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Wax Disk

As the beekeeping season comes to a close and my hives need less of my time, I’m confronted with the jars and bags and racks and bowls of beeswax all over my house patiently awaiting my attention. There are a million methods for all things beekeeping out there but I’d like to share this very simple method of rendering beeswax that will take you from sticky mess to wonderfully fragrant disks of clean beeswax ready for your crafts and beauty products while costing very little of your time and precious energy. And best of all, there’s no waste and your bees will actually benefit from it!

You will need:

1. Some type of plastic or metal grate that will fit inside of an empty super. It should have spaces big enough for a bee to crawl through but not big enough for chunks of wax to fall through.
2. A cheap double boiler (I found two pots for $2.00 at the thrift store that worked perfectly)
3. A small plastic, metal or glass container (that you don’t need for anything else) to pour the melted wax into
4. A cheesecloth and rubber band

None: All of this equipment should be things you don’t care about or use for anything else as beeswax is pretty much impossible to clean off. You’re going to want this equipment to be used exclusively for wax processing (hence the thrift store recommendation).

Part One:

1. Grab all of your wax capping and other still sticky wax, your grate and your empty super, take them outside to your beehive (I like to suit up for this) and remove the outer cover on your hive.

2. Make sure that your inner cover is the kind that has a hole in the top. Place empty super on top of inner cover and then place the grate on top of inner cover inside the empty super. Now spread your sticky wax out on top of the grate. Place your outer cover back on top to close up and if you have a bee escape hole in your inner cover it’s probably a good idea to plug it up with grass cork or something else to discourage robbers.

If you don’t have an inner cover with a hole in it, you can simply remove it as well and set the grate and super directly on top of the frames and then place your inner cover on top of the empty super followed by your outer cover.

Congratulations, you’re half way done. When you come back in a day or two, you will find that the bees have completely cleaned every scrap of honey off of the wax and left you with a beeswax sculpture that’s pretty amazing. The absolute best part though is that the bees have saved you a lot of time cleaning all of that honey and instead of it going down the drain, they get to add it back to their winter stores.

Bee Cleaned Wax

Part Two:

1. In a double boiler on low heat add first about an inch of water and then start adding your wax. As the wax melts down you will be able to add more. You might be able to get it all in there or you may have to do more than one batch. You don’t want it more than ¾ full of hot wax. DO NOT WALK AWAY! Wax is extremely flammable and it also makes a very difficult mess to clean if it boils over. Wax Melting

2. When the wax is completely melted you will see that there is still quite a bit of debris that you want to get rid of so just remove it from the heat and let it cool a bit but not to the point that it starts to solidify again.

3. Fold your cheesecloth a couple of times so that is about 4 layers thick and place it over the top of whatever container you’re going to let the wax solidify in. You can even use one of those round, plastic yogurt containers. Secure the cheesecloth with a rubber band making sure it’s sagging just a bit in the middle.

Pouring Wax 4. Pour your slightly cooled wax through the cheesecloth into the container, water and all and leave it until the wax is solid and cool.

5. Use a butter knife or something similar to get your wax disk or block out of its container leaving the water behind. When it’s completely dry, store in an airtight container or plastic bag.

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“Honey - lets retire and move to the mountains and live close to the land. Just a small cabin is all we will need for the two of us and you know how much we love the mountains."

I wonder how many times this has been said over the years. I know I said it many years ago and quite honestly neither of us have regretted a minute of following through on it. It is not for everyone, however. Having lived full time in the mountains at 9,780 feet elevation in a mostly remote area for 17 years, I will try to offer some insights for others' consideration before they make the jump into a rewarding but demanding lifestyle.

Rigors of Mountain Living

For example, if you are moving from a lower elevation to one on the side of a mountain you may want to consider that there is a condition known as altitude sickness. Moving around more deliberately and slowly is something that needs to be employed in the lower oxygen of high altitude. Living in that small cabin requires a lot of work that is not experienced in other environs. Mountains are made mostly out of rock and at least in our location they are always in the way and need to be moved. We heat with a wood stove so we need to have at least 9-11 cords of firewood on hand for our winters which are seven months long. We average 264 feet of snow each winter and that needs to be moved out of the way and is constantly being repositioned by the wind. These are only a few of the rigors of mountain living and require a high level of fitness. Also consider that as you grow older you lose muscle mass therefore making routine tasks harder to perform.

