THE BIG FARM Project 2012 is a year-long diary of photos, essays, and videos of the comings and goings of the THE BIG FARM in Madison, NH.
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December 31, 2012. Time to let go.

good-bye broom

It's probably past time to retire this old broom. The end of the old year and the beginning of the new is as good a time as any. The broom is sitting in the corner of the garage. I use it every week to brush loose hay out of the back of the truck after I drop the bales in the barn. It's a long winding road to this get to this point.

I have a broom system.

When I buy a new broom, the new broom is assigned to the kitchen closet for use in the house, primarily the kitchen, dining room, mud room. The old kitchen broom is sent downstairs to the creamery where it does service in the milk room, the milk processing room, the bakery and the cheese aging room. The retiring downstairs broom, which is still in pretty good shape at this point, is sent out to the barn where it is used primarily in the spring and summer to sweep out the milking parlor twice a day.

It can also be deployed to clean cobwebs out of the rafters, knock out nascent wasp nests, swat at angry roosters, etc. This is where the wear and tear really starts to kick in. By the time the handle breaks in half and the bristles are worn to a nub, the usefulness in the milking parlor is just about nil. This particular broom earned extended assignment to the garage, but I looked at it yesterday as I tried to sweep the hay out of the truck with it.

It was time to let go.

November 4, 2012. Farm Grandpa

ike working east fresian milking sheep to make american sheep's milk cheese

I first encountered Farm Grandpa in the spring of 2009 when I went to buy my first lambs outside of Belfast, Maine. Ginger and I came up to the farm in the van, and the first person we came across was the Farm Grandpa, a thin old man scratching at the dirt in the yard with a metal rake. He called the lady who was selling the lambs--his daughter or his daughter-in-law, I'm not sure which--and got back to work.

I've driven by that old farm two other times since, and both times that old Farm Grandpa was out. One time, in winter he was hammering at something on the front porch, and another time in late summer, he was in the side yard standing out under an apple tree, taking a break, just out of reach of the sun. After I noticed my first Farm Grandpa, I saw them everywhere I went--little old men at other little old family farms doing chores and keeping an eye on things.

These are not General Store Porch-Sitting Grandpas, these are Farm Grandpas. Farm Grandpas have a number of high-level roles, mostly general oversight and supervision of the farm property and the comings and goings. They are usually engaged in some sort of homesteading activity.

It took me a while to connect these other Farm Grandpa's and my very own Farm Grandpa--my wife's father, Sepp. He's an unconventional Farm Grandpa, which I think made the initial connection difficult for me, but he's a Farm Grandpa all the same--whipping the woodpile, tending the bees, fixing broken furniture, providing high-level oversight and supervision.

Sepp took this picture of Ike.

Ike likes to come out with me and do the morning chores. When this picture was taken it was early and pretty cold. When I stuck my head out of the barn to check on Ike, Sepp was out on the driveway in front of the barnyard snapping away. He was in his slippers and green bathrobe.

I like my Farm Grandpa, and I know my wife and children do.

One warning though. Farm Grandpas are difficult to buy for. I'm giving mine food--a BIG FARM Christmas gift box: One bag of BIG FARM crackers, two quarter pound wedges of delicious BIG FARM Creamery cheese. (If I made salami, it would be in the gift box, too; but I don't--maybe next year.) All packaged in a nifty little wooden re-usable box: perfect for loose screws, playing cards, drill bits, whatever else your Farm Grandpa would like to tuck away for another day. Check THE BIG FARMSTAND for price and availability.

holiday gift box of cheese and crackers

October 19, 2012. Foxie loxie

We had a fox problem last month.

Our chickens are not penned, so they get out pretty early in the morning and start working the pasture and woods looking for breakfast, usually just about daybreak. With fox in the neighborhood, they became prime targets for his bedtime snack.

All our CSI team could find were a few tufts of feathers out in the open fields. There were six or seven victims in total over the course of couple of weeks. Francesca and her father both saw the perp accosting groups of chickens near the compost at the edge of the wood, but there were no eyewitness accounts of any slayings.

(Chickens don't lie; but they also don't talk.)

I ordered a trap for the fox. It came in the mail. It's like a very large have-a-heart mouse trap. I set it, baited it. I was worried we might catch the dog, or the cat, or the baby, but none of them seemed very interested in the trap.

I didn't get any action on the trap so I moved it. Waited. Rebaited the trap. Nothing. Then one morning the trap was sprung.


Every war has its innocent victims. Above is a picture of the collateral damage in the war between me and fox.

