Category Archives: Farm Animals

Turkey in the Straw-Bale

Straw Bale Garden Rows

Dear Reader:

Since I live in an HOA (homeowner’s association) that does not allow “livestock,” you may have already guessed that the only turkey in my straw bale garden is me.

In the future, anyone who is interested in self-sufficiency, sustainable living, growing/raising of backyard food will avoid these HOA’s like a nuclear testing field. Not that HOA’s aren’t pleasant places to live. And not that they couldn’t be designed ON PURPOSE to support sustainability and community and nice things like backyard poultry that loves to eat up nasty ticks while providing delicious, nutritious eggs with deep-gold yokes. The tragedy of my particular HOA is the squandering of so much potential for self-sufficiency, learning, discovery, and…extremely tasty eggs!

The other problem I’ve discovered is the lack of sunlight due to so many tall, skinny, 100-yr-old pine trees that have sprung up from the old, deserted pastures of a time not so long ago when we were agrarian and proud of it. Don’t talk to me about “old-growth forest.” (See the stand of pines in the background of the photo above).

Old-growth forest does not have fieldstone walls running through it, people! This is old farm land. Pasture. Probably dairy cows. Whether we like to admit it or not, our HOA is built on livestock droppings now covered over with the pines and with the hardwood saplings struggling and finding bright pockets of sunlight in which to stretch now that the pine forest is beginning to break down.


This is the stump from a pine that fell (tipped) not 30 ft from our house. The pine forest is crumbling around us, but not quickly enough to give me adequate sunlight for a full-scale kitchen garden. The only spot with enough sunlight for things like tomatoes and peppers and other sun-loving plants is directly over the septic field–where I’m not convinced I should create a conventional garden.

Faux Homestead

Now that nine years have gone by, my house is just starting to feel settled-into. The area directly in front, past the beech trees and the remnant of stone wall is the leach field. Here, I get six to seven hours of sunlight, but I was at a loss as to how to plant on it. One day, while bopping around the cyber world of Facebook, I saw on a friend’s wall the answer to my problem: straw bale gardening.

At least I think the bales will be the answer. The Facebook page led me to a website called Introduction to Straw Bale Gardening. I ordered the pdf version of Joel Karsten’s book/let. This weekend I moseyed on down to the farm supply store for straw bales and 24-0-0 fertilizer and then over to Plummer’s Hardware for stakes and string. In a couple of hours, my garden rows were ready for “conditioning.”

The process is pretty simple. Take some straw, sprinkle on some nitrogen, soak it with water, repeat, and wait for the composting to break down the straw into a growing medium. The stakes hold the ends of the rows tight while the string (or wire) between the stakes provides a trellis for growing plants.

An unidentified flowering shrub in my back yard

Once I set these up, I observed the sunlight beaming down on these bales from 8 a.m. until almost 4 p.m. yesterday. My hope for a bumper crop of tomatoes is almost as bright as that Flower Moon the other night.

The beauty of straw bale gardening is the ability to place a garden on any surface–not unlike container gardening. Theoretically, it is cheaper as containers can be expensive. However, I will warn you that this may be a bit of a marketing ploy. Containers will last for years, while a straw bale will only be good for a year, two at most. Of course, the spent straw, now composted quite a bit, will then be perfect for creating “lasagna gardens” or for use as nutritious mulch on other garden beds. Also, the bales I bought were expensive–$5.99 each! The 50lb. bag of fertilizer was $30.00, but it should last me a good while. I’ve since discovered that the fertilizer was probably not necessary. I could have put on a layer of the $30/TRUCKLOAD of Tibbett’s compost and maybe started the process a bit earlier.

Delilah by the Woodpile

There are also organic fertilizers that could be used. Bloodmeal. Urine.

Yes, you read that right. Urine is full of nitrogen and is completely sterile. I haven’t quite become that brave yet–not brave enough or obsessed enough about sustainability to pee in a bottle for feeding the perennials, let alone the tomatoes. But there is something poetic, I think, about completing the cycle in the same way that using composted cow manure completes the cycle.

So, my little front-yard experimental garden is almost ready for planting. I have the four old boxes for greens. I have the five new boxes for peas and string beans and squashes and carrots and herbs. I have the two rows of straw bales for tomatoes and peppers and maybe some greens or something in between. My perennial beds have been divided now. I’ll be putting some more herbs in the sunny perennial bed to go along with the rudbeckia and echinacea and the lilac shrub and chives.

