We were washing eggs by the kitchen window when the guys pulled in to do some more work under the barn. One man stepped out of the car and looked down the hill. He was holding a coffee cup that I later found lying on the ground. He lit a cigarette, took a drag, called “Heeeere piggy piggy piggy,” and chuckled to himself.
Diantha and I looked at each other and scrambled into action. He was calling in a different direction than any of our pigs should be. I was first out of the house, “get the gun” I called over my shoulder as I ran off the side porch.
These pigs are big now, it can be hard for me to see having watched them grow incrementally over the last 6 months. Part of me still sees the piglets I was able to easily lift from the truck. Now two weeks from their scheduled slaughter date, they weigh around twice what I do. Pigs are not creatures that like to be herded and less than an hour since being fed they weren’t very keen on being coaxed with food either. Attempting containment vs an early slaughter were our obvious choices and we were each leaning in separate directions. They were ready to be butchered but I was not planning on that project on a late Sunday morning and certainly not on doing both pigs at the same time. I ran back inside and loaded the rifle as Turtle made her way up the logging road and Mrytle began rooting up one of our few remaining sheep pastures.
When I got back outside to my amazement Diantha (always level headed and captain of team containment) was leading Turtle down the logging road like a well trained dog. I grabbed an old section of electronet and we managed to get it up around them and electrified in the new pasture.
As we walked back to the house the man with the cigarette looked over at us, “Must be getting close to time on them pigs eh?” he said, “Yep” I responded.
In retrospect I am glad they moved themselves to a nicer place to spend their last few weeks and I am glad I married a patient woman whose instinct it contain even if mine is to shoot.
Whew. Mitchell and I finally find ourselves sitting down in the living room together after putting the kids to bed with a little free time. This cool air and earlier sunsets are a welcome respite from the frenzy of summer. I tell myself that not every summer will be as busy as this one was. After all, not every summer will we be required to set up fencing and a garden plot, coordinate a complete rebuilding of the foundation under the barn, replace the wood stove, build chicken tractors, seed pasture… the list goes on. Oh yeah – and all of this with a new baby in the backpack. Now, I am under no misconception that we won’t be busy here on the Jones Farm every summer, but maybe in the summers to come, when things are a bit more established, we will at least feel like we can come up for air once or twice.
When life gets busy, certain things take priority, and others are shuffled down the to-do list for another day. Mowing the lawn was one of these perpetually shuffled tasks; always present on the to-do list. While I love the look (and smell) of a freshly mowed lawn, Mitchell couldn’t care less if the lawn is mowed with any frequency at all. In fact, he sees it as a waste of carbon, and thinks long grass is great non-game species habitat. Fortunately, for whatever reason, the sheep will not graze the grass directly surrounding the house, or it would be pasture and I wouldn’t have any lawn to mow. For these reasons, along with the fact that I enjoy doing it, I am the one who mows the grass. Last Saturday I decided that I would not shuffle this task down the list one more time, and invited my mom over for some “Nan” time with the kids while I took care of the lawn. Well, as you can imagine, after being neglected for a couple weeks in a row, our grass had become, well, luscious. There isn’t a whole lot of lawn to mow, so I cannot justify a ride on lawnmower. Besides, I am young and able, and enjoy the exercise. However, this long grass was giving the push mower a run for its money. I hadn’t completed the first pass along the edge of the garden fence when the mower deck clogged with cut grass and the engine quit. “Great. This won’t take long at all *eye roll*” As I walked around to un-clog the grass, I heard a very strange sound coming from Reuben’s (the pig’s) pasture. I decided I’d better see what he was up to. And it was a good thing I did.
We set circular rubber tubs in the middle of a big tire to hold the pigs’ water. The tire makes it heavy enough so they can’t just flip the tub over as soon as we fill it. Well, somehow, Rueben had managed to flip the tire up, push out the rubber tub, and was wearing the tire like a tu-tu. (I was really quite upset with myself that I didn’t think to take a picture, but Mitchell pointed out that he was glad that my first response was to take action instead of a picture.) Now, to say that Reuben is a big pig is an understatement. I knew right away that this was not a one person job and went inside to get my mom. Luckily, my mom was here (and she is one of the most determined people I know – an excellent candidate for the job), and both the kids happened to be napping at the time, so we were able to give our full attention to the task at hand.
