Cotton Hill Christmas

Clockwise (sort of) from top left: The tree; chickadee; Fin; Vardaman; Bird; two bucks eating frozen apples, from office window; Beatrix with squash gifties; Courageous Celeste; Bird and Feather in winter walk wear; big boys!; Chixmas II

Have a marvelous and merry week!
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Winter for Real

Happy solstice, friends of Cotton Hill Farm.

We've battened down the hatches
and hope the holidays find you warm and well.


The Portable Farm

Sometimes when neighbors drive by, I swear I can see them doing a double take. Hey, they might be saying to themselves, wasn't that barn over THERE yesterday? Occasionally I go out to tend to the goats or chickens and momentarily forget where they are located. This is not because the neighbors are delusional and I am absent-minded, but because all of our animal housing is portable. We move the chickens every day, so they always have nice fresh grass and bugs to nibble on, and there is no smelly chicken yard. The goats get a new pasture every two or three weeks, which lessens their exposure to parasites, provides them with new and delicious plants to eat, and saves us from having to muck out their barn. In exchange, though, we have to endure the process of moving them, which is exhausting, but ultimately worth it, we think. Here's what happens:
Packing Up
Farmer Fin Clearing the Fence Line
First, we measure out a 300-foot area. That's how much portable electric net fence we have. Then, we weed-whack the fence line. The stalks have been getting pretty tough in the past couple months, so we need to use heavy duty trimming line, and it still breaks three or four times. Fun! When the fence line is clear, we make a small pen for the goats with half of our fencing, and pick up the other half. There are about 12 12-foot panels of netting anchored by step-in posts. More about that later. Once the fence is out and the manger, milking stand, and feed dishes are removed from the barn, the real fun begins.

Moving Out
The barn is built on skids so we can drag it all around the hill. We pull it around with our pick-em-up truck. This can be kind of nerve-wracking, as clumps of weeds or anthills can cause the skids to bind up, which could potentially tear the whole thing apart. Farmer Fin drives and I run along beside the truck, shouting observations, warnings, and encouragement.

Setting Up
Now it's time to fence in the new pasture. Our portable electric netting is awesome. Because the "soil" on our hill is solid rock beneath a few inches of clay, you have to find the sweet spots to step the posts in. Farmer Fin wears heavy boots.

Moving the Milking Stand from the Former Barn Site

After we set up the first fence, we free the goats. The first couple times we did this, we felt like we had to lead them on leashes or corral them from the old location to the new one, or else they would run off to live with the deer in the woods. This was really stressful. I think the goats are smarter than deer, though: they recognize the benefits of shelter and electrified enclosure. Plus they just like to follow us around. For a few minutes they run around, all keyed up on sensory overload, wild raspberry bushes and mouthfuls of leaves. Meanwhile, Fin pounds in the ground rod and sets up the charger while I trim weeds around the fence line. The goats get pretty curious about all this activity and soon discover that their shiny new pasture is as rad as the rest of the hillside around it.

Chilling Out
For the rest of the day, the ladies get fat on green leaves. We gather up all our tools, head on down the hill, and crack a couple of well-deserved beers.


The Wagon

Once upon a time (in the 1950s), there was a feed grinder. It worked very hard at its job.

Gehl MX65 Feed Grinder/Mixer

But eventually, it was disassembled. The frame was left to rust away, until a nice family called Andrews rescued it. With love and care, they sanded away all the rust, gave the frame a nice coat of paint, found some wheels (which they painted grass green) and tires, and built a wooden body on it. Finally, they attached the finishing touch: a beautiful sign. Hooray! The wonderful wagon was a wing-ding of a wedding gift for the wide-eyed whippersnappers at Cotton Hill Farm.

Our tractor is indispensable here on the hill, but the wagon truly completes it. We use it to haul things up the hill, like this:
Here's the wagon transporting the chicken pen up the hill.

Thank goodness we don't have to drag all this brush up to the firepit!

The wagon is also a crucial part of our current irrigation system for the garden, which unfortunately involves transporting 50-gallon garbage pails full of water across the property.

