Saturday, June 30, 2012

Barn Raising (Dragging?)

Tuesday I headed west into the old cowboy and Indian country past Ink's Lake, where the pink granite boulders shoot up 10 feet from the ground.  It's the kind of wild country that hasn't changed much since before this place was Texas.  The highway stretches for miles with nothing more in sight than cedar, live oak, cactus and deer.  I stopped in to a little Czech bakery on the side of the road for kolaches and a sandwich.  The entire diner was empty save for an old couple.  Both wore cowboy hats, chewed slowly and stared dead-straight at me without apology.  It's clear I wasn't local. I've only been out this way a few times.  Once for a pretty spectacular work retreat where we bunked in old log cabins along Lake Buchanan and then ate at Cooper's famous BBQ joint in Llano.  The more recent trip was to pick up Chula and Boo.  They lived on a ranch somewhere in the desolate hills.  Today I was here because, once again, I'd found something amazing on Craigslist and decided the two hour trip was worth the investment.  

As mentioned earlier, we've gone back and forth (and repeat) about a barn situation for some time now.  We also lack a garage or workshop out here; a space Jeremy has really been missing (and me too, since tools are scattered around the porches).  My vision for a barn always included a people space in the middle for tack, medicines, and feed and then animal shelters built out off either side of the center space.  Ideally, the entire building would be scratch built onsite using our own cedar and miscellaneous scrap metal.  The reality is that we don't have that kind of time, considering the growing goats and the potential addition of a dairy cow (not to mention the new pasture that needs to be built, house to be finished, driveway to complete - want me to continue?).  In fact, two weeks ago, we almost placed an order for a brand new, modular structure that neither of us were excited about.  It was more than we wanted to spend and not exactly what we envisioned.  And it was new.  I'm not a fan of "new" when so much great material already exists.  I also like the idea of objects and spaces with previous lives - just another trademark Jenna quirk.

Last Friday, I found a structure on Craigslist - an old Morgan portable building.  Barn red with white trim and huge double front doors.  Wood framed and metal sided.  It was old and creaky and came with a rusty weather vane perched on top.  And it was huge.  With this option we could actually have a nice mix of what we originally wanted: something not new, a big center area/people space, and scratch built animal shelters if we built lean-to's off the sides of the building with cedar and metal.  Lean-to building isn't something to sniff at, and will take time, but nothing close to the amount of time it would take to erect an entire building from scratch.  Sold!

The biggest problem would be locating a barn mover who could pull the structure out of its precarious spot between fences and other buildings.  The distance of the thing also wasn't insignificant.  I spent most of Monday working with the owner and speaking with several movers.  When it looked like we'd found a solution, I made the trip to Llano Tuesday to see the structure, hand over the cash, and crossed my fingers it would arrive intact.  Surprisingly, the entire move went smoothly.  I sat on the porch and watched as the mover hauled the 12x40 structure up the driveway and slowly moved it into place, at the edge of the forest near the house.  When he left, I stepped into the space that had just been emptied the night before.  The barn came off a ranch just purchased by a young couple.  It was the previous ranch owner's workshop and walking through the thing, it's obvious how much time he spent filling this place with shelving, work tables, and tool holders.  The entire building contains strategically placed lights, a fan, electrical outlets.  It served its purpose for over 20 years out in the dusty hills of Llano and now it will have a completely different life as a barn at the edge of the trees.  Today we cleaned her up, and Jer ran an extension cord out to check the lights.  They work.  He's already started moving his tools onto the shelves and into drawers.  He's been grinning a little silly since she arrived.  (Me too).

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


20 minutes ago we loaded Seamus and Matilda into separate trailers.  Matilda has gone to a 36 acre ranch in the hill country.  Her new owner is a livestock vet with two young sons who have already come over to feed and pet her.  She's going to have a good life.

Seamus was loaded into Dwayne's borrowed trailer.  Right now he is on his way to Smithville where he will be processed.  The emotions behind this decision are, obviously, complicated and raw.  I wrote at length about my initial decision to process one of our steers here and little of what was said then has changed for me now.

But today was much, much harder for me than butchering Rooney last year.  I've been sleepless for a week and wrestled with the knowledge that just as easily as I decided we would do this, I could decide not to.  That sort of power is frightening.  Although I was positive I wouldn't be able to help load him, I managed to calmly participate in what ended up being a very smooth loading from round pen to trailer.  While holding a bucket of feed over the fence to lure him forward, my upper arm snagged on the barbed wire.  There's a deep, open hole there that will probably scar.  It seems appropriate.

