Just a Happy Girl on her Horse


I love this picture of Jasper and me after a good ride. His face is so calm and relaxed, which is something that really has to be earned with him. We are both working on getting back into shape after the winter break, which means lots of trotting and posting. Oy, my legs! But it’s good for both of us and I can already tell we are getting stronger. It was a beautiful weekend for riding and we spent hours and hours together. Dream life!

Crazy Chicken Lady


What is this sorry sight before you? Why, it’s my deck chicken, of course! I mean it lives on my deck, and sometimes in my mud room, where I bring it food and water and clean up (and sometimes step in) the astonishing amount of poop it produces.

Didn’t you have a chicken in your kitchen not too long ago, you ask? Well yes, she was one of our older girls and we think she had cancer because we tried just about everything for her and she never recovered. So we just let her live out her last days here in the house instead of out with the other hens she could no longer keep up with. No kitchen is complete without a chicken! I laugh raggedly.

Oh. So how many chickens do you have then, you ask with the slightest hint of concern in your voice? I guess only about 44 right now.

Guys, I think I’ve become a crazy chicken lady.

I’ve always been able to look at crazy cat ladies (ahem, Mom) with a sense of smug superiority. Sure, I have a cat, and she’s definitely crazy, but I don’t think it’s rubbed off on me. I haven’t allowed her to take over the house,  nor have I succumbed to the urge to take in every stray kitten that’s crossed my path. I am totally good with one cat. So how could it be that chickens, who are decidedly less cuddly and certainly less courteous with their bathroom habits, have come to dominate this house?

I don’t know! I must have boundary issues. I just can’t let them die miserably. I had to try and save the little yellow hen, and then, not a week after she died, I go out to feed the meat birds and see this little guy all trampled and barely breathing. I couldn’t leave it in there, so I brought it in, yes, the kitchen, washed it, and wrapped it in towels and put it on a heating pad. I figured it would die that day, but at least it wouldn’t be my fault. It would be the fault of its nasty dinosaur siblings who step on and peck at whatever is smaller and weaker than they are. But it lived! It can’t walk properly, I don’t know if it’s neurological or what, but it loves to eat! And did I mention poop?

So now here I am. I have a chicken living on my deck that, if it lives, I will eventually eat. I have to reassure myself with that thought, that this unnatural intimacy with poultry is only temporary. God I hope that’s true.

More Than Just Groceries


Isn’t that a happy sight? You’re looking at about six pounds of locally raised, pastured  beef and chicken. The round roast is from a nearby farm that I have been buying beef from for about five years, and the chicken was raised up right here on the Ranch. Most recently they were in our chest freezer. Every time I open up the freezer and pull out treasures like these I am filled with gratitude that I get to live in a place where the bounty is literally at my doorstep.

The bird will be brined and roasted tonight, nestled in some kale and onions. The roast will go into the crock pot tomorrow morning for a long, slow bath in some red wine, garlic and rosemary. Spring is here but the nights are still chilly and I want to take advantage of it and enjoy some the last few cozy, cold weather meals before the salad days of summer are upon us.


In a couple of weeks the freezer will be filled to the brim with a new batch of Freedom Ranger chickens. Seed potatoes will be planted, and perhaps the tomato plants started from seed in the greenhouse will be ready to be transplanted into three-inch pots.  The raised garden beds will definitely be set up by then, and greens will be planted for sure. There’s finally more than a dozen eggs at time in the fridge, and hopefully all the hens will be laying regularly at that point. Oh, and we’ll be just weeks away from baby goats and goat milk!

