If ever you find yourself fantasizing about the "simple" life in the hills of Vermont...picture me, in my long-johns, a sweater meant for a 90 year old man, and clown-sized snow boots shoveling out a walk way just to reach the outhouse. That should do to temper any fantasy.

Don't get me wrong, I love a good toilet seat covered in snow.

I hope you all had a wonderful week of Christmas. And I hope those of you who got hit by this latest storm are warm and safe and with light and a good puzzle. And I hope that all of you who live in warmer climates are frolicking in fields wearing sundresses and laughing at photos like that above.



I don't know that we have an apocalypse on our hands but the weather outside is surely frightful. The wind last night was more fierce than anything we have ever tried to sleep through. I resisted seven separate urges to go check on the animals. The barn where everyone is spending their winter sits behind a big hay field so as last night's internal argument went they'd be blocked from most of the wind. We, however, sit atop the hayfield. It took several layers of long underwear, the insulated Dickies jumpsuit, my grandmother's bomber hat and a wool scarf wrapped around my nose, chin and mouth to get me to brave morning chores.

This morning, aside from the arctic wind, it sleeted, snowed, and rained. This must be at least close to the worst of what a Vermont winter can throw at us. Right?

I came home and rewarded myself with an un-modest handful of Luke and Louisa's caramels. Last night a box of their caramels and cheese greeted me in the milk barn when I went in to feed the sheep. I'm doing my mediocre best to save some for my family as we head to the Vineyard tomorrow for four days of Christmas. If you are in need of any last minute gifts I couldn't more highly recommend the goat's milk caramel from Big Picture Farm. I wrote Louisa just this morning that my Christmas wish would be to swim in a vat of their caramel. For a list of places that sell the caramels visit here.

I wish everyone a merry christmas weekend of family and sweets and all manners of food.


an odd photo-series of cats and beets and thoughts on the farmer/worker relationship

These photos are from the summer, obviously. Dad took them and I'm not quite sure where we were going with the theme but I found them yesterday and thought to share as they contain green and bare hands and necks and the kittens when they weren't yet fat. The following post has little-to-nothing to do with the above photos.

When I first started farming I used to relish in the idea that it wasn't my land, and it wasn't my farm. Working for somebody else allowed me to escape the finality of responsibility. It allowed me to cast grand aspersions on other farmer's mistakes. It allowed me to take off for a weekend or even once for a whole month without any destructive stress for the survival of the farm. It allowed for me to look at an aphid attack on the tomatoes with a philosophical interest and not understand the weighted threat of an entire crop's demise.

There is a very comfortable measure of separation from you as a human being and the farm when the farm is not yours. I hope the above doesn't make me sound like a horrific employee. I was responsible. I was honest. I was dedicated.

I have a theory about farmers and self employment. It goes that farming livestock and vegetables is an all consuming work and because of this the farmer becomes so passionate and involved in her day-to-day that she finds she can work for no one but herself.

In the height of the summer you are working sun up to down. You are working every damn day and there is no such idea of getting July 4th weekend off or Labor Day or even a Sunday. Some nights you are elbow deep in cold damp soil planting potatoes by headlamp. Some mornings you are racing to pack coolers of meat and feed the pigs, chickens, goats, sheep before market opens. Some afternoons you are painstakingly squishing japanese beetles between your fingers because you want to save the edamame. Some sweltering day you find yourself covered in mud behind a laboring sow trying to save her babies from the circling vultures. These situations test your patience, your strength, your endurance and inevitably you begin to want to change things so you aren't waiting until 9 o'clock at night to plant potatoes. You want to change things so sows are farrowing under the protection of a barn. You think market mornings needn't be so hectic. You can't believe its the second year in a row you've been told to plant edamame right here and Of Course! that's why the beetles have come!

When it isn't your farm it is So Simple to find the reason and the person for blame. It becomes second nature. You start sowing seeds of your own dissent and before you realize it you follow accusations of blame with the On my farm we will do it THIS way.... Oh how obnoxious, how insufferably presumptuous and ignorant.

