Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas, 2007

Christmas day. It’s nearly noon and it’s been a good morning. Santa dropped by sometime after 3AM (!) and brought especially fun spy gear for Dylan this year. That Santa certainly has our son’s number – walkie-talkie wrist watches and eye-link communicators and even a special briefcase with a secret compartment and shooting darts.

But now the men have retreated into the man cave, each claiming a screen for himself – Dylan is trying out his HP Order of the Phoenix computer game (courtesy of Elise and Robert) and Mark is beginning what will surely turn into a months-long marathon of Kung Fu watching (courtesy of Nana).

Jessie is working on the lamb bones Santa brought him (a request via Dylan) out in the driveway and the hens are enjoying their Christmas gift of total free range. I think the cats are a little miffed overall by their recognition that their morning was entirely stocking-free.

And, in direct violation of my demand for no gifts, my family instead showered me with wonderful kitchen-related items and even new Keens! I’ve decided a no-gift policy is definitely the most rewarding strategy. ;-)

But, it’s not just been a good morning. Perhaps the greatest gift is that of a very good year. 2007 has been a year of quiet hard work and settling in. As chronicled erratically herein, we started the year out with a fresh batch of fragile new chicks, took a European vacation of a lifetime and saw our dear Nadia get married, and finished up the calendar by beginning to realize our dream of a viable farm enterprise. These same chickens, almost a year old now and fat and beautiful under their roosterless lifestyle, now produce the most gorgeous eggs imaginable. A dozen or more a day with ready buyers all around us, scooping them up at the driveway’s end and leaving sometimes more money than requested.

I see now that laying hens are truly the backbone of any small farm. They form the foundation that allows you to build and experiment. They need little, are joyous to watch, and produce for you a product that nearly everyone not only wants but covets. I read just yesterday that eggs contain all the essential nutrients needed for our survival save Vitamin C. That is truly amazing. They are little miracles, these girls, and I am grateful for and to them. I feed them the very best food I can and I try to keep them happy. Other than that, they do the rest.

So, as the hens begin to pay not only their own way but part of the sheep’s way, we can begin to plan and focus on other aspects of what Stop Sign Farm might grow up to be. It means our mistake of underworming the new lambs is not as devastating as it otherwise might be, that we can afford to keep our meat around for another few months while we get them healthy again and not gnaw our knuckles to bloody nubs about the cost of hay.

Probably the most important epiphany, farm-wise, has come about slowly and mostly recently. Contrary to our impressions at the very outset, it is clear that it is animal product, meat and eggs, that people here are most interested in. Selling the beautiful fleece has been an absolute thorn in my side, but I could sell 10 lambs worth of meat today if I had it. Everyone wants to buy hand-raised lamb and farm-fresh rainbow eggs. People I would have pegged as pseudo vegetarians practically rush for their checkbooks the minute I start talking about getting near slaughter time. It’s very interesting. I think there are more people like me than I realized – who want to eat meat, just good healthy meat, raised and killed humanely so that we’re not just the last stop on a factory conveyer belt spitting out death.

As 2007 draws to a close, however, my father’s health is at an all-time low. He lies in St. Michael’s hospital 7 days after his triple by-pass and valve replacement surgery. It’s been up and down, but today was awful, with his lungs having to be aspirated of the fluid that’s built up and his thoughts turning to giving up. This had been my secret fear – much like my mom, my dad has little experience “being sick” and I was worried he wouldn’t work through it well. I hope we wake up tomorrow w/both my parents still on this earth.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

I think we're official

Sept 30

Today is the last day of September and the first day of Stop Sign Farms’ official life, having turned our first dollar from strangers, selling the fruits of our labor, or, more accurately, the fruits of our lovely ladies’ labor. A chair, a cooler, a hand-made sign, and an umbrella were our “farm stand” and three unknown entities, most certainly neighbors, put money in the jar and took a ½ dozen eggs out.

It feels good somehow.

Today I also waded ankle-deep into canning, a process I have always regarded as magical and mystical and frankly dangerous. I’ve admired others who can but felt intimidated and overwhelmed by the process. But after hearing friends discuss it and reading Kingsolver’s spectacular “locivore” book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I decided to dip my toe in by beginning with the most idiot-proof substance: tomatoes. Or, actually, tomato sauce. Tomatoes are so acidic, it’s tough to keel over from your mistakes, so this seemed a logical place to begin. The jars cooling on my kitchen counter keep popping, so I think we can claim success.

