It's been hard for me to sever ties with the city completely, even with all of the work that needs doing at the farm. My hive in Greenpoint is still kicking so it needs to be checked in on regularly. This means an hour drive into Brooklyn with some frequency. Frankly, I should have moved it to Seven Arrows by now but it's a big job and I'm still not entirely sure which method I'm going to use to pack it up. Beehives are heavy things and cumbersome, especially when they have to be lowered through a small hatch in the roof, carried down a steep ladder and two flights of stairs in an occupied building. In any case, it needs to move and I plan on doing it this weekend.
Another thing is pulling me back to the city, and that's the Brooklyn Grange Beekeeper's Training Program which I am co-teaching with Grange's head beekeeper, Chase Emmons. BG invited me to participate in creating a program that can be replicated year after year, one where serious wanna-bees can come and learn an entire season of beekeeping from procuring bees, maintaining them, harvesting honey and other products of the hive and marketing them to the public. The goal is to facilitate the creation of other career beekeepers like Chase and myself.
The group is small, about eight trainees total. What the group lacks in size though it makes up for in spirit. My pal Mark Negley, who has a bee business in Florida, was up delivering some of his overwintered PA nucs to us and he noted how impressed he was with the trainees 'go get 'em' attitude and iron work ethic. Many of them had never worked with bees before, but sat through my 8-hour recorded bee class to bone up on the basics.
Once Mark and I arrived at Brooklyn Navy Yard, the site of Brooklyn Grange's apiary, with the bees, we began to unload. Our soon-to-bee beekeepers gently carried the rickety nucs up the stairs to their new home, sat them aside their colorfully painted hives. The plan had been to let the nucs sit for a few days to settle down before transferring them, but everyone was so eager to get into those hives that we made a decision together to just do it and get those bees snug in their homes, stings be damned!
But few stings actually came. We demoed one introduction, and after we closed the full frames of brood and bees in their spacious hive it was game on! The gang was ready to give handling bees a try on their own. Chase, Mark and I gave some pointers to the group and one-by-one, they each lit their smoker, puffed the bees, opened the nucs and moved the frames gingerly to their new homes. Bees we're flying everywhere, but not a single jittery human was to be found on that Brooklyn rooftop.
My friend Alex Brown, who worked with me on my forthcoming book The Rooftop Beekeeper: A Scrappy Guide to Keeping Urban Honeybees, was there documenting the day. Here are some of the highlights!
I'm incredibly proud of this team and I cannot wait to share more of the adventures we have this summer!
©2013 Alex Brown
I am, as much as I hate to admit it, a fairly negative person. A "poo-pooer", if you will. Much of my life up until the past few years felt monochromatic, pointless at times and generally unfulfilling. Working a 9-5 job, spending what little money I had on things that I felt no connection to and family troubles kept me adequately distracted from the positive aspects of my life.
As an insecure person, I felt I had more to say if I had something negative to share. Being positive in social situations is boring, right? I could use my distaste for something as an opportunity to be snarky and amusing at bars. The scary thing is, it kind of works. Folks chuckle at your commentary and you keep it up to keep the accolades a-comin', In time, that sort of attitude starts to chisel away at you. Negativity is a tough habit to break. You begin to find comfort in those rough words. They dismiss the things you don't understand, the things you are fearful of, the things you simply do not like. Talking trash makes easy work of existing because you've given yourself a way to avoid learning to navigate through things that are challenging. Negativity is a coward's warm blanket. One that, if you are not careful, can smother you.
It never occurred to me that I was behaving cowardly. In social situations, I'd blurt out the first thing that came to mind, usually something unpleasant, with no filter on. It was alienating, for sure. I felt myself floating adrift from my friends and loved ones and that only made matters worse. About 8 years ago, I hit a wall. I had allowed my poor frame of mind to quite literally take over my life and it wrecked my relationships with a couple of folks that meant a lot to me at the time. Ashamed, but too stubborn to try and fix myself, I ran away to the city to start anew.
New York City taught me something of value that I am only now just realizing. Folks there don't have time for things that make them feed bad, that includes people. You don't make or keep friends for long there when you've got a bad attitude. I learned that focusing energy on things that made you feel good actually had the power to make you better in attitude, and eventually in spirit too. I'm thankful for the people there for showing me no quarter where matters of shit-talking and negativity are concerned. We should all aspire to be less tolerant of bad attitudes.
Things are a little different now that I'm farming. I wake up every day and venture to the outbuildings to let out the critters, attend to their needs and milk the goats. There's not a day that has gone by when I don't laugh or smile big or well up with love during that process of caring for our livestock. Watching the dogs play mirror through the paddock fence, or that first 30 seconds after I open the door to the coop and all 80 of our chickens flow out of the door like some sort of spastic, noisy river. It gets me right in the heart. It's so undeniably good and I feel the most crystalline gratitude in those moments. I find myself looking for them everywhere and as often as I can.