Partly Sunny Side

Next year I may create a big perennial flower bed on part of that leach field–the kinds of flowers for bouquets and for dying homespun skeins of yarn, perhaps. And I still want to create an apple tree guild between the beeches and the compost bins.

But this year, oh this year, I’m longing for tomatoes. Big, fat, juicy, red tomatoes.

What a Ham!

Home-Grown Ham

Dear Reader:

There is just no ignoring the truth any longer: home-grown ham beats the factory-farm type hands down. Not that I ever really questioned this, but sometimes we see what we want to see, or in this case, taste what we expect to taste. However, this past Sunday there was no denying the vast superiority of my Easter ham. It was that good.

Let me start at the beginning. My sister and brother-in-law like to raise animals. They used to have a mini-farm with a couple of cows (one who had a penchant for jumping the fence to visit the bull at a neighboring dairy farm), some pigs, some chickens, and some turkeys as well as a fairy large kitchen garden. All this on a couple of acres in a small town outside a larger town . . . not acres and acres of farm, just an average-sized country lot for a single-family home.

Sis and Bro moved to a bigger house eventually but started a business and decided not to raise animals anymore, save for the occasional dog–for companionship, not for eating. This past year, I was delighted when I found out they were planning on raising a couple of pigs and immediately put in my order for half a porker.

So, I just phoned Sis to see what they fed these glorious producers of meaty, pink wonderousness (in no way can you compare this to the “pink slime” we’ve been hearing so much about lately). Once she quit laughing, she told me: “Well, some grain. Some commercial pig food, of course. A bunch of fruit and veggies that had been damaged or had gone by at the grocery store that we were able to take off their hands. We also got some leftovers from a pastry company . . . so maybe that’s why the meat was so sweet, haha. But we aren’t going to do that this year because there are chemicals and stuff that really aren’t so healthy in those prepared foods.”

And how did they house and fence in the animals?

“We made a shelter out of an old truck water tank with straw. In the winter, we left a small opening so they could go in and out, but they would dig right in under the straw and huddle up and were fine like that all winter.”

An old, experienced farmer had once told Bro that animals that are allowed to do this in the winter–rather than being coddled in heated barns, are less likely to catch pneumonia and other sicknesses in the spring when they venture out into the cold, wet Maine weather. So far, that old farmer’s wisdom has proved correct.

“We put up a fence so that they could go into the woods in good weather to root around in there. We put the shelter in the woods during the hot summer months so they’d stay cool. Also, we put some sand in their shelter so they could root in that which is where they get some necessary minerals.” Huh! Cool! I thought, imagining my ham snuffling around the cool Maine woods on a brilliant autumn day.

If the pig is getting essential vitamins and minerals and fresh air and sunshine and rooting around in good dirt and under trees, is it any wonder that the meat is delicious? Not to mention, it is probably much more nutrient dense than some bland pork chop raised solely on grain and questionable material from other farm-factories (chopped up animal parts, anyone?) in a crowded, stinky, closed-in pig farm somewhere in the mid-west.

Glazed Expression

Sis tells me that this year’s four piglets have come through the winter wagging their curly tails, and I am determined to go up to take some pictures. I raved some more about the delicious ham–not to mention the bacon, the chops, and the roasts.

“How did you cook the ham?” she asked.

Here’s how: It was 5.5 lbs. I put it on a rack in a shallow baking pan, and baked it at 325 F for two hours (I might have overcooked a little. Note to self: Use a meat thermometer next time.). I made a glaze from about a cup of pineapple juice, a half-cup of brown sugar, a teaspoon of salt, a sprinkling of ground cloves, and the juice of half a lemon and some corn starch. This I pourrrrrrred over the fat on top, which I had scored. Another fifteen minutes in the oven, and voila! I put the glaze/meat juice mixture in a pitcher, let it sit a minute so I could spoon off some of the fat (one of those gravy fat separators would have come in handy), and used that as a sauce.

But we didn’t really need the sauce because the meat was sweet, juicy, and just salty enough to perfectly balance the mashed potatoes and roasted carrots (from the Crown of Maine MOFGA certified co-op order) and roasted sweet potatoes and steamed asparagus (from the locally-owned grocery store here in town) and the deviled eggs (from Sarah’s chickens down the road!).

