Tough as a two-dollar steak. To borrow the line.

It’s hard to be humble.

It’s either soul-crushing or wing-soaring around here. With all these sentient creatures, there are no regular days. As I’ve said before, you either want to put everything you can’t bury on Craigslist and move to a condo, or you want to double (triple?!) the size of your farm. There are no medium temperatures.

But in the spirit of life lived hard, and dedicated to a few girlfriends who really feel they aren’t having the hottest year on the ranch, here are the Top Six (Buckets) Moments So Far, where farming made me feel like I could disarm a nuclear weapon if I had to. (And you can, too!) :

Buying hay. It was 2011 and the day Rose the Goat came home to roost. We had to feed her, so I drove my new-to-me 1987 Dodge truck to a farmer down the road who loaded me up with hay. I remember I just stood there as he threw bales at me from the loft in his barn. And then I drove home. Hay flying everywhere. Elbow resting out of the window. Feet BARELY reaching the pedals. This ain’t no Harvestfest hayride, people. I’ve got MOUTHS to feed!

Bad. Ass. To the MAX.

Smug self-satisfaction: This guy knows what I’m talking about.

SHOTS!: The first few weeks of Rose the Goat, I was blissfully unaware that livestock required occasional medical treatment or vaccines. I was under the assumption that a veterinarian would assist should problems arise. But one day we brought home a baby companion doeling for Rose that died in 24 hours, and I was sent into Turboshock Reality that vets were expensive, never available in the middle of the night, and if they were, they knew nothing about goats. I was out here on my own. It was up to me to tend to my ladies’ needs and keep them un-dead. So I had to learn how to give an animal a shot. Like, with a needle! Into their bodies!!!

The first girl I ever stuck with a needle.

It’s very intimidating to poke a needle into an innocent animal. Even when they need it. I remember standing out in the field, hemming and hawing to myself, with poor Rosie pinned up against the side of her hut for an hour or more until, at some point, I grew a pair. I pinched a fold of her skin and injected medication inside. Sub-Q injection for the win! Farming is easy!!!! Bring me a scalpel!

I have to put that where?? Things got a little more real with the addition of pigs and cattle. Particularly, the kind we weren’t going to eat in 6 months, but rather, the kind we would keep. Healthy. And impregnate. But damned if I’m not overconfident enough to buy a tank of liquid nitrogen, order frozen semen, thaw it in a complicated series of steps that involved a stopwatch, put it in a corkscrew-shaped straw and shove it into a pig’s hoo-ha. In all honesty, this part was not actually that big of a deal, but when my pig GAVE BIRTH to babies from A STRAW OF FROZEN SEMEN I PUT IN THERE, I was all flag-waving in my sports bra, screaming “AMERICUHHHH!” to Possum Street passers-by for like five days.

I’ve got all the right moves.

Not the fun kind of Tubing. Much of a man’s character is built by shoving tubes of stuff into animals. I was caring for my friend’s sick baby goat when it became apparent that this kid was not suckling, and would die if it didn’t get some nutrients in its belly. After a lesson from a friend and professional baby-goat tuber, I found myself alone in my bathroom with an animal that needed milk to live but could not drink it. And a long piece of plastic. With tubing, if you miss the stomach, you hit the lungs, drowning the goat instantly. No pressure, farmer newbie.

The audible contrast between a tube stuck in the lungs and a tube stuck in the stomach is not as stark as I would like, but eventually, I worked up the courage to pour the milk in. And the goat didn’t drown. She lived! I just saw her alive earlier today!  You’re welcome, universe!

Feedstore Cred. Sometimes saving or fathering baby animals doesn’t feel as good as getting acknowledged by your peer group. I’ll never forget the moment I pulled into the co-op drive through, and the feed guy took my signed receipt and said, “Now that’s the sign of a true farmer.” I had no idea what he was talking about (“One who buys feed with a credit card?!”) until he pointed his clipboard toward the semen tank buckled into the passenger seat. I can’t remember who the lucky swine lady was that day, but the whole scene was not even staged! I had an actual AI tank in my vehicle! I don’t know if he was mocking me or what, but in my euphoria, I sat 7’2” in my “true farmer” minivan. Nod to the ladies in town as you pass them on the street, won’tcha?

Oh, right. You meant that.

Tail blood. The most intimidating thing I’ve done so far is to locate the elusive vein inside a cow’s tail. Those familiar with anatomy know that a cow’s tail is toward the business end, home to all sorts of blunt trauma and biohazards. Standing behind a cow while stabbing her with a needle? Well … It goes against everything I’ve ever been told … from being a kid at the fair to milking Claire when she first arrived. DO NOT STAND BEHIND THE COW OR YOU WILL GET KICKED AND DIE. But there I was on Sunday, needle in hand, holding her tail straight up in the air and praying to Jesus that my last moments on Earth would not be spent estimating where, exactly, was 3 to 6 inches up from a cow’s butthole. After agonizing about placement until my arm went numb, I stuck the needle in, saw red and came racing inside to show Seth 2 ccs of actual bovine blood.