We drag all kinds of stuff around in it:
I'll catch a ride in the wagon any old time, and a certain fuzzy farmdog thinks it's the BEST place for a nap in the sun.


Strange Bedfellows: Companion Planting Experiments

We gardeners appreciate the benefits of companion planting. Plant marigolds, nasturtiums, onions and other strong smellers around the garden to repel insects. Grow beans with corn to replenish nitrogen in the soil. And of course, as Louise Riotte's classic title states, carrots love tomatoes.

This year, I took companion planting to a new level. You see, we love eggplant. Last spring, when we started our seedlings, Farmer Fin's eyes lit up at the possibility of a summer filled with tubs of baba ganoush. A few months later, I watched helplessly as flea beetles made lace of the little leaves, killing the plants within a couple weeks. This has happened every time I have tried to grow eggplant. I hate those little bastards. You can't even squish them, because every time you close in on one, it jumps to another leaf. Grrr. I never seem to get it together to protect the seedlings with row covers, so I've tried spraying various concoctions of garlic and soap and hot pepper, year after year, to no avail. So this year, I decided to trick them instead.

beets love flowers

In some ways, it worked great. I think the insects really were fooled. We have lots of gorgeous veggies this year, eggplants among them. We maximized our space, always at a premium with raised beds. Visitors to my garden remark on the vibrant snapdragons, and the cucumbers that surround them.
watermelon loves peppers love basil

There are a few negative aspects of extreme companion planting though. One is that if I'm cooking a big dinner, I can't easily send anyone else out to harvest things. It's much easier to send someone looking for a bed of basil plants than it is to direct them to one basil plant, in the first long bed in the back, between the nasturtium, the pepper, and the slicing cukes. More importantly, I kind of forgot that some plants need to cross-pollinate, which may explain why the lone eggplant in the kitchen garden isn't doing too much.

peppers love eggplants love basil loves nasturtiums

All in all though, I'm pretty pleased with it, and will definitely repeat the experiment, with some improvements, in next year's garden.



Chicken the Bird or Chicken the Meat?


We love our laying hens. They are entertaining, smart (really!) and tough little creatures who have each laid a delicious giant brown egg every morning for over a year now. So this spring, when Agway's chick order form came out, we decided that not only would we get another six pullets for eggs, we'd also try our hand at raising some birds for meat.

Our first surprise was that the hatchery was overwhelmed with orders this year, or so we were told, and we didn't get the chicks until the end of May. The meat birds were your typical Easter peeps, little yellow fluffballs. They were super cute for about a week. Then we noticed that they had totally outgrown the cozy little brooder we had set up for them in our woodshed. We got another brooder, but they seemed to have gone from ping-pong balls to footballs by the end of the second week. By the beginning of June they were definitely overcrowded, but it was still too cold at night to put them out on pasture, so in the woodshed they stayed. Besides their distinctive aroma, the overcrowding was making them kind of mean. Their beady little eyes took on sinister expressions, and they tried to take bites out of my hands each time I refilled their food or water. Inspired by their impressive digestive systems, I was bustling around the house one morning singing, Jimmy craps corn, and I don't care at the top of my lungs. My catchy little tune led me to do something we had sworn we wouldn't: I accidentally named the meat birds.
Jimmy's Awkward Phase