The tire was very tight around his middle. He had clearly been working for a while to try to get it off … in the wrong direction. Now, because Reuben is such a big pig (quite obese, to be honest) he couldn’t bring himself to expend the energy necessary to run away from us. Instead, he just stood there squealing at the top of his lungs anytime we touched him or the tire. We could not get that tire to budge. It was smack dab in the middle of his barrel shaped torso. We had to decide on a direction to go with it though, and ultimately decided that back over his head would be best. We pushed, we pulled, Reuben screamed, we considered trying to cut it off, decided that plan had a couple flaws, pushed some more, and finally got it to budge. We were able to work the tire back towards his head until it was just behind his front legs. Now what? First we tried to lift one of his front legs to push the tire past it, but that proved to be a massive misunderstanding of Reuben’s weight. Then, we thought we might try to push him over on his side – another miscalculation. In the end, we just kept pushing. We pushed the top of the tire down over his head and he was able to step out. He then finally stopped screaming and collapsed on the ground where he took some time to recover from all of the excitement. We were quite covered in pig mud, and quite glad to have solved such a ridiculous problem.
I took a gamble and put the water tub back inside the tire and filled it back up – they say that pigs are the smartest domesticated animals, and if that’s the case, the chances that he’ll find himself in the same predicament again are slim. My mom went back inside to wait for the kids to wake up, and I returned to fighting with the lawn mower.
I didn’t finish the lawn that day, but like I said, some things take priority.
We've been low on rain and low on pasture here on the farm, these simple facts have lead us to some creative solutions for ensuring our sheep are properly fed. One such solution is using them to clear new pasture by reclaiming fallow fields. I have been working on clearing one of these pastures this spring and look around a few days ago and realized it was pretty well all we had left. So with the help of some friends we wrangled the sheep into the stock trailer from their various locations and drove them down across the stream behind the barn and set them out to graze the scrub/shrub. It took them four days to eat it down and I was pretty happy with how it had gone but they needed to be moved back onto now rejuvenated pasture that has had a few weeks off. The task of moving sheep from one pasture to another (when the same 3 mobile fences used for the old pasture are the same fences you need for the new pasture) is really pretty tricky and tedious. I move the fence one post at a time and shrink their space down until they are contained within one fence move the other 2 to the new location open the gate and hope I have thought enough like a sheep that they make the transition smoothly despite being temporarily free, I need more fences.
So this morning while plugging away post by post I heard a higher pitch bleat than normal. I thought I wonder what that lamb is tangled up in that it is so desperately bleating. As I walked toward the sound expecting someone to be tangled in the fence I noticed a lamb that was really quite small. It took me a minute to realize that it was a new lamb. We had one ewe that we assumed hadn't been bred (she was marked to be due about a month ago) and when nothing came and no obvious signs of pregnancy developed we lost hope. July 13th is pretty late to have a lamb. Friday the 13th is decidedly unlucky. Unless of course you are this new baby ram lamb. Heres why.Not expecting any lambs I wasn't doing frequent checks watching for signs of labor, Hlif birthed this ram (her first lamb) all on her own and got him to nurse.
I started hunting in high school and when I shot my first deer I quickly realized the next step was harder than the first. When you harvest your own meat you quickly become a biologist. The way an animal is put together and the way steaks are stacked in the open refrigerator in the grocery store are really very different from each other. I have never been someone to pay a person to do a job I am pretty sure I can do myself, so we got a book and butchered each deer ourselves. Fancy cutting to create the perfect roast fell out of favor in the Jones home after realizing no matter how much bacon you use a deer roast will still be dry. We quickly moved to separating meat from bones and making burger or stew meat. It was quick, easy and practical.
That philosophy is something I have applied to the various things I have butchered for myself or others until now. Now, I am a sheep farmer. I can't imagine grinding something as perfect as a lamb chop into burger. So, I decided to teach myself (have youtube teach me) how to properly butcher a sheep.
For our customers now and the foreseeable future this task is done professionally, off farm. For Olaf, last years breeding ram (who got a little aggressive in rut for our taste) I do not see the point in paying someone to do a job I am perfectly capable of doing a mediocre job of myself. My other motivation for doing the job myself is the completeness of the task and the care I know I will put into it. I raised this animal, care for, protected and harvested it. I firmly believe nothing should be wasted. The hide, every muscle, every organ and every bone has a place and a use and by doing the job myself I can assure it gets there. I can assure the animal is honored in the process.