Weight Lifting

Beyond the obvious hardships of weather and endless work, living in the mountains like we do requires a high level of physical fitness. I started lifting weights when I was a child by using two milk jugs full of sand. If I wanted to add weight I added water. I was a skinny kid and like most children my parents told me if I got in a fight that I would get a fanny warming when I got home. Being skinny I was picked on and bullied, which is why I started weightlifting. My arms looked like toothpicks with a tiny knot in the middle. After coming home with torn clothing, black eyes and skinned up knees and elbows from being pushed down and bullied several days in a row my parents finally said I could fight back. I did and wasn’t bullied again. I guess today that would be frowned upon.

I never stopped lifting weights and have spent a lifetime keeping my muscles toned. There are two objectives in lifting weights: one is body sculpting, which requires less weight but more repetitions. The other is using more weight for strength conditioning. I chose the strength aspect and went from those early milk jugs to an Olympic weight set which I finally sold last year. I get enough exercise cutting and splitting firewood, shoveling the roughly 25 feet of snow we receive each winter and moving rocks around.

I would recommend lifting weights to keep muscles strong and supple. You will gain a little weight as muscle tissue weighs more but you will carry it better. If it were not for good muscle tone and keeping fit, living here for 17 years would not have been a possibility. We have seen many attempt our chosen form of life and fail because the demands are never ending, and to properly handle them you need to stay fit.

Before you embark on lifting weights, however, I would suggest some important cautions. First, make sure you have medical clearance to undertake this demanding exercise. Join a group that has been doing it for a while because they will have found the correct techniques so you lessen your chances of getting injured. They will also encourage you and be there to spot for you when you are balancing large weights over your head. If you can’t find a group then find an experienced trainer to train you. The cost is well worth it and with trainer experience you can sometimes join experienced groups which otherwise wouldn’t want to take time in training you.

Over the years I have met some really good people in gyms. I have worked out with professional football players who have access to the very best trainers and professional weightlifters who will not let you develop bad habits or hurt yourself. I have worked out in groups with people from all walks of life and I have rarely found people who are rude or nasty. Those types generally end up working out by themselves as they don’t fit into dedicated groups.

Mountain Living Dependent on Being Physically Fit

Living where and how we do would not even be possible if I had not spent a lifetime working out with weights and staying fit. For many years I also ran jogging tracks at the rate of about 15-18 miles a week. Between the running and weight lifting I am now able to cope with the rigorous tasks of mountain living. Over a lifetime of weight lifting and running I have had injuries along the way but—having been blessed with a very high pain threshold—I have been able to deal with them or work right through them. The worst was a blown knee that happened when my regular workout partner was unable to make it one time. A semi-pro football player encouraged me to adjust my stance doing squats and just that fast I blew a knee. Painful lesson learned and it reassured me that I needed to stick with proper techniques from people whom I trusted and not deviate from the right way to lift. Just moving your toes out an inch can cause major damage so it is real important you are taught the right way and stick with it and not experiment or be swayed into change by those you do not know.

It takes physical endurance and muscle power to live as we have chosen to live. Now in our 70s we are able to both live this lifestyle because of preparation and staying fit earlier in life. If you are coming from a desk job or semi-physical job to mountain living, it is my personal experience that you need to be physically fit before you make the plunge.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and mountain living go to:

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We're Fine, Thanks. My bees think I’m hilarious, I can almost hear them laughing. I am indecisive and I second guess myself at the hive, mostly aloud, a lot. The bees hear all my insecurities and at times, taunt me.

They especially love when I crack open a hive, getting them good and mad, only to discover I do not have all the tools I need. I will make several trips to and from the bee yard retrieving forgotten tools and without fail my smoker will go out every time. I have combined hives, separated them and combined them again. I tried to level an uneven hive only to have it fall right off the stand onto the ground. An hour and many stings later, the girls suggested that I leave the hive uneven to which I obliged. I overstay my welcome at the hive sometimes and do more harm than good.  I went into a couple of troubled hives twice a week for four weeks straight trying to fix issues when on my husband’s suggestion I left the girls alone for three weeks. Upon my next inspection, three weeks later, I discovered that the girls had remedied all issues and were quite happy.