There’s a lot to do between now and then, but I’m in no rush to get to the finish line. I’ll make a point to savor the work as I go, because even though it will be coming fast, in a way, the work is the whole point. If I want a bag of groceries with relatively little effort there’s a store just down the road. I’m there all the time, if we’re being honest.  I’m not an expert at farming and gardening, and we’re not self-sufficient, not by a mile. But every year we get a little better, make a few less mistakes, and that’s because it’s important to us. The work makes things taste better, it makes them healthier. If getting obese in a Lazy Boy, eating flavorless TV dinners and chugging Coke is the dark nightmare of the American food system, then biting into a fresh tomato you grew from a seed in earth you dug yourself is definitely stepping into the sunshine. I’m not saying to the only way to avoid the nightmare, but it’s certainly the way we’ve chosen!


Broiler Update

Just here to post a quick update on the broiler chickens. They are 7 weeks old and doing well. They’re enjoying grass and sunshine now but are still a little too small to be let out of the tractor as they can walk right through the squares of the electric fence and not feel a thing. We’ve lost two. One was a sickly chick who died a few weeks ago. The other one seemed to have choked on something last week. I saw it lying down and struggling to breath but I couldn’t get to it time. Just in case it was gapeworm, I fed them all with a home wormer mix of garlic granules and cayenne pepper. Did you know that chickens are not sensitive to capsaicin, which is the compound that makes chile peppers spicy?

Aside from the two casualties, this batch of Freedom Rangers is especially active and chicken-like. They actually use the roosting bar in the tractor! Roosting is a normal chicken behavior but broilers tend to be too heavy and awkward to be able to balance on a roost. These birds are also more eager to forage and run around than other flocks we’ve had, which have been way too fixated on their gray crumble for my liking. By being very careful not to over-feed them, we’ve made sure they can remain active and alert as they grow. The trade off is that they’re growing a little slower, but I’m fine with that. It might not be as cost effective to have to feed them for an extra week or two, but if I was only thinking of cost, I would be buying the bargain basement mystery meat from the grocery store. As far as I see it, we made these birds a promise when we got them, and that promise was that they will only have one bad day, their last one. The rest of their lives are meant to be as happy and chicken-ful as we can make them.


My Secret Shame

Guys, I have to unburden myself.  I did something that will get me kicked out of the DIY homesteader club for sure.

I paid someone else to do a project for me.

Pretty bad, right? Borderline unforgivable.  Here’s how it happened:  The Fella and I were starting to really dislike the shambly, junk-yard appearance of our house. Years of collecting weird, possibly-useful-someday objects and a serious lack of storage options resulted in the space under the deck and around the garden looking pretty trashy.  On top of that mess, a large section of the yard had never really been landscaped or given a purpose, which gave it a tendency to always look messy and unfinished. It was lumpy, sloped, shady, and scrubby. And it was unusable space inside the garden fence, which, when you live in an area where deer are the enemies of any cultivated space, is a crime in and of itself.

So, in addition to all the usual chicken-goat-horse projects and the ongoing forest-clearing project that we have spent every weekend working on for the last few months, the Fella and I made time to clear out and either throw away or relocate all the clutter that was under the deck. Some very honest conversations about cracked flower pots and used lawnmower wheels ensued, and we managed to get it done.

But we didn’t want to stop there. We decided it was time to come up with a landscaping plan that would hopefully make the unused space useable, and make our use of the rest of the yard more efficient and more aesthetically pleasing.  After all, it is much nicer to cultivate and weed and tend a garden that is pleasant to behold than one that is messy and disorganized.

Here is a broad list of goals for the yard/garden, going forward:

  1. Be easy to keep tidy, with storage for tools and gardening supplies that makes sense
  2. Have a useable greenhouse, that is not simply the storage space for tools and gardening supplies
  3. Use the space in the vegetable garden more efficiently
  4. Have pathways and distinct borders that are well-marked and maintained
  5. Have a cut flower garden
  6. Include many more bee-friendly perennials
  7. Build a rainwater collection and storage system under the deck
  8. Have an area for 2 potted citrus trees
  9. Have a sitting area for enjoying the view!

Once we determined what our goals are, we had to come up with a plan to make it happen.  We knew that anything that involved hardscaping the yard needed to be done in early spring, while the ground is still soft and before the short window we have to plant the garden closes. In other words, right now.