I came back inside and poured a tall glass of iced tea, sat down at the computer and wrote a note to my sister - if we all had to do this each time we wanted a hamburger, our diets would be dramatically different.  BBQ ribs would be more of a luxury and a blessing.  There's nothing sterile or simple about consuming meat.  Most of us interact with the food chain at the very end, after all the dirty work has been done and without much consideration for everything that went into its beginning, its middle - and its end. Although I felt burdened this week with my own personal dilemmas about ending a life, it thrust me right into the middle of the food chain, in a way.  It makes me absolutely conscious about how much of that precious beef I will consume, and how I will prepare it.  It makes me think twice every time I'm eating out and see meat on the menu.  How was that animal treated?  What did it eat?  Do I want to support that?

Some people in my life were horrified I decided to process Seamus.  I kept much more distance from Rooney who wasn't such a nice animal to begin with; a fact that somehow made his death more palatable for others wrestling with the notion of "eating a pet."  I was horrified, too, when we first discussed the fact that Matilda needed a new home, the reality of hay prices, the fact that this animal was always intended for slaughter.  I broke down twice.  I cried when he was driven away, then I came inside and washed my gouged arm and silently thanked whatever forces came together to allow us this piece of dirt and these animals.

Many of our choices around here regarding animals are heavy.  They should be.  This is not the last animal we will raise for food - for us, our families and our friends.  This isn't the last time I'll lean against the kitchen counter allowing myself two whole minutes of quiet tears.  Like last year, I'm full with gratitude for his time here on the farm and his contribution as food for this table and others.  

Monday, June 25, 2012

Future Telling

Out of morbid curiosity I peeked back at some one year old blog posts, not quite sure what I'd find, but certain it would bring back all kinds of disgusting memories of the loan-getting/builder-interviewing/life-upside-downing process.

I found some of that, to be sure.  But then I also found this - so absolutely prescient that I shivered.  Especially to realize that exactly one year later - to the day - we brought home another year's worth of hay.  I shook the feeling off fast and went out to pet my snoozing pyrenees and feed the baby goats who (like last year's post says) weren't even born at the time I wrote it.  I guess it wasn't future-telling so much as just making sure things actually happened.

Damn it feels good, either way.


There's a lot to say and a lot to report.  Lucky for you, however, the intense heat and humidity have melted every remaining piece of my brain that controls writing function.  So there's little I can muster aside from a few key highlights and a lot of pictures.


  • The Barn Saga which includes the following dilemmas - Do we build a barn? Buy a barn? Move a barn? Think of it this way: it's the type of overthinking that went into the house on a smaller, more compact, but no less frustrating scale. Yiipppeeee!!
  • The Goat Pasture Saga which includes the following dilemmas - Do we toss them into the main pasture with the other livestock?  Do we toss them into the 5 acre woods just behind the house? Do we start building fences? (which results in the ancillary dilemma) Why in the world do we always build fences and install waterlines in 100 + degree weather?
  • The Garden Abundance Saga - constant tomato roasting and cucumber pickling.  This is no dilemma. It just bears noting.  
  • The Goat Milk Saga - constant peach ice cream and cheese-making (resulting in constant ice cream and cheese eating).  See previous comment.
  • The Cow Selling Saga - Mixed feelings.  More on this later.
What's resulted is lots of photography of baby goats running on porches and living somewhat "freely" in the woods while I watch them through windows.  I've also documented the food making because who doesn't like to see a beautiful chevre curd form?! And now since it's 11am and already 102*, it's time to go soak my head in an ice bath and insert an iced tea IV. 



Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Goats, goats, more goats

For over a week now we've been letting the goats out for walks around the property.  At first I worried they would scatter in four directions, so overwhelmed by their freedom that they'd spring sideways (Fact: baby goats only run and jump sideways) right out of my life.  Since they've eaten the leaves off all the branches they can reach inside their pen, Jer suggested we let them out.  "Just - what - out?!" I said, absolutely shocked at his obvious attempts to dispose of the goats.  "So, then what, we cross our fingers and just hope they love us enough to stick around and find their way home?  Do you hate the goats?  WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU?!!!"  I shouted, to which Jer calmly explained, "Um.  They love you.  They throw their bodies against the fence when you walk near the pen.  They won't run away.  And, by the way, you are crazy."

