The Starter Farm

Nature creates a killer.

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It is like a bomb has gone off.  Large craters stand where rows of once plentiful tomatoes existed. I run through the field and large mounds of dirt are piled everywhere.  I look left and I look right, the telltale signs of eaten roots show with wilted plants lining the trenches. Half eaten ripe tomatoes splayed across the path like my now flowing tears hitting the dirt.  “No!” I scream.  How could this happen?  I only left for a few days and now all my hard work is ruined. What am I going to tell the customers waiting for their deliveries? Out of the corner of my eye I spot one of the culprits and make a mad dash at that stupid laughing overstuffed face as he retreats into the ground.  I claw furiously into the freshly dug gopher dirt with fresh blood thirst that only rodent death will quench.  It is still with that dirt covered sweat and primal hatred I awake in the comfort of my own bed.  I have had my first farm nightmare.

When I worked in the service industry and later owned my own restaurant, work nightmares came with the territory.  Ask any server or bartender and they will share the same common dream that all of us suffered.  The restaurant is understaffed, the kitchen is a million miles away and people keep coming in filling up tables.  It took years for me to “wake up” in my dreams, realize that this was just a nightmare and that I just needed to walk out of this restaurant that did not exist.  I’m sure people in any job have work related nightmares of their own but this was not supposed to happen to me doing what I loved.

After a few years I think I have it finally figured out. It’s not the job but the product that causes these nightmares.Farming on such a small-scale means I touch every aspect of the work.  I can almost tell you the variety of the tomato plant in each row because of the time I spend tending to them. The first sign that the plants have taken, a lovely greening of the plants, as if a shot of forest green paint has been injected, excites me.  The flowers begin to grace the façade as if tiny yellow lanterns were recently hung for a party that is about to start. Oh, and then the tiny green fruit show up one day unexpectedly driving waves of excitement through my veins!  The next part is like a ritual dance or a blueprint that is engrained in my memory year to year; tying up the plants for support, a gentle haircut to keep them from touching the ground, and a light meal of fertilizer to make sure they are big and strong to support these babies that are about to grow into adulthood.  And then it happens. That light blush of red or pink or even yellow shows it face on that now gorgeous green globe that begins to color.  I wait, I stop myself from jumping too soon, and I wait.  Summer’s greatest symphony is about to come rushing in and picking too early is like listening with muffled ears. The first ripe fruit is prized, sliced very carefully on a wooden cutting board and the entire household is summoned to receive its full glory. And that, my friends,is the idiot simple pleasure that drives me and one that I protect so fiercely from those jerks of nature that are trying to take that away from me.

You know who you are jerks.  Gophers are not happy living naturally in the pasture, eating their regular diet out there.  I know they have meetings in their underground bunkers planning their assault.  They send out scouts, test the battle lines, and look for the weak link in the fence to start their pillage.  Don’t they realize nature did not intend for them to eat tomato plants? And that is my justification for encouraging them go elsewhere, heaven maybe, hell preferably.  

I’m not sure they are friends with the ground squirrels whose sole purpose, I believe, is to tease me and drive up my blood pressure.   They just take one bite of that just ripened fruit and leave it as their calling card to drive me into a rage.  A similar air assault occurs with punctures of ripe fruit with those creepy winged friends that people love so much to watch with their binoculars.  I can’t stand them and only recently fell in love with chickens and ducks. At least they are civilized. 

I think I am suffering from some type of PTSD from too many morning of waking up to disaster after months of careful nurturing.  Call it Predator Tomato Strike Disaster or something like that.  I never hated nature until I started farming.  Ironic really, since working with the earth is supposed to bring one closer to it.  I’m getting better at the “discouraging” part to keep these predators away but I do wonder “Has nature created a killer out of me?  