We'd had a problem with a skunk last year in the barn, eating eggs, and causing general nervousness in the house. He was deported to a nearby national forest. This skunk, however, was not a known menace. I opened up the cage, and after a couple of hours, he trundled down to the culvert just above the house and slipped into the woods.

The chicken killings have stopped. There were a couple of nights when there were coyotes making a ruckus up the hill, and my guess is they've asked fox to move on down the road.

The dozen or so hens left are mostly older, enjoying THE BIG FARM's generous retirement program, so the flock mistress ordered some new hens who are getting along nicely and will likely be laying by spring.

August 7, 2012. The F-word.

Ivan in his ashram
If June and July are the months of routine--the steady months of milking, baking, cheesemaking; then August is the month of change. I've stopped milking the ewes. They will take a month or so's vacation before breeding, then start the whole cycle over again. Our short-stay poultry are wrapping up their time with us. Woodcutting has started in earnest, which of course brings to mind the F-word, also known as the A-word, also known as the season which follows summer. It is a fine season, perhaps the finest, but very short; and its proximity to The Season Which Shall Not Be Named is reason enough to look away from it out of fear as we grind from one solstice to the next.

Ivan, shown here, has undergone a change of venue. I've moved him to the recently vacated milking parlor, and a little section of the barnyard I've penned off from the rest. My wife calls it his ashram--a place of solitude and spiritual reflection. I call it his non-procreation station.

He will hang out here for the next month or so, with extra rations, and quite a few extra social visits from me and the children, who usually come bearing beet greens or bolted lettuce cuttings. After his month of quiet reflection he should be well-rested and energized, and the ewes will be ready for breeding.

This is the first time he's been separated from his flock for any length of time. Our hands-off approach in the past has given us lambs in the first week of January, This year we hope to stave off lambing until Groundhog's Day. Which is closer than you might think.

July 12, 2012. A long ways from January.


This is the scene on July 10, 2012--this photo taken from the same spot the first Project photo was taken on New Year's Day. Scroll to the bottom to compare and contrast!

Posts have been fewer and farther between since we've gotten into the routine of summer. Milking, moving the sheep around on the pasture, making cheese, making bread and crackers for the Farmers Market, and, as you can see, riding our bikes--up to the road, down to the barn, back up to the road, around and around the garage.

Good times, summer.

One of the questions most asked about the sheep is how do you milk them. The children and I endeavored to answer that question. Use the link below to see the result at THE BIG FARM's YouTube Channel.


June 9, 2012. This little piggie went to market.

THE BIG FARM cheese display at Tamworth Farmers MarketJune Tamworth Farmers Market
There really should not be such a successful farmer's market in Tamworth, New Hampshire. The town is not the largest in the area. Fewer than 3000 people live there. It is not Conway, or Jackson, or even Madison. It is too far off for Lake visitors to trek, and a ways off the beaten path to the resorts in the North, yet . . .

Here it is, to my mind, the best small town farmer's market I've ever seen--and a decent rival to some big city markets I've been to. These pictures were taken in what should be the ho-hums of June--before the kids get out of school and the produce really begins to come in, before the fireworks the first week of July and the market is packed.

Still, there's a good crowd here, even in June; wallets are open, shopping baskets are full. Music is playing, people are socializing. There are more than 15 tents up this weekend, all food. Produce, bread, cheese, preserves. More tents will go up next weekend. By July there will likely be more than two dozen growers and producers selling the fruits of their labors.

If you already go to the market, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't been, put it on your list: Saturdays, 9 am to noon through Columbus Day. At the junction of Route 113 and Main Street in Tamworth.

April 5, 2012. Watch the birdie.

Ginger and Chicks

In the spring of 2009 when the sheep dairy operation was just starting with a handful of little lambs, I raised broiler chickens to sell fresh at the Tamworth Farmers Market. We had laying hens and knew how to keep them up, and I think the idea was: eh, what's a few more?

Two hundred and seventy-five chickens later, the season was over and I'd learned a few things about raising broiler chickens.

In the beginning of that first summer of 2009 I kept grain in front of them around the clock. They had plenty of grassy pasture to go to, but their instructions said keep feed in front of them at all times.
The first batch or two seemed to grow a little on the quick side, and they got a little flabby and didn't seem particularly bright--even for chickens. And I was beginning to join the crowd who disparaged these little guys as McFrankenChickens: glutonous, stupid, ugly, ungainly, dirty. From mid-summer on that first year, then more and more the next season, I scaled back the grain feed for each subsequent batch until they were just getting a good ration in the morning, then nothing. They ate their share, then the cupboard was bare. They weren't ready for market in 7 weeks, but my feed costs were way down as about mid-day, every day they all got a little peckish and headed out on the fields and up in the woods scratching out seeds and greens and bugs. They started lolling around in the sun, taking dust baths, running and flapping in a stiff breeze. Their self-esteem seemed improved.