Please understand that the Fella and I haven’t taken a vacation or done anything purely recreational with a weekend for a long, long time. Working on the property is our fun and our responsibility and we’re good with that. But there’s only so much that two people with full-time jobs can get done in the space of weekend. So we did it. We hired someone, a great guy who does work for lots of people we know, to build the retaining wall we needed to help define and provide structure to the space.

Yes, hiring someone to do your projects is guaranteed to earn the scorn of true homesteaders, and we will accept the consequences. Call us lazy or entitled.  Call us phonies.  But let me tell you, being freed up to start all the other work we wanted to get done is so incredibly exciting. We spent the entire weekend working in the yard, building rock borders, transplanting, setting up our berry patches, clearing space for the new raised beds, weeding and weed-eating, raking out dead leaves, and mulching and fertilizing the perennials.  We got so much done! And we were able to do all of it because we weren’t stuck building the dang retaining wall. Of course it’s still very much a work in progress, but now, the operative word is progress.  So, without further ado: behold, the before and afters.


Dome before

And after:

Dome after

See this space for lots more improvements and beautification in the next few weeks! Turns out I didn’t take enough pictures of our work this weekend so there actually a whole lot that’s already been done.



Fella and goaties

There is so much about this picture that I love.

It’s a picture of the Fella, in his little car, with two goats. I took it as we caravanned out to the breeder’s house, for another try at getting our Nigerian Dwarfs bred. And the reason the picture makes me swoon is not just because there are goats riding in the passenger compartment of the car, although that’s a big part of it.

The other big reason is this: ‘Round these parts, as with a lot of America, there are a lot of men who feel the need to drive around in enormous trucks. In this relatively affluent but rural community, it sometimes feels like every other vehicle on the road is a $60,000 full-size diesel 4 x 4 with a lift kit and offroad lights. . . and not a speck of dirt on it, ever.  They may look like work trucks, but 9 times out of 10 they are driven from a garage in a gated community to a garage somewhere else.  These yahoos love to intimidate people on the highway, belch exhaust at little old ladies in Priuses, and generally act like the schoolyard bullies they most likely were. Without getting too explicit, I’ll tell you that the Fella has more than once made the observation that the size of the shiny new truck has an inverse relationship to the size of a man’s other, er,  equipment.

The Fella himself is pretty darn manly. He’s a welder by trade, and though he’s smart enough to geek out on theoretical physics, he’s barely got a high school education. He’s got a giant cave-man beard, broad shoulders, and is over 6 feet tall. He only wears ratty sneakers and his pants always have holes in them. He is rough-around-the-edges to the point where we have to psychologically prepare him weeks in advance when he is going to have to clean up for a wedding or a funeral. And, he is both defiant and practical enough to drive a teeny, tiny Honda Fit, usually full of tools, and today full of goats. The looks of surprise and amusement on the faces of the brewery owners when the Fella shows up for a welding gig (yes, he specializes in welding the equipment for making beer) and pulls everything he needs for the job out of the back of his little 41-mpg commuter car, well, you can just imagine.

The Fella also understands the importance of goats. And chickens. And even of a little orange dog and a big foolish horse. He understands the environmental impact of fossil fuels and also that a little dirt never hurt anyone. He understands me.

So this picture pretty much has it all, as far as I’m concerned.  It’s the kind of image that puts little pink hearts in my eyes. That’s my fella there, and those are my goats.


Good Big Horse


My farrier came out today to trim Jasper’s feet. She’s a barefoot trimmer, and I’m so glad I found her. One of Jasper’s more notable qualities are his big, heavy, hairy feet. Another quality of his is a strong dislike for being bullied by men. Just a whiff of dominant energy from a male human animal, and that horse turns from eager puppy dog to angry and defensive beast. He needs a firm hand, but positive feedback and a kind voice go a long way with him. This is all to say that a macho male farrier used to shoeing little quarterhorses is just not a good match for my boy.

