Monday, August 31, 2009

A Tour of Ghost Town Farm

If it wasn't for Novella Carpenter, we here at Itty Bitty would never know the satisfaction of raising urban goats. I vividly recall the evening some six months ago when I happened upon her blog whilst perusing that infinite maze we call the interweb in search of more info on raising chickens in the city. You see, even though we'd planned on getting chickens for over a year, the Disgruntled Farmhand never wanted the cluck clucks. Whenever the topic would come up, he would spat, "They smell. I want a goat." To which I would retort, "I would LOVE to have a goat too, but we can't have one in the city. We COULD have fresh eggs though." And then low and behold, I stumbled, or more accurately "Googled", upon Novella's Ghost Town Farm in Oakland. She had goats. A few of them. I could scarcely breathe I was so beside myself with glee, reckoning that if she could keep goats in Oaktown, I could certainly attempt it on the other side of the bay. I shouted to the DF, who was in another room getting his Internet crack on, "HONEY, WE CAN HAVE GOATS!" His sheepish, laden with child-like joy reply was barely audible, "Really?" And so began our little adventure.

Novella recently published City Farm, a book about her foray into raising livestock and gardening in an urban environment. I anxiously waited weeks for it to come into print and devoured it as soon as it arrived. The story is a fascinating look at one woman's attempt to be closer to the source of her food while living in a blighted, urban ghetto. Her pioneering spirit pours forth from every page as she humorously recounts tales as outlandish as raising 2 full sized pigs for slaughter on nothing but compost bin leftovers from Oakland's Chinatown and Berkeley's chic restaurant district. I highly recommend this read, even if you have no interest in raising your own meat or eggs. As well as being a captivating narrative of a new kind of modern urban lifestyle, her enthusiasm for bringing food closer to home is infectious and relevant to our current societal woes of food security, environmental degradation, reliance on foreign oil, and alienation from basic survival skills.

So of course after reading her book and following her blog religiously, I have been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to visit this little patch of citified grange. Lucky me, as a part of Oakland's Eat Real festival, Ghost Town graciously opened its doors for an all day farm extravaganza, which included a chicken slaughter and goat milking demonstration. I would have LOVED to have stayed all day, meeting like-minded folks, sharing ideas, and learning new urban farm tricks (really got to learn how to milk those goats!), but alas it was scorching hot in the East Bay, there were a ton of people in attendance, which was awesome, but made it difficult to hear, and I had an overheated 5 year old at my side who was adamant to know why we needed to look at some lady's goats when we had two perfectly good ones at home. The overbearing midday sun had turned my brain to mush and I was rendered incapable of reasoning with the small set (let's face it, I struggle with that on a good day). So we skipped most of the "official" tour and opted for a self-guided version. The veggie beds that littered the vacant lot adjacent to the house were lush and enviable,

the baby goats were cute as can be as they gorged themselves on alfalfa directly IN the manger,

and Novella, the farm lady herself, was absolutely charming and personable (with great taste in eyeglasses!).

While she was signing books, I approached her with a small gift from Itty Bitty, a jar of lemon apple butter, kicking myself the entire time for not having brought my copy of her book to sign. We briefly talked about goats and I realized in that moment that I have been a bit desperate for community - you know, like personally knowing a couple other folks whom I can talk to about chicken and goat stuff. It took all of my willpower to refrain from ambushing Novella with a million and one question assault of all things related to backyard livestock. I'm hoping that she will have a workshop on goat husbandry in the near future, as I am particularly nervous about that "goats giving birth in my backyard" thing and could use a mentor.

Thank you Novella for your inspiring presence in this world. You are an amazing lady!

And BTW, if any of you out there know of someone who is raising chickens, goats, rabbits, etc. in the city, trying to grow more of their own food, or just interested in this kind of stuff, please send them my way. I'm lonely. Maybe we could have a potluck or something.

Friday, August 28, 2009

My Computer Has a Virus and So Does My Goat

We've been back from vacation for a week and a half now, but you haven't heard hide nor hair from me because my computer has a virus... or two. I think I've cleared up the problem - thank you free anti virus software - so I will be trying to post more frequently to catch everyone up on the haps around the homestead.

Speaking of viruses, one of the goats, Lucy, has had a slight cough and runny nose since she arrived at Itty Bitty. It was such a minor issue that I figured she either had an allergy or was a little stressed by the move. However, it hasn't cleared up and recently seems to have gotten worse. We're talking full blown goat boogers here. I decided to have her checked out by a vet. And here again I found myself in that urban farming quandary: Where in the heck was I going to find a vet near SF that would see a goat? The closest place I could locate with any reliability was about an hour or so away. On Tuesday, I packed up both ladies into a large dog crate and headed off to the Cotati Large Animal Hospital. There was no way I would have taken just the one goat. Ethel would have terrorized the neighborhood with eardrum rupturing bleats. No need to draw that kind of attention. We had a nice visit with Dr. Schroer, who patiently answered all of my dumb goat health questions, which included an embarrassing query about frequent urination (I just HAD to know whether or not it was normal). She gave me a series of antibiotic shots for Lucy, whose virus seemed to be transforming into a bacterial infection, and vaccinated both goats against some kind of nasal worm thing that can occasionally be a problem in herds. I just went with whatever she said because frankly, I'm so done with having sick animals. And FYI, the bill was half of what I paid for the toe incident with the chicken.

