Saturday, May 21, 2011


Last Saturday morning we got up early to get the girls ready to run a 5K benefit race being organized by our middle school.  It was being held to raise funds for a beloved teacher who had contracted a life-threatening infection a few months ago and had accumulated soaring medical expenses as a result of his long stay in the hospital.  It was a drizzly, chilly morning but our spirits were high as we got ready to celebrate the miraculous recovery of the teacher who had just gotten home from the hospital the day before. 

Brian went out to feed the animals as usual, but when he came back in he looked pale and shocked.  Turns out some kind of predator, probably a raccoon, had gotten into our chicken pen and there was carnage everywhere.  We couldn’t believe it as the pen, where the mature hens and bantam rooster were being temporarily housed while our new spring chicks had taken over their normal coop, was surrounded by a very high wire fence with only about a 1 foot gap between the top of the fence and the roof of the barn.  But apparently that had been space enough for the marauder to climb over and take out 7 of our hens and the little rooster.

Upon hearing the news, the girls cried and I tried lovingly to console them and to make sense of what had happened.  Brian was faced with the painful task of rounding up the dead birds and placing their broken bodies into a large garbage bag to be dealt with later.  He was moved to tears, too, in compassion for the birds as well as empathy for the sadness his daughters were feeling.  We’d lost hens before to predators and thought we had all grown a little more detached from the inevitable occasional occurrence, but this loss felt worse.  For one thing, many of these hens had been shown at the County Fair last season and had won lots of ribbons and prizes, and apparently we were more attached to them than we had realized.  And then there was just the feeling of being violated that comes when a predator enters what you had regarded as a safe space.

I really didn’t think the girls would be able to pull themselves together quickly enough to finish getting ready and out the door for the race within the time we had allotted.  But they really wanted to show their support for their teacher and got it together in time to make it to the race.  While it was chilly and gloomy, they were determined to carry on in honor and celebration of the occasion.

At the start of the race, they were greeted by a wonderful and warming sight.  The beloved teacher whom they’d worried about for so long and who had been given only a 7% chance of survival months earlier, was there with his wife, also a teacher at the school, and he was beaming from ear to ear at the sight of all these supporters.  Another teacher was with him and was crying for joy at the fact that her friend and colleague had made it and was on the road to recovery. 

Although we were all still gloomy and sad about our losses for the rest of the weekend, which was not helped by the cool, cloudy and damp weather, we found moments of happiness and celebration every time we considered the bigger picture.  Imagining what our teacher and his family had been going through for months, and the jubilation all that knew and loved them were feeling as a result of his courage and perseverance through this ordeal, sure helped to put things into perspective.

Life Lesson:  Life has its ups and downs; focus on the ups whenever you can

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Goat Milk?

One of the things we soon learned about having dairy goats is that once the babies are weaned off their mother’s milk, you accumulate a lot of milk rather quickly.  Even with only one milker in the barnyard producing 3-4 quarts a day, that’s somewhere between five and seven gallons of fresh milk coming in each week.  And although goat’s milk is deliciously creamy and sweet (especially that of Nubians), it’s a little too rich and high in fat for my family to drink straight being that we’re used to drinking non-fat cow’s milk (did you know that goat’s milk is naturally homogenized which means it’s impossible to separate the cream from the milk without a mechanical cream separator?).  So not long after our first goat kids were weaned, I decided it was time to learn to make goat cheese.

Now I thought this was going to be a very complicated and time-consuming procedure that would require all of my focus and attention to learn how to master.  And given that my summers are very full and busy with all the camps to run, animals and kids to care for, and goat shows to go to, I thought I would learn the art of cheesemaking while on our annual summer vacation at my family’s cottage in northern Michigan.  Each July we travel to Mullett Lake, MI where we relax at a 100+ year old rustic cabin that has been in my family for 5 generations.  Life is simple there as we have no phone, no television and few responsibilities, and I thought this would be a great break from my normal hectic pace that would allow me time to really focus on becoming an artisan cheesemaker.  And it just so happened that the first year we had goats was also the first year we decided to drive to Michigan instead of flying, which meant I could bring milk with me!