I had done it.

I am a miracle!!!!!!!!!

This is not even her scary end!

All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the 13 piglet testicles that I have removed — surgically. Or the horn buds that I have burned off with a red-hot iron.

There are cowboy moments, girls. We forget these as we’re digging holes for something we’ve just watch die, or as we’re diving into thorny mud piles to retrieve escaped piglets. Or as our cow comes back into heat for the 15th time or as we, you know, are panic-searching open wounds for that missing pig testicle.

It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come and how much we can tolerate. We are tough old birds. Stew chickens, basically.

We can achieve everything.

Up next: A list of sentient creatures I have killed. And not even on purpose.

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Six Buckets Farm is a way of life.

Not particularly bright: The photo or the people.

I don’t think I’ve ever explained how the ranch got its name.

The last thing I remember is that it was 2006 and we were living in the city. We were looking to buy our first house, and I remember urging Seth to look at a cute little bungalow on Weber. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I see him come at me with a sledgehammer. Months later, I woke from my coma to find he had driven me — and all our wordly possessions — to a place called Bangs, Ohio. And there was no one around to hear me scream.

I decided to make the best of it. After all, there were stars and fresh air, and it was weird, but someone had removed all the pavement  – or maybe they just planted the green stuff on top of it, I don’t know – but just like that, I was living in the country. Forty miles away from civilization. WHAAAAT.

We landed in Bangs with a whimper, as first-time homeowners of a 99-year-old house that needed oh-so-serious repairs, surrounded by ten acres that had to be mowed and maintained and something called a leach field and a tin roof and rotten floorboards and … we didn’t have so much as a push mower. We had no roots in agriculture. We were spindly little seedlings thrust into the rural, clay-filled soils of an unincorporated township. We had no John Deere tractor, no auger to hoist grain. No gravity wagon to move food or balers to make hay … No friends with skid steers. But we had soul, baby!

Also, buckets. We had a ton of buckets.

A barn with a capacity for junk

The previous owners of the ‘stead left our early 1900s barn (Rest in Peace, old barn) filled to the hay lofts with junk. I mean serious junk. It probably technically needed a landfill permit. Old furniture, swing sets, rotten Hustler magazines, weird jugs of poisons, oil and fuel … a whole tack box full of nails and approximately 32,000 tires. How can one family physically collect that many tires? I’m not trying to judge, but WHY. WHAT was the plan?

Our seller gave us an allowance of $2,000 to get the junk removed, so when they cut the check we thought, “Why not just do this ourselves and save a little cash?”

That famous phrase would be uttered before gas leaks and water line freezes and trench-digging and many other ill-advised decisions during the next 7 years.

But we paid $300 for a Dumpster, and began the back-breaking chore of moving several hundred cubic feet of some other guy’s garbage out of the barn and out of our lives. By the end, there was a towering pile of dust and debris that did not lend itself to toting. Oh, and the buckets. The previous owners also hoarded buckets. Perplexed, and lacking more efficient equipment, we came to the conclusion that the debris pile would need to be shoveled into these buckets, and lifted above our heads up and dumped. It wasn’t the most enviable task, but that’s what we did. Six buckets at a time. Until it was finished.

One man’s trash is another man’s … uh … beginning?

We worked day after day in the hot sun, celebrating our inefficient conquest with frequent lemonade breaks, during which we realized that the sweat was ours and the land was ours and the future was ours and the Tetanus was imminent. And suddenly everything was … equity. We can do everything.

We decided to keep the dog.

It doesn’t sound very romantic when I spell it out that way, does it? Throwing buckets of ancient and potentially toxic debris up into a rented Dumpster …

But I never said this was a love story.

Ours is a story of two young, stupid and poor people, sick with passion about being in completely over our heads. Ours is the story of monotonous, unmechanized labor in all its glistening glory. Ours is a story of a lot cast with mind-numbing toil, and the intimacy gained with land and beast and with each other. Ours is a story about preemptive Advil.

Now imagine if we had paid some guy to come in with a loader and have the junk hauled away in an hour two. We’d still be searching out a name for our farm.

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Am I cut out for this crap?

Last night around 10:30 or so, I was dragging hay out to the cows when one of my pinky fingers slipped out of my glove and froze instantly, snapping off and falling to the ground in the dark. I knelt to search for my finger, and my knees froze to the ground. I had to leave them there.

These are the elements we work in.

If I didn’t have animals, I would have been in my bed, cursing the record-setting cold air. Instead, I’m out here counting fingers and kneecaps to make sure I arrive in bed intact.