So what is and why use a barefoot farrier? Well, first off, you know what an iron horse shoe is, right? People use them on their horses the way we use shoes on our own feet. The idea is to protect the horse from stepping on something ouchie. But because horses’ hooves grow, just like our fingernails do, your horse will need a trim and a new set of shoes every couple of months. Many equestrian folks will tell you that it’s just part of the cost and hassle of being a horse owner and any attempt to shirk this responsibility is tantamount to animal abuse. But, if you’re like me, after you’ve written a hefty handful of checks to your horse shoer for his services, and watched your horse stress out every time a hot metal shoe is nailed onto his foot, you might find yourself asking the sacreligious question: Is this really necessary?

I mean, think about it. Horse shoes evolved over millions of years to achieve this foot design. And horses the world over, from the Mongolian steppes to the Scottish Highlands, to the Nevada Desert are galloping hither and thither without bent iron bars nailed to their feet. When did horses’ feet become such fragile and delicate things? Or…could it be that horseshoes are a people-made solution to a people-made problem?

Well, dear readers, once you questioning the status quo in this way, you’ve gone rogue and there’s no saving you. You might as well see where this madness will lead.

Getting free of the vicious cycle of iron shoes for a draft horse has really been a relief for my bank account. They cost a fortune! But it’s not just about foregoing shoes.  You can’t just tell your regular average horse-shoer to give your horse a barefoot trim. Probably nine times out of ten that well-meaning bloke is just going to trim those hooves like he always does, and simply skip the part where he nails shoes onto them. That’s what happened to me. Then all you have is a sore, unshod horse.

If you’re going to try and wean your riding horse off metal shoes, you need to find someone who understands what a horse’s hoof should look like in its natural state, and how best to gradually get your horse’s feet there after probably years and years of being shaped for shoes. It’s a whole different ballgame. While shoers tend to carve away a lot of sole and frog and shape the hoof wall to conform to metal shoes, the barefoot farrier tries to build up the sole and frog, the horse’s natural shock absorbers, and shorten the toe so the horse’s step will come down on the heel, where he can bear his weight the best.

My farrier, Lenora, has been working on Jasper’s feet for about a year now, and I am thrilled to say he is in great shape. We can ride down a gravel road without issue, and even when he spooked and bolted right into a field of sharp rocks that would have bruised and battered the hooves of a horse wearing shoes, he came away unharmed.

He also behaves so well for her. When she first started working with him, he treated her like he treated the macho shoer who came before. That is to say, not well. He fidgeted and fought, fussed and fretted. But her approach is so much like mine, in that she is firm but not mean, and ready to praise good behavior, than he has grown to be totally comfortable with her. He offers his feet up willingly and stands still like a good, big horse. Well, mostly. Anyway, going barefoot has been a wildly successful bit of rule-breaking for us, and we’re never going back.




One of Those Days

Life on the Domestead is definitely not all days like the dreamy one last week. Nope. And yesterday was one of the other kind. Every step of the way.

It’s been raining like crazy here, which is good for lots of reasons, but it’s been hard on my animals.  For one, we’d hoped to move the Freedom Rangers into the tractor this past weekend.  They’re young still, but mostly feathered out.  Our tractor has a roof and enclosed walls at one end and can be equipped with a heat lamp, so they can still be warm but also starting roaming around and get access to a lot more real estate. But we didn’t feel great about putting them out right before we were supposed to get a week-plus of torrential rain. So they’re still in the brooder, which is getting pretty darn cramped. Not ideal.

Also, poor Jasper is stuck in a pipe stall that is flooded on two sides, and even the part that doesn’t have water running through it is getting very swampy. I feel awful. I’ve talked about needing pasture for him before, and this is a big reason why. It’s really not good for horses to be standing in wet mud all day, especially horses with feathers around their feet that can trap bacteria and get infected. So when I went to feed the horses yesterday morning, I ended up spending an hour trying to redirect water and shovel out the wettest mud. It felt futile, but I had to do something. It also meant that I went about the remainder of my chores very sweaty and damp and imbued with the powerful aroma of horse pee. Hardly a catastrophe in and of itself, but just unpleasant enough to send a person’s mood downhill.