After the vet visit, I decided to pick up some supplies at the Western Farm Center in Santa Rosa, since we were in the neighborhood and all. This is my absolute favorite farm supply store. They always have everything I need at a decent price, including organic feed. The staff are friendly and helpful, but most importantly knowledgeable in that uncocky way. If for some reason they don't know something, they'll find someone who does, the antithesis to my experiences at the feed store that is closer to our house in Half Moon Bay, where I've mostly encountered service with an attitude if, in fact, I've received any service at all. The highlight of this trip to the WFC was when Roberto, the super congenial cashier, came out from behind the register to help me load my goodies just so he could sneak a peak at the goats. How charming is that?

Our trip to Costa Rica was fantastic and we are so grateful to Maria and Jeremiah for keeping things up to snuff on the farm. I'm particularly beholden to them for standing in my stead to shepherd Miss Lorraine on her journey to the other side. I was hoping that she would hold out until our return so that our farm sitters wouldn't have to deal with the more unpleasant side of owning livestock. But this was not to be. Sweet Jeremiah held Miss Lorraine in his arms, gently stroking her feathers, as she passed. What an incredibly loving and peaceful death. We should all be so lucky to leave this world with such dignity and grace.

Here are a couple photos of farm animals in Costa Rica. The chickens are fairly similar to ours, but check out those cows!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Greetings, IBFITC readers!
I've been hard at work on the farm with my sweetheart and fully gruntled farmhand, Jeremiah, so I haven't had much chance to sit down and pound out a proper update to the ol' blog until today, our last day!
We were thrilled when Heidi, Esteban the Disgruntled Farmhand (typing 'gruntled' makes me giggle), and Ute welcomed us to their home. We were both looking forward to spending some time out of the 'burbs, frolicking with goats and watching chickens act chicken-like. Since both of us have become interested in the urban homesteading movement (it's big enough to be called a 'movement', right?), we were particularly excited to learn more about what goes into creating a more self-sufficient household. And ooo-wee! We got us an edumacation!

Contrary to common belief, I was not a farm kid. I grew up in Bodega Bay, which I call a town but the tourist brochures call a quaint village, and my dad was a fisherman. Aside from our kleptomaniacal dog Skipper, thousands of nameless feral cats, and one Muscovy duck named Buddy bought on a whim at the feed store (when I lost interest and realized the duck couldn't live on love alone, my brother rechristened him Guido, took him to his house, and later ate him), we didn't keep animals. I liked to look at them, and like many little girls, I wanted a black pony with a star on his forehead more than anything in the world, but for the most part I viewed farm animals as big, smelly alien creatures who magically provided us with beef and chicken. My sole contact with livestock came when I was a teenager living with my sister, Deb, who for some reason decided she needed to have two goats penned up in the backyard. Their names were Orion and Snowy, and I hated them. Yeah, I said it. I hated them. I don't know if they were mean or just acting, like, goat-y, but no matter what I did, those damned goats would rear up on their hind legs and jump on me, like they were trying to dance with me or something, and then they'd drop to the ground, rev themselves up, and butt me. They wouldn't even let me pet them without butting me. Though I'd expressed no interest in the goats, outside of the desire anyone would have to keep them safe from Chupacabra or goat rustlers, Deb felt that it was my job to take care of them. I'd go outside, grimly clutching the feed bucket, as the goats fixed their walleyed stare upon me. I'd open the gate and BOOM! the assault would begin. I think my sister had purely sadistic motives, because she found this uproariously funny.

I'd related this story to Heidi and her DF, and Heidi was a tidge worried that I may have been too traumatized by my sucky goat experience to take proper care of her farm. But no. I told her that I've grown up and I think animals are fun now, not to mention the fact that her goats are cute, a little skittish, and much sweeter than the snarling beasts my sister kept. Jeremiah was just excited to play chicken farmer for two weeks, and he had no fear of goats to speak of.