I have learned that beekeeping is patience, anticipation and trial by fire…or stinger. You are going to make mistakes, you are going to kill bees, you are going to make your bees very angry at times. It’s okay. This is how you learn and get better. It’s the times that you do the right thing at the right time and get awesome outcomes that you can almost hear them chanting your name.

I second guess myself a lot; I have a tendency to force things to my will. The more I relent and surrender, the better they do. It can give you a complex at first, but go with it.

The bees are my guide, I am not theirs. Don’t control the hive, learn to read it and help when they throw you the signals. Trust your bees and stay prepared. Let your bees be bees and give them some room.

It gives the term bee-space a whole new meaning. 

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orchardFall has descended on us here on Deer Isle. The Hostel is closed, the cucumber vines but a mere shadow of what they were a month ago and the Brassicas are singing in the much needed October drizzle. Fall is not only a great time to enjoy garden bounty and peak foliage but also a great time to plan for spring, and our plan is a new orchard.

Two years ago, we went to visit a friend of ours who had cleared an acre of his woodlot and now had 40 young apple trees growing there, in among a myriad of other edible and beneficial shrubs and plants. The area looked nothing like most people imagine an apple orchard—branches from the felled trees were left in big mounds to decompose and provide fertilizer, shrubs and brambles that had naturally planted themselves grew scattered throughout the area and each tree was encircled by herbs and flowers. Most people would describe what they saw as a mess, I would describe it as something I could do to, in our own backyard. Our friend's theory for this way of mimicking a diverse landscape in its natural state was based on the observation that he often found disease free and vigorous apples in the wild that when cultivated in a conventional orchard quickly got infested with pest and diseases. We revisited his orchard this fall and he told us that the more “orchard-looking” fruit trees he had up the road had severe problems with apple bores (one of the worst apple tree pests) while this natural-looking, poly-culture orchard had little to non apple bore damage.

Up until then the area behind the hostel building had been left pretty much as is was when Dennis started the clearing for our homestead. Dead and blown down trees in a thicket of brambles and brush. After our visit to our friend's new orchard, we've spent part of each winter cleaning up the mess and we now have a roughly 70-by-30 foot area where we'll plant the first fruit trees next spring. Time has been essential to observe and be resourceful, for example have we not wanted to fell more trees than we could stack in our wood shed so to not waste them and last year we realized that more drainage was needed, something which at that point the ground was too we to do.

We've also sampled our way through the island apple trees to find the varieties we'd like to grow—a mix of early and late, keepers and eaters, sauce apples and drying apples. In the winters, we've gathered our scion and in the spring we've grafted the trees on rootstock we bought from Fedco, a Maine fruit tree company. The young trees are growing in our vegetable garden and by spring they'll be ready to transplant to the new area.

With a couple of more snow free months, it's good to look ahead at see what can, and should, be done while the ground is still unfrozen and dry. We've dug more ditches, we'll run our pigs in the area to root up the brambles and rocks and we'll clean up and level the ground afterward. We'll decide where the trees will be planted, dig the holes and fill them with seaweed to fertilize the soil.

And as we're now starting to map out what besides the apple trees we'd like to grow and what other steps that are needed to take between now and spring we're also coming up with a set of goals or guidelines to keep in sight as we proceed.

Maximize the Edible Yield

We're planning an orchard with multiple edible trees, shrubs and plants that will produce food from the first year. Peach trees can be planted between the apple trees, they are comparatively short lived (12-15 years) and will be dead or declining by the time the apple trees start to produce fruit. Elderberries, viburnum, June berries, different cherry shrubs, blackberries, raspberries and Jerusalem artichokes are all good options as well as different annuals such as winter squash for example. We'll research mushrooms that could be inoculated and grown in wood chips in the shade underneath the trees.

Other Beneficial Plants

Many perennial herbs and flowers serve the purpose of both attracting pollinators, repelling pests and be useful for culinary and/or medicinal purposes. Some varieties high up on our list are echinachea, catnip, lemon balm and yarrow. Both planted varieties as well as common wild flowers, often seen as weeds in perennial gardens, fit the purpose to have something in bloom for pollinators from early April (daffodils, dandilion, wild strawberries) until late October (calendula, morning glory, marigold, asters, golden rods).