But if I had not been forced from my 68-degree home, I’d be cursing the idea of cold air, not the actual air itself, and in this difference I have found the key to life.

Work is hard, but the idea of it is harder. Cold is brutal, but the idea of it is more brutal.

While draining water hoses I looked up to see, as always, one of the clearest, most beautiful nights I can remember out here.  The stars were purdy enough to stop me in my tracks (DANGER! BOOT-TO-GROUND FREEZE WARNING!) and I had the good sense to realize: This has been the easiest winter so far. I might actually miss this cold when it is gone. The skies are never as bright in the summer.

Can you imagine having such a crazy thought as that when it is 5 degrees outside?

Once you get past the idea that something might be unpleasant, you may find that it’s not really that bad.  Especially if you’ve got Carhartts and a proper set gloves. Suddenly circumstances don’t seem so dire.

Thomas Edison knew what was up:

Unless it is windy. If it is windy, I’m out. The cows can go ahead and starve. The stars can shine on somebody else.

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On raising fat pigs

Meat eating just got real.

My beloved pig had been dispatched, drug and hoisted onto the gambrel when a couple of city folk started scoring and slicing their way to her backside. As they peeled back the hair and skin, I was mortified.

All I could see was fat. Cloudy, gelatinous fat.  About two or twelve inches of it.

OH NO.

BACKFAT.

I was so embarrassed.

It’s been almost a week since badass urban homesteaders (a better title than city folk?) Rachel and Alex Baillieul of Hounds in the Kitchen fame came over to collect their hog and butcher her onsite.

Tayse-Baillieul & Co. were very patient with us as first-time hosts of a butchering party, and I’ll write more about the logistics of that experience later, or maybe I won’t because I’ll forget. I’m so wrapped up in the first, the most pressing lesson of the event:

My whole life has been a lie.

While the rest of the world was celebrating books like Charcuterie, eating nose-to-tail and crowning the pig king, I must have been doing something else. Probably sloshing water out to the barns or hanging out with show pig breeders in Newark or something, because all I have been told about pigs is that you do not want backfat.

Pigs have been bred to be lean and boxy and meaty. The pork industry has even developed special ultrasonic devices and probes to measure a pig’s insulation, and to keep backfat at bay. I think they want it between a quarter and a half of an inch, and they have been breeding for this for decades. I don’t know why. Something about the 80s, and people wanting leaner meat. I’m not sure of the details. I think the whole thing might have been a huge mistake. Anyway, fat. There it was, coating our entire pig in shame.

Bad, bad, bad. Bad, pig raiser!

I thought they would be disappointed and ask for a refund, but as we were slicing up the fattiest pig in the history of pigs, Rachel and Alex both seemed a bit giddy about it.

Apparently, our home butcher friends already are immersed in a world where fat is not only welcomed, it is a medium. It provides the glue for one of hundreds of recipes, and can be incorporated into cured meats, pies crusts, soup stocks, or even cured for half a year, sliced razor-thin and eaten on a basil leaf.

Such culinary experiences, as I read in one of those Michael Ruhlman books, can lead even the most devout atheist to toy with the notion that, hey, maybe God DOES exist. What can I say? We’re all tempted in different ways.

I knew that my pigs looked different. But until you are there and actually cutting one open, however, it doesn’t really hit you HOW different these heritage breeds are. It’s like they are not even the same animal.

To help the novice understand, here is a picture of a Berkshire pig from the swine genetics offered down the street in Newark:

Shipley Swine’s top-selling Berkshire boar, “Black Thunder”

Just look at that guy! He’s a box! I love him! Like, in the way you’d love being in the Short North during the Arnold Fest. He is a cultural phenomenon.

Now here is a the same breed of pig, a Berkshire, that will father Black Betty’s next round of piglets in a month or so. Somewhere along the line, his genetic line took a different turn than Black Thunder. Or maybe it just stayed the course.

 

Look at that guy! He’s hilarious! Look at those curves! I have no idea whether those are a good thing or not!

I picked him for his “Old-Worldly” charm, meaning, of course, that I pick boars that would make the best tattoo or North Market logo, not knowing anything about pig breed standards and conformity. But now I understand that pork is not just pork is just not pork.

I have been so busy on the front end – learning to live with and not prematurely kill these beasts, that I’m just now paying attention to their end product, and how our management practices can influence the outcome. And about how we can rub some salt on these fatty red cuts, hang them in our own home to dry for a couple weeks, and be left with something that tastes better than a pork chop. Or even bacon.

It’s less of an “a-ha” moment and more of a “duh.” But the possibilities are exciting enough to keep me up at nights.