And now I have my wish. The beginnings of a wish. I have my own farm business with Nick. Our own land is yet to come. And, as though reading a child's story with the moral so neatly written on the last page. I start to see how things become rushed, and hectic, and unplanned, and full. This summer, in our first season farming on our own, I had an almost continuous blush of humility on these cheeks. If I were a stronger man I would call upon my former farm bosses and mea culpa myself out of the guilt of knowing they were doing the best they could. And, my best is no better than theirs.

But farmers, including the two looking back at you from this post, are a prideful lot. So, I'll probably keep my lesson learned to myself.

It is helpful to have this overwhelming humility coupled with former worker dissatisfaction in mind as Nick and I work on our pasture and garden management plans for next year's growing season. We are hoping to have a few dear friends farm with us in the coming year.  My desires (or perhaps guidelines?) for helping to form these working relationships into healthy ones are what follows.

1. Have constant feedback between our workers and Nick and I. One idea is to have a nightly dinner check-in to hear the good and bad about work.
2. Give our workers the proper tools to do their job.
3. No heavy loading shitty (sometimes literal) jobs on to one person.
When we worked in North Carolina my cousin Elizabeth told me that she never likes to give a job she wouldn't do herself to a worker. The best example of this at that farm was that she brought every animal to slaughter. No exceptions. She never made us do it. 
4. Never confuse personal favors with farm jobs. No asking workers to do dishes that they haven't used or feed the usually useless pet pigs.
5. Respect that it isn't their farm and that their motivation for weeding the garden may not extend past sunset, or through a particularly hot afternoon.
6. Trust those working for us. Trust their ability and their decisions. Once workers are given a proper understanding of the task and the proper tools, we must trust not micro-manage. We have been granted that trust at every farm we have worked and I value it more than anything on this list. Trust breeds confidence and a happy, more invested worker.
7. Always remember to express gratitude for the work the worker has done. Compliment them on a job well done.

I'm sure its not a complete list and even with such a list I imagine we will run into feelings of dissatisfaction or frustration. However, I think that being aware of these issues will go a good way to having as open and honest and productive of a farm-space as we could hope for. If you have anything you think I should add to the list please do let me know. I'd love to make this as complete as we are able as we go forth in planning for the farm of 2013.


the final week in milk

I'm sitting here drinking a glass of milk. And eating this porridge with cut apple. No sooner had I photographed my breakfast and sat down to the task I tasted garlic. Oh! how easy it is to ruin such a sweet apple with a garlic'd cutting board. How stupid. And, it was the last apple. So I am trying my best to ignore the bites of garlic. This charade is greatly helped by my glass of sweet full-creamed milk. Our milk.

Winnie's milk to be more correct. It's raw, unpastuerized, real, milk. It is taken from a cow that is grass fed. She is given fresh grass daily in the summer and in the late fall and winter she is given our best hay. I drink anywhere from a glass to a half gallon of this milk a day. Which is, admittedly, a lot. But, I love it that much. I have a glass or two or three with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nick often jokes that I drink as much as a nursing calf. It doesn't do wonders for my waist, but it makes me feel as strong as an ox.

 In my opinion it is miles above the best product we make on our farm.

The thing about milk that I think very few supermarket-Americans understand is that it is a seasonal product. Mama cows have around a similarly long gestation as women ~ about 265 days. Just like you would want to give a woman a break between nursing one child and delivering another the same basic courtesy is given to mama cows. We call it drying off.  You want to give the mama cow some time to keep her nutrients and proteins and calories for herself and the baby calf she is making (instead of giving it to the milk).

Dry periods vary between farms and cows but we want to give Winnie almost 4 months off this winter. She was quite skinny after her last calf so we are trying to give her a little bump in recuperation so she is healthier when she calves this spring. It is ideal for calves to be born in the spring so they are born on fresh grass and have a whole 7 or 8 months of warmth and grazing. This is thus ideal for the small farmer (me) for the time to dry off is not so coincidentally the coldest time of the year. Milk barns are generally very cold and dark places. Not where you want to huddle in January with bare hands and steel bucket. It is also ideal (as I deign to say) for the most delicious milk is made off summer's sweet grass.

