brand new wobbler sprinklers, in order to automate the watering process. I probably only watered the garden twice before the rains came, though.
It rained a lot this year. But just enough sun, the garden didn’t care. We grow only a few summer-y crops, sticking to the classics: carrots, turnips, green beans, radish, lettuce, kale, peas, cherry tomatoes, herbs, strawberries, raspberries, potatoes, onions. The only thing that suffered was the onions. And my experimental eggplants. I was gifted a pack of okra and got one wimpy okra. One day I stopped in my tracks….do I see a corn in the field? We had a single corn stalk growing somewhere the sheep had been recently. I toss them a little corn every time I move them. This one escaped the greedy lips of Roxy and grew into a beautiful baby stalk. It even had an ear on it. I left it there for a month before I accidentally damaged the stalk. I ate the baby corn whole in the dark. It was so good, it almost made me want to grow corn. I don’t care for corn enough to grow it, but that piece was definitely the best I ever ate.
The rain brought the frogs. More frogs than I’d ever seen in our yard ever. And snakes and salamanders and lots of good little things. The ticks seemed as minimal as they ever were. I don’t recall seeing a tick all summer on one of the dogs. I found a few in late fall when it got warm and dry, but it seems the chickens are doing their good work dispatching the ticks. As are the other critters moving into our yard, creating a balanced bio-diverse ecosystem. As I cleared land by hand or by sheep, I kept finding little clusters of blackberry, some tasty finds. I let our cilantro go to seed and I collected a jar of coriander, which I’ll grind up and use in some fun recipes this winter. Our green peppers were a late start, but the dry fall weather produced tons of small peppers, which I froze for winter omelettes. I also grew a few huge catnip plants for Hamilton the cat. He’s awfully fond of the ‘nip.
When it wasn’t raining, the sky was smoky and hostile. Those wildfires out there in the great wide world made for some interesting sunsets.
We spent a day visiting Hostile Valley Farm in Maine. Homesteader/writer Kirsten Lie-Nielsen hosted this event with fellow homesteader/writer Angela Ferraro-Fanning, who had just published her book The Sustainable Homestead. Angela gave an overview of her book and a crash course in permaculture, before Kirsten gave a tour of her farm. Kay fed donuts to two very large pigs. Yes, we were told, the pigs have escaped before. And yes, it’s sorta terrifying. They lived behind some very flimsy-looking electric netting, which works just fine at keeping them in, surprisingly. The pigs were clearing land in the forest, and each year it comes back more lush and bio-diverse. Animals, when used appropriately, benefit the land.
In June, we ordered a pack of egg laying hens, a fun assortment and a few hardy producers. We expected the box to be delivered to North Sandwich Post Office, but on the day of delivery, it never arrived. We checked tracking and found out it was still in Center Harbor. With minutes to go before the Post Office closed, I raced there and rescued the chicks from sitting alone overnight. They cheeped merrily in the passenger seat of the Blazer while I drove them home. It made me warm and fuzzy. And soon, they were warm and fuzzy under a heat lamp, gorging on soaked chick feed and warm water mixed with honey and ACV.
In late summer I pulled the garlic and potatoes. After it cured in the barn (fortunately it was dry enough), I lugged a huge crate of potatoes into the house to bag it up and store. I weighed it as I bagged and at the end of the night, my tally came to 102 pounds. First, I thought Damn, I just grew a hundred pounds of potatoes! Then I realized I just casually carried a hundred pounds of potatoes into the house. Who needs a gym when you’re a farmer?
We grew tons of other crops and I tracked everything, but I haven’t sat down to add it all up! Our pantries are full and all winter there will be good eats in this house. Good eats and gratitude for abundance.
October brought the Sandwich Fair. We decided to enter the Commercial Farm Display. We knew we’d do well in the competition, as we had tons of product diversity and Kay has a great aesthetic for the farm brand (she designs all our stuff!). We parked outside the fairgrounds and she began breaking down boxes as I lugged them in through the rain. I walked in with a box of canned goods, while another farmer carried a squirmy screaming goose into the building next door. Chaos at the fair!