Ya see, the pork industry really has no need for the types of pigs we’re raising. We are the only idiots who will keep their genetics going, so we need to pay careful attention. Most pigs are raised indoors with temperature regulation, and no real need for insulation. But pigs raised outdoors need an extra layer of fat to stay warm. You wouldn’t want to go outside in a winter coat that was ¼ inch thick. Science.

So our pigs would be fired from conventional systems. They have not enjoyed decades of breeding for protein leanness that would compete with a chicken. And they’re going to grow and finish completely different. But these rebel, hipster pigs should not be thrown to the curb, or scoffed at by local butchers. These pigs are going to bring people to Jesus, in a culinary sense.

What I’m trying to say is that my purpose in life has been unclear until now. I think we are evangelists, raising red meat pigs to steer atheists toward the Lord God Almighty via layers upon layers of backfat. Bacon Church. Or, if that doesn’t work, we can take things that people are a-skeert of: severed pig heads, salt and fat and create a tasty, if somewhat structurally unsound, bridge for the gap between pig and pig eater.

And maybe other people will be inspired to do crazy things like order a whole fresh side of pork belly and cure their own bacon and pancetta. You know, maybe on the weekends or holidays. I know you people have jobs and stuff. Boring.

And maybe folks can be empowered to raise fat pigs on pasture. And not be so embarrassed about it.

We’re going to need a different slogan, though. In our case, “The Other White Meat,” is somewhat misleading claim.

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Spaghetti with a side of tears

IM N UR HEAD

I have to say that I’ve never bawled my eyes out over a jar of Preggo. But in my kitchen on Saturday, I looked down at a big pot of simmering spaghetti sauce and things started getting blurry. Yep. This is that kind of blog.

The beginning of this emotionally draining sauce was a sizzling pound (or two—hey, don’t judge, I wanted to be sure to taste it) of salt-pepper-sage sausage from our heritage hogs that had returned home from the butcher that morning. I skipped the part where you are supposed to drain the fat, instead adding spices that were dried from our garden. One by one I popped open jars of whole, crushed and sauced tomatoes that we had grown from seed and canned all September long.

Mason jars are little portals for time travel, in case you didn’t know, and I cannot open one without finding myself up at 5 a.m. and it’s July and I am pulling weeds. Open the next one and it’s winter of last year, and I’m perched on a plastic chair with a spray bottle, watering my little tomato seedlings on top of the deep freezer in the only way that would not disturb their tender sprouts.

And, of course, I can’t fry any type of protein without feeling the weight of two 5-gallon buckets filled with water, splashing on my legs as I take them out to thirsty pigs. The work of the meal follows me to the plate.

Dear Lord. Maybe I should have laid down for a nap instead of crying, but I didn’t.

I don’t know why I got emotional. I think it was because at that moment I remembered that the grocery store sells spaghetti sauce with sausage, and that I could have saved myself a lot of work and time. I’m kidding, of course.  I think I realized, a little too suddenly, how much I miss while eating on the run. Buzzing drive-throughs on the way home from errands, or tearing open a can of some bizarrely shelf-stable product to reheat in the few hours before I had to commute back to Columbus again.

But whatever I was doing on Saturday – it felt like more than cooking dinner. It was the culmination of time and Advil and I knew the story of every ingredient. And it was good. The best sauce I have ever tasted in my life. The chunks of yellow and orange tomatoes each had their own acidity, each developed from seed cultivated and saved for decades prior; likely from dozens of folks who weeded as the sun came up. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the first one to break ice with a hammer to water a herd of large, black, floppy-eared pigs. It felt like worshiping, honestly. Or visiting with ghosts.

Because in our toil we see God has created so many variations in nature, and therefore, in our daily bread, as they call it, and I mostly just glossed over all that until recently: tomatoes are different, even among the same variety, hogs vary with the seasons like milk, even basil changes tastes throughout the summer! And yet most of my adult life I’ve skipped over these fascinating hiccups in lieu of convenient meals out of season.

Apparently I had better ways to spend my time. Three times a day, every day. Consuming without regard to where it came from or who harvested or preserved it or why it tastes the way it does.  It felt like I had been eating with strangers. It felt like cheating.

But on Saturday, I hadn’t cheated. I’d finished a full race. And I saw that it was good. And there was sausage.

The moral of the story is: Slow down. Quit your jobs. Be in a constant state of awe and wonder over the basic necessities of life. That way we can all stay home and cry over spaghetti sauce together. At least until they shut the electric off.

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Their last Wednesday

Happy Wednesday from our piggery division. They won’t be around for the next one.

Sometimes when the girls are snoozing in their beds I will sneak out and shoot the breeze with my pigs. I know that makes me a total weirdo, but on days like today, it’s actually pretty relaxing.