Add my mother’s homemade sour pickles and, yes, a Orange Jello/Cool Whip/Pineapple dessert and some jelly beans and chocolate bunnies (who says we have to be PERFECT?), and we had a meal fit for royalty.

Other than the dessert and candy and sweet potatoes, this meal could have been created totally locally. Well, maybe not the asparagus this early. Can you freeze or can asparagus? I’ll have to check. Some boiled onions could have replaced the asparagus. Or some early greens from a cold frame, maybe? The roasted veggies were enhanced with spices from far away lands, but people have been importing spices for centuries. I don’t worry about spices or coffee or brown sugar. We can’t grow them in Maine. That is what fair trade is for.

As we head into spring (and this equinox time of year certainly turns our minds to rebirth and fertility and planting), let’s continue pushing ourselves as far as we can toward enjoying locally-sourced foods. Plant some of your own–even if just a few greens or tomatoes in pots. I’m going to start begging again for a chicken-allowance here in my community. I was also encouraged to see a sign up at the public library announcing a meeting to discuss plans to create a garden at the elementary school!

Exciting things are happening! It is spring. A new beginning . . . Outside the Box.

Quick Post: Numerology

Oink, oink

Poll: Is a “fair tax” fair? If you got rid of all income tax and payroll tax and replaced it with a substantial national sales tax, would lower and middle income people actually pay MORE taxes than they do now? I’m trying to learn more about this 9-9-9 idea. Sounds good at first . . . but now the analysis comes in. Is 9-9-9 just 6-6-6 turned upside down? Or is it the number that will save us? Send me your thoughts.


Baby & Me

Dear Reader:

Spring has brought daffodils to my flower beds, leaves cluttering my lawn, owls hunting for peepers in the boggy places, and a chance for me to bottle feed a baby goat at Downhome Farm (isn’t that the cutest white baby goat?).

Spring also brought me back to 1987, freshman year at the University of Maine at Farmington, the season I took my first (and only) poetry class, ate Gifford’s ice-cream for the first time, took beginner rides on the back of a motorcycle, and began the slow process of falling in love with the man who would eventually become my husband.

And I DID fall in love. With the town. I’m still smitten.

This month, I drove up to UMF to meet my college roommate and two of our friends from down the hall in Scott South, the all-female dormitory where we ended up freshman year–me because my parents wanted to protect me from co-ed distractions and the other three by chance, I think. We lived on the first floor, not a bad set-up, and because we were the only all-female dorm, we also had the only co-ed bathroom on campus (for the visiting boyfriends to use). Oh, the irony.

We were to meet in the Gifford’s Ice Cream parking lot. Arriving early, I grabbed a cup of coffee at a new cafe “overtown” where a pizza place used to be, walked around the block to stretch my legs, admired the gazebo still standing in the tiny park. I drove back past the big, old Main Street houses, now repainted and divided up into apartments, and parked my vehicle in front of Giffords to watch the traffic turning onto the Intervale Road. There were kids playing tennis on the courts beside Hippach Field and a group of Little League players trying out the baseball diamond where my father and uncle played for the Farmington State Teacher’s College team in the mid 1960’s.

(Farmington State became UMF later on, but it still remained primarily a training college for future educators. Now it presents itself as “the liberal arts college of the UMaine System.” Once there were first-generation-to college Mainers wearing sweatpants and L.L. Bean boots to class. Now, it’s topless parades to protest inequality for women. No matter. It’s still UMF. The “Beach” in front of the main dining hall may be called something else now, but it is still the same old hangout. There’s a great athletic center with a pool, indoor tennis courts, weight rooms, and the like. The library has been slightly remodeled. A beautiful education center was constructed where the little white psychology building used to be, and I hear a new art gallery is going in. It’s all good.)

Down to Giffords, I stared, dreamy-eyed, at the yellow Victorian Chester Greenwood mansion high up on the hill overlooking the Sandy River. I gazed at the square, brick campus building, remembering Alice Bloom’s booming musical rendition of a poem by Blake, remembering watching THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY on Sunday movie night in the auditorium there, remembering the buzzing of a lawn mower and the scent of fresh-cut grass while trying to pay attention during Russian history class my final spring at UMF.