It’s easy to forget, but we’ve come a long way in the 18 months since we plucked 3 young hens generously shared with me by my friend Shelley down into a chicken wire concoction surrounding a Freecycle dog house. Those girls won my heart in about 8.2 seconds and I was hooked. The vineyard would have to wait: Here comes livestock.

Fast forward a year and a half. We’ve scored a real coop on same Freecycle, having to cut it apart and reassemble it, with improvements, to transport it (very nearly necessitating divorce in our household). We’ve built a real chicken run, my mom and our housesitter adding the netting “roof” while we were away. We spent a backbreaking summer building a sheep fence, getting 6 sheep, managing to complete their lean-to in a sleet storm, already minutes into what passes for winter here. We acquired 2 more sheep, AGAIN with the Freecycle!, and went on to move fairly painlessly (for us) through the lambing season with the crisis-less birth of seven babies. About February we’d lost hope that our ram was just interested in snuggling when we finally, joyfully caught him the act, raising our hopes that new life might actually grace our property. And indeed it did, coming in fits and starts and with very little help from us. A first season passed with no vets and no deaths. A good start.

Meanwhile, we jumped on the day-old chick bandwagon and had a downstairs shower full of peeps as the winter rains thrashed our windows. For a very, very long month already chronicled here, these fluffballs lived in a giant cardboard box in our shower, in our 6X7 bathroom, in our 1500 SF house until it felt to me as if everything within a 20-foot radius of that box was covered in a fine dust of chick manure. We grieved for the losses, caused by their unusually-cold flight during an Iowa snow storm, and watched them sprout feathers and personalities. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any more, bought some chain and a hook, and hung the heat lamp in the new and improved coop. A new cardboard box, with low sides and a nerve-tweakingly low heat lamp, and the chicks were officially farm animals.

We lovingly recruited 2 friends from Seattle to help keep our sheep healthy on a quarterly basis. They swear they relish a day on the farm with their kids, 7 and 5, and we almost want to kiss their sheep poop-encrusted boots for the day of sheep wrangling that results in trimmed hooves, vaccinations, and worming. After we declare the ruminants good for another three months, we cook together and enjoy the rest of the day while our kids run wild in the joy of open space and a forest to call their own.

And now Thanksgiving dinner in the form of turkeys purchased from our local feed/friend guy lurks in the chicken coop. They wouldn’t so much lurk as lounge except that minutes after being set free in the run, one of the two pushed past us and out the gate to demonstrate their impressive flying skills – sure to wow anyone accustomed to mere chicken abilities – unfolding condor-like wings and soaring to a nearby Madrona…only to come up short on the landing part of the flying equation and plummet straight down to break a leg. Thus, our two turkeys pass their days inside, our injured but coping hen kept company by her commiserating companion. After consulting all the available experts, including gratefully accepting a site-visit by my turkey-raising pal, I am placated that my dinner is not suffering, but the situation’s irony is nonetheless not lost on me.

Friday, March 16, 2007


Our numbers are growing. We now have 31 animals, which truly boggles. We received our first shipment of day-old chicks last Monday and it was a lot less sweet and a lot more horrific than I’d anticipated. Many things conspired against these beautiful babies, my status as novice the least, it turns out, among them. But, whatever the reason, losing 5 chicks in the first 48 hours of being entrusted with their lives ranked up there with among my All Time Really Bad Days. It started on Monday morning, when the Post Office called at 6:30AM to alert us to the peeping box in their sorting room. Not wanting the babies to sit in a cold warehouse any longer than necessary, I jumped into my sweats and got to the back door by 7. I couldn’t believe how tiny everything was – but of course they have to be to stay warm. Still, here was 20-something chicks in a square foot box! Wow.

But, five were already doomed. Over the next 36 hours, I would watch helplessly as one baby then another would grow listless and stop moving, allowing the others to peck it and stomp over it until it finally stopped living. It was heartbreaking. Meanwhile, I am calling my chicken friend and my husband and anyone else I can think of, convinced I am murdering these innocent babies with my sheer ignorance. But, no, my call to the hatchery elevates my care to near-miracle, the kind lady on the other end informing me that others in my place are losing 90% of their chicks. The weather in the midwest has caused disaster amongst the day old chicks – keep on keeping on b/c it’s working.

Gee, this is fun!