Once the pigs figure out it’s a social visit and that I’m not bringing them milk or tasty scraps, they ignore me and go about their business. The sound of a pig rooting up the soil is similar to that of a cow ripping grass from the earth. It’s a very rhythmic crunch and a soothing evening soundtrack for this ol’ pig farmer. It’s a privilege for these pigs, though they likely do not regard it as such, even though most of the animals that live for food production never experience dirt or grass, roots or grubs. I’m not looking for an argument on animal husbandry right now. I’m just sharing my experience, so sit with me a moment. I enjoy observing the animals who live and die and provide meals for my family, and soon, for a dozen other families around Ohio.

Summer. They’ve figured out the feed pan since then.

We’ve raised pigs before, but usually they arrive when they’re weaned and mini-monsters. These are the first pigs to be born at Six Buckets Farm. I remember how we worried and worried about whether Black Betty was actually pregnant. I remember how I took pictures of her backside and posted them on Facebook, seeking wiser sources to determine whether we’d get piglets or not. The hours I logged staring at that hog’s belly for a sign that it was dropping … ugh. And then a month after her “due date,”  just minutes after a unannounced summer storm  blew through and knocked out our power for almost a week, I sat with mama pig Black Betty and moved eight piglets up to her snout when they’d roll down the pile of hay where she had made her nest. They looked like gross little elephants. And they’ve been hilarious ever since. I always get a little sentimental about the animals that make the trip to the butcher under our watch, but these guys and gals occupy an extra mushy quadrant of my heart.

Itty bitty piggy butts.

Today I sat with mama and babies – well, her 250-pound babies now – and watched as they each made a burrow to sit down until mama came over and groomed each of their ears, digging her snout under those huge umbrella-sized ears as they plopped down to snooze. Life was good. And mama pig has been a good mother and has done well for us and for her piglets. Pigs are so smart and such social animals that I’d be lying if I didn’t admit, at that moment, I was searching for a way they wouldn’t HAVE to become bacon. Maybe there could be another purpose for these hogs. But then one of the boys wandered over and started eating my shoulder, and I remembered his place and my place in the world. They don’t make the best pets. They were bred for a purpose. Some will think this makes me a softie, others will say I’m a horrible person, to eat these animals that I’ve watched grow from the minute they hit the ground. Both may be accurate.

But I look at the way that they’ve lived, and I’m very proud of it. I’m proud of the way they have eaten, slept and played, out in the open, with access to sun, shelter and grass. Not to mention all the milk and garden veggies they stole from us. These pigs have lived like kings. And I enjoy eating meat, so really, it’s the least I can do.

Pigs CAN fly!

I know mama pig will be depressed when she finds herself alone again in a couple days, but we’ve got two little gilts on the way to the farm keep her company. They hopefully will grow up into nice mamas with piglets of their own, and we can start this whole process all over again.

In the meantime, let’s raise our glasses for these pigs, on their last Wednesday. They’ve been good pigs, and that’s not me tearing up a little … that would be embarrassing  There’s just something in my eye, that’s all.

It’s a privilege raising animals for food, for seeing to it personally that they have a good run.

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Next year

Can I put my byline somewhere on these, or … ???

HEY! I’m still no longer am employed as a journalist. My former Workdad sent me an email the other day. He didn’t write to tell me that, but, I mean, sometimes I forget how far my star has fallen. It’s been more than a year now since I the pulled the trigger on Fulltime Homestead Transition. And can you believe that I’m blogging less? ;)

My absence is a real shame (ALWAYS!) because I’ve learned more this year than I have learned during all the years of my pathetic existence combined. I could have passed that savings onto you.

But I didn’t. Craaaaaap.

In case you weren’t clued in by the pig semen discussions on my Facebook wall, my transformation is nearly complete. I am emotionally unrecognizable to my former colleagues. I come up for air long enough to make fun of Mitt or to check out the Dipsatch when someone texts me saying that John Kasich is out in Reynodlsburg building an exotic zoo or something, but for the most part, I am completely disconnected from all things daily and Ohio and political. I probably will regret that one day. But not these days.

These days, I am working so hard that I long for the sweet taste of death by exhaustion at age 40. There is a correlation I had not been made aware of until recently: Each additional galaxy you can spot with your naked eye on a clear summer night requires corresponding hours of physical labor per star. It’s kind of refreshing, following a starless, sedentary life for the first 28 years of my life.

Red Swan Beans are one of many things on the ranch that require standing.

The culture out here is surprisingly fast – everybody wants more animals, more land, more rows of corn, better fences, bigger grain storage, bigger tractors, more implements YESTERDAY … although there is a great deal of lag time between acquiring these things and eating the food that all of it is used to make. It takes at least two years to get beef. And that’s just from the first day the baby calf puts his little hooves on the ground. Don’t even get me started on the time requirement of rhubarb pie. Or sauerkraut. I’m looking at you, parmesan cheese!!

Planning meetings for this salad began in 2011.