Make the Orchard Efficient

To keep the deer out we need to fence in the trees and the most efficient way is to do the whole area instead of caging the individual trees. The orchard will most likely expand as we keep increasing the clearing so some stretches of the fence need to be easy to move while some we'll be put in permanently. We have black locust logs that we'll mill and use as fence posts – they can last as long as 50 years. We can source most of the shrubs ourselves by taking cuttings or shoots from established plants around the island and we use the same local and natural fertilizers as in our gardens and our existing orchard—seaweed, horse manure and our own compost. Logs and branches from trees we've fell to create this space will be left around the fruit trees and along the paths to break down and create a habitat for mycelium and micro organisms.

Make the Orchard Durable and Sustainable

A sustainable edible landscape is one that is easy to maintain, will produce food from the first year and remain productive for a very long time. By grafting our apple trees on standard rootstock we'll give them a chance to outlive us by generations (100-year-plus apple trees are not uncommon) and the right set of companion plants will lessen the need for other pest management, such as spraying. By giving them rich soil and adequate drainage the plants in the orchard will be healthy and better able to resist diseases and pests, while producing more food for us.

A sustainable landscape is also one that's accessible and easy and comfortable to work in - we need to be able to get to all the trees with a wheelbarrow on flat and weed free paths and vegetation around each tree should be kept low so to easily see the tree trunk and it's base to detect pest problems in time.

It is an exciting time on Deer Isle, with so many apple trees for us to explore. As we climb, cling, pick, shake and search the bounty of untouched yet laden trees we often comment on how we, in a foreseeable future won't have to go further than to our own backyard to get all the apples we can eat.

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The 260-pound hog came toward me through a narrow chute, herded along from behind by the farmer, who tapped it on the flanks with a short stick to keep it moving. Beyond the chute, in a plank-fenced holding pen, I waited with a cocked-and-locked Colt Commander and a Schrade Extreme survival knife. When the hog had entered the holding pen, the farmer closed the gate, then stepped away several paces.

I disengaged the Colt's safety, and, when the pig turned toward me, I fired a .45-caliber Winchester SXT bullet through the top of its skull from a range of ten feet. The 230-grain expanding bullet exited through the underside of the hog's jaw with explosive force, plowing harmlessly into the dirt floor below. The animal collapsed in a heap, dead before it hit the ground.

But the nerve-wracking part was yet to come. I snapped the gun to safe, and quickly exchanged it for the already unsheathed knife. I'd been butchering "winter" hogs every autumn since I was a kid, and I knew the hard way that only about five seconds would pass before the creature's nervous system caused it to thrash wildly for about two minutes, until its heart ceased beating. To keep blood from coagulating inside major blood vessels, and imparting an unpleasant taste to the meat, a pig has to be bled-out before its heart stops. It's a race with time, and there's no time to be tentative; you really don't want a big hog to start kicking while you're holding a shaving-sharp blade.

The hog collapsed onto one side. With my left hand (I'm a southpaw), I thrust the tip of the Extreme hard into the side of its neck, just above the rib cage. There was slight resistance on penetration, then the blade slid in effortlessly to its hilt. I grasped my left hand with my right, and drew forcefully across the throat. It was a cold day, and the initial gush of aortal blood felt hot as it washed over my hands, but the blade easily parted a chasm as deep as its seven-inch length from one side of the neck to the other. I had just finished the job and stepped back when the big hog began thrashing, its violent gyrations accelerating blood loss from the huge gash my knife had made.

If that description sounds repulsive, imagine being the guy who does the shooting and cutting. But there was a saying in my family, "Sometimes you've gotta do the hard stuff," and before we could eat the pigs, cows, chickens and occasional goat we raised for meat, someone had to kill and butcher them. It was a lifestyle that gave kids a more grounded, less narrow perspective of the world than most get today, and a genuine, firsthand understanding of the realities of life and death.

Butchering animals also impressed on me at a young age the very real power a sharp blade has to pierce and rend flesh. The wound created to bleed a hog or cow would be horrific to a human body, far more damaging than a gunshot wound; the almost effortless way a sharp edge slices through the ribcage of a whitetail makes onlookers cringe; and the ease with which a large animal can be instantly dispatched by a slender-blade knife driven upward through the jaw, the upper palate, and into the brainpan is no less than frightening.