I won't lie to you, though. I still catch myself focusing on the downside to everything on a daily basis. It's an ongoing battle. What helps is remembering how good I've got it. We can feed all of the creatures under our care, pay for vet bills, and feed ourselves too for that matter. I make a very modest living doing what I love. I can't afford to buy a new car or new gadgets every year like modern folks are accustomed to, but I do not find myself wanting and that is something to be very grateful for. I have a man who loves me and is willing to take personal risks to be with me. There are people in the world who trust me with things that are precious to them, like their land and their home and their memories. None of these things are small or to be taken lightly. Is there anything more humbling than the gift of other people's faith in you?
It's important to keep reminding yourself of all of the good surrounding you from time-to-time. It's not always an easy task but the alternative will eat away at the soul. It's something I can attest to personally. If you don't make it a point to seek out those things that make you feel big inside you might just find yourself wishing at the end of your time that you had appreciated all the beauty in your life when you had the chance.
So what is that thing that makes you feel gratitude? Think on it and share if you would like. But most importantly, think on it.
It's going to be over 80 degrees for the next few days here on the New Jersey farm. The warm temps are much needed, after several weeks of near-freezing nights have slowed our progress in the garden.
Here's some photos from the Seven Arrows this week. As you can see, the late spring hasn't impeded the chickens boom in egg production. Things in that regard are moving quite smoothly. I'll post soon about our progress. It's been hard to sit down at the computer to write lately.
Happy Spring, everyone!
It's been a while since I've interviewed someone I admire on the blog. Last time was my friend Jenna Woginrich, a farmer and writer up at the wonderful Cold Antler Farm. This time, I contacted Hank Shaw, a hunter, an angler and a forager whose blog is chock full with drool-inducing recipes featuring the seasonal and wild foods that he has personally gone out into the world to find. He's written a best-selling book called Hunt, Gather, Cook which I recommend to any wild food enthusiast or adventurous cook. I enjoy Hank's writing because it possesses reverence for the lives that feed him that isn't ham-fisted or saccharine. It's respectful without being precious. It's graceful and it's fact in his world and it feels authentic to me. Add to that that the man can cook like nobodies business. It's an inspiring read nearly every time.
Hank's blog, if you haven't already visited, is called Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook. Do yourself a favor and add it to your feed. It's one of my favorite places to click to for inspiration. When you are like me and you try to dine on what is free and near, checking in at websites like his keeps the fires stoked. After the interview, check out this link to his recipe for Venison Meatballs, Greek-style. We've been enjoying this dish all winter with some of the venison our neighbor has been trading us for eggs!
(Note: In November, Hank will be visiting us here at the farm for a book event. He's just written Duck, Duck, Goose, a book about cooking wild and domesticated water fowl.)
BH: Was there a definitive moment when it dawned on you that seeking and eating wild food was preferable and something you wanted to make part of your daily life?
Hank: Not really. I grew up picking berries and digging clams and fishing. Wild food is part of our family's DNA. But I can tell you that one reason I've taken it into hunting -- something no one else in my family does -- is as a conscious rejection of factory farmed meats. There is real horror in industrial meat production, and I want to minimize my involvement in it as best I can; I have bought meat only a handful of times since 2004.
BH: Killing and consuming wild or farm-raised animals, especially cute ones, can be really a really polarizing topic. How do you find yourself coping with folks that seem to take serious issue with the rather hands-on manner in which you provide for yourself?
H: Well, it can come from several directions. The most amusing are the "cute-itarians," those who will eat beef because they're ugly and not lamb because they're cute. Kinda ridiculous. The other easy ones to dismiss are those hypocrites who tell me I am a monster for hunting when they wear leather shoes and gladly stuff their pie holes with McDonald's burgers. They lash out at me because they fear the reality I choose to face head on. What I do reminds them that their burger was once a cow, their skinless, boneless chicken breasts were once wandering around pecking things -- or not, in the case of factory chickens, which barely get to move at all.
On the other hand, I enjoy debating and discussing with vegetarians. I like vegetarians, because many of them (not all, mind you) have also spent time thinking about the industrial food system and they too have rejected it. Their choice is merely a different one from mine. Where we debate is in who does the least harm to the world. This, in the grand scheme of things is akin to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin -- vegetarians and hunters do FAR less harm to the earth than do the typically wasteful American consumer. That said, vegetarians (and vegans) need to realize that animals die for them, too. Anyone who's ever seen the crows and seagulls flock around a disker, pecking at the chopped up remains of mice, voles, baby birds and such -- and I'm not even going to get into the issue of habitat loss and pesticide use -- understands that no one lives unless something dies. It is a cruel fact of this world.
BH: How do you feel that your lifestyle has effected your perspective? Do you feel differently than you did before you began actively hunting and foraging?
H: Like I said, I've been foraging and fishing my whole life. But hunting has definitely changed my perspective. I waste less meat now. I am a better cook because I hunt -- it requires skill to cook offal, and the tough cuts of an animal. I actually eat less meat now, because I have chosen to eat only what I bring home. I think hunting has restored meat's rightful place in my life: For most of human existence, meat has been special. Before I hunted, it was not. Not it is something I hold in reverence.
