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Life on Hard Hill

Homestead Conversations

Carol Tornetta

Alpacas Teddy and Finn

“Teddy, there’s a goldenrod in your ear.”

This statement can only be deemed odd if you don’t know that it’s winter in Pennsylvania, and that Teddy is a twenty-month-old alpaca with incredibly fluffy ears.

Once you have moved to your homestead, you begin to say odd things. You tell goats to eat the poison ivy up on the hill rather than the freshly sprouted grass in the backyard. You have dinner conversations about composting and water collection. You reminisce about going to “fine dining” establishments, and which concerts you attended during the area’s annual jazz festival, and about viewing films on large screens rather than downloaded from a cloud onto your laptop.

There is no debate about which is better or worse. Every time you fry up an egg you grabbed from underneath an indignant hen, you remember why you did it. As you pore over the seed catalogs piled next to the vegetable garden plan, your mouth involuntarily puckers from the memory of the piquancy of last summer’s dill pickles with garlic and caraway. Feeling the soft drape of the yarn you are spinning from Teddy’s fleece—sans goldenrod blossoms—reminds you. You are here to live a cleaner, fresher life, producing less waste in your search for more self-sufficiency. And peace.

But do not believe it is easy. The weather, in its glorious uncontrollability, is your constant foe: too much snow, not enough rain, wilting grass, creeks reduced to a trickle. There is the frequent worry over the return of the mystery predator that steals your friendly laying hens for its dinner. “Summer work hours in force” means sixteen hour days and certainly no Fridays off. It’s not just driving the SUV to the Jiffy Lube for an oil change anymore, as vehicle maintenance now includes dumping the oil from a big green tractor. Chasing escaped goats in the pitch dark night is always a joy. And what suburbanite went to work on Monday morning in a cast because an alpaca head-butted her thumb ... and broke it?

Bubbles the chicken

You get to watch from the kitchen window while your husband spreads bottled wolf urine solution on the perimeter of the barnyard, while you remember saying “Bubbles, stop chasing the pigeons!” Sadly, you don’t get to say that anymore, because the urine is supposed to deter the predator that stole away beautiful Bubbles last Thursday, in the late afternoon sun. You finally get it out of your system when you shout to the kitchen, “Why didn’t the wretched death machine just take the pigeons!”

And instead of donning your best dress and sitting down to dine on an elaborately decorated plate of tuna sashimi with pickled ginger while listening to a live jazz trio, you collapse into an old kitchen chair and hear this conversation:

“I saw you poured the wolf pee out by the creek.”

“Yup. Made sure to wear disposable gloves to keep the stink outside. It seemed to freak the dog out a bit.”

“Good. Hope it stinks to those stupid foxes, too. I want Bubbles to be the last girl we lose.”

Then you realize it was your own conversation.

They Call Me "Poor Buttercup"

Carol Tornetta

Buttercup 2

Our first group of chicks were growing up, two springs ago, and gradually earning names. There were eleven girls, and at one point inspiration waned so I began giving those pullets names of squash and spices. Sadly, Cayenne and Curry and Pumpkin have succumbed to predation, but Buttercup is still with us. She was never akin to "Poor Buttercup" from Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore; Buttercup was the clear leader of the flock in the days before we had a rooster. She strode at the head of the feathery phalanx who ran from the coop each morning. She “crowed” to alert the other girls of a tasty cache of bugs in the flowerbeds. She sounded the alarm to her sisters when she sensed danger. When the late Claude Girouxster joined the flock, she gathered the twelve other ladies together and quickly hatched a plan to let that rooster know who was in charge on Hard Hill, and that it was not him. Although Claude was eventually welcomed into the outdoor family, that first night was a rough one for him.