Once that was settled, and I was suitably convinced the goats may actually not, in fact, spring sideways out of my life forever, I timidly opened their gate.  Held my breath.  Ready to snatch any potential escapee at a moments notice.  What actually happened was, of course, exactly as Jeremy predicted.  The goats did spring sideways, and twirled in the air, flipped in circles, and generally just browsed joyfully - so long as they could keep me in sight.  The moment they lost me, it became utter chaos.  There's a reasonable chance neighbors have reported us to the authorities for suspected animal abuse based solely on the high pitched wailing (screaming, actually) the goatlings emit as soon as I'm out of eye line.  The panic that ensues is pretty hilarious were it not for their genuine distress.  This means that each day I spend a minimum of one (ok maybe two, if we're being honest) hours walking around the property - down to the garden, through the woods, into the creek bed, up to the hen house - so that the goats can access a wider variety of browse, with me in constant sight.  Plus - I get to herd goats.  It's a win-win type of situation.  There are all kinds of poetic ways I might describe the experience of watching my goats in the woods, having them each take turns sitting in my lap until it's time to run off and eat cedar bark, but I'll leave that for a real author to describe (try Brad Kessler's Goat Song for a gorgeous account of goat herding).  For now, the pictures of goat joy and goat freedom, speak for themselves.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tasted Like the Sun

About a week ago a woman came to the house to take a look at Matilda, our extremely ornery cow who is for sale.  Although she decided to pass on the cow, she stopped and stayed for awhile to talk about her own small homestead, goats, and Dexter breeding.  After handing me a few jars of peach jam from her orchard and loading me down with unused mineral feeders for the goats from the back of her truck ("Take them, take them.  I collect this stuff in case I meet people who need them," she said) - she handed me the most precious gift of all.  Before heading down the road, Christine casually reached into her glove compartment and took out a business card, saying, "You know about the Grade A raw goat milk dairy just down the road from you, right?  Youngs Prairie Dairy?"  I must have gotten wide-eyed and slack jawed.  A raw milk goat dairy?  Here?  In my neighborhood?  "Oh Jenna, you need to make friends with Fran, take this card.  Call her.  Today.  Bye!"  And into the truck she jumped, revved the engine, and bounced down the drive, sticking her arm out the window for a wave.

I stood there in the road like that for a good, full minute -my arms wrapped around heavy duty plastic animal feeders, jars of peaches, and my fingers gripping the little rectangular card.  Then I ran inside and hopped online.  Sent one of my gibberish notes to the dairy, "Hi I'm Jenna.  I love goats.  I would like your life.  Please teach me."  She wrote back in an hour, "I love goats too!  Let's talk about them - come over tomorrow."  The following afternoon, my mother, sister and I made the 10 mile trek over to Fran's dairy.  For the rest of my family, it was just a little trip to a farm.  It was pretty, sure, but that's about it.  For me - of course - it was magical.

Fran's property is nestled in the middle of a 44 acre forest.  Her big yellow house sits up on a hill under a shroud of trees.  Just beyond the house is a network of hotwire fencing and the freshly built dairy, a lovely galvalume covered building with sage trim.  It looks smart and clean, shining there in the middle of a checkerboard of fences.  Fran walked out wearing a big smile, hands on hips, and gave me the type of firm and honest handshake I always expect from these people.  "Hi, I'm Fran.  Wanna see the goats?"  Oh boy, did I.  We met the bucks, two enormous bearded billies, one of whom was in full rut.  As he paced, moaned and periodically peed on his own face, Fran sighed and rolled her eyes, "People who don't have goats - they're shocked by this.  My city visitors usually walk away pretty fast when he starts doing this, and I just say, 'Well, you can't get the milk without this kind of stuff.' " I watched the buck pee mournfully on his own face and knicker sadly at the does who, not in heat and out of breeding season, could care less about his histrionics.  In a few months, my own little buckling Boss will be making a fool of himself in a similar way - a stinky, and annoying reality.  But, like she said, you can't get milk without this kind of stuff.

After pointing out a few prize does (Old queen Ella laid atop the round bale and surveyed the pasture), Fran ushered us into the dairy.  Once inside we immediately smelled the fresh goat milk soap cakes curing on a counter - spearmint eucalyptus with green clay.  She led us into the milking parlor and showed us how her fancy stanchion and milk machine work.  She handed us the bottles of udder cleaner and teat dip, then we went back into the make room (literally where you "make" milk products) for what turned into a long and detailed discussion of goat care and milk handling.  In essence, she opened her facility to us the way any farmer selling directly to the public, should.  I stuck my hand in her (Coyote Creek Mill!) organic goat feed.  I learned what products she uses to worm her goats.  We bought two gallons of milk knowing exactly what the animals had eaten, how they'd been treated, what was used to clean their teats.

