Recently in livestock
I am, as much as I hate to admit it, a fairly negative person. A "poo-pooer", if you will. Much of my life up until the past few years felt monochromatic, pointless at times and generally unfulfilling. Working a 9-5 job, spending what little money I had on things that I felt no connection to and family troubles kept me adequately distracted from the positive aspects of my life.
As an insecure person, I felt I had more to say if I had something negative to share. Being positive in social situations is boring, right? I could use my distaste for something as an opportunity to be snarky and amusing at bars. The scary thing is, it kind of works. Folks chuckle at your commentary and you keep it up to keep the accolades a-comin', In time, that sort of attitude starts to chisel away at you. Negativity is a tough habit to break. You begin to find comfort in those rough words. They dismiss the things you don't understand, the things you are fearful of, the things you simply do not like. Talking trash makes easy work of existing because you've given yourself a way to avoid learning to navigate through things that are challenging. Negativity is a coward's warm blanket. One that, if you are not careful, can smother you.
It never occurred to me that I was behaving cowardly. In social situations, I'd blurt out the first thing that came to mind, usually something unpleasant, with no filter on. It was alienating, for sure. I felt myself floating adrift from my friends and loved ones and that only made matters worse. About 8 years ago, I hit a wall. I had allowed my poor frame of mind to quite literally take over my life and it wrecked my relationships with a couple of folks that meant a lot to me at the time. Ashamed, but too stubborn to try and fix myself, I ran away to the city to start anew.
New York City taught me something of value that I am only now just realizing. Folks there don't have time for things that make them feed bad, that includes people. You don't make or keep friends for long there when you've got a bad attitude. I learned that focusing energy on things that made you feel good actually had the power to make you better in attitude, and eventually in spirit too. I'm thankful for the people there for showing me no quarter where matters of shit-talking and negativity are concerned. We should all aspire to be less tolerant of bad attitudes.
Things are a little different now that I'm farming. I wake up every day and venture to the outbuildings to let out the critters, attend to their needs and milk the goats. There's not a day that has gone by when I don't laugh or smile big or well up with love during that process of caring for our livestock. Watching the dogs play mirror through the paddock fence, or that first 30 seconds after I open the door to the coop and all 80 of our chickens flow out of the door like some sort of spastic, noisy river. It gets me right in the heart. It's so undeniably good and I feel the most crystalline gratitude in those moments. I find myself looking for them everywhere and as often as I can.
I won't lie to you, though. I still catch myself focusing on the downside to everything on a daily basis. It's an ongoing battle. What helps is remembering how good I've got it. We can feed all of the creatures under our care, pay for vet bills, and feed ourselves too for that matter. I make a very modest living doing what I love. I can't afford to buy a new car or new gadgets every year like modern folks are accustomed to, but I do not find myself wanting and that is something to be very grateful for. I have a man who loves me and is willing to take personal risks to be with me. There are people in the world who trust me with things that are precious to them, like their land and their home and their memories. None of these things are small or to be taken lightly. Is there anything more humbling than the gift of other people's faith in you?
It's important to keep reminding yourself of all of the good surrounding you from time-to-time. It's not always an easy task but the alternative will eat away at the soul. It's something I can attest to personally. If you don't make it a point to seek out those things that make you feel big inside you might just find yourself wishing at the end of your time that you had appreciated all the beauty in your life when you had the chance.
So what is that thing that makes you feel gratitude? Think on it and share if you would like. But most importantly, think on it.
It's going to be over 80 degrees for the next few days here on the New Jersey farm. The warm temps are much needed, after several weeks of near-freezing nights have slowed our progress in the garden.
Here's some photos from the Seven Arrows this week. As you can see, the late spring hasn't impeded the chickens boom in egg production. Things in that regard are moving quite smoothly. I'll post soon about our progress. It's been hard to sit down at the computer to write lately.
Happy Spring, everyone!
A few months back, our neighbor Tim gave us this really great old egg incubator that he had no use for. We thought at some point that we'd give hatching some eggs a try. Well, today is that day. We've had some unexpected losses this winter and so we're going to need to raise a couple more birds to make up for it. Our roosters have been busy making nice with our hens so there is a good chance that most of these eggs have been fertilized.
Normally, we'd separate one of our broody hens to set upon a clutch of eggs but right now it's all hens on deck for our flock. We cannot spare any laying hen's abilities for now, but we feel that letting Mama Nature take care of things is always preferable to human intervention.
Our plan is to not buy chicks or pullets ever again. We've had such a headache with our most recent additions to the flock not being hardy and dying or having deformities that could have been avoided with better management that we just feel like we could do a better job of it here. Ordering chicks feels kind of bad for us because we end up ordering only females and who knows what happens to the male chicks. If we raise chicks at home from our own stock, we can raise a few cockerels for the table for nearly nothing.