Sunday was our last day milking. Last week was the last week we sold milk to our customers. Its hard imparting the seasonality of milk to our customers. We aren't the only ones who sell raw milk in our little corner of Vermont and we are one of the few that dry off for the winter. (What I described above is provided your cow is bred in late summer, and doesn't work for everyone). So, I worry that we will have trouble finding our customers again come spring when Winnie calves. Someday when more and more small 1 and 2 cow dairies are allowed and encouraged to spring up around the country the seasonality of milk will come too. Then the proclaimed foodies of our country will see summer's fresh grass milk the way they see August's bulging red tomatoes.

Something to be appreciated in its own time and place.

As we get closer to spring when the cows will be set free of their winter pasture I will get back on my milk soapbox and talk to you about the benefits and joys of raw milk. But for the winter we will say goodbye to milk and concentrate our efforts on the June and August butter that remain in the freezer. Little frozen bits of yellow summer gold.

Until April sweet sweet milk.


same road, through the temperatures

Sometimes its hard to imagine this is the same road we walk down every damn day to our animals. The first photo was taken in April when we first moved here. The second shot was from my birthday in May. The third was from late August. The last was from today. I guess the colors of the fall didn't move me to photograph this year. I'll try to be more consistent next time.

Nick sled down the hill to milking today. I walked. Last night we went tandem sledding on this cheap orange sled we found in the barn's attic. I'm one of those wet blankets with adrenaline sports like sledding. I wore my insulated navy blue jumpsuit which is so shapeless and padded I could be an upright hippo for all anyone would know. I had my grandmother's faux fur hat that wraps under the chin and snow boots that are as weighted as cinder blocks. After hiking up what seemed like a mile I climbed in behind Nick on the sled and told him, SLOW. I spent the ensuing three rides dragging both feet in the ground for better brakeage. It wasn't until we would slow to the slight uphill to the house that I'd begin whopping and screaming and unclenching my gloved fists.

So this morning I walked the road to the barn and took in the sight of the snow-laden hills. With any climactic luck it will be our view and my walk for the next four to five months. I'm going to need to start embracing the cold and find more formfitting snow wear.


the holiday unwind

We left Cambridge at 4:52pm Sunday evening. It was already dark of course, being one of the ever-shortening Sundays after Thanksgiving. We figured that would put us back at the farm just before 8. We listened to an old episode of This American Life  as we left Boston, but mainly, we rode in silence. Thanksgiving had exhausted us. Two celebrations with two families in two states in three days. Everything is so extravagant for holidays. The food, the company, the noise, the activity, the dishwashing.

All of it is so amplified.

We live a quiet life by many metrics. Every day for us is just a slight variant on the day before. The food options rotate around a fairly dedicated group of farm and pantry staples; eggs, potatoes, oats, beans, beef, and milk. The company is commonly limited to us and our flock. Often that is peppered with visits from the neighbors. And, about once a week, we drive an hour south to see a group of old friends from another life. The noise is limited to the singing of the cast iron,  the sizzling of the dutch oven and our conversations with one another. Talk that most often starts off in the middle of a sentence as though a conversation the week before had merely been put on pause. Such is the intimate way you interact with someone who has become half of you. The activity follows the scared pattern of the farm. Rise. Coffee (and tea). Dress in more and more layers. Walk down to the barn. Chickens. Pigs. Hay to the beef cows. Fresh water to the sheep. Milk. We walk the hill back up to the house for a late breakfast. Eggs and oats and a tall glass of milk. The winter afternoons direct us to quiet activities that have no place in summer. Sanding down an old rocker. Mending fence in a once abandoned pasture. Drawing up grazing plans and garden maps.

So, it is no wonder with this quiet plodding through the days of late November that we are bouleverser-ed by the commotion of a holiday.

