May 162016
 

The sheep are getting a snack again.  I have a view from my office window and have been working at home a lot this Spring.  This affords me a clear view down to the sheep pen and

As I write this, a neighbor is visiting with treats. Thank you!

As I write this, a neighbor is visiting with treats. Thank you!

coincidentally a front-row seat to who’s visiting today.

There are Martha and Emily, two neighbors with short-legged, big-personality dogs.  There’s Mary who buys carrots on sale and comes in to distribute whole bags at a time.  There are the teenagers who seem to know every lamb by name and watched some births real-time this year. Lindsay and Sarah even picnicked this Spring on round bales with some friends from around the corner; spreading blankets and eating granola bars on top of the plastic-wrapped marshmallows.  Earlier today I watched some visitors put one of my lamb jackets on their dog and take its picture. I had to look twice—I thought a lamb was out of the fence!

Then there are the people walking their dogs who wave but don’t stop.  The multi-generational family from grandparents to baby who stopped to introduce themselves as new in the neighborhood.  One longtime resident brought chairs so that she and her granddaughter could watch the lambs in comfort.  There are the cars that creep by with faces looking out the window and the shy smiles and waves.  Last weekend we hosted a Girl Scout troop.  The Randolph Police cruise the neighborhood multiple times each day and a little part of me thinks they do it to check on the lambs and not just because it’s their regular sweep schedule.

The sheep have always been a sort of ambassador service for us.  I’m an introverted outgoing person (I promise this IS a thing!) and I’m not good at dropping in or going to parties where I don’t know people.  My family is even less outgoing.  What better way to meet people than talk about the sheep?  Their sweetness, their pushiness, the ability to name them after friends and family and fun inside jokes.  The sheep have created novelty and amusement for many, and a social entry point for us.

A fine picnic spot.

A fine picnic spot.

Now we have a farm under contract.  It’s not a done deal, but signs are pointing in the right direction.  This means that we’ll be moving to a new home later this summer, which is very exciting and hopeful, and a little more bittersweet than I expected it to feel.  Originally we thought we’d move in to this little rental and just be here for six or eight months before buying a new place.  Turns out, life had some other plans for us, and that’s OK.  We’ve met some lovely people and they’ve really helped this neighborhood feel like home.  There’s so much to be grateful for here.

Thank you all.  We’re only moving a mile away so even if it’s not convenient to walk the dog by us every day, hopefully you’ll still come visit from time to time.

And bring some carrots.

Jenn

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Apr 222016
 

Since we are in Poetry Month and Mother’s Day is right around the corner, here’s a poem that I wrote about my mom after visiting her one day last spring.  She doesn’t know that I wrote this.

Mum in her natural element.  She also makes kick ass Elderberry juice.  I can get you in touch with her if you want some.

Mum in her natural element. She also makes kick ass Elderberry juice. I can get you in touch with her if you want some.

Love you, Mum.

–Jenn

 

Spring Afternoon

 

Carefully

She picks her way

Her deliberate pace

Not the result of fragile floral stems

Or wooden cane worn smooth

Under her lined palm,

No.

 

She stops,

Smiles that joyful smile

Radiance bursting through.

Pain is gone,

Shadow is gone,

Sorrow is gone.

Chased away by

Elderberry blossoms,

Ella’s daffodils,

Seven Sisters roses,

Crocuses in the lawn grass,

Japanese plums celebrating Spring’s

Lovely pervasive fragrance

Surrounded by the hum of bees

Industrious with pollination.

 

That pace

Embodies ecstatic celebration of

Tender life in bloom.

Persistent artistry in every

Mahogany bud revealing

Cream-colored petals,

Delicate yellow pistils, the

Elemental beauty.

 

She pauses to breathe it in,

Gloriously brilliant,

Nearly blinding in her

Dreamlike rapture, a

Resounding bloom.