Contrary to one myth, a knife embedded in flesh is not held there by suction, nor is it the purpose of the so-called "blood groove," or fuller, to break said suction. A fuller, which has gone notably absent in modern knives, is put there to stiffen a blade that might otherwise flex when pressure is applied against its point. As for the suction myth, one old-timer observed that if a blade can cut its way in, it will also cut its way out.

As a weapon, only a shotgun can match a sharp blade in the amount of tissue damage it can create, and in a close-quarters, home-defense scenario no firearm is more likely to injure some part of an assailant. A single, blind strike in a dark room can eviscerate, or cause sufficient trauma to swiftly put a much larger opponent out of commission. James Bowie's brother, Rezin, has been credited with adding the handguard to his namesake knife after nearly cutting his own thumb off while using his belt knife—as the tale goes—to kill a charging bull.

Whether you buy that story or not, it was clearly the effectiveness of edged weapons that spurred the invention and evolution of projectile weapons, because the only safe defense against a determined assailant with a knife is to bring him down before he can reach you.

One federal officer tells me that during training he was instructed to shoot a knife-wielding assailant as soon as he or she approached to ten feet, because within that radius a knife was judged to be on par with a handgun in terms of lethality.

In reality, few of us are likely to use a knife as a weapon in our lifetimes, and, based on personal experiences with animals, I believe that is a blessing. Most of the folding and fixed-blade knives carried in public or in the wild will spend their existence performing mundane cutting chores; but, like the claws they emulate, intent can turn any of them into a ferocious weapon.

Advanced weapons technology has not lessened the decisive lethality that a keen cutting edge has demonstrated countless times over many millennia. If you have a knife, you're still very well armed.

Len McDougall is a full-time writer, survival instructor, and author of 16 books, most of them about the out-of-doors.  He lives surrounded by almost 3 million acres of public forest in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he raised full-blooded gray wolves, under license, for 18 years.  You can view his books online.

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Monday, September 22nd

Monday was a fun day. Fellow intern Erik and I were assigned to move a herd of cows at one of Polyface's rental farms. Erik had been assigned to move this herd daily while the apprentice whose responsibility this usually was went home for a wedding. He ended up enjoying it and did a really good job, so the staff at Polyface allowed him to continue caring for this particular group for the rest of the time he was here.

When we arrived to move the cows, we noticed they were out of water. At first, we didn’t know quite what to make of it after doing the preliminary check of things, but since the cows were thirsty, we decided to move them to a corral they had been in the day before that had a partially filled water tank still in it. That ended up not being enough water, so we looked around and found some concrete troughs that this rental farm’s former cattle farming tenants had installed previously on different sections of the property. Thankfully most of these had some water sitting in them, so we moved the cows to each one. It took a few hours of shutting the bovines around to get everyone a drink, but this herd was very cooperative and the whole operation—for being born from a problem—went very smoothly.

During all the moving of the cows, Erik and I had determined that the water pump had broken. We called our Apprentice Manager, Eric with a ‘c,’ and he came by and fixed it. I am not particularly well versed in all things motor, but Eric said it was the relay in the pump that had stopped functioning. After the pump was fixed, Erik and I set up new fencing, took down and moved the old water troughs and changed the battery on the fencing. Since we ran so late with all the water problems, we were granted a dispensation to get a very late lunch at Five Guys (yay) and headed back for evening chores.

While it is generally best to avoid problems, Erik and I were talking on the ride back to the farm about how solving an issue like this is fun. To me, it seems that business, farming and life in general seems to involve putting out a lot of fires. Challenges arise and you fix them as best you can, as quickly as you can and for as cheaply as you can because something else is just around the corner and you better be ready. Instead of dreading it, I find if I just accept it and try to enjoy it when I can, life is much more pleasant.