So, I’m holding funerals for baby chicks, per my weeping 8-year-old, and fretting every half-hour over the remaining birds. But, we turned a corner and after I stopped hyperventilating I started to really enjoy the Miracle of Life in the form of fuzzballs turning into swans before my very eyes. I’d ordered a mixture of birds and that is what we got, and each day, including today, I am truly impressed by how very beautiful they are. That’s the part of chicken-keeping folks don’t seem to say much about, but the fact is that many fairly pedestrian breeds of chickens are indeed truly beautiful and I swear every chick in my shower is spectacular (although it could be that I’m a wee bit biased). To watch them stretch their brand new wings out fully and preen is really something. Eight days ago they were fragile, clueless, just-hatched beings and already they are flitting and preening and eating and drinking and annoying each other and and and. Such is life.

They are brown and yellow and rust and black and almost white. They are fuzzy-topped and big and small. As of yesterday, a few of them discovered that these pretty wings had a use and have start flitting from one corner to another of the box.

At it’s heart, farm life is about life and death and the quality of both. That is why we started a farm, that is why we wanted our son to grow up on a farm. To understand where food comes from, to appreciate, really, from the gut, the food on his plate and feel connected to the cycle of life.

But, burying two-day old chicks is hard, no matter what your ideals. Watching the ugliness of the strong destroying the weak takes a fortitude I’m not sure I have. Waking up in the middle of the night b/c 20 lives might extinguish because the lamp I put in their box went out is, well, just a heap of responsibility. The cycle of life includes a lot death, much unplanned, and sometimes I forget that I’m the grown-up.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Pets versus Livestock

Today I finally admitted to myself that, while I don’t hate it in the classical sense of the word, housework simply sucks the life out of me. The more time I spend outdoors, the less enthusiasm I can drum up for scrubbing the toilet and hunting dust-bunnies. I had already lifted the covers on the reality that one of the reasons my bestseller’s a bit late in hitting the stands is because I spend all my morning and early afternoon energy running errands and sorting laundry and chasing the animal fur that must be chased at least every 2 days, and devising, planning, shopping for, prepping, cooking, serving, eating, and cleaning up meals that by the time I sit down in front of the Mac opening my email is about as much creativity as I can muster.

So, this is a bit of a dilemma. How do I reconcile my hatred for clutter and filth with the notion that I don’t want to deal with it any more and the guilt, as a stay-at-home parent with one child to manage, that would attend retaining the services of a talented housekeeper, say, once a month.

Hmm. Maybe there’s not that much of a dilemma here after all. I guess it all comes down to what we love and have talent for. At some level, I have to say, did I give up a career in the public sector to dust the piano? No. It’s easy to say, well if you’re “home all day” you should be able to keep a clean house, but the reality is that it just doesn’t work out that way. One thing people overlook is that when they’re home all day, they’re actually, well, home all day, which means that unlike when you both work full time and the house sits as a museum 10 hours a day, my house is bearing the brunt of my, and my son’s, and others’ wear and tear all day long.

There’s a lot to be said about being outdoors much of the day. It doesn’t exhaust me the way vacuuming and laundry does. Plus, as I move from a potential gardener to a potential livestock farmer, I have a similar epiphany – again, there’s something about working with animals. I’m thinking about looking into ducks….


It turns out that both the Grace clan and the Wells clan feature the regrettable no-put-away gene. Yes, it is unfortunate. Because it helps to have at least one person per family whose mission and strength it is to pick up the toys, child or adult, and put them back in their box. We do not sport that particular person among us. I wish we did.

There’s a continuing theme song running as the background music to our family life. It sounds eerily like the Jewish mom in stereo. Is there a reason why your milk glass is still on the table? Do I look like I know where every tool you last used is? Why would I keep tabs on your socks?

The roles would be more cut and dried here were I not just as deficient as my charges in this regard. But, alas, I too would rather not. I would rather not unload the dishwasher (though have no trouble loading). I would rather not put away the clean clothes (though do not shrink from separating, washing, drying, folding). I would rather not push the wheelbarrow back up to its agreed-upon resting spot, central to all major tasks. I hate these things and can’t quite figure out why. I love to pack. I hate to unpack.

But, I work on it. And I wonder seriously how to help my family work on it with me. Because the one thing a lazy person hates worse than just about anything is other people’s laziness.

This is helped by keeping farm animals. I have kept notes and cannot help but to comment.