Jimmy finally made it out to pasture in late June, when the weather warmed up. The birds seemed delighted to be able to waddle around their pen on the hillside eating grass and bugs. We were pretty pleased too, that they were no longer pecking the hell out of each other in their smelly sardine-can right outside our kitchen. I gave the laying hens (who were growing at a less maniacal rate and were still not ready for their new home on the lawn) nice new bedding, and they were happy too. After the big move, there was just one unhappy individual: one of the chickens was laying down right in the middle of the pen, and he (she? it was too soon for a novice like me to tell) wasn't looking so hot. I scooped him up and carried him down the hill. He waited patiently on the ground, making pathetic little peeping sounds, while I set up a hospital room for him in one of the recycling bins. We figured he'd either die that night or recover and join the others on the hill.
No dice. The next day, he seemed about the same. He'd taken quite a bit of the sugar water we'd given him, though, and we felt hopeful. For several days, he remained in the same condition: half-feathered, immobile, and emitting frequent diarrhea and little chirps. We adjusted his heat lamp, fed him honeyed herbal tea that I had made for the bees, and shouted, "Live, Jimmy, live!" every time we passed his little pen. And live he did, for over a week. The irony of trying to help a creature destined for death and an afterlife as part of a pot pie to survive nagged at us a little, and eventually it caught up to little Jimmy Jazz as well. We buried him unceremoniously. His brethren up on the hill, however, were thriving.
By mid-July, it was easy to tell who was a rooster and who was a hen. The boys' first weak attempts at crowing transformed into marvelous alarm clocks by the end of the month. By August, the birds were starting to look really tasty. We're not really equipped for that level of chicken slaughter, so we started making some calls, and finally got a call back from a nearby farm that had USDA approval. We set a date, Farmer Fin and Olivier built some transport crates, and last Monday morning we loaded Jimmy into the truck, drove to Sap Bush Hollow Farm, and said our farewells.

Enjoy it while it lasts, Jimmy!

Jimmy's Last Ride

The Stage is Set

Six hours later, we picked them up, organs and gizzards in a separate bag; hands, feet, and feathers nowhere to be seen. Even without all that stuff, they were huge! None weighed less than five pounds.


By nightfall, the creatures FORMERLY known as Jimmy were safely in the freezer, except for one that was slathered with spices and roasted on the grill with a beer can up its ass. We made potato salad to go with it. Yum!


Midsummer on Cotton Hill

Lavender has been harvested and dried...
Peas are plump...
Tomatoes are supported...
Goats are in the trees...
Chickens are getting big...

Goats are in the trees?


Everyone Is Lazy

Luckily, they are also very cute. Unlike me and those worthless cats.

In actuality, I suppose I was the lazy one - at least by comparison. Alls I did was wake up and check into work, move, feed, and water the meat birds, milk and feed (and entertain - they require entertainment, and daily affirmations) the goats, move the pullets, work for 10 hours at my desk, walk the dog in the woods, feed and water meat birds, milk and feed and the goats and wish them pleasant dreams, drink some whiskey, put the pullets to bed, and take a snapshot of the REAL busy folks around here. Not that Bird is folks, but maybe he is. The cats sure aren't folks. The wife and the dog have every reason to be pooped - Heather did every chore I did, plus the mid-day goat fattening-up, chevre-making, kimchi-ing, gardening, facebooking ... and Bird was right there with her for most of the time, although he was probably napping for much of that time. The boy needs his beauty rest, and it shows.

Gas Cans

Right before we moved into the big old farm house, my in-laws sold their cute country salt-box for the retired ease of condo life. We inherited a collection of rakes and shovel, leafblower, lawnmower, hammock. One of my favorite acquisitions was her dad's 70's era gas can - pebbled red plastic with a simple, efficient yellow spout that you pull out of the can and invert to pour, remove to fill, and store int he mouth of the can itself. It has a second little screw-top valve on the opposite side by the handle for letting air in to replace the volume of gas like punching that second hole in the top of a Juicy Juice can.

When the power went out for a week in that first terrible January storm, the in-laws got us a shiny new generator and I picked up a second gas can on the snowy drive back back from their condo in the pick-up. Later that cold, dark evening, with gasoline soaking my hands to the cuffs and dripping though the floorboards in the woodshed, I struggled to figure out the unnecessarily complicated spring-loaded spout mechanism until I half-accidentally busted it off the threads and used a funnel instead.

After the great thaw we invested in a weedwacker, which necessitated yet another gas can in which to mix the oil for the little 2-stroke engine. This time I splurged and got a fancier version at the farm supply store instead of the cheap gas station crap, but it too was overly complicated, with springs and gaskets and flow settings and such. But at least it worked, and it actually worked really well once I figured out that the design was meant to catch the lip of whatever you were filling and press down, compressing the spring in the spout and opening the valve inside - all in the name of safety, I guess.