Setting up our display was a breeze, except for right at the end when I casually knocked our basket of eggs off the table and made a huge mess on the floor. I shouted an expletive, then hushed myself and ran to the Blazer to find anything to wipe it up with. I found one rag, hardly enough to clean a dozen spilled eggs. Where’s the dogs when you need ‘em? I walked to one of the food booths with my head down. John’s Famous Fries. I asked for a Diet Coke. It came in one of those plastic cups that says FUN AT THE FAIR on it. Famous John told me it cost $10, but the refills are $5. His partner asked me if I wanted fries with that; it felt more like a demand. I said we’d consider, but could I have a few napkins? I received two flimsy napkins. Somehow we made our display look nice and I drank my Diet Coke from my prized FUN AT THE FAIR cup. We drove home, got more eggs, then returned to the fair and got fried dough and other obligatory junk food. We never got fries, though. But I thank Famous John for a few napkins.
We went off for some adventures during the weekend, but hit the fair on Sunday and saw the ribbons on our display. We won first place in the contest! And Judge’s Favorite, which is the real prize. We left some stickers and business cards, which were all taken. Only one candle was stolen. The judges were happy with our participation and we decided next year we’ll have to come back to defend our title. We also would like to branch out and enter more contests. Hopefully there will be a resurgence of younger gardeners, farmers and homesteaders entering the fairs; they are important cultural events. They also offer free advertising for the farm, and expose countless people to the wonders and joys of our unique lifestyle.
In November the leaves started to fall – actually they were falling in October thanks to the rain – and I noticed apples on one of our apple trees. I didn’t even know it produced fruit. I harvested a dozen apples – and this is a trend in this piece, I’m realizing: they were the best apples I ever ate. If I eat something from our farm for the first time, it’s the best I’ve ever eaten, I promise you.
One night at dusk, I was moving the chickens and my headlamp caught a pair of eyes in the brush. Suddenly the shape of a very large bobcat presented itself. “Wait right there,” I told it. It waited patiently. I went in the house and grabbed my 22 long rifle. A few errant shots scared the thing away. Haven’t seen the mysterious guest since. Perhaps it was the same purveyor of fine chicken products that visited in February.
Not long before Thanksgiving, we had a little snow in the forecast, so I brought the hens in from their road trip around the pastures. I carried each one up the hill into the barn while they were sleeping, and officially merged the flock of adult hens with the pullets from June in the barn. Total flock size: 44 hens. The pullets soon began laying – the Easter Eggers lay tiny green eggs!
Mid-November is when we go wreath-crazy. Kay’s pre-orders took off and she even got orders for garlands and some huge wreaths. I took some fir trees from our own property for the project. In order to keep it sustainable, I took trees that looked like they were unhappy, or needed to go for access reasons. A few were in the sugar bush, bothering the maple trees. And one was on the logging road: one side was lush and green, in the sun; the other was completely dead, shadowed by bigger trees. Chop, chop.
We felt right at home during the Sandwich Christmas In The Village Fair in early December. The wreaths and trees are becoming a tradition and we’re happy to provide locally-harvested greenery for the holidays. It’s always a little gross when a ten-wheeler drives by with hundreds of plastic-wrapped fir trees on the back. We tried lots of new products this year, including holiday-scented candles, Christmas tree and pine cone shaped candles, a limited selection of hand-carded wool, and pine cone fire starters harvested off our property. We made some new connections with folks from town and reconnected with folks we haven’t seen in a long time. And we braved the cold and snow flurries, drinking lots of coffee. A special thanks to the Sandwich Fine Craft Gallery for letting us use their patio; we hope it remains a tradition.
We stayed busy right up ‘til Christmas, selling eggs and wreaths, maple syrup and holiday gift packs. Since it refuses to snow out, I’ve been able to get out in the yard and keep working the land. Remember those poplars I cut down in January? Those branches are still out there. I’ve been chipping them whenever I have a free hour – bedding for the chicken coop. And I’ve been exploring the back corners of the property with the dogs looking for fun surprises. Oh, if only I had more time, the fun things we’d do and create. But that's how time flies on a farm....
Christmas came and went and now we approach the New Year. A little time for reflection brings gratitude for the support we have received all year. It's heartwarming and empowering to know our farm has “regular” customers. Our eggs feed families in town. Kids have visited and petted our sheep and picked our strawberries. Gifts were given under trees I cut down and dragged through the woods by hand. The land gives and we give back with respect and thanks and hard work.
On a recent podcast, farmer Mark Kimball elaborated on his comments that his farm is his Art. The world may get better, it may get worse. All he can do is create his art and do his best to bring beauty and righteousness into the world. I’m gonna roll with that vibe right into 2024.
Thanks for reading! We look forward to another great year! -Rich + Kay