Tuesday, September 23rd

My morning chore this week was to be on the projects team, and today’s project was to unstack and put away the chicken crates from Sunday’s interstate 1,000 bird delivery. I ended up doing the buying club load up after breakfast, which lasted the rest of the morning. I knew I was being a bit of a buying club hog and that I shouldn’t do it next week (I love doing it. It’s fun.) so it was a bit of a bummer to know this was my last one. I just love to see what people order. I’ve been trying to keep mental notes for my and Dan’s farm back at home (Sugar River Farm in Newport, N.H. Come visit when I get back!) so I’ll know what is marketable and see if there is any seasonality to what people order. It seems chicken wing sales increase around football season… big surprise there!

The rest of the day was spent harvesting and packaging butternut squash for winter storage and checking on the cattle herd from yesterday. I, as are the cattle I'm sure, am pleased to report their water was in good working order. 

Wednesday, September 24th

This morning, I went with Eric, our Apprentice Manager, and fellow intern Chris to gather turkeys for today’s processing. We used a cattle trailer and a custom ramp that Polyface built for the turkeys to walk up. Had this been the beginning of the season, gathering this many turkeys would have been a big production, but since we’ve all gotten the hang of things, we were able to get the birds on the road in about 45 minutes.

We spent the rest of the day processing about 200 broiler chickens and the 120 turkeys. Processing turkeys takes a really long time as compared to chickens, but I suppose they make up for it in the ease of which they are raised. They really are very easy to raise and are good natured animals, too. I can't wait to have my own. After processing, while everyone else was bagging and boxing, I ended up deboning some of the birds for ground turkey and doing pieces and parts for some of the chickens. I’m really excited to have learned how to do this, as I’ll be able to offer more custom processing options for future clients of my farm.

Thursday, September 25th

Thursday is Polyface’s restaurant delivery day, so project people get to the sales building around 5:30 a.m. and assemble the orders so Richard can leave with the truck at 7 a.m. We packed up a lot of fresh chickens, some retail items, boxes of eggs (both chicken and duck), beef and sides of pork.

After load up, we set to more processing. Since Thanksgiving is coming, we process the turkeys towards the end of September and they are frozen. Polyface, due to its outdoor processing facility and the seasonality of raising animals, does not offer fresh turkey in November. We processed about 140 turkeys and I deboned a bunch while the others bagged the birds and boxed them up for the freezer. The beauty, I found, in deboning birds for ground meat is it doesn't matter what the meat ends up looking like once it's off the bone. Nobody cares if it looks pretty because it's going to be ground up anyway. This means one can work on speed without worrying about a wayward cut making the end product look bad.

Friday, September 26th

This morning, we set up a windbreak at the processing shed. The area we process birds in is open air, which is lovely in the summer, but with the temperatures dropping, can get a bit nippy. Eric had an idea to make a plastic windbreak that we would permanently install that could be rolled or unrolled as the weather dictated. It was a bit misty and cold that morning and there was a definite difference in temperature once the windbreak was unfurled. I was grateful to him for coming up with the idea. I’m sure fall processing will be much more comfortable for the apprentices and staff who will need to butcher birds after we interns have gone.

After setting up the windbreak, we moved some piglets from the baby piglet barn to the lovely pastures of one of Polyface’s rental farms. We also gathered some firewood and posts that Joel Salatin had felled at this property and left to cure outside. The rest of the day was spent working on the fence line at one of Polyface’s fields on the farm. The cattle had just grazed the field, so it was a good time to go in and cut back and chip the brush and saplings that were encroaching on the electric wire. This was the last time I would ever chip at Polyface. Halleluja. No offense chipper, but we need a break from each other. I know I’ll see you again soon, but hopefully not until spring.

Monday, September 29th

Today was our last processing ever at Polyface. I was on the broiler moving team, so part of our job today was to gather the 400 birds needed. I ended up only processing briefly, and was called off the line to move some of the mountain pigs to one of the acorn glens, pull the spent plants from the garden and plant garlic. I love gardening, so this was a great way to spend the morning.

Last processing 

The afternoon was spent bagging birds and cleaning and packing for our imminent departure. We girls had spent some time cleaning over the weekend so we spent most of our time packing our cars before evening chores.

Tuesday, September 30th: Last Day at Polyface

The last day was a bit of a blur. I had spent the last four months so immersed in the people, tasks and methods of Polyface Farm that it was surreal to think that my life would change drastically in one day. Don't get me wrong—I was excited to get home and see Dan, my family and my friends, but change is always a bit jarring. We moved broilers, dug some footings, gathered firewood and did a bunch of other small odds and ends.