Maybe that’s part of the urgency. We better start now if we want to eat in five years! But I still can’t figure out the phenomenon where we all talk about the prices of things all the time.

For some reason, the sole icebreaker out here is the cost of the things. How much did you pay for that fence charger/non-GMO grain/piglet/seed/pressure canner/feeder? In the city, no one talks about how much money they spent on things within eyesight. Even broke-ass journalists. But out here, that is like the first thing anyone ever talks about. Sometimes the only thing. I guess everyone is looking for a good deal. So if I come to the city and start asking how much your patio furniture costs, that is why. Oh. And I automatically start setting up the outdoor Obama effigy pretty much everywhere I go. Sorry. I’m not trying to be rude. I’ve assimilated.

That said, I believe it would be advantageous if the farm section of Craigslist was open only from noon to three. Limited access for farmsteading types could save a lot of productivity. Maybe it would cool the fire a bit. Because eighteen months ago I had one goat, and now I have 2 cows, 2 soon-to-be-steers, 9 pigs, 6 chickens … Clearly I have been swept up in the rural tide. I’m constantly talking about “next year,” where we do it bigger, better, more efficiently. With better fences and bigger feed bills. It’s just that there is so much to learn and do and try and there are eggs in the incubator that need to be flipped! And the prospect of growing almost all our own food is within reach! We might even be able to grow more food for OTHER families!

Next year we will have 100.

But, as a warning, I’ve come to the realization that you must devote your entire life to this addiction. No vacations!!! Otherwise, if you want good food, you have to pay people like me to stay roped into the lifestyle while you see a coast or two a couple times per year. Otherwise, you could just go to the grocery store. That’s fine, too. It is whatever you want! There is room for all!! It’s a wonderful world!

These apples cost me zero dollars. You won’t be so lucky.

The most practical lessons of the year came in the following order: Parenting, garden pests (good bugs v bad bugs), cooking, preserving, cheesemaking, home appliance repair, pasture/grass nutrition for animals, artificial insemination, auction buying, cuts of meat and – oh! The selling! Of the veggies! – I learned so much about selling vegetables and meat. Mostly what NOT to do.

Actually, I didn’t really learn anything about selling meat because I posted the word “bacon” on Facebook twice and reserved all my piglets, so. I anticipate harder times ahead. Also: Roasts. I know a lot more about cooking a good roast now than I did in 2011. Seth thanks me for not ruining perfectly good hunks of meat on a regular basis. That, and Havarti dill. Those were my biggest accomplishments in the kitchen.

Food comes in a variety of colors. WHO KNEW?!

Gawdgolly, I wish I had remembered to write down all my “ah-ha!” moments for the next guy. I suspect I will not be the last person to abandon a career for … well … whatever this is. A very expensive course in How to Keep Yourself and Your Family Alive Without Leaving The House EVAR 101, considering feed and hay prices are literally the highest they have been ever in the history of ever. Sigh.

But I was too busy parenting, gardening, squashing squash bugs, caring for pregnant animals, caring for newborn animals, making cheese, milking cows and selling vegetables to record this for the Internet.

Missed opportunities.

Next year. NEXT YEAR!

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Putting the “rad” in “radish”

I should have saved that title for the blog about my new tattoo. Ah, well.

Feed this to me.

Do you have an abundance of eggs? Do you have an abundance of radishes? Well, do I have a deal for you!

Walk this way.

Put a dozen eggs in a pan of water and boil for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the eggs sit for 10 or 15 minutes. Meanwhile, gather a bunch or two or ten of radishes and chop them up real nice, reserving the green tops for later.

Ok, now is the time you use the green radish tops. Chop up about half of them and add to radishes.

What? You eggs are done? Ok peel them. Don’t burn yourself. Chop them up and add to radish tops and roots. Put a few tablespoons each of mayonnaise (bonus points for making your own) and any old sort of mustard. Sprinkle a few celery seeds on the whole thing and salt and pepper it.

Mix, cool, dish out on crackers or bread and EAT FOR LUNCH EVERY DAY FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE BECAUSE IT IS AWESOME AND TOTALLY HEALTHY I AM SURE OF IT.

Extra bonus points for making your own bread.

Congratulations, you have 72 points!

Thank you.

That is all.

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A cock-and-bull story. Sans cock.

me, basically

About a week ago, while the girls napped in the safety of a shady car outside the livestock auction house, I snuck into the sale barn about an hour before the start time to take a peek at the Jersey cows for sale.

In MOST cases, sale barns have these big, wooden catwalks several feet above all the animals so you can admire them from afar without seeing any of their defects up close. They normally don’t let you down on the ground level with the animals, but I have enough Steve Johnson in me to ignore all “Do Not Enter” signs and just walk on in like I own the place. This was handy in journalism, where I rarely paid any mind to physical harm.