 

JJC 05/10/15

Updated 4/11/16

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Apr 202016
 

Poetry continues.  Not trying to bury the lead, but our aged canine fellow Vaughan recently had a stroke.  Before you read this and freak out (family), he’s OK.  We had a little “is this it?” time,

Bo and Vaughan

Bo (left) and Vaughan, our howling wolves. Believe it or not, being a Samoyed/Lab mix really *does* mean you can howl. Or at least be very talkative.

but he’s recovering well.  And wow, what an amazing dog he has been and continues to be.

–Jenn

 

Fourteen and Counting

 

Twelve years ago

You lost a bet with a truck

Dr. Kenney rebuilt your hip

With a floating socket technique.

Friendly games of tag and flights of stairs

Became slower and smarter,

You held your leg up and, like a tripod, hopped on. 

 

Ten years ago

Cold March and cancer took your mother.

You have her warm brown eyes,

Gentle way with small children and smaller dogs.

Of my Birthday mates, you most channel her

Grace, substance and dignity.

 

Three Octobers ago

Your sister had a heart attack

On the living room floor mid-family relocation.

You grasped our new home as your old,

Sleeping, your head on Chris’ pillow,

Coming out of our bedroom

Blinking like you craved morning coffee.

 

Last summer you decided

Deafness and blindness the perfect excuses,

Overseeing farm chores from the truck seat.

Weekly hay trips now revert you to joyous,

Timeless puppyhood for six whole seconds

Before cozily napping on the bench seat.

 

Three nights ago

With a great stumbling crash

A stroke took your balance and your bark,

But not your wag.

Yesterday you ate hotdogs

Today it was cheese and meatloaf.

You even scaled the truck seat this morning,

Though it was touch-and-go getting out.

 

Twelve years ago I learned

Never bet against a dog who wants to live.

 

JJC 4/11/16

Updated 4/17/16

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Apr 172016
 
The Sugar Makers Song--learn it, spread it, sing it!

The Sugar Makers Song–learn it, spread it, sing it!

Recently, I had the opportunity to read some of my poetry at The Black Krim in Randolph along with a group of other farmer-poets.  So amazing and humbling to hear how other people see some of the things that I see and write about, and how they choose to express it.  Some of the poets clearly write words to be performed aloud (slam!) and some feel perfect to be part of a tea-and-comfy-chair-on-a-rainy-afternoon experience.  Some of my co-poets are nationally recognized and published (in this week’s New Yorker–gasp!), some are musicians (now we know the Vermont Sugar Makers Song, a nearly-lost archived song from the 1930s, which we all sang together), one was recently feted in Seven Days for being a farmer poet for hire.  Backing up the whole experience was the lovely Krim, which was full to bursting with smiling faces enjoying dinner, a cocktail and the ability to support us.

Because I do my best work at the very last minute (I try not to let it be that way, but there it is), I wrote two poems on the day of the reading.  I rewrote some bits from several earlier poems, too.  I don’t know if other people write and rewrite their poems, but I sure do.  No “one and done” for me.  That said, I also tried working away at a poem I’ve been developing for two weeks about a ewe I had to euthanize and it just wasn’t coming together.  Maybe that will become a prose story for another time.

To finish out Poetry Month, I’m going to share some of the poems written for this year–Enjoy!

–Jenn

 

"Waiting" was written about 720, who gave birth to twins less than 24 hours later. So timely.

“Waiting” was written about 720, who gave birth to twins less than 24 hours later. So timely.

Waiting

 

Thousand-mile stare

She shifts from hoof to hoof,

Audibly creaking,

Eruptively she groans

Settling her bulk

In a shallow trench

Dug by toes and impatience.

 

Her belly’s mysterious contents feel like

Christmas, Birthday, Halloween, presents

Entwined together with legs and tails

Prepared to suck and leap and doze in piles of

Newborn fur and milk drunkenness.

 

Today

She stands

She leans

She stares

She ruminates

She waddles

I scratch her chin

Her pregnant pause.

 

JJC 4/11/16

Updated 4/17/16

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Feb 242016
 
Relaxing on the lawn at the end of a successful grazing season.

Ewes and ewe lambs relaxing on the lawn at the end of a successful grazing season.