The hide was salted immediately after skinning to be tanned later, the edible organs and fat were removed for sausage, forelegs and lower legs have no meat but are great for dog bones (if raw). The carcass was split and butchered into all the various cuts according to the instructions in a youtube video where a butcher with significantly greater skill (and sharper knives) made it look much easier than it was. Any "trim" went into the sausage bin. Any bones were roasted and then boiled for 24 hours to make bone broth. My total unused trim from the 60+ lb carcass was roughly a pound. The inedible parts went to the pigs who cleaned up everything except the contents of the rumen. The boiled bones (now soft enough to break and crumble in your hands) will also go the the pigs.
We do this to be closer to our food. I learned a lot through the process and am proud of the completeness of our consumption of this animal that made this ultimate sacrifice to sustain us. This time it took me roughly 36 hours start to finish (not including cook time for the broth). Next time will be faster. We put 60 pounds of meat in our freezer. When Lily asks at dinner tomorrow "who is it?" I will finally be able to answer her question with a name, she will know have known him and we will say thank you.
Yesterday we had pulled pork bbq for dinner. Diantha, her parents and the kids had gone to the beach for the day and while I worked and reheating the bbq I had made the night before was a pretty easy solution for dinner with everyone getting back late.
As we all sat down to eat Lily dictated who was going to sit in each seat, including Connor. I was privileged to get to sit next to her. She first devoured her corn, grabbing buttery kernels by the fistful. She then looked at the meat and this is the conversation that followed.
Lily: "Papa what kind of meat is this"
Me: "Thats pig meat, pork"
Lily takes a bite and you can see her thinking while she chews.
Lily: "Who is it?" looking out the kitchen window at the pigs
Me: "Oh, it's not one of our pigs pumpkin, we haven't turned the into meat yet, it was from the store."
Lily: "What was its name?"
Me: "I'm not sure"
Lily: "Was it a girl or a boy pig?"
Me: "I dont know that either"
Me: "Because we bought it at the store"
We started this farm to know where our food comes from. We want to know the name of animals we eat because when something has a name it is treated better. We name all our animals here which does mean we become more attached but being attached to your food is a good thing. Even the vegetables, while we don't name them, we plant each seed, tend to and harvest their fruits. I am proud that Lily at two and a half is making connections to her food and where it comes from. I feel so fortunate to live in a place where she can truly know her food. I look forward to a time, hopefully in the near future, when I will be able to answer all of her questions for every bite she takes in our home.
I have been and will continue to be a fervent anti-cat activist. Growing up we had cats that I was very fond of. My brain still thinks I remember getting picked up from preschool, going to the animal shelter and picking out our first two kittens, one of which lived until I was in college. All the warm fuzzies I had for these animals faded in an ecology class where we discussed the cumulative effect of feral house cats on native bird and small mammal populations. You can read one of many studies here, spoiler alert they cause significant reductions and extinctions in those small mammal and bird populations. So as an environmentalist, I don't like cats. Mostly outdoor cats, but where do you think those come from?
The first or second night we slept in our new 120 year old farm house it sounded like a dozen mice were dancing just over our heads. I suddenly found myself attempting to cause a significant reduction and potential extinction in the local small mammal population. We now know it was at least a dozen mice as well as a family of squirrels (grey and red) and some chipmunks. One man, a bunch of mouse traps and a pellet gun cannot fend off this army of rodents from a barn full of delicious grain and an attic full of cozy insulation. I needed back up. I begrudgingly floated the idea of barn cats to Diantha who, as usual, was way ahead of me. It was however, the middle of winter and we wanted the cats to grow up in the barn, not the house. So I continued my rodent rampage as a lone soldier.
On a recent trip to the farmers market to buy plant starts we ran into Mary Skovsted of Joe's Brook Farm. She randomly asked if we needed any cats, they had found two that needed a home. We said we would think about it. In addition to the rodents Lily's favorite animal, despite our best efforts, has been cats since she was old enough to express an opinion. She has all things Kitty, kitty shoes, kitty books, kitty shirts, kitty vitamins, at least 5 stuffed animals, all named (insert some descriptor Kitty), the list goes on. She may like them more than pinecones and that's saying something. It has always been inevitable that we would get a cat, its just been a matter of time.