Buttercup continued to be a leader, alive and clucking, as her sisters were stolen away by the still-unidentified, late afternoon predator. She successfully repelled the early and awkward amorous intentions of Stripe, the new roo who was raised here on Hard Hill last summer by the late, lamented Little — Buttercup’s Buff Orpington flock sister. Summer passed into autumn, and the ranks of the original flock continued to decline. Stripe grew from a pesky cockerel into a handsome, if not huge, rooster. And as it got colder, Buttercup ‘s energy seemed to ebb. Was she sick? Was she lonely? Was she anxious about avoiding Stripe?

stripe 1

As Buttercup entered her first-ever molt, her status seemed to sink along with her energy. She huddled half-naked, trying to stay out of the fall winds, finding safety in the alpaca’s barn from both the chill and the pecking of her flock mates. She would not enter the coop at night without a human with her. She slept alone in the vestibule of the coop, and we gave her a head start out in the morning so she could find herself a safe spot for the day before the others came out. She also had a few independent minutes to eat the morning scratch without fear of attack. She was struggling. The girl who had lead the other hens from the brooder to the coop and through the blizzard of 2016 looked bare and scrawny and didn’t seem like she was going to succeed in managing the natural changes in her life.

We allowed Buttercup to care for herself. We gave her extra protein in the evening. Two of her sisters — who had themselves miraculously survived predator attacks last fall, followed by their own molts — took turns sleeping in the vestibule with her at night, keeping her warm and companioned. Her feathers grew back in to the point where she no longer looked half-plucked. She stayed alone most days, but she was regaining her weight. She greeted us each evening when we came out, trotting around the barnyard and clucking about her day. She had made it.

Buttercup 2

Buttercup has moved on with her life, returning to her chatty hen-ness, sitting on our laps, and escorting us around the farm. Her vigor has returned. It is unclear if she will regain her flock status or feel safe again, or if she will continue to thrive when winter reasserts itself, or if the predator returns this spring, or when the chicks we have ordered for April arrival feather out and move into the coop. But right now, she seems to have accepted her changes with grace and style. Poor little Buttercup? I don’t think so.

Beating the Heat

Carol Tornetta




frog in temporary housing

The talking head who appears for twenty-second sound bites between events in the live telecasts of the Rio Olympics has been warning us: the summer’s next heat wave starts tomorrow. I wonder how previous generations of farmers survived these seasons. While our 106-year old house has covered front porches, thick stone walls, and many windows downstairs, it seems that once that old stone heats up, the thermal mass conserves the heat quite well. Too bad the reverse is true in winter, when it gets cold in December and stays that way until April.

The last “heat wave” lasted nearly three weeks, and was accompanied by a conspicuous lack of rain in our portion of the county. We struggled to get enough water to the food gardens (the flower gardens and lawns were left to brown). The creeks dried up and a frog moved into temporary housing in the stock tank. The squash vines wilted. I filled water buckets with ice and set up extra fans in the barn. We put up a shade tent in the barnyard with a wading pool underneath for the alpacas to dunk their feet and tummies. The more experienced hens knew to hide in the barn or dig into the cool ground under the coral bells to find some relief, but the new pullets and their cockerel needed reminders to get out of the coop during the day to avoid self-roasting. t did finally rain, and the “blocking pattern” detailed by the talking heads moved through the county, and summer became bearable again.

cooling  station

So, as I brace for another week of heat, when it stays hot in the house even at night, allow me to share some ideas on staying cool during the dog days of summer when you don’t have central air conditioning (a relic left behind in suburbia). First, get up really early to bake, can, and prepare meals that can be reheated in the microwave later in the day.  Why not start those bread and butter pickles at 5:30 am? Second, if you don’t already harvest your vegetables in the morning to help preserve their freshness, do it now, before those juicy cukes wither in the hundred-degree afternoon. The same goes for watering the plants. Third, get those extra buckets of fresh-from-the-well cool water to your animals before the dew has left the grass. They can’t say thank you, but they appreciate it. Similarly, pasture the animals early and bring them in at lunch time if their areas don’t have much shade. Plan to reserve other chores for late in the day, after you have eaten another cold salad for dinner, when the sun will be lower in the sky.

Most importantly, get back into the house for a midday siesta. Crank up the a/c in the bedroom, take a cool shower, log onto your streaming video provider of choice, fold all that laundry and make the beds while binge-watching Downton Abbey.

Henry cools off

Finally, take a lesson in temperature regulation from your cat. He knows what he’s doing.

Water Water NOWHERE

Carol TornettaOn an unpleasantly hot, humid, July day, I noticed that the water pressure in the kitchen sink seemed lower than usual. A subsequent scurry of phone calls and Googleverse encounters suggested that the well pump was dead. As suburbanites, we had never had to deal with this problem before as we had always had public water and sewer. If something went wrong, we called the appropriate municipal utility — or, if the problem was purely on our end, “the guy” — and the problem was resolved in relatively short order. But now that we have moved to the farm, here at the north end of a very large county, the question became, “Call WHAT guy?”