The contents of all food should be this available to us, as consumers.  And we should be able to pronounce and understand everything that went into the creation of it.  Especially with milk, the history of which (in America) is rather gory and disgusting, it is particularly unbelievable to have access to a product so local, so clean, and so accessible.  I won't go into the controversy of raw milk, or the incredible health benefits it provides, or the government regulations that keep it from farmer's markets (even from licensed, Grade A dairies!!).  But knowing all of these things makes our access to this sort of product incredibly precious.  I happily handed over $7/half gallon for Fran's milk (and $3/bar for the beautiful soaps), because I understand exactly what it took for Fran to produce them, and I know how lucky we are to have it available so close to Austin.

I left her dairy with an invitation to stay in touch and to return for some goat veterinary lessons and the assurance that a seasoned goat herder was just down the road in case of emergencies.  We came back to the house and opened one of the little jugs, pouring the contents into three small cups.  I felt like clinking glasses - for me - this was a real celebration.  The milk was perfect, sweet and cold with a salty finish.  Not an ounce of "goat" flavor detectable.  It was from that morning's milking and the freshest dairy we'd ever had. I peeked out the kitchen window that looks onto the goat pen where my own baby goats were butting heads and spinning in the tall grass.  What a world this has unlocked for me - without having put Matilda up for sale, I'd never have met Christine - I might not have heard about Fran.  How many other farmers are tucked into the trees in these hills?

Last week I drank one half gallon of milk over cereal and peaches and in tall cold glasses.  The other half-gallon was turned into the simplest of all cheeses since I have no culture or rennet on hand.  Adding a bit of cider vinegar (or any acid) to cheese turns it into queso blanco or paneer - a chewy, crumbly little cheese that can be made sweet or savory.  To mine, I added sea salt and purple basil.  I put it on a salad with my cucumbers and tomatoes.  The entire salad, grown outside the front door, with cheese from goats down the road, tasted like the sun, the dirt, the wind, and the grasses that live in this little pocket of my county. 

Vinegar Cheese:
-Stirring constantly, heat 1 gallon of milk to 180* or just to the point of boiling.  Don't let milk scald
-Immediately add 1/2 cup of vinegar (any vinegar - but cider vinegar's extra good for you) to the milk.
-Stir gently.  Curds and whey separate immediately.
-Once curds have formed, let it rest for about 10 minutes. 

-Pour into clean tea cloth, muslin, or cheese cloth and strain all whey - letting it drip into a big bowl on your counter.
-Season any which way (honey and nuts or salt and herbs). 

Or, even better, just eat the curds unseasoned,  with your fingers.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

State Your Business

Tonight Dwayne and his son Kelly bounced down our driveway in a black pickup truck and ambled onto the porch carrying a plastic bag filled with beer.  We’re in need of a welder to piece together some sheds we removed from a nearby ranch (Eccentric millionaire down the road - another story worth telling).  Dwayne was over last weekend when we first mentioned the dilapidated sheds sitting in a pile by the house, and before I’d fully explained the situation he raised a finger to pause me and hit speed dial with his free hand.  While the phone rang he reminded us, again, that he “don’t know shit but can hook you up with people that do,” and when someone answered the other end it was clear he’d contacted his son to come have a look at our pile of metal.  This evening they came by to inspect our old sheds and see if they could be pieced back together.

