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The Making of a Name

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Last week’s forecasted snow presented more of a drizzly, icy, snowy combination for days that resulted in barely one inch of new snow, and a fair amount of melt on the already existing accumulation. This feels just fine to me. There are still finishing touches to put on a couple outdoors projects and doing it in a bit of snow rather than a foot is much appreciated. I’m still on a painting tear, but have hit pause on that, put the house back to some semblance of order, and am enjoying our daughter’s Thanksgiving break.

Before I get too swept away with family time, I thought I’d share a few housekeeping notes with regards to this new site, and the new direction of my work (well, maybe new branch of my work, I’m not entirely abandoning the work I’ve done previously, just adding something new). This information is not particularly interesting, but it is part of the softest-slowest-launch-in-blog-history. Gosh I think we’re at four months now and I’ve yet to talk about the very name of this new website! In my defense, it mostly has to do with the name being so utterly simple and open-ended that it hardly requires explanation, but also I feel quite sheepish given that I’ve so boldly included the “F” word in there.

We live on the North Ridge in our town. It’s not the name of our road, it’s a geographic location and everyone knows where “The North Ridge” is. When my husband was a young boy, there were no road names here. Heck, that remained true well into our marriage. If you wanted to mail something to someone, you simply placed their name and “North Ridge, Sutton, Vermont” on the envelope and it would get to them. Such vagueness seems romantic to someone like me, but it hardly was helpful in times of emergency. Eventually 911 services made it to the ridge and with that, order was required. You couldn’t expect to call in a burning barn and have the fire department know exactly where that was without a few specifics. So, road names and house numbers were assigned. Our road was named after Adam’s grandmother because she had been living here the longest, and for much of that time, she was the only one living here.

North Ridge was the easy part in naming my new web home, but choosing to insert “Farm” at the end is honestly the very thing that put my blog into darkness for the better part of a year. Who am I, lady with a vegetable garden and some chickens to call her place a farm? Sure, we produce maple syrup and firewood and within the next year or two will begin harvesting significant amounts of medicinal herbs. But even that, by “significant” I don’t mean large-scale mono-crop size farming. Our harvests will be modest by modern farming standards, yet serviceable and greatly needed on a community and regional scale.

I wanted the name of my new website to also be the name of the place we are creating here: in the soil, under this vast blanket of stars, within these four crooked walls. I wanted it to feel obvious, but also open-ended. Yes, my focus at this time is on medicinal herbs, but I know myself pretty well, and chances are there will be a new addition to the idea down the road. Better to not be so specific. 

Farm. It’s such a charged word for me. And sure, if you look up the definition you will find its a rather loose term describing a plot of land used for growing crops and rearing animals. It doesn’t specify how much or how many. I guess it just comes down to the reverence I have for farmers who day after day put their backs into a full day of production so that others may be provided for. To me, there’s hardly a more important job out there, and I would never lump my efforts into such an accomplished category. But it is also true that we are a place of production more than we are a place of consumption, and we have established our first medicinal herb field, with field number two coming next summer. So even though things do not feel particularly farm-esque at the moment (to my standards), I needed to name this new site something, and we are indeed moving swiftly in the direction of farming.

It took us nearly a week to name our daughter when she was born. I fretted over the task. What a thing to choose someone else's name! A name they will carry for all the days of their life. But Adam’s mother put us at ease by telling us not to worry so much, the child will define the name given to them, the name will not define the child. It is advice I took to heart then, and was reminded of again when choosing a name for this new place of ours, both here on the land, and on the web. So, consider this your official welcome to North Ridge Farm. 

And with that, I've gone on for so long without getting to the other topics I was hoping to bring up today. We'll get to those soon enough. 

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Thank you for taking the time to read here these days. Sometimes I find myself searching for answers as to why we can post a photo with ten careless words on Instagram and receive twelve times the engagement compared to actually putting some effort into hashing out a thought, story, or idea in longer form. I don’t have the answers, only a few ideas. So more than ever, I appreciate those of you who take the time read an old fashioned blog such as this, and even more so when you go the extra mile to comment and say hello. It’s a small connection that means a lot. I am glad to have taken as much time off from blogging as I did. I am in a new season of life now, and the marker of prolonged silence was a helpful transition. Having said that, I really could have used writing to get me through last winter, and am thankful to have this outlet for the coming months ahead. Thank you again, your presence here means more than I can express.