I glanced over at the golden arches of the McDonald’s where a bunch of us used to walk after a Wednesday evening children’s lit class. Remembering. Remembering. Remembering and missing the Farmington Diner where my parents met, where my husband-to-be treated me to giant platters of fried clams and french fries loaded with ketchup while we listened to lame eighties hits on the individual jukeboxes situated at every booth. “Lady in Red” and “Lean on Me” and “Maggie May.”

Heart-bursting love for everything.

I rolled down my window and sniffed . . . yes, Farmington has its own scent, probably something to do with the river water but maybe also the farmland surrounding the town and once in awhile, when the wind is right, a whiff of the paper mills in Jay. I recognized this smell. It was the smell of home. Or of a homeplace.

I have family roots deep in Farmington and the surrounding towns. While I was growing up, my grandparents lived here, in a white-sided farmhouse built by my grandfather’s father out on Rt. 4 in West Farmington, on an embankment next to a cornfield beside Temple Stream. My parents took my sister and me to visit often, and for two years of college, I rented a room in the house, sipped camomile tea out on the granite steps, typed up college papers in the old, screen porch office at the front shaded by big old oaks that dropped so many acorns it hurt to run across the lawn in bare feet.

My grandmother’s family tree goes all the way back to some of the first settlers of the area, the Butterfields, who built homesteads up on Porter Hill. My grandfather’s family goes back aways, too, though I don’t know as much about them. My mother grew up here. My parents met here. I met my husband here. I dream of moving back, someday. Maybe.

Bill Roorbach's Book

Mostly, though, I just want to continue to love this town with its human-scale Main Street shops, its steepled churches, its college campus, its river. Others have moved here and felt its magic pull. On our recent visit, my friends and I ducked into Twice Sold Tales, a wonderful used bookshop housed in part of the old Newberry’s five-and-dime store, and I picked up Bill Roorbach’s memoir, TEMPLE STREAM. Professor Roorbach came to UMF to teach just after I graduated, but I enjoyed his first memoir SUMMERS WITH JULIET and wished I could have taken a class taught by him.

With the new book, Roorbach had me at the title, but I was impressed on every single page. Funny, insightful, informative, and warm, TEMPLE STREAM made me fall in love with the area all over again. Thank you, Mr. Roorbach.

The visit, the spring season, the memoir all worked a kind of magic and inspired me to write a new poem. I will leave you with the new, spring-inspired poem plus an old, winter-inspired poem written back when I was in college. Both are about the Sandy River in Farmington, Maine. Happy Spring, Dear Reader!

WINTER WATER (old poem)

It is not black
but deepest blue
piercing the whiteness
of snow crusted over
a somnolent river . . .
Chilled blue
water gurgling beneath
that hardened surface, I imagine . . .
Walking this bridge
from there to there
and wondering how it would be
to be a stone
rolling on an icy current,
opaque whiteness for a sky . . .

January, 1990.


POETRY & FARMING (new poem)

There is something
about this town
that invites
poetry & farming.

Town born of a river
rushing thick in spring
with sticks
& mud & thrown-away
stuff like bottles, rubber tires,
cardboard, rags.

Does the rushing & roaring
of the water seep
into the brain cells?
Permeable membranes susceptible to river notes,
gurgles like syllables,
voice of water whispering
“This and This and Thus” &
“Write it Down! Remember!”

After the floods in spring
the river draws back
gifting the plains
with organic riches, minerals
dredged from the riverbed or scraped
with a scour of deep ice.

This river made
lush green fields shot through
with meandering streams
like fool’s-gold threads. In later Spring,
swaths of pasture grass are dotted
with buttercups & milkweed & vetch.

The dairy cows lie beside
the water, listen
and chew while their udders fill
with sweet, white milk.

April, 2011

Fair Skies Over Maine

October 2009 056

Dear Reader:

It’s the end of the special time of year known in Maine as “Fair Season.” Starting July 2nd up north in Houlton and ending in the southwest corner in the lovely town of Fryeburg on October 11th, Mainers enjoy a long summer and fall of carnival games, amusement rides, craft exhibits, Grange tableaux, livestock shows, and horseracing, not to mention cotton candy, sticky caramel apples, hot chocolate at the Bingo tent, sausages smothered in onions and peppers, fair fries doused in vinegar, and my family’s favorite: hot turkey sandwiches with the fixins at the Farmington Fair Elks Booth.