So a month or two later, with Spring in full bloom and threatening daily to overwhelm us, we got us an old tractor to help beat it all back, and I went back to the farm store and got a similar make of gas can, only much bigger and yellow, for diesel. The little tractor, with its grunty 2-cylinder diesel engine, was so efficient that it was nearly a month of mowing and moving dirt piles back and forth before I needed to fill the tank the dealer was kind enough to top for me when I bought it.

I had to bypass both the local Stewarts and the strangely out of place independent gas station run by two Sihk hipster brothers in their 20s and head out to the big truck stop by the interstate, and then right past the familiar islands of pumps, lights, and winshield cleaners for the single solitary pump on the far end of the parking lot, festooned with warnings - "For diesel engines only." Even the pump handle was different, presumably for the larger hands of truckers and farmers and the like.

I strapped the full heavy gas can down int he bed of my pick-up - inadequately; there was much splashing on the bouncy dirt road - and headed home, still quite early on a Sunday. After a bit more mowing and turning the compost pile, the needles on the gas guage creeped farther left and I hopped off the tractor and hauled over the bright yellow can through the thick sward of grass clippings.

The arms of the front loader prevented me from getting too close to the gas tank from the sides of the tractor, so I balanced the can on the hood (if indeed it is a hood on a tractor) and climbed up on the deck, straddling the steering wheel and gearshift. Somewhat awkwardly, I hoisted the up can and positioned the little catch on the lip of the tank's neck, assuming the pressure would compress the spring, release the valve, and gas would flow. Of course I didn't notice the plastic mesh fuel filter sitting on tip of the neck, which promptly bent in half and smushed halfway down into the tank from the weight of the full can resting on it. I inspected it, shrugged, and tried again, this time with a funnel, only the pressure of the full can jammed the already bent and smushed fuel filter the rest of the way down into the gas tank, and the funnel fell right in after it. And, safety be damned, I had once again succeeded in soaking myself in gasoline.

So I did some thinking and called up the hardware store in town. It being Sunday, they only laughed and wished me luck. With the weekend running out and grass growing right before my eyes, I wiped off the yelow diesel gas can and heaved it over to the shed. In it went, springs and sprockets and valves and all, and out rolled the old push mower, which I delightedly filled from the pebbled red plastic can. Screw in spout, screw open valve, fill.

By the next weekend I had purchased a long, flexible mechanic's claw with which to fish around in the gas tank of the tractor for a couple hours in the hot sun until, soaked in gas to the elbows, I victoriously fished out first the mangled fuel filter and then the funnel. Surprisingly, I was able to smush the filter back into a moderately usable shape, and the $2 I spent on the handy-dandy pump siphon meant it would never get mangled again.


Big Day

Today was a milestone for me: Farmer Fin is in the big city at his "real job," so I did the morning chores alone for the first time. It was a peaceful morning on the hill. The goats didn't even hear me coming until I was right next to their pasture. The non-milkers went into the barn without complaint, and the milkers were very cooperative and patient (usually each of us milks one doe, but doing both is an excellent hand workout). It even stopped raining just before I went out!

My accomplishments, however, pale in comparison to those of the four baby barn swallows who had hatched in the goat barn a couple weeks ago. Today was their first flight! At least I think it was, because they were not in the barn this morning. Hopefully, they were out getting worms with their mom. Here's a picture of them as tiny chicks (sorry the quality is so bad; it's dark in the rafters).

Have a good life, birds!


Heat Wave!

The bank thermometer in town read 96 degrees yesterday, it hasn't rained in ages, and all of us - plants, animals, and humans - are trying not to wilt. Nevertheless, we (the humans at least) maintain our enthusiasm about all the projects we have going right now.

The pullets are happy to be outside.

Someday they will lay giant eggs like Celeste does. Look at that monster!

Bees are buzzing.

But best of all, Pansy and Violet the goats just got two new pasture-mates! We haven't settled on names yet.

They are all getting to know each other, and we will be making our first goats' milk mozzarella tonight.