So, a couple weeks before we left for our trip, I ordered some basic ingredients and equipment from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, and as we prepared to make the three day journey across country, I packed a cooler with 3 half-gallon containers of frozen goat’s milk.  Each night along the route, I carefully drained the melted ice from the cooler and repacked it with fresh ice from our hotel’s icemaker.  Once we arrived at our destination, I put the by now mostly thawed milk in the refrigerator and waited another day or two while I enjoyed the time to unwind and relax.

Finally, the big day arrived and I was ready to learn to make goat cheese!  I had my trusty Home Cheesemaking book at the ready, along with my cheese thermometer, butter muslin (very fine cheese cloth) and packet of Chevre culture as I gingerly heated the liquid gold in a pot on our cabin stovetop.   The directions said to heat it to 86 degrees, add the culture (which was about 1/8 of a tsp of very fine white powder), stir, cover and let sit for 12 hours at room temperature.  As I sprinkled the powder into the milk I couldn’t imagine that this tiny amount would have any effect on this large pot of milk, and I was surprised at just how little action was involved in these few steps, but I figured the hard part must come later so I pressed on. 

When I checked the pot after 12 hours, I was amazed to find a large, solid round “curd” floating in a liquid pool of slightly yellowish green “whey” – amazing!  The next step called for scooping the curd into a cheesecloth-lined strainer, and then tying the ends of the cheesecloth together and hanging it over a sink to drain for another 6-12 hours.  Easy enough, and more waiting.  After the required length of time had passed, I untied the cheesecloth to reveal a lovely, creamy white mass of something more similar to cream cheese than the dry, solid chevre I had envisioned, but upon tasting it on a cracker, we all agreed it was a success! 

Now, several years and many, many pounds of chevre, fromage blanc, ricotta and mozzarella later, I can’t help but laugh at how mysterious and difficult I thought simple cheesemaking would be.  Admittedly I haven’t ventured into the world of hard cheeses yet (in cheesemaking circles it’s said that soft cheese is easy and hard cheese is hard), but maybe I’ll have to cart some goat’s milk across country again this summer and give it a try!

Life Lesson:  Try something new – it might not be as difficult as you think

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Summer Camp

As the days grow longer and the sun feels warmer, I know it’s time to start shifting gears and getting ready for another summer of camps here at the farm.  During the winter, I focus more on my “indoor” profession of Life Coaching, but once the grass starts turning green and the birds start chirping, it’s time for me to shed my professional clothes in favor of jeans and a t-shirt and head back out to the barnyard.

When we first moved to the farm in 2005, I had a vision of combining my years as a horse-crazy young girl with my stint as a girl scout leader to create a riding and farm program for kids.  My own girls had gone to several horse and farm-related camps before we moved out here, and though they’d enjoyed them, I’d always thought there was so much more that the leaders could have done with the rich material of animals, nature, kids, crafts and games.  Also, once we bought the property here in Boulder County, we were pretty tapped out financially, so if we were going to have horses (and eventually goats, chickens, a llama, etc.) they were going to have to generate enough income to pay their way.  Camps and farm programs seemed like a great way to accomplish this goal while allowing me to still remain essentially a stay-at-home mom.

Each summer, we put on 3 or 4 week-long summer day camps.  Some are full day camps and some are half-day, and they are organized according to age of the campers.  Pony Pals is a half day camp for kids 6 and up; Boots, Suits & Brushes is a full day camp that includes swimming and art in the afternoons for kids 8 and up; and Middle School Mares is a full day camp with a backyard sleepover in tents the last night for girls ages 11-15.  Ours camps are small and intimate with no more than 8 or 9 campers per session, and I’ve really gotten to know a lot of the kids well as many come back year after year.  Last year was an especially gratifying summer when I realized that many of my new Middle School Mares had been coming to camps or lessons on the farm since they were in kindergarten!