Wishing those of you celebrating, a wonderful day of Thanksgiving. May your table be filled with abundance, laughter, kindness, and good health.

Contented as Could Be

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The windows beside our bed are sized in a way that allows a person lying down to see not just the starry sky, but the ground of open field one story below. This is how I noticed the biggest bear I’ve ever seen one morning not too long ago, just as I’d opened my eyes. There he was in my garden, hoping to find corn, disappointed to discover only kale remained. It was with half-slumbered, prone ease that we were able to see four fat and happy deer surrounding the old apple tree just below us, one recent early morning when Scout’s howling alerted the ridge that there was something wonderful to see. Oddly, his loud siren did not cause the deer to budge one bit. I suppose they are used to him by now and were probably thinking, Hey Scout, you can go back to bed now, we’re just going to have a few of these drops and we’ll be on our way.

It was still dark, probably around 4am, the moon nearly full and the ground covered with snow. There was a brightness to the landscape that aided our viewing. To watch four ample deer from our spot of rest was such a feeling of full body joy. Almost in the same way reading a cozy bedtime story is. All safe and tucked in, with senses delighted in the best of ways. Of course Adam’s mind was thinking of tracking them, which would be easy to do once daylight arrived, given the couple inches of snow on the ground.

Our property has two driveways, one leading to our house, and the other much longer, leading to our camp in the woods. They are separated on the road by one hundred yards or so. What was discovered upon tracking the four apple-loving deer, was that those little buggers walked straight up the road from Billymead, turned onto our land via the camp road, walked across the front field toward the apple tree, partied there for a bit, then exited through the herb field in the front of our house to polish off my remaining comfrey and calendula, then they departed through driveway number two. Not exactly the kind of tracking a hunter is hoping for! He spent some time later in the day tracking in the woods to come up empty. Apparently they prefer the ease of road travel.

Since then we’ve had more snow, and later today we’ll have even more. And all of next week has snow in the forecast. One of the things I like about living here is that when winter shows up, there is nothing tentative about it, she is loud and proud and here to stay for the long haul. If we’re going to have winter, let's at least have a good honest winter.

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We picked up six laying hens last weekend and they’ve settled in nicely. Already accustomed to routine, they’re practically demanding warm oats in the morning and a nightcap of plain full-fat homemade yogurt before bed. Daytime is peppered with plenty of black oil sunflower seeds, and their water is spiked with a small amount of herbal infusion, and apple cider vinegar. This is not for cuteness sake, or to spoil them with human food for no good reason, I do it because yes it makes them feel good and happy and I am after that for sure, but also because I’m (selfishly) crafting my own eggs. With no access to insects and grass and all manner of outdoor goodies for the next five months, their little bodies (and eggs) would otherwise be lacking, so I bring the buffet to them. I’ll pick up some mealworms, too.

I make the oats by placing a couple handfuls of quick-cooking oats in a bowl, to which I add a scoop of lard, a small handful of raisins, a glug of applesauce, and a touch of molasses. Then I pour boiling water over and stir. The lard melts into the mixture and the raisins get nice and soft.

It’s been a productive week but I feel lacking with food prep going into the weekend. Thankfully we have lots of easy vegetables to roast, potatoes to bake, and ham steaks to fry. I’ll make a quiche to get us through the weekend as well. Normally I’d have a big pot of soup or stew on hand, but am out of broth so I need to get a batch of that going, which takes two days to complete (no instant pot here).