This year I was lucky enough to also attend the Fryeburg Fair which is down here in my neck of the woods. Between Farmington and Fryeburg, I was able to hit almost all my favorite goings-on. Heading to the racetrack is always on the agenda. Maine harness racing has been around a long time. In these “trotting” races, the horses pull two-wheeled contraptions called sulkies on which the driver sits and directs the horse. The sport has waxed and waned over the years, but the racing community is a tenacious one. The history of harness racing at the Fryeburg track can be read here.

While harness racing has a long and fascinating history, the agricultural fairs have an even longer one. According to the Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs website, there are 25 fairs and the Skowhegan Fair is the grandmere of them all at age 190!

Skowhegan may be the oldest, but for me the Farmington Fair is dearest. Even though I grew up in the Bangor area, my family roots are in Farmington, so that is the fair we would attend every September. The weather was always a crap shoot. One year we’d be sweltering in the midst of an Indian Summer heatwave. The next year we’d bundle up in our winter coats and mittens. My sister remembers how cold the ferris wheel safety bar felt on her chin. Some years were rainy, and the walkways down past the exhibition hall, the livestock barns, the carny games, and the Merry-Go-Round would be slick and rutted with deep mud. Now they’ve paved the walkways, and while I suppose it is easier–not to mention cleaner–I rather miss the dirt.



No Maine Agricultural Fair would be complete without the barnyard animals. This beautiful beast is one of the many oxen I oggled (and who oggled right back as you can see) at the Fryeburg Fair last week. If you’ve never seen these animals up close, you’d be surprised at how huge they are. Walking behind them in the barn, we were very aware of the location of their large hooves and legs. Their backs were taller than my head. Their heads sported pointy spears of horns. They were gorgeous.

These strong, sturdy animals were once used on farms for pulling the plow, hauling logs out of the woods, and pulling carts full of hay or produce or maple syrup. Their equine counterparts, the large draft horses, are also impressive with their regal bearing and rippling muscles. While tractors took the place of oxen and draft horses on most farms when gasoline became cheap and easily available, some die-hard farmers chose to continue working with the large animals. They aren’t just used for cement-pulling shows at the fair, either.

Reading this article from the Amherst Bulletin, I smiled to learn that the farmers at Simple Gifts Farm have decided to train oxen to take the place of tractors. Red and Blue, five-month-old Jerseys are currently being trained in the yoke and will be doing some of the heavy pulling around the farm in the years ahead, replacing gas-guzzling tractors. I can’t help but think that using these animals rather than oil-powered machinery makes economic sense. What could be more efficient than harvesting hay with the very animals that will eat it? How about using the manure to replace nutrients used in the growing of food the season previous? The elegance–yes, elegance!–of such a cycle rivals mathematical equations in my romantic (and admittedly non-mathematical) mind. Someone else might just see poop. I see possibilities.

Like the oxen–and the goats and the horses and the chickens and the pigs and the rabbits–the craft and garden exhibits remind us of our agricutural heritage. Every year in Maine, women still create colorful quilts, warm woolen mittens and scarves, and other textile projects for entering in the contests at the fair. Grange members work together to fill their booths with rows of canned goods, fruits and vegetables, grains, eggs, baked products like breads and pies, and even displays of various tree-cuttings from someone’s back woodlot. Working farms create their own displays, showing off the products of their labor. Art exhibits line the walls with entrants of all ages–two to ninety-two. The 4-H clubs have their own shows and exhibits, sharing their projects with the community.

October 2009 070 One of my favorite exhibits this year at the Farmington Fair was the barn full of “old-timey” rooms. This kitchen has it all–wood cookstove, cooking utensils hanging on the wall, an iron warming on top of the stove, clothes drying on wooden arms behind.

Would I really like to go back to this way of living? Maybe not. But yeah, if I had to.

October 2009 072

And this is what I’d be doing! Oh, how I want to learn to spin wool. I’d love to take a fleece, comb it out, spin it up into some yarn, hand-dye it with some sort of natural, old-fashioned dye (bark for brown, some sort of flower for pink or yellow?), and knit up some socks or mittens or maybe even a sweater. Going to the fair reminds me that these arts and crafts and skills have not been lost, that all we have to do is take up mantle–err, handknit shawl.

October 2009 098
I’ll leave you with this final image taken from the Fryeburg Fair. As we head into the cooler months ahead, I wish you, my readers, a season of peace after the rush and bounty of the harvest.

Now, if only I could get my hands on some fried dough . . . . . . .