In my new life, truly dangerous things are rarely labeled, so if someone before you deemed an activity worthy of a warning scratched onto a cardboard sign, brazen disregard is not advised.

A couple old farm hands were hanging around downstairs, and didn’t seem too disturbed by a 100-pound 5’2” female loitering about, so I followed one of them in the barn. The city folk won’t understand that this was a victory – I had managed to skip the part where you have to figure out how to open a gate!!

So far I’ve found the trickiest thing about fitting in any type of agriculture situation, other than the vocabulary, of course (pregnant pig = SOW, fixed boy cow = STEER, etc.)  is figuring out the damn gates. Whether it’s pipes or slats of wood or chains or heavy plywood or whatzits and whozits, there seems to be an infinite number of simple barn gate mechanisms, and people who grow up in these sorts of environments possess a sixth sense about how to open them.

I always end up climbing the fence when no one is looking, or awkwardly asking for help mid-conversation, only after I’ve fiddled with it without success for 45 seconds. Such blunders make you stick out like a protestant at a Catholic service. You ain’t from around here, are ya? MUST NOT GO FIRST IN OR OUT OF THE BARN!

So I was in! The problem now was: Crap. How to do I get out?

Ah, well. First I’ll mingle with the Jersey cows. Lookit their EYES!

But suddenly I heard a scuffle and someone shouted something that sounded like, “BULL’S OUT!”

And then, out of nowhere, a haunting old timer with a tattered shirt and a large yellow paddle in his hand tells me through the wooden slats in the gate that I need to be on the lookout – because there’s a mean bull that’s busted out and making his way through the maze of pens. Pens that could NOT hold a bull, but could VERY MUCH hold me. Possibly forever. I did not know how to get out. Then the old timer goes tearing off in the other direction. So much for chivalry.

The rest of the story, in my mind, sounds like this.  Every single one of my stories sounds like this, actually.

If you can imagine the visual, I am briskly walking up stairs, down platforms, fiddling with gates, checking manure-stained doors and being denied a retreat.

Only instead of a princess waiting to be rescued from the pixelated dragon, in this story there are three small children napping in the car, waiting for a mother and/or babysitter who will never return, but who instead will be gorged and trampled by a wild, escaped sale barn bull. The bullshit I’d dealt with in journalism suddenly seemed benign as I imagined Molly, Alivia and Eleanor scrappy-tagged and auctioned off to some meat packer because their owner was never located. Admittedly, I started to regret my decision to sneak into the auction an hour before the sale started.

But Jesus took the wheel and I slipped two boards out of one of the makeshift pen latches and found an unlocked door that led to my escape.

I never saw the bull.

I assume we both left intact.

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More proof that I don’t fit in anywhere.

What do you mean this is not a winning image?

Despite the fact that I (ME, the one, the only I!) am the one in this marriage who used to take phone calls from debutants and bourgeoisie,  Seth Teter has requested that I relinquish control of the Six Buckets Farm Facebook page to him. Ugh. PR people! But I guess I’ll let him cling to this small sliver of control he can maintain over our public lives. Thus, I’ll respect his request. So when you’re talking to Six Buckets, be aware that chances are, you’re talking to Seth. He occasionally does talk. I think I heard him once or twice.

So we’re doing this whole Six Buckets Farm thing and we’re selling at the Farmers Market, and in the coming months, we’re offering pork and chicken and eggs and, one day, beef, and DEFINITLY NOT MILK OR CHEESE because that is ILLEGAL and the problem with marketing our products is that I don’t think the milk, meat or eggs sold in the grocery store are evil or poisonous.  This uncomfortable fact might put us out of ‘business’ very fast.

Yesterday at the great pig drop-off, during the ‘chewing the fat’ portion of every livestock sale where the animals are loaded and the chatting begins (my favorite!!!) everyone was standing around taking about the best place to find non-GMO and organic feed for their heritage breed hogs for less than $25 on the hundred. I asked, honestly, what GMO corn would do to my pigs, and the wonderful gentleman selling my sow (really, I do mean wonderful) said GMO corn could make my boar sterile and could prevent my sow from going into heat. It was hot and I wasn’t in the mood to ask follow-ups, so I nodded. Luckily, my kids were squealing so I could go excuse myself and resist the temptation to be a jerk. I’m sure he has done lots of research and has come down on that side. That’s fine. That’s what I did as well, and one day maybe we can both pit our tailored research studies against each other over beer and heritage breed bacon.

But to the casual observer, when you look at live video feed of pregnant sows stretched into the horizon, it appears GMO-fed pigs do not struggle with fertility issues.

I’m sure he would have a rebuttle for me. David? Are you out there?