Somehow we turned around and now it’s February, 2016.  For those keeping track (and wondering what the heck we’ve been doing), we’ve been busy. Seriously, it’s looked a lot like this (and no, this is not our farm).

Since last June we’ve written our business plan twice, had a farm under contract then terminated it, applied for a land trust farm opportunity, secured a whole host of support letters, did some leased-land grazing, were featured on Vermont Public Radio, sold lamb and barbecue, and waited.  In late January, we heard that the land trust option wasn’t going to work out and several new farm choices arrived within the week.

The experience of the last ten months (starting with the Slow Money event in April) has been revealing.  We both feel that the Universe is in our corner when it comes to bringing us what we want, and its been presenting us with real variety to evaluate.  Back in 2012 we looked at a place with a great house and little land; then we progressed to enough land with an unfinished house; a terrific barn and land with a workable house but an unworkable purchase price; and a delightful turn-key operation with a fantastic grazing system already in place.

Our son has rolled his eyes at us a bit (“another farm?“), but looking back I can say that I’m glad we’ve had these experiences.  We want a finished house.  We don’t require a fabulous barn or extensive infrastructure.  We want to live near town, but feel rural.  Deep down, I want to develop my own grazing system and document the transition from fallow land to productive land. It must be affordable. These experiences have separated out the chaff.

Earlier in the process, I admit that I fell in love a lot.  Some portion of love needs to be there in order to bring what you want to you, but I mean that I really fell in love.  One farm in particular was hard to walk away from; I think I’ll always have a little ache (maybe until that ache is filled with THE farm) for that one.  My brain and my heart have now merged into what I think of as a positive pragmatism.

Today, I feel like I’m progressing more on faith that it’s going to work out.  Despite the dramatic eye rolling, it feels like we get closer and closer.  People are in our corner rooting us on.  The support letters written last fall were humbling and bring me close to tears when I think about them (thank you again, dear supporters in Vermont agriculture).  This is a little less love and a lot more tingle.  It’s coming.  Maybe it’s here.  I hope so.

No matter where we are and what happens, the sheep are due to start lambing in April.  I’m looking forward to that, wherever we are.

–Jenn

 

 

 

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Jun 152015
 

Have you  ever written a business plan?

Making friends with Excel is an essential part of the planning process.

Making friends with Excel is an essential part of the planning process.

Currently, I am working on the third one of my career.  The first was for my undergraduate class in Ecological Entrepreneurship.  It was fun; a plan for an edible landscaping business called The IncrEdible Yard (I dare you to use that name!).  I knew nothing about edible landscaping, mostly it was a cool exercise to collect surveys at the Vermont Garden & Flower Show, make charts, and think about the neat idea.  It wasn’t real.  Even now, I know just enough about gardening to keep tomatoes and peppers alive but not necessarily bear fruit.

The second plan was in 2005.  I took a 16-week course (now it’s 10 weeks) called Tilling the Soil of Opportunity, a business planning course specifically for agricultural businesses. That was when I first joined UVM Extension, but I took the class as a farmer because I felt that I was ready to take my farming to a new level.  I had been playing around with chickens, turkeys and pigs for about six years.  I wanted a barn, I wanted recognition.  I wanted respect as a farmer.  I did the numbers, even taking a whole week off from work to work through spreadsheets.

And the numbers said, “Don’t quit your day job“.  Actually they said, “This is a totally foolish thing, you should go back to school and make more money“. So I did.  I spent five years working on my Master’s degree part time so that I could make more money.  Along the way, I went from a person with textbook experience in Animal Science class to a person who has learned from hundreds of farms doing what I want to do.  I went from a person who loved the idea of rotational grazing to a person who now knows enough to teach it.  I realized that the old farm-ette location would never be satisfying to realize the true working farm dream.  I learned what I do, and do not, want to do.  I learned a lot about myself.