I should not be excited to run out in the morning to see if my traps have worked.  I should not celebrate when they do and dance around like I won the lottery at my good fortune. The sight of a dead animal should not make me smile…but it does and I feel like I am winning the battle for my team, the farm team.  Look, I’m not smearing blood on my face…yet. I know I’m supposed to live with nature, find that balance but what do you do if nature just tries to break you down every chance it gets?  So I fight, do my best to make sure there is no other option and fight the war.  Some days they win the battle and some days I do, sort of like that balance that nature people talk about right?  Look I’ve tried to wipe those predators off the face of the earth believe me but the reality is nature has an inexhaustible supply of gophers and ground squirrels in my hood.  In my head, it’s just like the elimination of American Lion predator that used to control the deer population in North America.I have become that lion, just for squirrels and gophers.  Mother Nature just keeps pumping these jerks out so I am ok with what I have to do.  Let’s just hope when my time comes St. Peter at the Pearly Gates feels the same way.



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I’m not sure if its an aging thing or perhaps there is this weird switch that flips in your body that changes your sleep patterns to “farm mode” but early wake ups are becoming more and more of my life.  Early to bed mode is kicking in as well but I attribute that to fatigue from increased manual labor on the farm, not and I repeat, not getting older.  I’m starting to love waking up before the first ray of light crests the ridge that pierces the darkness like a glistening sword.  Some mornings there is a thin layer of frost that appears to have just kissed the grass giving it that silvery futurist look with just the right glimmer of shading from the moon.  Other times total darkness awaits me with Mother Nature not yet ready to give me an early preview. There is a peacefulness before sunrise but also an anticipation of things yet to come.  It reminds of sitting in a dark theater just waiting for the curtain to rise and the wonders that are bound to dazzle me on that stage. 

            Actually a play is exactly what sunrise reminds me of.  You can hear the first chirps of the waking birds before any light as if they are the orchestra tuning up their instruments before the first note of the score. A rooster without a clock crows too early but I find many of them are terrible at telling time.  I imagine he is some diva actor complaining about the fit of his costume. The slightest breeze passes over as if nature is taking one last breathe before the footlights come up and then silence.  An unspoken voice announces the show is about to begin.  The bird orchestra cues and a warm glow, not sunlight, but like a gentle hum of an amp; the magic starts.  The artist starts to paint the sky.  Muted at first, these colors become more brilliant as he becomes more confident with his brush.  A slight gasp escapes my body as the show begins to unfold and the first chill of excitement rattles through to my toes.  The mountain top ridge begins to glow as if a newly light fire burns behind its facade.   And then it happens.  The curtain lifts and the first rays of light break the seemingly empty darkness.  Some mornings the light charges over the ridge like a wild stallion but other days it gracefully dances across the sky like the tiniest ballet performers.  The light reaches the tops of the trees illuminating their feathery features.  Cue the rabbit, and he happily hops across the stage.  The moonflower shakes itself closed for a long daytime nap and the owls find their perfect branch to sleep off an evening of hunting.  The daytime creatures awake for a full-length performance that lasts until nightfall.

            The farm is training me into a morning routine. Wake; make coffee and dress with instructions to head to the barn for morning chores.  I’m happy most of the time with these directives.  The hens give me that impatient look as they wait for the coop door to open.  Bugs to hunt, grass to eat and hey where is our morning scratch?  The goats, the ever-vocal goats demand their hay and a bit of grain if they can make enough noise.  The horses just stare me down.  Come on now, forget those chicken and goats, we are cuter and bigger and more demanding.  And so it goes, all dependent on sunrise.  And the realization sets in that we are just actors in her play.  Acting out our parts that were assigned long ago and all happy to entertain.  I am just filling a role that so many before have played.

            There are drawbacks to this newfound early routine.  I constantly battle to stay awake at later night dinners with friends.  More than once my friends think their conversation is boring me with my barely hidden yawns. (A few are.) I’m noticing fewer invites.   Am I getting a reputation? B12 has become a new friend but the jury is still out if this is a placebo or actually works.  Forget a late night movie as my snoring gets me kicked out of theaters regularly.  New Year’s Eve is the worst.  Fighting to stay awake to see that ball drop is next to impossible but still I battle on, sometimes even struggling to witness the East Coast drop three hours before midnight strikes in California!