That night was the Year End Dinner held at the Joshua Wilton House in Harrisonberg, Va. We were dismissed early to get ready, as this was a very fancy locale. No leathermans please. Or dirty fingernails. We had a lovely dinner (I had a ribeye. Yum.) with some delicious wine pairings, listened to some kind words from Joel and Daniel Salatin and then we said goodbye. I am terrible at goodbyes, so I had written people little notes over the past weekend which I handed out as we were leaving. Then I drove away the next morning while it was still dark.

Year End Dinner


I would like to thank the Salatins and everyone at Polyface Farm for allowing me the opportunity to work with them this summer and for all their efforts in training me to be a good farmer and healer of the land. I met many wonderful people from all over the country and learned a lot about myself and what I am capable of. I would like to thank MOTHER EARTH NEWS for allowing me to write for them thus far and for allowing me to continue blogging about starting my and Dan’s new farm business. Thanks to all of you for reading and for supporting me all summer and thanks in advance for your continued support.

My hope is that if you are on the fence about farming or wish to explore your dreams of self-sustainability, that you take a step—however small—and dip your toe in the water. Get a rabbit. Buy a tomato plant for your deck. Join a CSA. Go to an agriculture fair of farming conference. Prune the plants in your yard. Start a worm bin. Read about anything and everything you find interesting, regardless of how weird your family and friends might think it is. That’s exactly what I did. And I think you should too. Be brave and true to yourself and you will be amazed at how happy you can be.

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People without a dairy background simply cannot imagine how many things need to be done every day on a dairy farm. It is a very busy life. If something goes wrong, or if there is a problem that demands an hour or so of extra, unscheduled, work, then you go to bed an hour later. As a result, it is important that every task becomes routine so that you can do your chores without making mistakes.

Most dairy farmers do their daily chores at the same time and during the same day of the week every week. When I had a larger farm with 90 Jersey cows to milk and 250 head to care for, Wednesdays and Sundays were the days when we did routine maintenance of the milking equipment, tractors and other machinery. This way, we knew that those vital functions would not be overlooked. The milking equipment would be clean and functioning properly, and the tractors would be greased and lubricated. We milked the cows every day at 6 a.m. and at 5:30 p.m. We always cleaned the barn right after morning milking and tried to finish chores by 9 a.m. so that we would be free to get non-routine items, like field work, firewood prep, pasture mowing, etc., done. I have to admit that one of my greatest joys during these years was getting the chance to take a 15-minute afternoon nap during breaks in the action. This happened rarely!

Seasonal changes are very disruptive for cold-climate dairy farms. In fact, I don’t know one Vermont dairy farmer who looks forward to the coming of winter. The change in weather means that many on-farm routines must change. Surprisingly, the same unwanted disruption occurs when winter turns to spring. Suddenly, fences need to be mended, water lines to the pastures need to be repaired, the lanes traveled by the cows on their way to pasture needed to be graded and smoothed. Plus, the cows need to adjust to life on the pasture again. The routine on a dairy farm can be so dominant that it can cloud a farmer’s judgment. Case in point, I have seen farmers keep their cows in the barn all summer to avoid breaking their winter routine. Cows—like farmers—don’t like changes in routines, but even they want and need to be outside in the summer.

As we inch toward winter here in Vermont, we prepare to make some pretty extreme changes to our routines in order to adapt to the snow and extreme cold that is coming. The major difference for the farm in the winter is that the cows can't graze on the pasture. Seems pretty obvious, but it takes some adjusting. In place of fresh pasture, I feed my cows stored feed. Like most cows, mine don’t love to be outside in the cold and snow. Even so, I try to let them out for at least an hour per day while I clean the barn. When I do this, they look at me like I am nuts and hang out by the door until I let them back in. Of course they like the barn. It is cozy, well ventilated and they have soft mattresses to lie down on. Plus, good feed is always in reach.

In the next few blogs I will cover what I am doing to prepare my micro dairy for the coming of winter. Big changes are in store for my barn, the cows, and my own personal daily routine. Keep reading for my tips to make the transition a smooth one, and please feel free to reach out to me via Bob-White Systems at 802-763-2777.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


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