Most amazing in this transformation has been what Chris and I want together.  For a long time, there was tension between barbecue and farm; “my” thing and “his” thing, and it was almost a competition between us.  Maybe it was the transition out of the old house, maybe it’s just been this process of letting go and finding ourselves in an open future…but something between us has evolved.  Like any evolutionary process, we are something new.  Now the barbecue and the farm are not competitors, but complementary aspects of the success of our new life. We each lead enterprises of the new life, but they support each other like we do.

Here I am, writing a business plan for the next twenty years of our life.  It’s real, and it’s us.  It’s totally different than the last plan, and I can’t think of a better place to put our love, energy, enthusiasm, creativity, and faith.

Thanks for reading,

Jenn

 

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Jun 092015
 

newchapter

Yesterday, we submitted our paperwork to the funding sources we’ll be depending on to help us buy the farm we want.  I am tingling all over with the thought of it.  My emotions are running deep, with what is probably 60% excitement that we’re moving forward, and 40% fear of what we’re getting ourselves into.

Going to work is challenging.  All I can think of is our future farm, which makes it hard to concentrate on the daily tasks and projects I’m in charge of.  My mind periodically tries to shoot up a wave of worry that this might not happen, but I know it will.  This place is THE place.  I can feel it in my bones.  I can feel it in the earth when I’m there.  I can hear it in the farmhouse when I walk through it.  This farm wants us and we want it.

The property we want is not on the market yet, but the seller needs us to make a move soon or it will have to get listed.  Needless to say, we would love to be able to push this rock up the hill faster.  For now, we need to communicate with all parties and have faith that the numbers will line up and that by some time later this summer we’ll be sitting on the porch of our new farm house flush with our dreams of the future.  This farm will be the next chapter in the story of Chris & Jenn.  And it will be awesome.  So, wish us luck, my friends.  If you pray, put us in your prayers.  We’ll take whatever good mojo you’re willing to give us.

I’m still so excited I can barely keep my thoughts straight.   I should probably lay off the caffeine.

Thanks for reading,

Chris

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May 202015
 
No, not this Risk.  Photo Source:  The internet.  Please don't sue me.

No, not this Risk. Photo Source: The internet. Please don’t sue me.

Jenn and I are finally trying to buy a farm, which has gotten me thinking quite a bit about risk (no, not the Risk pictured above). Before we decided that we wanted to own and operate a farm, my perspective on risk related to property was limited to a modest mortgage for a house and some land. Now, as we find ourselves looking at a property that would suit our vision for the future, I realize that buying a farm is quite a different from buying a house. Land is expensive in Vermont. And if, as we are, you are seeking open land for grazing livestock, it’s even more expensive. Add to that mix a house that is livable and necessary outbuildings such as a barn, and you’ve practically doubled the cost of that “modest mortgage.” Buying a farm means taking a risk.

At age 44, I figure I’m looking at twenty more years of work before I want to retire. Do I want to take on a big debt and a second job? Or would it make more sense just to ride out the next twenty doing what I do and clock out when I reach 62? We’d pay off our current debts and retire. Low risk, nice and safe.  I’ve realized through this soul searching that every pivotal or significant thing I’ve ever done that has made my life better, has been risky. I’m not talking about “drive fast and take chances” risky, I’m talking about big picture risk.

Jenn and I married when we were 20 years old, which was a pretty risky move. I know plenty of people who married young and watched their marriages fall apart because of it. 2016 will mark our 25th wedding anniversary! At 27, we decided to have a child (about is big a risk as any person can take). He’s healthy and (for a teenager) pretty happy. In my 30’s I quit my low-paying customer service job and went to grad school in hopes of finding a better job – a massive financial risk for us. Going back to school allowed me to find good work in a field I’ve now been in for the past thirteen years. I don’t regret a single one of these decisions. In all cases, our decision to take risks paid off. I believe that risk, when well considered and practical, is worth it.

My philosophy on life has long been rooted in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” It is the final stanza that I can most easily apply to my past, present and future:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

The most rewarding parts of my life have involved risk, and though I’m mid-way to retirement, I’ve realized that I want to continue to do more and expand my horizons over the next twenty years – I want to continue to follow the road not taken. So we stand on the edge of taking a big leap into a large property and a new second career that will require a lot of energy. We’re working every angle we can to find funding to make this happen, to make sure it will be sustainable for us, but in the end – it’s still a risk. And I believe with every ounce of my being that it is the right choice. Wish us all luck, my friends. We’re getting ready to leap!