I’m sure it’s been said before, but farm animals are incredibly grounding. They require just as much basic care and feeding as your average dog or cat yet offer no companionship whatsoever and are not swayed by training the way pets are. One of the most unexpected aspects of having sheep around, for instance, has been their complete indifference to my affection. Whether I am cooing them with yummy snacks or yelling at them to get the hell away from something, they are shockingly indifferent. Really, they could care less about my precious opinion.

I think this is especially perplexing to one who has kept the company of tame animals virtually all her life. You fall into complicity, believing that you love and understand animals and, of course, have “a way” with them. You learn the cheap tricks with cats and dogs and horses and know of course where to scratch and rub them and the words they especially respond to and then you’re seemingly a worldly adult, make space in your life to get some livestock, and WHAM. You run head first into the reality that sheep and cows have absolutely no interest or investment in your love or affection. They could care less.

Which may seem trivial, except that if you’ve been around pets all your life you’ve developed mechanisms for interacting with them that are great with pets and completely useless with livestock. Like yelling. Or shaming. Or in any way doing any thing that doesn’t actually involve shoving. It’s humbling.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Thanks to our fair feathered friends

This weekend we found out what mistakes cost. We’ve been in our house 14 months; we’ve had livestock, chickens, about 10. The girls are my boy’s project, although I do my best to support him – he never complains about letting them out or putting them in, but I do seem to be the memory bank in the family. Only, this Saturday, Mark had a big engagement and everyone was all aflutter and somehow we missed closing the door to the chicken coop. It’s never happened before. We’ve had near misses, where the door slammed shut and by the time we got out there, the chickens had roosted hither and yon and one or two just couldn’t be found. But we were always lucky.

Not this time.

This time, we failed to protect those we’ve promised to protect and a life was wasted. Some would wonder at such care about such a replaceable life, but the loss of our first hen has been a tough lesson for us all. We all knew it would happen one day, of course. You don’t keep free range chickens, running all about the place, without some inkling that loss will be a part of the picture. But, you hope, and expect, that yourself will play no role in their death.

We forgot. The first time in something like 300 days, but the fact is, we forgot. We forgot and poor Feather paid with her life. The implications exhaust me. Her feathers are strewn about, in clumps, all over the farm. It is impossible to piece together her last moments. I thought the raccoon went this way with her, but then found a new clump of feathers and now I’m not sure. Did she die right away? Did she struggle much? Did she feed a family or just a bachelor? Will that family now look to our farm as their local restaurant? I can’t bear the thought of losing them all – they have become so much a part of me, of us. But, I can’t bear to cage them in either. Do I instead take aim at the raccoons? And what would that look like?

Raccoons are somewhat protected, by city folk who still view them as cartoon characters and lovable ambassadors to the wildlife world. But, on an island like Vashon, raccoons and deer flourish, and they flourish on the bounty of small family farms in the absence of any predators whatsoever. In theory, I love raccoons too. But, I also understand that they have overpopulated many areas and once they find a convenient food source, like my chickens, no end of troubles ensues.

So, I wonder. What to do. I can’t abide a family of raccoons hanging about waiting for my next slip in conscientiousness. I can’t live like that. So that means either caging my birds or taking action with their predators.

Our stopggp measure is asking Jessie to spend the night outdoors. He’s good at this. Once before, and again last night, he was vigilant against the onslaught of raccoons, chasing them away again and again impressively. He may be dumb as a post in many ways, and possess more than a few fiercely frustrating traits, but his insistence on protecting this farm and all its inhabitants is nothing short of awe inspiring. I’ve never formally asked him to, and yet he has taken on this charge with a seriousness that is unusual in our modern world. He just knows. He knows this is what he can give us, and so he does. I lie awake these nights, last night, and hear him charge, over and over, off into the woods, his “raccoon bark” on full tilt.

I never knew he had different barks until the first time we found raccoons under our porch. I put Jessie out overnight and listened. It was nothing like the bark he used to announce and terrify visitors. It was something different entirely. He was deadly serious and all propulsion. It was actually then that I realized that awful bark that scared so many people was just show. THIS was his “real” bark. And it was truly frightening.

So. I am sorry Feathers. I am sorry we didn’t protect you when it was our obligation to do so. I am sorry that you felt safe and yet went unprotected. I am sorry that our life intruded and your life was the cost. I hope it means something to say that losing your life has taught me that taking the everyday as routine is a dangerous and tragic mistake. Thank you for being a part of our life and I promise to honor your sacrifice with increased vigilance and new life here at Stop Sign Farms. Your life will not have been lost in vain.