Twenty-four steamy summer hours without water meant more than no showers and no toilets. We had no water, and 32 animals for whom to care. It had been dumb luck that the pump had failed late in the day, after the animals’ water buckets had been cleaned and refilled for the night, although we had to plan for the morning. We are fortunate that we live less than fifteen minutes’ drive from a grocery store, which is only inconvenient in a winter storm when you have to dig out and get the truck up the side of Hard Hill.  I set out for that store, with Colin along to carry those really heavy commercially filled water jugs, while Mark, who had rushed home from work, stayed at the farm with “the guy.” The guy turned out to be a plumber with an agency we had used previously in suburbia. The agency was not cheap, but the guy was at the farm in under an hour and had the problem diagnosed just in time to get needed items before his supply house closed for the night. 

chickens want water 

The plumber worked diligently for hours in his efforts to get us running water by the time he left, just before 10 PM. As the light appeared at the end of our arid, thirsty tunnel … a piece of the system, unrelated to the shiny new pump, sprang a leak. With all the area supply stores long since shuttered for the evening, the plumber went home with instructions to call his dispatcher first thing in the morning. It was a long, hot, dry night on Hard Hill, using gallon jugs of water to wash our hands and flush the toilets.  The dishes didn’t get washed at all.

thirsty alpaca 

The story has a few more nerve-wracking plot twists, but it ended happily around 11AM the next day. We strive to plan ahead for emergencies, with preparations including preserved food in the canning pantry, a generator and gasoline to power the well pump in a power outage, heated water buckets and plenty of hay and grain in the barn, and the usual candles and batteries and blankets. We made it through the miserably cold and snowy winter of 2015, and through Winter Storm Jonas’s 30 inches of snow in a day without losing an animal, partly because we had several sturdy snow shovels to use when the giant snow blower died in the middle of a hill (which it did). How did we miss WATER? As suburbanites with no water, we would have locked up the house and headed to a hotel for the night, but you can’t just up and leave your goats, hens, and alpacas.

About a week after the day without water, we happened across a cable program while we were hiding from the heat about a family that helps homesteaders who are in dire need of support. One segment included a family who had moved to the Nevada desert to homestead off-grid, in an area with no public water and no well. They had traveled daily to fill water containers in a nearby town … for THREE YEARS.  I’m not sure if this is an example of dedication, desperation, or foolhardiness. Although it is often a delight to be unable to see a neighbor’s house from ours, the one miserable day without water slapped us with a dose of preparation reality. There are twenty gallons of jugged water in the shop now, and that plumber’s business card is close at hand.

water bucket

Making Friends with Francis

Carol TornettaAlis and Francis

As with so many things here on Hard Hill Farm, we study the Googleverse every time we think it a good idea to add x or do y. Then we delude ourselves into believing we are ready to do x, and jump in. Gaining goats has been no different. We found some goats that met our needs fairly easily, updated a living space for them, and picked them up. We knew what to feed them, and how often, and where to serve the hay. What we didn’t know was how to make them like us.

We were told by the breeder, someone we deal with in processing our alpaca fleece who has been homesteading for more than two decades, that the mommy goat, Borealis, was very friendly. She certainly appeared approachable enough, but when she came over to meet me and I reached out to her, she bit my arm. Hard. It left a mouth shaped bruise on my upper arm for two weeks. I was suddenly unthrilled with my goat-getting decision, but I was also undaunted, so I joined her and her herdmates in their pen. She continued to chew me — clothing and hair alike — but she did allow me to pet her and her kid, whom we planned to name Francis.

When pick up day came, we loaded Borealis and Francis into our small SUV to make the hour drive back to Hard Hill. Alis (Borealis was going to be too many syllables to call around the farm) slid through the divided seats, and came up front to chew the gear shift. This behavior is not listed in any goat book I read! For a fortnight after moving to Hard Hill, she head butted me and stomped her feet whenever I approached. This is a friendly goat???? And her son was no better. Getting them into halters to take out to graze was not my favorite farm chore.