BH: What advice would you give someone with hesitation about how to get started hunting or foraging? Do you have any advice for people who are afraid of taking a life to feed themselves or their families?
H: It is absolutely a big deal, a serious matter. And not everyone can do it. It's been a powerful long time since everyone was required to be able to kill for their meat -- eons, actually. And there is no shame in facing the moment and finding yourself unwilling or unable to pull that trigger, or release that arrow or slash those gills. My advice for those who are curious is to talk to anglers and hunters and livestock farmers. If you are still interested, ask to join them on a fishing trip, or a hunt or on slaughter day. Watch. Let it seep in. If you think you can do it, only then should you start the journey.
Killing for meat, especially when we're talking about fellow mammals like deer, is never easy. Nor should it be. But over time you understand that doing so is taking your place on Nature's stage. We have been hunters since before we were fully human. There is no shame in accepting that -- so long as we remember to respect what Nature gives us.
BH: In your opinion, what is the most rewarding aspect to having a more intimate involvement with your food?
H:Getting to see Nature in a way no other people get to see. Hunting, fishing and foraging get me closer to the wild world than you ever possibly could as a hiker or as a spectator with a camera. To succeed in what I do, I must understand what I am pursuing -- whether it be bird, beast, fish or plant -- far more than I would need to as a casual observer. There is an intimacy in the process that lies outside the realm of reason. The forest, the fields, the ocean. These are my cathedrals.
A few months back, our neighbor Tim gave us this really great old egg incubator that he had no use for. We thought at some point that we'd give hatching some eggs a try. Well, today is that day. We've had some unexpected losses this winter and so we're going to need to raise a couple more birds to make up for it. Our roosters have been busy making nice with our hens so there is a good chance that most of these eggs have been fertilized.
Normally, we'd separate one of our broody hens to set upon a clutch of eggs but right now it's all hens on deck for our flock. We cannot spare any laying hen's abilities for now, but we feel that letting Mama Nature take care of things is always preferable to human intervention.
Our plan is to not buy chicks or pullets ever again. We've had such a headache with our most recent additions to the flock not being hardy and dying or having deformities that could have been avoided with better management that we just feel like we could do a better job of it here. Ordering chicks feels kind of bad for us because we end up ordering only females and who knows what happens to the male chicks. If we raise chicks at home from our own stock, we can raise a few cockerels for the table for nearly nothing.
We'll keep you guys posted on the process! Interested in hatching your own eggs? The Backyard Chickens forum has a great tutorial on how to do it!
Every day our farm feels more farm-like. We make little changes here and there and after a few weeks of little tweaks we get to enjoy notable progress as we move towards our first growing season here in New Jersey. I've found it very hard to muster the energy to broadcast the daily goings on here at the farm. The truth is, the farm takes up so much of my headspace and time that when I'm not required to think about it, I try to give myself a break. The past year has me spent and I was on the verge of having nothing left to give. Not to my friends, not to my business partners and not to my readers.
I've spent some time talking to Summer, the woman who operates the yoga retreat on the property, about my problem. I mostly felt compelled to share with her my fears about the condition I've allowedmy body to get into. A combination of eating indulgently, stressing, overwork, coffee addiction and too serious a love of good beer had me feeling depleted and ill. Summer recommended I spend a week detoxing, which I did. No coffee, no alcohol, no meat or wheat, no spicy or fatty foods, no sugar. Two days in and I felt noticeably different in body and mind. I became embarrassed that I had abused myself to that degree for so long. I've begun taking private yoga lessons with her a couple times a week to work out the rest of the kinks.
After a few days of this regiment, I had much more energy and clarity. With that burst of vitality I ventured outside to tackle some of the work that needs doing before Spring arrives. It's so close. The days have been warm enough to go jacketless, we've even been able to picnic. I've been prepping garden beds with Summer and Lulha, starting seedlings in the hoop house with Neil and Michael, and dreaming of what it will all look like once the seeds have germinated and the crispy brown and grey of winter has been gently brushed away by spring's bloom. This is the time of year when we all yearn for just a touch of warm sun on our faces. I feel the burden of my heavy clothes intensify on the cusp of spring. The cold night temperatures somehow feel like an insult to all of us warm blooded creatures. Fortunately, we've got only a few more weeks to endure.
I'm taking the last of this mellow time to get back on track. It's so hard to do good work when your body is fighting against you most of the time. A farmer is only as good as their condition, so if I wan't to be worth a damn out there in that field (I do!) I need do the work on myself first.
Finally, the gals are back to work! Our hens can pay their own damn rent for once! We're up to 2 dozen a day which is about half of what capacity will be once our CSA pick-up in June! We're incredibly relieved to be able to stop funneling money into these voracious little eater's beaks!
I'll be going to take my first ever yoga lesson with Summer over at the retreat. I've been feeling terrible for months and I hit a wall this week. Summer is going to try to help me get on track. Yoga 3x a week, no drinking, and a kitcheree cleanse are what's on the docket for the time being. Let's see how I do!
Wish me luck!