Then we had a vet appointment for the goats to see who was pregnant. This is ascertained by ultrasound. It’s an expense that many goat breeders elect not to incur, but being bred or not will affect the price of the does we want to sell, so it’s worth it for us. Except it turned out that, even after spending several weeks with the buck, only one out of our five does was actually bred. So frustrating! It’s a long drive to the breeder and I have to borrow a truck to do it, so it’s not something I’m looking forward to doing all over again. And I’m really disappointed because we were hoping to have three does in milk and two does sold by June. Now that whole plan has to change. Grumble grumble.

And to top it all off, I discovered that one of our new hens has gone droopy. Droopiness in chickens can mean a million different things, from the mild to the fatal.  She’s currently camped out in the kitchen for observation, electrolytes, and some warmth and we’ll just have to see how it goes.

kitchen chicken

Right now it’s lightly snowing outside my office window. Winter in Northern California is not over yet, and a life of milk and honey is feeling a long way off.


A Proper Wet

I wake to the song of a soft rain patting against the panes of the skylight. The huge pentagonal window crowning the top of the dome is filled with dove gray light. I wonder if it is leaking again. A little orange dog sighs deeper into the covers next to me, and the Fella snores on like a man who’d worked hard until midnight, because he did.

Despite the coziness, it isn’t hard to pull myself from the bed. There is no chill in the room, as there has been every morning for many weeks. I put on the old clothes I’ve been wearing all week, a pair of once-fashionable jeans, now too big for anything but humiliation by chicken poop and horse muck. An Americorps sweatshirt (earned by my sister, inherited by me). A pair of thick socks that perfectly fill the inside of a pair of work boots, such that feet don’t dare to slip. Lola watches from the blankets.

First things first, a pot of coffee is set to motion by muscle memory while my mind wanders. I wonder if I should bring the horses in? Then a vivid image of my hand, buried in the thick, red and white fur of Jasper’s neck. But he’ll be wet, of course, having spent the night in the big outdoor arena where he can stretch his legs. I smile at the thought of his legs, tree trunks with fluffy boots. Then I think of fresh, dry hay falling down onto the inevitable mud accumulated around the manger in the arena and I frown. I’ll bring the horses in.

However, before that, there are 40 hungry chicks waiting for their next infusion of protein. With a quick sip of strong coffee to clear the mist from my eyes, I head for the mud room to pull on my muckboots. Right now the mud room is full of heavy bags of organic chicken feed. There is a better place for them to be than here, emptied into the large metal barrels outside the garden gate, they just haven’t quite made it there yet. Another important, but not quite important enough, task awaiting completion. Boots on, I head to the greenhouse.

The cheap sliding door on the cheap (actually free) little greenhouse opens with much resistance and objection. It wants me to smash it, but then what would I do? More hassle. Best not to take the defiance of inanimate objects personally, I remind myself.

The voracious chicks swarm the newly filled feeders exactly like insects. They’ve successfully cleared the cute stage and entered into the awkward, ratty, stinky stage. I’m glad. They’ve all survived babyhood, and there’s nothing about them that would make a person feel bad about tucking into a chicken dinner. Everything, therefore, is going according to plan.

Next I head around the house and up the back path to the goat barn and henhouse. I take in the new crop of buttercups cresting the hill and I happily think, Welcome. In February, the blooming flowers and the already-drying ground were just signs of a broken winter. But since then there’s been snow on the ground, ice-cold nights, and a respectable amount of rain. The world has righted itself, for the most part, and I can enjoy the proper wet of this warm spring rain in March, buttercups included.