The next year I did half as many. The year after that--half again fewer. The sheep were taking up more time and we suddenly had lambs to take care of and sheep to milk and cheese to make. I only do a handful now for ourselves and a couple of friends.

These chicks here were hatched in Connecticut and get van service to the No-view Farm in Wolfeboro, then it's car service for the chicks to Madison where their valet, Ginger, shown here, escorts each to the dog crate in the sun room and makes sure they are comfortable and know where the water fount is.

Elsewhere on the spring poultry front: We gave 3 turkey eggs to the Madison Pre-school last month to put in their incubator and they should probably hatch mid-April. And--Teresa, our Naragansett turkey hen has set up a nice little nest in the back of the barn, so we'll be looking for more turkey chicks mid-May.

I'm sure I'm not the first one to say it, but, I guess spring has sprung.

March 28, 2012. Playing the odds

Ginger and Sarah quality controlWashed rind cheese
A lot of projects don't play out quite as you'd like them to. In truth, most don't.

Just since we've been here at the farm in Madison, I can put together a pretty good list: acorns which mildewed, fleeces still unwashed, plants poorly cared for, produce left too long in the ground, shoddy grazing fields still, the list goes on and on and on and on . . .

So, when you get a success--even a small success--and when you get two in one week; it's hard to know what to do with oneself.

Exhibit A. A snapshot of two children enjoying the fruit of their labors--sweet maple syrup. Our post of February shows our diligent first attempt at tapping a maple tree. And, though the season was short and perhaps not as productive for commercial producers, we got just the right amount. And,

Exhibit B. In December I began experimenting with some cow's milk cheese from another producer in the Mount Washington Valley. I made some washed rind cheeses, and was mostly skeptical about the likely outcome. But, I cut into one the Thursday before the March Tamworth Farmers' Market (which I had to bypass because I had a household of sick children); and lo and behold, enclosed in that crusty ochre rind was a creamy and pungent cheese which I did not really believe was within my reach. I'm going to chalk that up to beginner's luck.

March 12, 2012. Johnny is dead.

Ginger and Johnny
The orphan lamb Johnny died 2/28. He'd just been weaned off the bottle and was in the pen with Buck and Prestelle when he can down with a bug of some kind. I pulled out all the stops for him--vitamin and dextrose injections, antibiotics--but he wasn't up for it and died within 36 hours.
He was a nice little guy and I miss him.

On the brighter side, here late in the lambing season, we've had 17 other lambs (7 girls and 10 boys) and lost only one other. Button had a little ram lamb who never got up to speed. He died in my lap toward midnight of his first day while I was prepping to intubate him.

My wife, Francesca, provided us with our heroic moment of the season. It was a month ago yesterday. Hillary started laboring late in the afternoon and seemed to stall out. Little lambs are delivered head and front feet first--like they're diving out and down into the hay. Hillary's little guy was upside down. I could see the hooves pointing out, and up toward the sky. Fortunately, my wife was home and came out to help. I kept Hillary settled at the front, and Francesca did an internal exam. Lamb upside down and backward. We retreated to the house to check our tattered copy of Managing your Ewe by Laura Lawson, and returned to the barn.

Hillary was waiting patiently--what else was she going to do!--her lamb still stuck; time was not on our side. We assumed our prior positions and Francesca executed the move from Managing your Ewe. Reach in, grab the legs, give a firm one-quarter turn, and pull continually until the lamb comes out. He did not come easy--and Francesca was a champ getting him out. He flopped out onto the hay, long and limp and we had a long five-count until his muzzle twitched and he took his first breath.

Nice job, Francesca! Thanks.

March 8, 2012. Warning! Easter is just one month away!

Giving your children or a loved one a lamb for Easter is pure gold. The year they found a baby lamb in their Easter basket will be remembered for a lifetime. And while you're thinking of the hugs and kisses and uncontainable affection you've earned for being a generous and loving person by giving an Easter lamb, there are practical reasons to raise a lamb, or two or three.

Lamb flyer

February 15, 2012. Who is that tap, tap, tapping at my window?