Thanks for reading,

Chris

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May 132015
 

I arrived Friday morning a few minutes late.  I promised to be there at 7 am for the first deliveries, but I hit traffic and the trailers were lined up.  The first one had already been emptied and that beef producer was staying around to help unload some of the cattle coming behind.

An annual rite of spring, the spring beef sale was underway.  I look forward to it every year and mark the date on my calendar months ahead.  OK, maybe it’s not that exciting to people who work with beef cattle every day, but I don’t, and it’s been one of my greatest regular farm-related learning experiences in the past ten years.

2015-05-08 09.11.31

What breed am I? Great question.

The sale is nearly all volunteers, with a few paid Expo staff helping to set up and tear down the cattle chute, State animal health folks evaluating –um, animal health–  and a USDA grader deciding which animals would go to which pens.  We receive over 100 animals, usually from 20+ different farms.  Some are pure beef breeds like Angus or Hereford.  Some are dairy crosses like the group of Holstein-Park White cattle from this sale.  That group also had some Park White-Hereford crosses, and it was fun to guess which was which by their body types and their brown (vs. black) ears.  Others are completely mixed crosses and the game is to figure out what they actually are (breedwise).

I’ve learned a lot about handling cattle and recognizing their movements.  I can tell which ones get a wild eye and whether we should move them to an inner pen (harder to escape).  I’ve learned to watch their ears and listen to their breathing.  This is all similar to other livestock like sheep and horses, of course, but these are animals that I’ve only met five minutes ago.  And they are big. The key to keeping things calm is to anticipate their moods, because when an animal that big wants to go somewhere, they usually do.

Cattle pens.

Cattle pens.

I’ve learned a lot about how to sort single cattle from pens and how to get groups to move.  I’ve gotten the chance to practice testing that balance point on the shoulder to make them change direction, without a cattle cane or a rattle or a prod.  They’ll go…no need to stress them…but sometimes that takes learning what will make them go, and each individual can be different.  I’ve also learned when to step up on the fence rail and just let them go where they’re going.

As we work, the safety and comfort of each animal (and person) is the top priority wherever possible.  For this day, it was crazy hot and we ended up dedicating a person with a hose to each aisle of pens, just filling water tubs.  We hosed down the outside of the cows to help them stay cooler.  We kept checking with each other to make sure the humans had water, too.

Hosing down the cattle to help them keep cool.

Hosing down the cattle to help them keep cool.

That said, sometimes a cow comes in wild. Maybe she wasn’t wild at home, but the combination of new, open space, new smells, trailer ride, different humans, or some variation, causes her to lose it.  Several years ago, we had a heifer whose eyes showed nothing but whites and we couldn’t get her to stay inside a pen.  She came off the truck like that (the owner swore she was quiet as a mouse at home) and we directed her into a pen with other cows to settle down.  She crawled under the metal pen (more than once), dragging a whole series of connected panels with her and upsetting nearby groups.  Sometimes there’s a point where they can’t be reasoned with.  Temple Grandin describes this state as panic, and is often caused by separation anxiety.  In the case of this heifer, we put her back on a trailer where she calmed down in the relative quiet and dark.  We had done nothing to [knowingly] contribute to that–it was just a perfect storm for her.

Mmm.  Cool, cool water.

Mmm. Cool, cool water.

On this morning, it didn’t take long; within about half an hour we’d handled the backed-up trailers.  Cattle in their farm groups were settling in to dedicated pens. The unloading crew chatted and waited for the next delivery.  We discussed the pros and cons of different breeds, feed choices, whether prices would be up or down this year.  We stopped to check out the handling chute and see whether they were ready for another bunch to weigh and tag.  A steer got himself turned around in the chute and they had to open the side door to let him out, but then the line moved along again.