I stopped by Joe's Brook Farm to get the scoop on the cats and see if they would be a good fit. We discussed my one man war with the rodents and Eric (farmer) asked if I had heard the story of these kittens. I had not so he filled me in. The crew was laying plastic weed barrier in the field and therefore need the weed barrier. They pulled it out of the top of the barn, dragged it to the truck, ratchet strapped it down, drove to the field, pushed it off the back of the truck, dragged it across the field and started spreading it out when one of the crew did a double take and saw a kitten and by kitten I mean newborn cat (less than 1 week old). They gathered him up, finished the job and went home. Next day they are walking in the field and find two more kittens that had emerged from the plastic. A thorough search of the field found no more stray cats. The kittens were taken to their local cat care taker where two of the three survived. So they seem to be that good wild barn cat sort of scrappy and tough. The kind of cats that would take on an army of squirrels. Sold.
A few days later we contacted the neighbor who had taken them in and set up a visit to see them. One of those visit where you say your going to look but you know your two and a half year old has already made up your mind. So just like that we have two cats. Lily first named them Granola and Hat, two very classic names. An hour later she changed Hat's name to Granola and Granola's name to Boots. They will be tolerant for sure with Lily at the helm. We are working on being gentle with them, Lily has a lot of love that sometimes translates poorly to cat handling, but like with all things on the farm we're getting there.
We are blessed to live at the base of a big hill. A big hill with a mile long logging road that is easy enough to navigate even at the age of two and a half. Diantha takes Lily and Connor at least part of the way up our hill almost every day and that is why Lily loves pine cones more than most of her store bought toys. Its a beautiful thing.
About a week ago Lily and Diantha started seriously talking about camping on our hill. The proverbial first camping trip that we all take in our back yard. We chose a day when the weather would be clear and began making preparations. Ham steak, check. Tent, check. Kitty quilt, check. As we were packing our things Connor was swinging happily in his seat and Lily was outside playing on the porch wearing our shoes. Well turns out those shoes are too big and she took a digger down the stairs. Pre-trip injury, check.
The sheep were and constantly are my primary worry with these sorts of activities. They say sheep spend each day looking for a new way to kill themselves and some days it seems there is some truth to that. They were fenced in a wacky sort of way across that spread from our pond across the logging road and into another small field. I felt okay about the fencing situation, not great but good enough. Sheep in fence, check.
Finally ready to go we headed through the sheep pasture and up the road to set up camp. We pitched the tent my parents bought when I was a kid for a family camping trip we never ended up taking and gathered materials to make a fire to cook dinner. It was then I realized I hadn't remembered to grab my pill. Meds, no check.
I debated not making the walk down to grab it was a beautiful afternoon and a little extra exercise never hurt. It was about a half mile walk back to the house and 150 yards from the bottom I heard a woman yelling, I started jogging. She saw me coming she yells again "YOUR GOATS ARE OUT!" I start running. I came to the house and she points across the road where half the flock in deflowering my neighbor's garden. The other half were in the woods somewhere, I couldn't see them. I deputized the woman and her partner who had pulled over when they saw the loose flock. A neighbor emerged who by now is an old pro at herding our sheep. We managed to get them into the barn more easily than I think I have ever done it without fencing set up. Sheep secure, check.
Back up the hill we cooked our ham steak on the camp fire and after dinner Lily and Diantha made some smores. Lily was so excited to sleep in the tent she could hardly wait to go to bed but that made getting to sleep a bit of a struggle. We all eventually got to sleep and slept better than expected. In the morning Lily and Diantha picked more wild strawberries to add to their oatmeal, I cooked eggs and bacon and we broke down camp to head home. Successful Jones family outing, check.
I find that I often get in my own way when it comes to appreciating everything that we have. With a broken 5 hours of sleep I can struggle to appreciate the song birds in the morning or the crystal clear night sky when putting the sheep to bed. Wrestling Lily to bed at 8:30pm on a day she naps until almost 5, I sometimes forget just how lucky I am to call that little girl my daughter. Carrying Connor in the backpack while he protests and I try to get all the animals fed I can become frustrated with the extra time it takes to complete my morning chores. Attempting to corral the last egg eating chicken by myself into the fence she escaped from I can get frustrated that I am working alone again and loose sight of what a wonderful wife I have and all that she does for our family.