When the car wound its way up the final miles of our blessed dirt road it was 7:56pm. I was carefully wrapping my citified-self in stray farm layers I had in the back of the car. A moth-bitten and previously discarded cashmere sweater over my cardigan and dress. My blaze orange hat over some uncommonly coiffed hair. I eased my stockinged feet into wool clogs. We lifted ourselves out of the car just a quarter of a mile short of home. Nick slipped into the dark barn to close in the chickens and check on a frozen water line. I grabbed an armful of bedding straw to bring to the pigs. They were already hot asleep and snoring when I reached their hut. I had feared the sudden drop in temperature over the weekend would be too much for Rose with her sparsely bristled coat. Rose immediately jumped to the door when she felt my presence outside. I felt her belly, she was toasty. So was Vangogh. They were thrilled to see me. Assuming I had brought a midnight snack. I never bring snacks. I had just the hay, so they took mouthfuls of that and walked lazy circles around me and itched their dry backs on my stockinged legs. Vangogh went back to bed first. Ever the glutton for rest. Rose stayed. I sat there on my knees so our faces were level and scratched her chin with both hands.  She softly grunted and blinked her sleepy eyes right at mine.

And, I thought, just how very grateful, thankful, and blessed I am to have these creatures as my life. To return from a city that feels so very foreign with its lights, noise, consumption, pavement, and strangers to the quietude of the farm in winter.

I hope you all had a very merry Thanksgiving.


a quick state of affairs of early winter on the farm

There is very little color in our landscape on these early winter days. Daylight is in short supply. Sunrise today was at 6:49am and He will set back down at 4:17pm. A stellar crescent moon has been rising up to our South. And I can see Orion's group through my bedroom window. I've been falling into bed around 8pm. Which means I wake up at 5am having had too much, and it is still dark. The grass on the hayfields and in the pasture has only the hint of green. The trees are hillsides of brownish gray sticks. We are looking forward to the snow. To spark a little color onto these hills. My downstairs neighbors (see photo 1) have returned from their summer pasture for the winter months. Bella has grown the most magnificent red coat. The house cats seem unusually fat. The sheep are shockingly picky about their hay. The chickens are trying to roost in the hay loft. And Albert the bullcalf is finding welcoming friends in the pigs. We are two weeks away from drying off Winnie. I made the season's final batch of yogurt last Tuesday.  Everyone is beginning their own special hibernation. It sounds melancholy but I wish I could show you it isn't. It's early winter of our third year farming. It is time where the outside world winds down. Now is the season where we go indoors and turn on many lights and make merry with family and friends. I remind myself to be grateful for these slow dark days. They are the needed antidote to the long work of summer months.

Happy Thanksgiving

p.s. These are fake b/w pics. The last time I took real film camera photos the developer said something went wrong with the camera and all of my shots were exposed to the ever-devastating Light. Since then, I've been so scared of losing photos that I've given my film a wide berth  So, these photos have the color edited right out of them. I found the originals were too bland, too early winter.



This morning and the day before the mulched garlic and winter rye covering the garden were so crystalized it looked like snow.  The chicken's waters are frozen shut and just barely begin to thaw in the short day before the sun sets back down at 4:30pm. The seat of the outhouse shimmers like diamonds, very cold, very unwelcoming diamonds. The sheep each have a circle of frost on the small of their backs when I throw them their morning hay. The car doors are frozen shut. I've been wearing ski gloves for morning chores. Such has been the ferocity of the frost on these early winter mornings.

Its hard for me to grasp the enormity of plane travel. It took the plane five hours to get from SFO to Philly on Tuesday. And then just 52 minutes from Philly to Burlington. It should take longer. I need longer. I can't go from eating fish tacos with my sister in the sand of the Pacific to slugging warm water to the pigs behind the barn in one day. I need weeks to move from one extreme to the other. I should like to take to train-ing across the country. Or better yet riding a bike, or a mule. But, for now, there are planes and I am so grateful that my parents and I are able to swoop across the country to see my sweet sister.

We spent the last week running from ocean to redwoods and back. Following my sister in the life she has so beautifully made for herself in the forested hills an hour south of San Francisco. It wrecks my heart that she has to live so far away. Yet her life there is so gentle and peaceful and filled with such gracious and welcoming people that I can't imagine her anywhere else right now.