            The early mornings have their rewards. It’s a time Mother Nature really allows us humans to breathe in her glory.  The calm silence gives us space to collect our thoughts and prepare for the day.  I am grateful my clock is resetting.  I’m learning more, getting more accomplished and just overall having a better start to my days.  I realize that I will never get this very day back and having more of it and doing more with it makes me happy.

              And then there are those days that I just wish I could sleep in late.  That blinding light pours in, my shades have abandoned me, and I curse the wake up call that is called the sun. Yes, I know I’m supposed to embrace it but some days I just want to sleep in.  I force myself to stay in bed hoping that I can return to dreamland but somehow that new tuned up internal farm clock pushes me out of bed and I begrudgingly convince myself to drink the Kool-Aid of enjoying this rise at dawn.


A Feast Driven Life

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The aromas of prime rib with roasted garlic and rosemary permeate the air with just a whiff of baking bread fighting for its space in the nostril.  Freshly plucked oysters from the sea rest in a bowl of ice next to the kitchen sink.  A just smoked trout lays flatly on the cutting board just ripe for shredding next to a butter lettuce salad dotted with California avocado, ruby red sliced onions with a companion of cherry tomatoes.  A light bath of buttermilk dressing awaits its arrival.  Red berries of holly catch the eye in individual vases lining the recently set table.  Opening the refrigerator door reveals freshly piped deviled eggs, a must for me at any meal, occupying their designated space on the second shelf.  A glass pitcher provides a window to slices of fresh fruit that have been working since yesterday to infuse their essence into the ideal red sangria, just the normal planning of details for our typical family get togethers.

            Planning starts weeks ahead of the event. Phone calls are exchanged across the country, we start our research and the grand tradition begins.  “What veggies are in season?  Is that local guy still making goat cheese? Can we break out the indoor rotisserie oven?  Don’t get me started on the rotisserie oven.  I have an unhealthy obsession with this thing.  Common questions that might seem strange to normal families but our family revolves around food.  Yes, my Dad might have a few extra pounds but he’s a Dad and those are Dad pounds.  Who trusts a skinny father and who would play a convincing Santa during Christmas?  Think of the children! My brother would have nothing to do in January if he were not hitting the gym to work off those happily earned holiday lbs.   So yes, I’m not sure if it’s because I live in California and we are shamed to be rabbits eating grass but I’m coming out…for food. 

First things first, we are not an obese family.  For us, we eat for the enjoyment of food not because we are hungry. In my life, I have run into these rare beings that eat just to survive.  Food, they state is “just a thing they put into their body for energy”.  As far as I’m concerned they might as well be explaining quantum physics in Chinese to me.  It just doesn’t compute and I never trust these people.  Love them but never trust them.  Our family eats great food, some not so “in the rules” but generally we eat lots of plant based healthy foods with a side of rack of lamb. I cook quite frequently for one particular neighbor whom I will call “Dan”, that’s his real name. It is my pleasure to announce many an evening that our meal is mostly vegetarian.  He loves to point out that short ribs that accompany the veggies do not fall under the vegetarian classification.  He never buys my argument that those ribs came from cows that were vegetarian so ergo vegetarian meal.  I make sure to pour him another martini and quietly comfort myself that I tried.  There is no getting through to some people.

            Recently I suffered through a cleanse.  New Years came and went and we decided that a break from our normal eating and imbibing was in order.  While not portly, at least not in my mind, we could afford to lose a few pounds.  Unfortunately one byproduct of our love affair with food is the extra weight it provides. Of course this “cleanse” was under the false pretense of “cleansing” our body not losing weight. This was the false BS that we told ourselves. So I did it.  I cut out sugar, dairy, complex carbohydrates, processed foods, alcohol and limited my meat protein intake.  We set a date for our return to happiness, exit from hell and began.