A few days ago, after mucking the stalls in the barn with some student volunteers and spreading the old straw and manure on our barren field, we tilled up what was left of the hard packed top soil using a borrowed tractor. The field is full of stones and gravel which just about rattled the tractor to peices but after about an hour I was finished. I was grateful to have been lent the tractor which made the entire job so much easier. Today I seeded the field and spread lime by hand. Walking through the dusty dry field throwing ironically damp lime that wouldn't feed in out spreader I felt thankful for the field. As fields go it is far from lush but the satisfaction we will feel when the grass is growing thick and our lambs are growing fat will be far greater than it would've been had we not worked to improve it. I built a harrow to bed the seed and lime in the field and quickly realized that the amount of drag made pulling it quite difficult. I did half the field and gave in. Being a man of science I declared it an experiment instead of a defeat and we will see where the grass grows best.
I move the sheep every morning but this morning was the first time the paddock was far enough away that it couldn't stay attached to the barn. This meant using broken fences as suggestions of where to go and praying they didn't shoot any of the gaps in the fence to head for freedom, and bears. I use the term gap lightly as the paddock we drove them into was an almost straight fence-line... A one sided enclosure by definition does not enclose anything. I employed Diantha, Lily and Connor (who was sleeping in his carseat) to help keep the sheep in the area we wanted to enclose while I ran around picking up and resetting the fencing we used to guide them out to the field. They were great, Lily has been herding pullets and if you can herd a pullet, you can herd a sheep?
The three of them left to do dorm duty at school while I continued to do some things around the farm. After failing to get the clearing saw started I decided to go for a walk down the stream that runs through our property. As I walked the river changed from silt clay bottom to large rocks and boulders. I sat down on a large rock in the middle of the stream where two smaller streams entered the main channel. I had never been to this part of our property before. It was loud. The mosquitos were out and hungry. I just sat there in my own space. It started to rain. We need rain. I thought about how lucky I am to own this land, to have help and resources to improve it. I thought about bringing my family to this rock to sit and have this stream drown out all the other sounds. I swatted a mosquito and started walking back up the stream in the rain towards home thankful for everything that home is to me.
Thursday is $0.99 bread day at our local used bread store. I have dreams of baking a fresh loaf of sourdough lovingly on a regular basis but reality and I can't find the time. So, Thursday is convenient. Lily also loves to go, pick out a box of fruit snacks, and eat a pack on the way home. It is a thing that we do together and we both enjoy the time. Me because its an easy trip with a 2.5 year old, her because of the fruit snacks.
Today while I was buying bagels and she was picking out a box of "apple" (mixed fruit) fruit snacks, a random older patron started commenting on Lily's rubber mud boots. It started out innocently enough, "I really like your mud boots, I remember playing in those when I was a kid." Lily is now running full tilt towards me with an arm full of fruit snacks and this woman bearing down with a cart full of white bread and doughnuts. Then she starts, "You probably don't play in them the way we did, kids these days spend all their time on the computer." Lily is now wrapped around my leg, still clutching her fruit snacks. The woman continues, talking over/through/at Lily and I to the cashier. "Remember tiddlywinks and jacks? Kids don't even know what to do with them anymore, you set them in front of them and they're like whats that give me a phone!" I held my tongue while I paid for my bagels and Lily's fruit snacks and we got out of there.
Maybe it's the decline in the amount of sleep one gets, even with a pretty agreeable newborn, but I have been a little more irritable recently. Lily has to be constantly reminded to take those boots off when coming in the house because they're always full of mud or sheep, chicken, dog or deer poop. She might see a screen for 2-10 minutes spaced through the day when she is looking as pictures/videos we have taken, Sir David Attenborough's 2 minute planet earth video where he recites "what a wonderful world" that she occasionally watches while brushing her teeth, and a well placed Old McDonald music video. To be fair, Lily doesn't know what tiddlywinks or jacks are. Her favorite toys are pinecones and rocks. She collects baskets of pinecones on our walks "mama pine cones, papa pine cones, baby pine cones and big girl pine cones." There are rocks in the refrigerator right now. If she wants to look at pictures on my phone and I take it, she's fine - no meltdowns. If I want that basket worth of pinecones spread across the living room floor, its like a hostage negotiation.