Sarah, Ike and PaulGinger Temperature Chart
We had a hands-on project for school today. Earlier in the month Ginger and Sarah studied native trees which led us eventually to the sugar maple, which led us to sugaring and maple syrup. As you might guess, the education process here is a little haphazard, or, if you like, you can call it organic!

I am not native to New England so tapping trees for sap is not a part of my heritage. I would probably easier teach my children how to dig for clams, or fish for salmon, but here we are; so we learned how to tap a tree by reading and watching videos. We learned how to read a thermometer and record the daily highs and lows (see photo), but once we'd acquired the skill after about a week or so, the truth is we left off doing the job, mostly because it had been so cold out in the morning when school is on, and secondly, because we are frequently in our pajamas when school is in session and the thermometer is posted by the garage, a good thirty feet or so from the front door.

So, here a good sunny morning presented itself, and a forecast for favorable conditions, so off we went to try our hand. Tap #1-shown with me and Sarah--seemed dry, while Tap #2 was wet and sappy, so we'll see. If we get a cup of syrup out of the project, I think we'll be happy.

February 6, 2012. Ginger's Birthday!.


Buck has a few brothers and sisters now. They've come in a rush.

Numbers 2-7--Prestelle, Gail, Gil, Linda, Lillian, and Rusty--came without any trouble. Last week, Richelle's daughter, Linda, was still wet and warm from birth when I came across her in the morning and she was already up and jogging around and nursing.

Number 8 came Sunday afternoon. I could hear the bawling from the house, and I went down to the barn expecting that an older lamb had gotten herself stuck somewhere away from her mum. But it was a just-born lamb all by himself towards the front of the barn—no ewe in sight. I started looking for her. Moving through the barn, checking all the ewe's ankles for blood from the birth, I found her in short
order; it was 849. She'd abandoned her lamb last year, and I had not yet gotten to moving her along. I put the lamb and 849 in a pen together, but she'd have nothing to do with him—just like last year. So, just like that, I had my first bottle-lamb of the year. I went back to thaw some colostrum and put together a little kit to intubate her. In very cold weather, or with weak lambs, or when it's unclear whether a lamb is nursing, we slide a tube down the gullet and into her belly and put colostrum directly into the stomach. Colostrum is the first milk out of the udder, and, among other things, acts like a super-charged energy drink to get the lamb up and going that first day or two.

Putting together the first kit for this year, I was a little irate. Mad at that lousy ewe for abandoning her little lamb; and a little mad at myself for not having already taken care of her; and feeling bad for that poor little ram lamb nuzzling around for a little warmth and nourishment and seeing his mother kick at him and walk away. My wife had to kick me and my lousy energy out of the kitchen while I fumed and cluh-runked-around putting together the kit. Finally, I got it done and left my family alone.

The lamb took the tubing like a little champ and later that night Johnny the Little Orphaned Lamb and I missed the Super Bowl halftime show together. We were working on our first bottle feeding together. Then again at midnight, and 4 am and so on.

Ginger and Sarah are good on daytime duties, and my wife is good about pinch-hitting, but mostly it's me and Johnny. He's been living in the tot-lot with the other young lambs. (When the lambs are born I set them aside in little 6x8 pens—it makes it a little easier for them to keep track of each other. Then after two or three or four days, depending on the lamb, I move them into a fenced off section of the barn where they have more room to race around and can interact with the other lambs and adults.) That's where these pictures are taken. Ginger and Sarah are taking turns giving Johnny the Little Orphaned Lamb his mid-morning bottle, and Ike is being closely inspected by the mother ewes, while the other lambs do that lamb-frolicking thing they do.

January 26, 2012. Back to waiting.

buck with the chickens

Reading is a good ways to pass the time—waiting for more lambs. You might remember we had an early lamb a couple of weeks ago.

That first lamb is growing like great guns, but has not learned to read yet. Which is creating a little situation for the poultry. With no playmate and no reading material to while away the winter days, “Buck” has taken to chasing the turkey hen around the hay feeder, and sneaking up on the laying hens and mounting them.

But neither of those things are acceptable outlets for me, so I've just finished Melissa Coleman's memoir of her childhood on her parent’s homestead in Maine. She is the daughter of Eliot Coleman, who is well-known for being in the vanguard of the 70s back to the land movement. Interestingly enough, he started his farm on land purchased from Scott and Helen
Nearing, also well-known from a previous generation’s back-to-the-land movement. If you have the time or interest, it would be an interesting troika—the Nearings Living the Good Life, and Coleman’s New Organic Grower or Four Season Harvest with Melissa Coleman’s memoir This Life is in Your Hands.