So despite the rash manner in which I have been thrust by plane from cold to warm and back to cold again my anxious heart has been calmed to see Fiona living and thriving and loving. That is worth any amount of airplaned hours.


the first flurry

There is a day in late October/ early November when the weather goes from glorious light-filled autumn to an unmitigated winter. Perhaps its the end of Daylight Savings where night comes that much earlier that it just has to be winter. This morning we had our first snow flurry. I'd be inclined to call it a first snow, but I'm trying not to sound as flustered by the weather as I am. Must keep up appearances. I can handle this Vermont winter! (She says to herself in a low voice, over and over again, becoming more unconvinced with every utterance).  I enjoy snow and winter and the quiet of the world when the two have finally descended. But, what I seem to block out each year is the inherent anxiety brought on by the low temperatures.

The ground is almost frozen and the grass is all but eaten or dead.  All of the grubs and spiders and crawlers and critters have either died or hibernated or moved into the dark corners of my little house. And now, it is up to our planning and storing to get these animals through the winter with safety, warmth, food, water and happiness. We start counting down the hay bales. Every bale we throw from the loft briefly tightens my chest, not 100% sure how we can get through until the grass grows again in May. I resent this about winter. The responsibility is overwhelming. The animals are more dependent upon us in these six months than they are the other half.

Yesterday morning I came to the coop to find my dear chicken friend, Spanky, cold and dead in a nest box. I knew she was unwell and that winter would be hard on her but I didn't expect the weather to be so hard so soon on the animals. I would have kept her inside Saturday night.

We have done our winter due diligence with water heaters and insulation and plastic on the barn windows and a loft of hay and a half a loft of bedding straw and an old milk bulk tank filled with chicken feed. But dear Lord, the stress of the winter will just rest upon me until April when we begin to see the snow receding and the light returning and the grass growing.


buy a happy turkey from a happy farm

These are my neighbors broad-breasted white turkeys. When you drive down the road past their farm, if it is a nice day, you are nearly guaranteed to run into this roadblock. 

I am reprinting (with a couple minor revisions) a piece I wrote last year just before Thanksgiving about the turkey you will buy, eat, celebrate, and give thanks for this year. The turkeys that I advocate for buying will be more expensive to you, the consumer, but they are a tastier bird, they are a bird that lived well.  They are a bird that you can be truly thankful for and proud of at your dinner table. They are birds raised on small farms, by good animal welfare-minded farmers. 

If the cost of a humanely-raised turkey proves too much for you, I urge you to think of alternatives for your holiday table, like a humanely raised chicken or duck. Your guests won't be appalled, they'll if anything be grateful for the change in menu and meat. 

I would also like to offer my googling/emailing/craigslisting services to ANYONE who needs them, in trying to find a locally raised small farm turkey near them. Please write me at kathryn.maclean (at) gmail.com. I helped several readers find local eggs last spring and I would love to help any of you find a good turkey this year. 

There was an article in the Times about the price of turkey last year : In the Labyrinth of Turkey Pricing, a Reason Under Every Giblet.  The article was in the business section of the paper and investigates why some turkeys are sold for 49 cents a pound and others can go for $6.50 a pound and What You Are Paying For.

I highly recommend you read it. The interesting point the author makes is that nobody is making money off turkeys. Not those selling confinement, non organic birds at dollar candy prices. Not those selling free range, happy healthy organically raised, humanely raised birds. The cost of feed is too expensive. Corn and soy prices have shot through the roof in past years and the consumer refuses to take on the burden. The consumer chooses the less expensive option, almost always. In fact it is the consumer that expects, Every Year, that the Price of anything will go down. Especially the Price of a 16lb butterball turkey. And so the Price does.

Seeing signs at supermarkets for 49 cents-a-pound birds makes me literally laugh aloud. Having raised turkeys in North Carolina I can only imagine what sort of cost-cutting measures these farmers are taking to at least break even if not lose money on turkeys this year. Even the organic turkeys for sale at Whole Foods,  advertised at a whopping $1.49 at our local store, can't possibly reflect the actual cost of raising the bird. In order to grow a turkey from late spring, when they are born, to weight at Thanksgiving, you need to feed them a lot of grain. 