It’s important to understand that Kelly satisfies every single stereotype for “cowboy.”  He’s short and squat with a leathered neck, red from sun exposure.  When he talks it’s only out of the corner of his mouth but always with a wide grin, meaning every other word is almost unintelligible – but you always get the gist.  For example tonight we had an entire conversation about, what I thought was, a picture.  It turns out he was actually talking about a pitcher, but I’ve gotten so accustomed to his accent that I actually assumed it was the other word.  Regardless, I understood the story in the end.  For years Kelly rode bulls on the rodeo circuit and was the foreman at the only ranch in Texas that sold organic Kobe beef from Wagyu cattle.  He’s got at least 20 stories about the various chefs from New York City flown in for the afternoon to taste a cut of beef that Kelly himself cooked out in the pasture over an open flame.  And no matter how dirty and sweat-soaked he gets, his cowboy hat stays perfectly crisp and clean.   The thing about Kelly is that, despite the rough-hewn first impression, he’s got a true appreciation for history and antiques.  When he walked into our house for the first time, he gravitated to our enormous antique apron sink and stroked it gently, murmering, “She’s real, real pretty.”  In fact, one of my most treasured books is one recommended by Kelly – called Indian Depredations – a contemporary account of Texas settlers’ experiences with Indians in this exact little spot, deep in the heart of Texas.  He’s memorized most of the stories and retells them with eyes, literally twinkling – like the one about Texas ranger Jack Hayes who rode a mule instead of horse so he could traverse the rocky hill country and sneak past Indian encampments.  He’s the kind of man who, if he’d lived in those days, would have proudly volunteered as a Texas ranger.  It’s not fire and bravado that motivates this guy – it’s honor and pride.  You know, the kind of stuff we only read about in books and see in old movies.  I’ve always liked that a conversation with Kelly is timeless.  He talks in a manner that probably would fit in just fine 100 years ago.  

As much as I enjoy the company of this father and son duo, it’s tough to end a visit since their stories run together like rivers.  And they don’t stop.  Although we’ve heard most of Dwayne’s stories at least five times, he always throws in something new.  Tonight we heard about the time he ran into Evil Kenevil in the airport and called Kelly at 2am, said “Son, I want you to talk to Evil Kenevil” and, in a stupor, Kelly said, “Evil, is that really you?”  He told us about the time he found himself entertaining a crowd at a bar in New York City where he “stuck out like a rat shit in a sugar bowl.”  We gossiped about other neighbors, discussed fence repair, and I told them both about a random car that drove up to the house this week – a frightening experience when your house is hidden in the woods, half a mile from the road.  Dwayne became deadly serious when I shared this story and, in a grave voice said, “Darlin', you got to get you one of those No Trespassing signs.  But one of those real ones that ain’t no one gonna misunderstand.  You know what I’m talkin’ about?  They say ‘Trespassers will be shot.  Survivors will be shot again.’ ”  Then he instructed me to keep a loaded gun next to the door at all times, and when an unexpected visitor arrives at the door, to greet them with the raised gun and say, “State your business.”  

I started to laugh when Dwayne said this, his face set, so stony and serious.  Then I watched Kelly look at his father with reverence and nod his head in complete agreement as he took a long, slow sip of beer and pushed his cowboy hat back slightly from his forehead.  “Yessir,” he said softly, lifting the beer can to his lips again, “make ‘em state their business.”   

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Small Prayers / Thanks Giving

Last night we made our first dinner from ingredients grown and raised almost entirely at the land.  The obvious meaning behind that type of meal caused me to go all weepy and write an incredibly long, soul-searching post about eating locally and connecting to your food and blah, blah, blah.  All the stuff that, if you're reading, you likely already consider.  In fact right now you might be reading this over a breakfast of your hens' scrambled eggs and toast covered in the peach jam from your orchard.  But through the magic of the interwebs, the post suddenly disappeared.  I consider it divine intervention.  It really shouldn't take many words to understand what it means when the plate before you is covered in your own sweat and tears and (sometimes) blood.  It goes without saying that an enormous feeling of gratitude accompanies every piece of beef and every snap of a juicy green bean.  I'm not a spiritual person, but last night, I bowed my head momentarily before taking the first bite.  

Despite my brown thumb and negligence, the garden's been good to us.  We hastily threw down seeds and transplant tomatoes, but because they rooted down into the compost Jeremy spread, created here over three years of animal tending, they just took off.  So, with my surplus tomatoes, I followed my sister's instructions:
Toss halved tomatoes with olive oil, a little sugar, salt, cracked pepper.  Spread it on a baking sheet and roast at 275 degrees for about three hours.

When they finally came off the pan, I leaned against the counter and popped one crinkled little golden beauty in my mouth.  It exploded with a little pop! and tasted exactly like summer concentrate- everything you remember best about childhood in summer: swimming pools, and sunburns, and watermelon, and fireflies.  It tasted like the culmination of thirty years dreaming of something I could never name but finally understand.

It doesn't matter where you are and if your dirt is in a pot on the windowsill or acres out the back door: go grow something.  Plant it, tend it, eat it.  Then feel incredibly grateful that you can.