I don’t have another book to go with right now, so I am at loose ends again. Always up for suggestions. I will leave the poultry alone though, and gamely prop myself up on my elbows on the rug in front of the fire for another round of Sorry.
buck with teresabuck in action

January 13, 2012. Trying my hand at a cow's milk cheese.


Sheep milk from this past summer has all been used for cheese and yogurt. The cheesemaking room has been dark since November. So, while we're waiting, I started buying milk from a nearby cow dairy to experiment with some cow’s milk cheeses.

I decided to make “washed rind” cheeses. Washed rind cheeses include Muenster, Limburger, Port Salut and some others, and you will recognize or remember them from their natural ochre-colored rind. Washed rind is sort of a queer name for a cheesemaking method. All aged cheeses are “washed” in the sense that they are wiped down to keep surface mold in check. Here, however, the salt solution for wiping down the cheese is weak—3% salt v. 18% typically used*. With less salt to retard surface growth, the brevibacterium linens
cultures we’ve added intentionally and blooms in spots on the surface are then spread evenly over the cheese. The b. linens covers the surface of the cheese and creates the colored rind and the interior environment for a particularly tasty cheese. It seems a little tricky and we'll see how it goes.
I've decided to make Reblochon, which can be difficult to find in the US, draws a good price, and—frankly, sounds delicious. The rind provides a strong aroma, while the body of the cheese softens with age and develops a brie-like consistency and strong, sweet, natural dairy flavor.

Pictured here are four batches of Reblochon cheeses made at the end of December. The lightest two rows at left were made December 28 and 30. The two rows at right were made earlier--December 21 and 22—and you can see the blooms of mold and the coloring slowly starting to develop.

I'll keep you apprised.

* Truth in Advertising Note: When I say 3% or something inscrutably precise like that, I mean, here I have a small brinewater bucket with a pint or so of cold water and here is a small handful of salt which in a decent estimate of the amount it will take to make a salt solution in the neighborhood of 3%.

For cheese geeks, following are the production notes: Heat 4 gallons milk to 86 degrees. Add 3/8 t MAII and 1/8 t B. Linens. Let them reconstitute on the surface 5 minutes, then stir in gently. Ripen 15 minutes. Add 1 t rennet. Cut into ½ inch cubes at 60 minutes or when you can get a clean break. Let rest 5 minutes for curd to firm up a bit, then very gently whisk for 3- 5 minutes to achieve pea-sized curd. Heat from 86 degrees to 96 degrees over 30 minutes, stirring gently from time to time to prevent curds from matting together. Ladle whey out of pot to the top of the curd, then ladle curd into cheesecloth-lined molds—these are 4 inch molds. Fill to top—about 6 inches or so—and let rest 30 minutes with no pressure. Flip molds and repeat flips every 30 minutes to make 6 turns. Add 5# weight and press for 8 hours. Rub top and bottom with 1 t salt and put in aging room at 90% humidity and 55 degrees (see Truth in Advertising note above). Sixty degrees is the recommended temperature for aging these little guys, but I have other cheeses to tend to so I’m compromising. Flip every day and wipe with 3% salt solution for a couple of weeks. Reduce frequency of turning and washing until cheese is finished—6-15 weeks depending on the depth of flavor desired and your patience.

January 8, 2012. The No-longer Waiting Place.

buck Wow. The first lamb came this morning. A nice big ram lamb from 801. She gave us the first lamb last year--January 17, 2011--and she came through again this year.

By the time I got out to do the morning chores the lamb was dry and nursing and the two of them were sitting back by themselves taking a little rest.

January 1, 2012. The Waiting Place.


This is the scene on January 1, 2012.

A bleak, slate-gray late afternoon. Not much happening.

(An exciting project so far, eh?)

We are all in the waiting place. Me, the sheep, my wife and the children; well, less so my wife and children—with school to attend to, music lessons, play dates, etc. So, really, it's just me and the sheep. Waiting for lambs to be born. Most of the ewes are in the last month or so of a 5-month gestation period—the human equivalent of heading into the 7th month of pregnancy. Their udders are starting to fill. It's hard to tell how “heavy with lamb” they are with all of the wool they're wearing, but they are all getting around pretty well so far. No signs of poor health or trouble.
Nearly all of the lambs’ fetal growth occurs in the last trimester—from little peas to 7 pound animals sliding out the birth canal in just a few weeks. But for now all there is to do is eat and drink and wait—for me and the sheep both.

Which of course reminds us of the waiting place from Oh, The Places You Will Go, by Dr. Suess...