No wildness this year, and that was just fine by us.  Looking forward to next spring already.

Jenn

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May 052015
 

This will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows Jenn and I, but we have a lot of cookbooks. Not a crazy “I need a curator for all of my books” amount, but a lot. And, even less of a surprise, I have a lot of cookbooks about grilling and barbecue.

One of the plans for my part of this blog is to do periodic cookbook reviews. To get this started, I thought that instead of reviewing the latest and greatest cookbook, I would offer up a review of the cookbook that opened the door and took me into the amazing world of cooking with fire: The Thrill of the Grill (TTOTG).

The Thrill of the Grill, by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby.

The Thrill of the Grill, by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby.

My grilling bible was written in 1990 by Chef Chris Schlesinger and writer John Willoughby, five years after Schlesinger opened the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, MA.  The East Coast Grill was one of the first restaurants to successfully introduce New England city folk to the joys of barbecue. From his “custom-designed open-pit wood-fired grill” he tested a brand of “culinary adventurousness” that set The Thrill of the Grill apart from other cookbooks.

For a beginner like I was when I first read the book, The Thrill of the Grill was one of the first books to tackle grilling in a way that seemed approachable and exciting. In it’s opening chapter, Schlesinger and Willoughby put the reader at ease with a chapter entitled “grills just want to have fun.” Their tone throughout the book feels like an invitation to sit down with them by a smoker and enjoy a nice cold beer in the shade. The opening chapter included what is commonplace in every barbecue and grilling cookbook I own – an simple overview of equipment, fuel, tools and how to work your fire. Laura Hartman Maestro’s line drawings (used to illustrate much of the book) have a gentle simplicity which again, makes the reader feel at home. Coupled with photographer Vincent Lee’s stunning photography, the book is a sight to see.

In the end, it comes down to the recipes – the meat of the matter–so to speak. TTOTG’s recipes cover the geographical map. Much of the book is a tale of where Chef Schlesinger has been. Raised in the south (Virginia), he presents dishes like North Carolina Pulled pork and Outdoor Pork Baby Back Ribs. He includes classics from his own table like Grandma Wetzler’s Baked Beans. In the 1970’s, Chris spent time in Barbados, immersing himself in the culture and the food. From those experiences he brings flavors and ingredients of the Caribbean to his restaurant, and eventually into the cookbook. Tastes like Grilled Shrimp with Pineapple and Ancho Chile Salsa and Tortillas, Tropical Gazpacho (which is unbelievably good) and one of my personal favorites – West Indies Spiced Chicken- weave the reader through Chris Schlesinger’s culinary history. The blending of traditional grilling and barbecue techniques with Southern and Caribbean flavors is a perfect concoction.

I remember going to the East Coast Grill while I was living with my father in Cambridge, MA during high school. I vaguely remember that I enjoyed the food, but it wasn’t until Dad treated me to his rendition of the aforementioned West Indies Spiced Chicken with Grilled Bananas (Grilled fruit? Who did that?) that my mind was truly opened. Never had I had anything like that. The chicken rubbed with the likes of curry, cumin, allspice and cayenne was powerful and spicy, the banana, basted in butter and molasses playing the perfect sweet, soothing counterpoint.

The popularity of grilling and barbecue has led to a flood of cookbooks seeking to teach you the techniques of cooking with fire. Happily, a number of them are good, some are even great. But, The Thrill of the Grill remains one of the most culinarily sophisticated and creative cookbooks I have ever read, rivaled only by recent releases from Pitmaster Chris Hart and Chef Andy Husbands (Wicked Good Barbecue and Wicked Good Burgers) who, unsurprisingly, worked with Schlesinger back in heyday of the East Coast Grill. If I had to recommend a cookbook that would provide you with adventure and excitement as you navigate your grill, I would suggest you look no further than the Holy Grail of my grilling cookbook collection – The Thrill of the Grill.

Thanks for reading,

Chris

My well-loved copy of the Thrill of the Grill.

My well-loved copy of the Thrill of the Grill.

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