We'll keep you guys posted on the process! Interested in hatching your own eggs? The Backyard Chickens forum has a great tutorial on how to do it!
Every day our farm feels more farm-like. We make little changes here and there and after a few weeks of little tweaks we get to enjoy notable progress as we move towards our first growing season here in New Jersey. I've found it very hard to muster the energy to broadcast the daily goings on here at the farm. The truth is, the farm takes up so much of my headspace and time that when I'm not required to think about it, I try to give myself a break. The past year has me spent and I was on the verge of having nothing left to give. Not to my friends, not to my business partners and not to my readers.
I've spent some time talking to Summer, the woman who operates the yoga retreat on the property, about my problem. I mostly felt compelled to share with her my fears about the condition I've allowedmy body to get into. A combination of eating indulgently, stressing, overwork, coffee addiction and too serious a love of good beer had me feeling depleted and ill. Summer recommended I spend a week detoxing, which I did. No coffee, no alcohol, no meat or wheat, no spicy or fatty foods, no sugar. Two days in and I felt noticeably different in body and mind. I became embarrassed that I had abused myself to that degree for so long. I've begun taking private yoga lessons with her a couple times a week to work out the rest of the kinks.
After a few days of this regiment, I had much more energy and clarity. With that burst of vitality I ventured outside to tackle some of the work that needs doing before Spring arrives. It's so close. The days have been warm enough to go jacketless, we've even been able to picnic. I've been prepping garden beds with Summer and Lulha, starting seedlings in the hoop house with Neil and Michael, and dreaming of what it will all look like once the seeds have germinated and the crispy brown and grey of winter has been gently brushed away by spring's bloom. This is the time of year when we all yearn for just a touch of warm sun on our faces. I feel the burden of my heavy clothes intensify on the cusp of spring. The cold night temperatures somehow feel like an insult to all of us warm blooded creatures. Fortunately, we've got only a few more weeks to endure.
I'm taking the last of this mellow time to get back on track. It's so hard to do good work when your body is fighting against you most of the time. A farmer is only as good as their condition, so if I wan't to be worth a damn out there in that field (I do!) I need do the work on myself first.
Finally, the gals are back to work! Our hens can pay their own damn rent for once! We're up to 2 dozen a day which is about half of what capacity will be once our CSA pick-up in June! We're incredibly relieved to be able to stop funneling money into these voracious little eater's beaks!
Blogging has felt like a kind of drudgery for the past few weeks. For me it's felt forced and contrived and I attribute it mostly to the fact that we're kind of stuck in that in-between place that most farmers and gardeners find themselves in this time of year. We've had a few weeks of rest and contemplation about the next growing season and we know Spring is just around the corner. We've got work to do soon and we want to do it, not talk or blog about it. We want the warm sun on our faces and damo soil under out fingernails.
It's frustrating at times because we want to continue sharing everything that's happening here, but the reality of being a farmer/blogger is becoming clear. At some point you have to choose one or the other to focus most of your attention on.
Some things will be changing around here. There are plenty of blogs out there with daily content being added and we aspire to be that sort of prolific blog as well, but since this farm has become our first priority, that will be challenging and not always possible. I personally have had to rethink my strategy because I cannot find myself behind a computer for the length of time I am accustomed to. Lives are literally at stake daily. We need to be present mentally and physically, if only to provide damage control.
For farm information, you'll want to look to our posts at Seven Arrows East. The content will likely contain useful information alongside personal anecdotes. We're also contributing to The Anchor, an Asbury Park based culture blog. We're contemplating what to do with Brooklyn Homesteader. We're ready to move on, so now we've got the complicated task of figuring out what to do with it. We cannot depend on other people to post content with regularity. So, a name change is on the horizon and with it a slight shift in focus. More on that soon.
So are you guys ready for Spring or what? Renewal and verdure are on the horizon, y'all!
I've heard it on good authority that when training Maremmas, a wise human should anticipate two "exuberant" phases in the livestock guardian's developmemt. One takes place at around 7-8 months and what follows is a bit is a lull in the perpetual chasing and chewing that these young dogs can inflict on their charges. Many farmers new to Livestock Guardian Dogs (or LGDs) expect that the pups can be trusted to do their job now with little supervision. We we're cautiously optimistic around that we could leave them for extended periods of time with little to no trouble. We had been lucky in that the first wave of puppy-like playfulness was only a nuisance and never resulted in injuries to the livestock.
That was, until this week when our gals Stevie and Peach reached the age at which their second exuberant phase tends to hit. They are yearlings now, each weighing in at 70 lbs each. They still near the large paws of dogs that still have not grown to their full size. Boy, are they ever making it known that they think they are large and in charge!