Suddenly one evening while I was seated on a straw bale in her pen, Alis walked up to me. She tried to chew my glove, and I politely asked her to stop. She stopped. She head butted my thigh, but gently. So I petted her head. She tossed her head in the air, and I scratched under chin. She wagged her stubby tail. I seemed to have passed some sort of caprine initiation rite. And just like that, we were friends

Little Francis was a goat of a different color. When I went into the pen, he ran away from me. He hid behind straw bales, he hid behind his wooden toy spools, he hid behind his mother. Where Alis would gleefully eat grain from my hand, Francis ... ran and hid. I wondered what I had done wrong this time.Francis on doghouse

Then, on a random afternoon, the hungry gray kid could not wait for the grain to be in his bowl. He ate out of my hand. Several days later, out of the blue, while I was perched on that same straw bale during goat meal time, I felt some goat breath on my arm and shoulder. I addressed Alis, expecting it was her, but then realized she was standing across the pen. It was Franny!

He nuzzled me that day, and for several more, as long as I sat on that straw bale. Eventually he permitted me to pet and scratch him. This continued until the day he was so excited about being attended by his human, he wound up sitting in my lap. Now he comes when he’s called … mostly, stands still to be haltered … generally, walks politely on lead … usually. He’s still a baby, after all, even if he did weigh in at 58 pounds yesterday.

In retrospect, the moral appears to be this: you don’t make friends with Francis, or Alis, and probably no other goat. They decide when they are ready to be friendly with you. Looking at Franny’s ever-lengthening horns, I’d rather be his friend than his enemy, to be sure. It was all just one more exercise in patience to be learned here on Hard Hill Farm.

Francis eats lettuce

A Berry Good Day

Carol TornettaFresh berries

One of the unexpected pleasures we discovered during our first summer here on Hard Hill Farm was berry bushes — growing wild on the edges of the wooded areas scattered about the property. We didn’t realize they were here when we purchased the farm, as we did not make settlement until late September, when berry season was well-past. When we found those prickly canes while weeding in the spring, we knew we had some free fruit on the way. As June rolled into July, we found that we had black raspberries and red raspberries to compliment the strawberries we had planted in May. Hooray for anthocyanins!

Local wisdom dictates that berries should be picked early in the day, to lock in moisture and decrease the chance of wilting later on. Knowing this, I head to the woods sometime between feeding the cats and the second cup of coffee, ideally before 8AM. There are mornings when this feels miserable, as it is often very humid then. This year I am wearing long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and rubber boots to berry, having learned the hard way last summer that to not do so invites scratched, bleeding arms and paranoia about unexpected poison ivy encounters. I am also sporting some DIY bug repellent this time around, as no one can have a berry good day covered in itchy welts delivered stealthily by those nasty no-see-ums (punkies).

I’ve also found it useful to collect berries when the hens are still in the coop. I don’t know how they learned the joys of the little purple gems, but they did. They will follow along, looking for dropped berries, grabbing at the low-hanging fruit, and even pecking at my ankles as if to say “throw one down here!” That’s another good reason for the boots!

Weather notwithstanding, I travel the berry patches around the grounds about twice a week, in an effort to catch the individual berries at their ripest. Seldom is an entire set of canes ripe at once, so over the course of a fortnight I manage to get plenty of berries. We eat a lot of them fresh, mixed into yogurt at breakfast, tossed into salads at lunch time, and crushed over ice cream after dinner. In addition, I have been known to make and home preserve blackberry jam, a treat to open and spread on freshly baked bread in the dead of winter. I also freeze berries to use in smoothies later in the year. Raspberries are also great at tapas time, topping a dab of goat cheese on a crostini.

Waiting Raspberries

But relying on foraging to gather your daily antioxidants leaves too much to chance, so this year we replanted the strawberry patch and carved up a blueberry patch at the far end of the vegetable garden. The strawberries have been a fruiting disappointment, but seem to be well-loved by the local fauna. The blueberries, however, have been a bonus. The six bushes in the garden have all fruited, as have the three “patio” varieties in pots on the deck. The patio bushes are my favorites — convenient to water in the evening, and perfect to pick for breakfast while still in one’s pajamas!