The point of this story is that I’m running into this a lot. The vast majority of Joel Salatin wannabes like myself have a deep-seeded hatred for conventional farming. I’m not finding much room for people who tolerate these practices, but want to grow their own food anyway. Do they even exist? Or are they all just nodding along, awkwardly straddling the middle?

I wish I had never heard the other side of the argument. It would be so nice to remove this nagging information from my brain so I could fit in. More importantly, I wish I did not know one single conventional farmer. That way I could go on bashing their practices, honestly believing that food in the grocery store is harmful and wrong. And no one would ever accuse me of being brainwashed by my husband. Bonus: I could sell a lot more meat.

But I don’t believe it. I don’t hate CAFOs. I’m sorry. I tried for a brief period in college. It didn’t pan out.

So why don’t I just eat their food? Why do I do what I do?

I want something that I believe to be better.

What does that mean?

I’m still figuring that out. I will be honest and tell you my way isn’t always better. In my experience, conventional and, uh, ‘non-conventional’ food production simply swaps out one problem for another. All we can do is weigh those problems and come down on whatever side we guess is best. I admire EVERYONE who takes the time to weigh the options.

There are a few things that I know so far, and all are subject to change:

Not that building a multi-million-dollar indoor facility is an option, but I want pigs in the dirt. I know they can’t all be raised that way, but mine can. I’m happier, the pig appears to be happier (unless it dies of heat exhaustion, of course) and I think the meat tastes better. (By the way—every farmer should think their meat tastes better, or they should stop selling it.)

I'm pretty sure science would back me up when I say, "This pig is totally giddy."

Same with chickens. I want them growing and living and laying free-range. I understand this means they will get hit by cars, mauled by feral cats, eaten by hawks and occasionally rained on. BONUS: They will also get to dust bathe!

Dairy? I like what we’ve got going here. I’ve been to dairies and the cows seem to be just fine. But I prefer raw milk. I think the good outweighs the risk of the bad. Plus, taste. Taste, people! I’d rather die from eating good food than live a life full of sterile chalk water. I won’t die, but you get my point.

With all these animals, I can’t HELP but think that a diet of bugs and grass and pastured living makes the meat/milk/eggs more nutritious. I can find 6 studies each that ‘prove’ it does and it doesn’t, but, I mean, the food is a different COLOR. And color means something. We were born with eyes that discern color when we are picking out our food. Color has to mean something. Omega-3s or some BS, right??

pastured eggs

You're not going to convince me that dark color doesn't mean something good.

Also, we’re supplementing with GMO grains because they are totally safe. And unless a buyer requests otherwise, we’re letting the butcher preserve the meat with salty nitrates because they are also safe. Sorry, hippies.

I think the most important thing “my way” has to offer is the connection between food producer (i.e., “cow”) and food eater. There is a lot to be gleaned in that relationship. In a life and a death and a meal. And if you eat food from the grocery store, you don’t know the story of the animal. It is hardly an animal at all, but rather, an anonymously packaged slab of protein. To me, that’s cheating. That’s not, as one old hippy said, “eating with the fullest pleasure.” That’s eating to get by, which is, admitedly, crucial. However, we should make a little more room in our lives for the former.

Maybe just like once a week. I know everybody is busy.

And so I’m doing what I’m doing to grab the hand of the eater and the hand (hoof?) of the animal and force them to embrace for a minute. That is not a metaphor. I will make you hug pigs if you come over to my house, omnivoures! You should probably say thank-you. The animals deserve at least that.

I think we were hard-wired to crave this man-beast connection. (Man-beast Connection would be a great band name.) I think this is why more and more people are seeking out information about where their food comes from. I think this is why we grow up feeling a twinge of guilt for buying meat in sytrafoam on those little maxi pads. If you don’t feel that, then God Bless You. You are a lucky man.

However, this is a terrible sales pitch.

Want a better sales pitch?

That hormone-laced, GMO-stuffed antibiotic-dripping slab of conventionally raised poison will kill you and your family, or at least give you cancer. In the meantime, it’s ruining the environment. Now THAT drives sales.

But I don’t believe that. Plus they don’t even use hormones in pigs. Ugh.

Anyway, the fact of the matter is, there is no truth. You can find three research studies that tell you corn sugar is GREAT, and three more that tell you high fructose corn syrup will sneak into your house at night and rape your cats for funsies. Unless you have time to write a thesis on every food matter, at the end of the day you kind of have to go with your feeeeelings. Which is always the worst, most dangerous way to make a decision.

So for now I’m offering what I know to be true: Food from animals you have met. At least on the Internet. Hopefully in real life. Come out and see if you feel comfortable with how the animal is raised. Whisper “thank you” in its ear. And then? Well, buy the dead carcass from me. Or not. Whatever. Stay for dinner. But if you are going to buy, PLEASE get a deep freezer. Seriously, they are like $150 on Craigslist.

We are going to be so rich. I can feel it.

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