Both dogs have been having a challenging time controlling their chase impulses. Peach, who lives with the goats, is making sure to allot ample time to run circles around the goats, nibbling at their ankles until either Hershey's, our only horned goat, gives her a stern head-butt to the grill or I catch her in the act. Busted, I belt at her a guttural "Hey, NO BITING" in the deepest growl I can muster, bringing the rabble-rousing to a quick halt. To her credit, at least she listens to commands. She's now the easier of the two to keep in control. A surprising development to be sure. I always thought Peach was the problem child. A big goon. That's not the case anymore. She has gentled a bit, and shows signs that she is always listening and processing information.
Stevie, the more socialized of the two, who is alone with the runner ducks and chickens, has developed some undesirable chase behavior. I think it is a result of the introduction of 30 young pullets to the flock last week. We've had them sequestered from the big girl hens, in a room screened off with chicken wire. Stevie has managed to squeeze through a gap in the screen and has mauled several of the birds, causing some pretty cringe worthy injuries. We've lost only one bird, but all of the others are on the mend and it appears that they'll make a full recovery.
This hasn't stopped Stevie from picking up the ducks by the neck and trying to carry them off, never actually harming them but scaring them half to death. I've had to give the roughest of the correction to her, flipping her over on the ground by the scruff of her neck, pinning her down, getting into her face and fiercely growling "NO". If I were an older, trained Livestock Guardian left to teach her the ropes, she'd surely receive worse treatment. In this situation I have to behave like a beast, one that she finds intimidating, but still manages to love and respect. I hate being rough with her but I couldn't stand it if we failed at her training and she couldn't work with livestock. We have no place for her if she can't work. It's what she was born to do. I'm not sure how she'd adapt to being a house dog.
I'm getting ahead of myself, here. Failure is not an option. This dog will stop chasing and she will become a trustworthy livestock guardian. I have faith in her.
Once I pulled back from the recumbent dog and put all of the molested poultry back where they would be safe, I returned to where Stevie remained sitting and waiting. I gave her a warm pat on the head. I knelt down and wrapped my arms around her neck and told her "I forgive you. Please be good." She nuzzled her fuzzy head into my open coat and all was well again. This is the Stevie that we want around. A gentle giant.
The gap in the door has since been sealed tight. I go out to work with the girls for an extra half hour a day, practicing commands. They get extra rations of food just in case winter hunger is what's causing them to chase with such intent. We just have to work through this phase and hope that in the next couple of months the little fires in those bellies simmer down and things become more harmonious in our critter kingdom.
Days like these bring the cuddly beast out in us all.
Enjoy this beautiful, wacky weather!
Never before has the fact been clear to me that every critter, human or animal, needs to either fulfill or get a sense of it's purpose in order to be contented. Our dogs, who each day endear themselves more to us, have been teaching us lessons in purpose. Stevie and Peach are both young working dogs, just nearing a year of age. They are a breed called Cane da Pastore Maremmano Abruzzese, or Maremmas as they are called here in the states. If you've never encountered one of these fine animals (you probably haven't, they are pretty rare.) you understand what I mean when I talk about an animal's purpose shaping it's identity and quality of life. Maremmas are born with an natural inclination to protect whatever living thing they consider part of the pack. They spend all of their time with the animals they are meant to defend, and as a result, when they become separated from them, they can become depressed or anxious.
I'd learned this in theory by reading books on Livestock Guardians and perusing Jackie Church's website for tidbits of advice in regards to training our young pups. I've actually witnessed the phenomenon of livestock withdrawal first hand this week after both of our gals got spayed.
After their surgery, we thought it best to keep them indoors for a couple of days to ensure they didn't pick at their stitches. During that time, we thought the dogs would be overjoyed to be inside with us, sleeping on blankets in the warmth of the house. But instead the dogs were very fidgety and quite depressed. We'd take them for walks to visit their charges during the day and no sooner than they caught a glimpse of the outbuildings, they'd begin pulling with all of their weight, tails whipping and eyes shining. They missed their work. It became very clear to me that they were actually happier outside in the cold doing their job rather than inside, bored but cozy.
I can relate to this. I was comfortable at my old job. I had plenty of money and never really had to struggle to thrive, but I felt I had no purpose. What I was doing didn't quite fit who I was. I was like a Maremma on the bedroom floor. Idle and out of place. It's been two years now that I've been on my own, making my way on my terms. 6 months now that I've been on this farm, doing work that makes me feel like I belong. I'm often scared, wondering how I'll be able to continue to afford feed and a roof over our heads... I barely can. But I'm happy. Never more so. I've found my Meg-shaped place in the world.
With that in mind, what sort of work makes you feel like you've found your place?