We arrived at the Itty-Bitty eager to get our hands dirty. We read through Heidi's instructions, and set about divvying up the chores, though we liked doing the work (and we're still in that gross snuggly stage of our relationship) so much we ended up abandoning the list to do everything together. The work was pretty straightforward--clean food and water for all the animals everyday, rake the pen a couple times. J and I immediately loved the scent of the goat's feed--molasses, corn, oats--and even grew to enjoy the loamy smell of the pen in the morning, earth and dewy straw and sweet alfalfa. The goats weren't down with us petting them, but we were consoled by the fact that they regarded us with curiosity, not malice.
Chickens are amusing creatures, and we enjoyed watching them cluck and peck. That's their jam, you know. I'm sorry to say that Lorraine has departed this mortal coil. She began acting strangely midday Wednesday, and took her last breaths by evening. Jeremiah brought her inside and made her a bed of shavings, and tried to feed her bits of fruit; we knew she might not make it when she took no notice of an earwig crawling over her beak. No matter how large or small the creature, it's always bad news when it refuses to eat. She died a peaceful, natural death. I have to admit that I was terrified I might have to euthanize her, especially after reading Heidi's harrowing post on that subject. RIP, Lorraine.

I guess I don't have anything earthshaking to share on the topic of animal care. It was fun and cute. But I have to say that my experience here has raised a lot of questions about the food I eat and the lifestyle I lead.

With Heidi's permission, I pillaged her cabinets and found homemade preserves, home-canned beets and asparagus, and homemade applesauce. The freezer is full of the meat of ethically raised animals who didn't die in abject misery, stuffed full of corn and drugs before being cruelly slaughtered. Apples from the neighbor's tree are waiting to be turned into cobbler in the refrigerator. Heidi's tomatoes--both home-grown and out of the CSA box--are rich and flavorful. All the great things about ye olden dayes, with the added benefits of penicillin and hair dryers. Cooking next to Jeremiah, I found myself stating the obvious: "Honey! Taste this apple! It's real and tart and hasn't been engineered to do unnatural things! We're eating a REAL apple! Wow!" Poor guy. He's very patient. I've become very aware of the fact that even though I eat quite well--whole foods, mostly vegan (I really love honey), little to no artificial yuckiness--I'm still eating products. My Safeway tomato isn't bland because it's a dud, it's bland because it's been sitting in a greenhouse, artifically ripening. It's the result of a process designed to sell more tomatoes, not provide nourishment. I've already collected a bunch of containers so I can start my own tomato and herb garden, to begin the process of reducing the amount of products I consume.
Most people were incredulous when I told them I'd be farmsitting in the city, especially when I mentioned the goats. People have no qualms about keeping Rottweilers and Mastiffs in a city home, but goats! Well, that's just crazy talk. But the fact is, there's no reason one can't keep a couple of foodbeasts in the city (yes, okay--there may be zoning laws and boring stuff like that. But I'm talking about something DEEPER). There's no reason one can't raise a 3' x 3' patch of corn or make homemade yogurt. We don't have to live the way we were taught, and we don't have to pigeonhole ourselves into city or country boxes.

My homestead may never be self-sufficient, because I am all too happy to pay someone else to make my bread or collect my honey. But I liked the way it felt to peer into the pantry and find a stockpile of handmade food. So, it's baby steps for me--Heidi gave me a home canning kit as a thank-you, and I plan to can the hell outta anything I can find. I'm excited to rehabilitate my plant-killing black thumb, and I have a good lead on a free vermiculture bin so I can rightly call myself a worm farmer.
It's going to be fun.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Should I Get a Miniature Cow?

I know I said that you wouldn't hear from me for a couple weeks, but then I found this article today in Mother Earth News on mini cows and I figured I would share. I so NEED one of these critters.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

New Digs

We finally finished the new animal area. It's basically a long corridor with a 4.5 foot retaining wall at the bottom of our steep sloping yard. Though it looks a tad prison-ish now, a nice coat of bright green paint will certainly improve the aesthetics. I'll get on that as soon as we return from our vacation in Costa Rica. Though I'm not sure the animals really care all that much about the looks of things, they seem to be pleased that they have a bit more room to spread out. Here's a view from the opposite angle:

The goats are happy.

Lucy keeps attempting to either eat or climb the lattice.

I also just realized that I haven't put up any recent photos of the chickens. And boy are they changing. Check out Gertrude's faux hawk -

She found an interesting spot to roost this morning.

Violet has sprouted a full blown feathered cap. We nicknamed her Phyllis Diller as her hat just looks like something Phyllis would don. I love this picture. You can't see either set of eyes.

I had to really work at getting this rare glimpse of her face.

Sweet Pea is just HUGE compared to 4 weeks ago. She was the smallest of the bunch and now is almost the largest.

And look at those leg feathers!

We will be away through mid-August, so you may not hear from me until then. Meanwhile you may catch wind from my fabulous farm sitters, Maria and Jeremiah, who will be holding down the fort while we're gone. I'm hoping that they will decide to be guest bloggers and give you all a different perspective of the haps around Itty Bitty.