Now I myself am an old man at heart who thinks the youths are trouble and have always stared grouchily at any vehicle traveling too quickly past my home. I think of myself as a sort of back to the lander type. In reality I am attached to my phone to a fault and reflexively check it even when it does not prompt me. I spend a big part of my day staring at a screen. A lot of that time is spent researching and learning about things like sheep, chickens, car repair, building plans and sheep - did I mention sheep? There is also some mindless and unproductive time spent as well. I was angry in the used bread store because that woman who was complaining about her perception of my child was more accurately describing the adults in that store than Lily.
Unfazed and unoffended by the whole event she initiated a conversation on the way home that went something like this:
"Papa, what kind of fruit snacks did I get?"
"No, Apple. Papa can you say apple?"
"Can you say fruit snacks?"
"Can you say apple fruit snacks?"
"Apple fruit snacks"
Giggles, "I love you papa"
"I love you too pumpkin"
I think I would like to be a little more like Lily, less screens, more nature, less irritable and, of course, a weekly dose of fruit snacks.
The first time I found myself on a sheep farm was in high school back in Virginia. My AP calculous teacher said they could use some help deworming if anyone was interested. Who could refuse? I was in, and showed up ready to wrangle some Suffolks. A few hours later, covered in the excrement of sheep that needed deworming, I think I knew deep down that one day I too would be a sheep farmer. I went back and worked on that farm for a few summers and it was one of the best jobs I think I have ever had.
I started doing research and field work in the summers while in college and got to that farm less and less. I moved to Vermont for grad school in the summer of 2012 and felt a need to find work on a farm. I went to a farmers market and started moving from booth to booth offering myself as a mercenary farm hand. I would do whatever work needed to be done for whoever would pay. I got a call from Jericho Settler's Farm that they were short handed the coming weekend. I showed up at 6am to collect hundreds of eggs from their solar chickens. The next job, to my surprise and delight, was getting some sheep into a trailer. We rode over to the field where the sheep were and, as chaos began to ensue, I made a few suggestions about where we should position ourselves to move them where we wanted them to go. This ultimately led to sheep in the right place and steady employment.
The second summer of grad school provided less time for farm employment. I had met Diantha and we were raising our own chickens and rabbits and planting our own garden at a cabin we rented on the Otter Creek. I remember that summer for the fresh eggs and sunshine. Diantha reminds me that the chickens got eaten, and it rained everyday single day until the lake was so high our cabin on the river became a cabin on an island. We had to drive through 1/4 mile of flooded road to get in and out until after 2 weeks the water was too deep. We had to evacuate to her parents' where the barn cat ate the male rabbit, which ended my breeding program.... I still remember it as a good summer.
The next summer we got married and lived as nomads until we were able to move into our house in Maine where I started my PhD in wildlife ecology studying wood frog migration through developed areas. The field work was demanding and we were doing a ton of work on the house so no real farming got done. Those two summers were full of frogs. I stayed up all night tracking individual steps of frogs using florescent powder and a black light. I drove 4 hours north of Bangor, where I found myself trespassing waist deep in a bog with a metal net in a thunderstorm at 11pm chasing a single frog by its call thinking, "this is the most bizarre way I have ever risked my life." Then I attached thousands of dollars of radiotransmitters to frogs to track them throughout the summer. Two years into that program I had to reassess. I loved the work but our family had grown and I hadn't been on a farm in years. Looking to the future, I didn't like where I felt I was dragging Diantha and Lily and we decided something had to give.
Two years later we have started our own sheep farm. I am teaching, we have another baby, Lily is a budding shepherd, and life is good. I have been thinking a lot about how life circles back to what is good. I loved being on that sheep farm in Virginia, and now we have our own sheep farm. We love Vermont and being close to family, and now we are back in Vermont close to our families and growing our own. As I was sitting on the stone wall by our barn the other day watching the sheep, I heard the wood frogs start calling from our pond. I looked to the nearest forest. There are houses, roads, fields, and even a swimming pool between those frogs and their non-breeding habitat. It's a long way to those woods I thought, but studies have shown they'll make it....