The hens are up, but not too sure about coming outside yet. They discuss it among themselves, in their worried, judgmental voices. I move on to the goats. They’ve heard my footsteps, and I can hear Lily and Hank the wether stirring themselves from their soft bed of straw in the upper stone barn. But before I let them out, I let myself into the lower section of the paddock, where Lucy and Willow are snuggled into the small wooden barn. “Good morning girls,” I coo, as I peek at them through the window. I am pleased to see they don’t even get up, because only a few weeks ago these does acted as wild and ungentled as a couple of mustangs. I couldn’t touch them, which was not a favorable condition for a couple of hopefully-bred dairy goats. Even less favorable for does about to be sold to a new home.

But goats are wicked smart, and a few weeks of routine good mornings and tender scritches on their shoulders and these two girls now take my presence as something approaching comfort. Enough so that when I open the door, instead of bolting past me they simply look up from their piles of straw and wait for me to come in and pet them. Hallelujah!

Once Lucy and Willow are fed and watered I close the gate behind me and go back to the stone barn where Hank and Lily are now quite ready for their breakfast, thankyouverymuch. I can’t help but love these two goofy ruminants more than all the others. No problem with skittishness here, they will crawl into your lap if you let them. Which, given that Hank weighs close to 100 pounds, and Lily still smells a little like buck piss from her romantic vacation, I don’t recommend. I give them both scrubs and fill the manger and that’s good enough for now.

Time to head back to the house for another gulp of coffee before the half-mile (round trip) walk to the horses. A couple of red shouldered hawks are making a racket above me and I look up to the magical sight of the pair mating in a branch right over the top of the house! That explains all the fannying about in the treetops over the last few days.

Lola is excited now, because racing off ahead of me along the dirt road to my uncle’s house is by far her favorite part of the day. We will be having a 14th birthday party for her in just a few weeks, but she bounces like a puppy through the wet grass before skidding to a stop to investigate a pile of coyote poop or leave a message at a well established canine pee signpost along the road.

The air almost feels steamy now. The rain has stopped and the gray-blue clouds tumble through the pale-blue sky. There’s a magic moment along this road when the civilization of my house and the civilization of my uncle’s house are both entirely out of view, and it’s nothing but the road, the meadows, and the oak trees. To have a moment like that in my daily routine is such an incredible blessing, and even without deliberate mindfulness to remember to appreciate the simple things, it never ceases to take my breath away.

There are five horses to feed. My own oversized beast, who looks like a Shetland pony with a glandular disorder or a flame-eyed medieval warhorse, depending on the angle, is always at the rail with an eager look. My best friend’s gray mare, Shasta, is always close by, usually employing her refined and elegant face to scowl at me for never being fast enough with her breakfast. Then there’s the near toothless old racehorse, who is surprisingly feisty for a horse on the far side of 30, and gets a special mash to gum on. Also, my uncle’s incredibly beautiful and incredibly intimidating Andalusian stallion, with whom I have almost no connection, despite having brought him his breakfast every single day for the last two years. I am simply a serving girl to him, and he makes sure I know it. Lastly, a dainty little mare, almost kitten-like, in her curious sweetness. She’s doesn’t really have a name, so everyone just calls her ‘baby.’

After all are tended to, Lola and I head home, to finally have our own breakfasts. The  sky continues to gently churn. More rain on the way. Bluebirds and towhees dive from the trees and a breeze catches the water drops from the leaves and sends them showering down to earth.

Poo Chapeaux

The new hens have a roosting arrangement in our little coop that was causing some unfortunate befoulment (befowlment?) of their food and water feeders. Et voila!


A new use for 99 cent turkey roasters!

And while I was tending to the ladies’ toilette, I decided to try a new, and quite lovely, method of deterring mites and other pests from the next boxes. In addition to the usual pine shavings and diatomaceous earth, I added some of this:


It’s a mixture of lavender, rose petals, chamomile, mint, and eucalyptus. Who knows if it will work, but the coop smells heavenly, which is reason enough to use it. Just spiffing things up for the girls. Pourquois pas?