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It’s been a couple of days since I finished this post, but I was unable to sit down and publish it. This Sunday morning is a good time to do so with Adam out hunting. While setting up his tree stand for the year, he was testing out his sight-lines before things were strapped in and secure. He’d already tried another tree prior to this one, and determined it was not suitable. I asked if he thought this tree would work, and he said, “Your Dad taught me something: You’re never going to be able to see the whole forest, so just pick a good spot.” Terribly simple and effective advice for my husband (probably given over twenty years ago), who is the kind of guy prone to overanalyzing, even though he is remarkably capable of going with the flow... oh, the duality of Gemini's. My Dad was more of a straight shooter, infamous for using the phrase, “It is what it is.” And he had a reputation for fruitful placement of tree stands. They were a good balance for each other. I think Adam’s intellectual tendencies humored my father, but also provided confidence in having him as a partner. And Dad’s no nonsense student of life approach to things reminded Adam that it’s okay to jump in; there is no such thing as a perfect plan. I think one of the most compatible aspects of their relationship was their ability to drive for full days in the northern Maine woods in practical silence. Hardly a word uttered between them, save for moose sightings, a grumble regarding sustenance, or a telling of hunting/fishing stories, that let’s be honest, had probably been told between them a dozen times before. But mostly, they would drive in companionable silence, contented as could be.

Filling our Freezers

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The last two weeks have overflowed with activity. Stacking firewood, butchering chickens, processing yet another two bushels of apples, trying to finish outdoor building projects before the snow sets in too deeply, and to top it all off, a four day power outage. A mad dash to the finish line, which I am sure we will not reach, more like the finish line will reach out for us with frozen ground and snow past our knees. And then, we will thankfully be forced to rest.

As I sit here writing this, myself and everyone else near me is anticipating our first snow of the year, arriving later this morning. So easy this first snow will be to manage, hardly asking much of us in terms of labor, and yet, the buzz and the thrill in the air is palpable. Here I am, a flatlander new to the region, and those who’ve been here their whole lives are equally on the edge of their seats. Goes to show that no matter your Vermont status - veteran or new kid - you cannot beat the first snow. At the hardware store yesterday there was talk of snow tires and living on class four roads (responsible for their own plowing) and woodsheds not yet full. The energy is kinetic; folks expressing “so much to do” but at the same time you sense they feel a good purpose in the tasks before them. No time to Netflix binge or scroll/like/comment when there is firewood to stack and plows to attach to trucks. If I am sensing it correctly, it’s as if people are craving this kind of purpose, a diversion from a culture of consumption and ease, where the most active part of the body is our thumb.

In this post I would like to share about our recent experience raising and butchering meat birds. If that is not your thing, this is the moment you should click away.

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I’ve never not known meat coming into the home for processing in the fall. The idea of taking life (animal, vegetable, fungi) so that my own may be sustained is not new to me, and to my mind, all are of equal value. My experience with harvesting meat however, has always been wild meat at the hands of my father or husband. My role has been to help with the breaking down of the animals once they come home, and of course the cooking, too. This was my first time raising domesticated meat, and there was a somewhat unique way to how I approached it that might be helpful to some of you looking to do the same.

Aside from building the shelter and fencing in pasture, at least ninety percent of the endeavor was my responsibility. Processing would be a job for me to take care of during the week, as weekend time for Adam is always booked solid with other pressing projects, and hunting, and, well, us. When you don’t share too many everyday moments with your spouse, prioritizing time to just be a couple when you are together is critical. You can’t be casual about that sort of thing. You need to show up. A marriage without investment and intention is not one of much depth.

Add to that a few other reasons, and I was planning to take care of this job on my own. Or better yet, with hired, incredibly skilled help. And this is the part I thought worth sharing, in case some of you are looking to raise meat birds, but not sure you have the means to process them all on your own.

Before I get into it, please know that while there is a good deal of “if you’re going to eat meat than you should kill it” talk out there, it’s not something I necessarily subscribe to. I don’t raise and harvest (kill) every vegetable that I eat, and do not feel the need to do so with meat, either. It is good to be able to kill any animal under your care in case you need to, and I am, but to provide a good and swift death to seventy five chickens is not something I have the confidence for, at least not at this time. To be frank, using a gun is easier than using a knife, and I didn’t trust the strength and quickness of my own wrist, especially seventy five times. It was more important to me that it went well, than to be able to say I killed them by my own hand. Because to me, more important than doing the killing myself, was impeccable raising and split second slaughtering. And now on the other side, I can say that I pray for a death as swift and ethical as the chickens that died here. Though I won’t be so delusional as to pray for a life as good as theirs, because that’s obviously not possible. They had it so damn easy and good.