But forget the farmer that is losing money. Forget the supermarket that will most likely make no money on these Thanksgiving birds. Forget how much breast meat you are hoping to have afterwards for the prodigal leftover. Forget how much food you intend to heap on to your plate that afternoon. Forget the feelings of guilt about how much you need versus how much you take.

And try to remember the life of the bird this Thanksgiving. Try to remember where she was raised. Try to remember if that bird ever got to see the light of day, or smell fresh air, or keep her beak, or her toes, or her wings. 

Try to remember whether or not this bird was grown and fed so quickly that her breast grew faster than her legs, so that at the end of his life she could barely walk.

I don't advocate on this blog To Not Eat Animals. Humans are omnivores. Have been for what seems like Forever. Will be for as long as animals continue to taste so good. But I do advocate researching the animals that you eat and what better time, what more black-and-white a time to do this than with the Thanksgiving turkey. 

I've never been the best at the Cold Hard Facts so I urge you to give you some attention to the Turkey Welfare report from the HSUS to read about how a turkey is bred, raised, and slaughtered in our perverse modern industrial agriculture. Once you have read it I urge you to at the very least consider an organic bird, so that you know those birds aren't living in conditions where antibiotics are a base-line. I urge you to then consider a free range bird. A free range bird means only that the bird is not kept in a closed warehouse but can still be kept in a indoors with just one, small, open door. According to the HSUS report the stocking density in these houses is so high the average amount of space a turkey-hen gets is 2.5 square feet and these are big birds. Organic or free range or heirloom or heritage. The package could have any number of romantic adjectives in front of the word turkey. None of it matters though as most as the name of the farm it comes from. I most viciously, urge you to support a small, nearby farm this year when you buy your turkey. 

According to this HSUS report: 

"In 1910, the U.S. turkey industry was composed of 870,000 farmers raising 3.7 million turkeys, an average of 4 birds per farm,  typically in free-ranging systems that allowed the birds to experience a varied, complex environment in which they could display normal behavior patterns. In contrast, in 2007, more than half of the nearly 265 million turkeys slaughtered in the United States  were raised under contract in industrialized production facilities for only three companies." 

The way we are raising the Thanksgiving turkey in this country is not only creating deplorable conditions for the birds but it is killing our family farms. Farms like mine. Farms like that of my neighbors who raise the free-wheelin' turkeys above. 

I urge you this Thanksgiving season to think with your dollars when you are remembering the bird's life and the farmer who raised her. We all have so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.  Let you count in your blessings at the table this year the bird whose life was given for your meal. And let it have been a good life.

Also please know that small farms sell out of turkeys fairly early. So, it is best to call now, before November really takes a hold. 


final road trip before the snow

Earlier this month our dear neighbor (of yurt fame) one-upped himself and gave us his yellow VW bus.  He has been consolidating and cleaning all summer and is ridding his home and barn of the 1970s. It would appear. This is one of the best presents anyone could have given my dear boy. We are fortunate that it was gifted so late in the season for he has not stopped tinkering and toying with the  big piece of metal since we got it, farm be damned.

We were able to take her down to the Berkshires for a wedding several weeks ago which saved us having to spend milk money on a hotel.  We have been aching for one more trip before the first snow falls and it is truly too cold to spend a night in a tin can. So, on this uncommonly warm fall weekend we are packing up the bus to head for the coast of Maine to visit our dear friends Julie and Craig and little Gus. We are going for two whole days and I am so excited I barely slept last night. Like a child waiting for bathtub full of sweet candy. This will be the longest Nick and I have both left the farm together since we moved to Vermont. Our friend Sarah is taking care of the sheep, the cows, the milking, the chickens, and the pigs. A very good friend. The cats are on their own with a mountain of food and water. Rudy is coming with.

I hope you all have some form of yellow-bus-adventure of your own this weekend. See you on the other side. In time for the superstorm.

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