A final note to help you have a berry good day — beware of your livestock’s engagement with shrubs. The dangers to berry bushes (and grape vines) of groundhogs, foxes, coyotes, and deer are well-documented. But here on Hard Hill, goats and alpacas have proven to be berry effective berry predators. Alis the angora goat has been sighted on multiple occasions chomping entire berry canes to ground level and, surprisingly, old Finn the alpaca has raced down the hill from the upper pasture with berry canes stuck in his fleece. It seems that raspberry leaves are a personal favorite of his.

Finny with berry bush

So be bold this summer, improve your diet and health, pull on your Wellies, grab a colander, and pick some berries. Enjoy the scent of sweet grass as you walk along the wood’s edge looking for treats. And have a berry good day.

Missing Little

Carol TornettaLittle and chicks sunning

Most people who have, or have had, pets have also experienced the death of a pet. A segment of our society dresses “furbabies” in seasonal costumes, takes them for photos with Santa, indulges them in spa days, takes them visiting as therapy animals, take them on shopping trips. When we say goodbye to our pets, we say they have crossed the Rainbow Bridge, and envision them purring without cease or running through endless flowering meadows. When we began adding livestock and poultry members to our family here on Hard Hill Farm, we didn’t consider the mathematical situation that, all other things being equal, more animals meant commensurately more losses with which to cope.

As if our decision, at the direction of our large animal veterinarian, to assist young Cazador the alpaca, suffering with tetanus in spite of vaccination, unable to stand up, in late April was not agonizing enough, we lost the amazing Little the Chicken earlier this month. To add insult to injury, the unidentified predatory objects then took down the giant Claude Girouxster this past weekend. Both were victims of wild predators, in the late afternoon, before the dinner hour or dusk, and within a hundred feet of one another. It appeared that both had struggled in their losing causes: Little protecting her two chicks, whom we found hiding in the alpaca barn, and Claude, protecting the rest of the flock. The family of foxes that appears after dawn up on the hill, whether they are the culprits or not, is no longer adorable.

We lost only two hens last year, in the autumn, and both disappeared without a trace during the annual hawk migration through our county. Before we were recovering suburbanites, we would marvel at the circling, soaring raptors riding the thermals over the valleys; now we have trained Vina the LGD to bark ferociously at the command “Hawk!” When we found that raccoon clawing at the coop door before dawn on the last Winter Solstice, we installed red predator lights around the coop and entrance to the barnyard. Now the monsters come shamelessly in broad daylight. We let the alpacas roam with the hens during the day, as a size deterrent, but the monsters seem to know when it’s alpaca naptime during the afternoon. We have stopped discouraging the girls from free-ranging up the hill in the far wood. It is a good distance from the barnyard and the girls are under cover, away from the fox grounds, just too close to the road for our comfort.We hear the coyotes at night, although they seem content with the local deer herds for dinner.

But since April, someone or ones have taken Cayenne, Kensa, Tressa, Little, and now Claude, and we need to step up our game. Make no mistake — the indigenous fauna is welcome here on Hard Hill. We don’t mind staying out of their way while they take care of the mice and other small rodents. They just need to leave the chickens ALONE.

Claude on patrol

We have sought the advice of veterinarians, farmers, hunters, trappers, the state game commission, and probably half the known Googleverse. It seems we are supposed to bait humane traps with chicken, catch the suckers, and relocate them to another area where they will presumably eat someone else’s chickens or die a lingering, miserable death from starvation in their new territory. We have inquired as to the possibility that a certain type of contractor could be hired to resolve this conflict for us, but alas, fox season is not open in these parts until October, and we fear we will have no flock left by then. In the end, we have, like many other homesteaders, compromised our principles and acquired a firearm and training in its use.

Stripe and Deuce join the flock

Little and Claude left behind two now-orphaned chicks. Rather than hope another hen would take over their care, we moved the pair into the house the day we lost Little, into the brooder with the six chicks who arrived the same week from the feed store. Stripe and Deuce seem more physically and emotionally developed than those hatchery chicks, having been nurtured by the huge personality that was Little, and protected by Claude, the gentle giant. It seems that Stripe may well be a rooster and will hopefully take over where his father left off. They give us hope. But it doesn’t stop us from missing Little.

Little and Deuce

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