I hope to raise pigs next year, and at this time do plan on killing them myself, but again, a gunshot to one or two animals feels much more doable to me than a knife to seventy five chickens. (I really hope my vegetarian readers have clicked away by now!)

While I did not feel attached to doing the actual killing of the chickens raised here, I definitely felt it was important that their lives were fit for kings, and that they did indeed die right here on this land. The idea of a stressful transport to a facility for processing holds no interest for me. This is not a judgment on folks who choose that route, it’s just not something I want to do if I have other options. 

One of the advantages to living rural is that the people in your community are deeply skilled in ways that most people today are not. There are a few “mobile butchering operations” here, and one of them happens to be owned by an old high school friend of Adam’s brother. Nicest guy you ever did meet, a former engineer who “suffered through monotonous desk work for six years” before leaving the field to first become a custodian (which he loved), and then starting his butchering business along with a mobile sawmill business (both of which he loves even more). His family sugars, too, so add that to the mix. Lots of milling in April and May, chicken and turkey processing May through October. Sugaring in March and April. 

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I’ve been researching the raising and butchering of meat birds and other animals for over a decade now, and while I felt I had a pretty good overview, my knowledge prior to meeting Dan, his wife Becky, and their daughter Margaret, paled in comparison to just a half dozen phone calls and one October morning with these experts. You just cannot learn from a book or a YouTube video what you can learn from a human being standing right next to you, or across the phone lines. For example: I was under the impression that the best way to get the shrink bags to properly shrink when submerged in hot water, was to cut a small slit in the bag over the breasts so there would be a way for air to escape, hence the shrinkage (because the internet told me so). Then you slap a fancy label over the slit once they come out of the hot water, after you dry it. But Dan said, "I don't know why people do that. Why would you have to cut a hole in a perfectly good bag? Seems like a crazy idea to me. Just leave the zip tie (closure) open a bit and air will escape that way. And if you really want some assurance, slip a straw in through the loosened zip tie, into the bird's cavity, submerge, let air escape through the straw, then once you pull it from the hot water, remove the straw and tighten the zip tie." Of course! Would have saved me a few bucks on those fancy labels had I known that. I wound up using a metal straw, which actually proved really useful as a firm "handle" of sorts, to push the bagged chicken below the water line without burning my hand (I don't work well with heavy gloves). 

Last Wednesday morning Dan and his daughter rolled into my driveway with all of the necessary equipment and proceeded to set up. Their only request was that I be the one to retrieve the chickens so they did not experience any stress from a stranger coming into their coop (a request that assured me I’d made the right call, hiring these incredibly sensitive people). Two and a half hours later, all of the chickens were killed, plucked, eviscerated, and settled into chill tanks for me to bag up and freeze. And all equipment was cleaned up. Two and a half hours. Every single death a split second affair, not one “oops, gotta try again,” not one thing that went wrong (other than our very pathetic well/pump struggling fiercely to keep up with the water demands of the job). Because I know you are wondering, the cost was $3.50 per chicken. It was the best money we’ve spent all year, and more importantly, it provided the very best death imaginable to the chickens that will sustain us. I did not need to invest in equipment, instead I invested in our local economy by hiring Dan and his daughter. Cash directly in the hands of a family business for services rendered. Two freezers are now filled with four hundred pounds of meat, some of it will be shared with neighbors, but we have all the chicken we’ll need for a full year. Fifty birds I froze as whole roasters, the remaining twenty five I parted out as breasts, legs, wings, and backbones (for broth). They wound up averaging 5.4 pounds each, butchered one day shy of seven weeks. We had a good number of six pounders, plenty of five+ pounders, some in the high fours, and two came in at 3.8 pounds. The vast majority fell between five and six pounds. We are very pleased with their size.

If you are local and would like Dan’s phone number, just send me an email and I can provide that for you. 

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Well, I better run now, I can hear Scout howling in the woods so I should see what he is up to. I am painting our dining room today, which is just the thing to do as the first snowfall covers the landscape beyond the room’s four windows. I am slow to these things, needing to watch the light through the seasons, feel out a space, etc., before making many changes. But after one year of living here, I am ready to make this house feel like our home.