The way I organize the camp day is to teach riding lessons to a small group of 2-4 kids at a time while the others work on a craft or choose from an assortment of other farm-related activities.  I always post of list of these options in the barn and go over the choices with the kids at the beginning of each camp day.  Activities range from playing with the goats, to collecting eggs from the henhouse, playing with bubbles or water balloons, working on camp journals, swinging on horse swings, hunting for toads and free play.  Guess which one always gets the biggest cheer when I read through the list?   Free play!  I’m always amazed how excited the kids get when I tell them they can actually make up their own games outdoors using nothing more than their own creativity and imagination.  You’d think I just told them they had won the lottery.  And they have come up with some pretty amazing, deeply involved games over the years involving teamwork, story plots, strategy, and lots and lots of running.  In fact, some kids resume a game they had started the previous summer when they come back to camp the next year.

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv identifies a phenomenon he calls Nature-Deficit Disorder: the disconnection between children and nature.   He sites research confirming that direct exposure to nature is essential for the physical and emotional health of children and argues for a return to an awareness of and appreciation for the natural world.  I have to agree that I think today’s kids are so plugged into electronic media and so over scheduled with structured activities (although many of these are very worthwhile), that they are craving time to just explore and create their own sense of adventure in the outdoors without any specific goals or adult intervention.  I like to think my camps are giving a handful of kids the chance to get a bit more of this in their lives each summer.  I know I sure enjoy watching them do it!

Life Lesson:  We could all use a little more Free Play time outdoors 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Early Mornings

You know that old adage, early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise?  Or how about, the early bird catches the worm?  Well, I tend to agree with these sentiments but I can’t help thinking that maybe they were made up by farmers or parents of young children in an attempt to make themselves feel better about the fact that they are up feeding and tending to their critters and kids 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year!

Luckily for me, I tend to be a morning person naturally.  I can remember as a teenager, all my friends would boast about sleeping till noon on the weekends, and I couldn’t manage to make it past 9:00, no matter how late I’d been up.  This often frustrated me, but it also served me well during the summer of my 16th year when I landed a job as a groom and hotwalker at River Downs race track in Cincinnati – a job that required me to be at the barn at 5:30 a.m. EVERY day of the week.  And when my husband and I had our kids, the adjustment to those early morning awakenings wasn’t nearly as hard for us as for many of our friends since we were already pretty used to going to bed and getting up early.

So when we moved to our little farm and started accumulating our assortment and feathered and furry friends, the daily morning chore of getting up to feed them all around sun up wasn’t too hard.  There is a restful quietness about the place in those early morning hours that I find to be so peaceful and grounding that I hate to miss them.  Even when I’m really tired at first light, I somehow feel the urge to get up and start my day.  Some of my favorite things about being up early include:

~  hearing my little bantam rooster cock-a-doodle-dooing out in the barn yard
~  that first sip of my hot tea with a piece of warm toast and honey
~  watching the foothills behind our house turn bright, glowing red for a few brief moments as the sun comes up in the east
~  walking out in my pajamas and slippers to retrieve the morning paper
~  having some silent time to plan out my day before all the activity gets started

Now don’t get me wrong, there are some mornings when getting up early feels like a chore.  Certainly when I used to work in the corporate world, I dreaded my morning alarm clock and groused and complained every single day.  And if I’ve had a bad night of sleep, I’m pretty grumpy at first light.  But maybe because getting up to feed kids and animals every day is a reminder that I am living the life I always yearned for, I am generally a pretty happy camper.

My own teenage daughter could easily sleep till 10:00 or 11:00 and does so whenever she gets the chance.  But being a high school student AND a dairy goat owner doesn’t afford her very many opportunities to do that.  I’m always amazed at how hard it is for her to get up during the school week, but if we are going to a goat show, horse show or the best – getting up to go to the fairgrounds during county fair week  - she just hops out of bed and faces the early morning with energy and enthusiasm. 

Life Lesson:  How you face the day may be an indicator of the day you’re about to face!