            I’m not sure how normal people work but once I tell my body that I’m “dieting”, I crave everything that I would never eat in daily life.  Sugar coated jelly doughnuts you say?  How about that whole chocolate bar that is mocking me from the grocery shelf?  I didn’t even know what Ho Hos were when they invaded my dreams one night.  The worst, and I’m so embarrassed to admit this, were those Golden Arches of my youth, Yup, McDonalds.  The desire was like some sleeping dragon deep in my soul just waiting to awaken.  Do you have any idea how many of those things pepper the highway with their “You deserve a break today”?  But, I resisted.

            I lost 6 pounds the first week and my pants stopped whining about fighting with my belly.  I made the mistake of telling one health conscious shake-replacing meal friend of mine about the change.  She exclaimed, “Wow, don’t you feel great?  Don’t you have so much more energy”?  She beamed like she had finally convinced Darth Vader to leave the dark side.  The reality was no and I told her.  I have always felt great and have had tons of energy. There was one change that I gladly shared with her and that was depression.  My life no longer contained the joy it once had.  Images of pasta scented with white truffle and fresh baked tarts with raspberries picked fresh from the garden danced constantly in my head.  These once pleasant pictures now caused me pain.  I longed for good food, the one pure enjoyment in life!  Yes I did feel lighter but at what mental cost?  The truth is I basically am a whole foods eater with pockets of decadents peppered throughout.  I eat lots of fruits and veggies with smaller portions of meat proteins and the required chocolate to survive.  (Chocolate is a required food right?) Although cliché, everything in moderation actually works for the diet.  My “cleanse” did focus my attention more on what I was putting into my body and I can say I have made some minor adjustments. 

            I can still recall memorable dinners from 10 years ago in every detail better than what I learned in college. I have come to the realization that we just view food differently.  Meals are an experience best enjoyed communally from preparation to consumption, although I have had some amazing alone time with food.  We still dream about the roasted garlic horseradish cream sauce that accompanied that prime rib years ago that our friend Kenny made.  We always stand around my mother’s Italian stuffed artichokes as if gathering by a nighttime campfire, ripping at the leaves, telling stories and laughing as the pure artichoke flavor dives deeper into our bellies.  Homemade raviolis remind us of Sunday dinners at grandma’s meticulously polished mahogany table and a pot of just steamed clams always brings us seaside to New Jersey feeling the sand between our toes with the sound of the waves crashing in the background. That’s just what happens with our family, life revolves around food and I could not be happier about it.


The $400 Squirrel

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At this point in my farm life experience, I should have known better and should have been able to pick up on the signs that clearly were unfolding in front of me. However, I was on a mission.  Tomatoes needed harvesting, weeds needed weeding, irrigation needed mending and I was running out of daylight. I saw her sniffing around the truck a little too long.  I witnessed the crouched crawl under said truck but brushed it off as her usual haven for shade in this hot weather.  She was preoccupied while I was working, a good thing, as she would not be bringing me toys to play, chasing a lizard through my freshly planted beds or getting tied up with newly strung trellising to interrupt my work.  Perfect I thought, she is finally growing out of the puppy stage and turning into the farm dog that I so desired.  And then I heard the first yelp and knew something was up.

            Deciding it was time to investigate my little princess’s adventures, I returned to the parked truck to witness my little pup Parker yelping and trying to get at something under the engine.  OK, I’ve had rogue mice in the past lifting parts from my vehicles.  They’ve stolen hood insulation for bedding material, wires for who knows what purposes and one day I half expect my truck to be up on blocks with the wheels gone with a tiny mouse written note that says, “See ya sucker!”  Ask people in the country.  Mice love cars and will even trick them out to be their primary residence.  Is a Tiny House Hunters Mice show far behind?

            My favorite mouse story has Mary Ann taking her truck through one of those automated car washes.  Everything was going as planned until she reached the dryer/blower end section of wash.  Just as she was enjoying the process, in my mind maybe she was stealing a smooch with her husband, a mouse shot out of the vent like a cannonball and flew over the roof of the car to become the cleanest mouse in the entire county.  She has since advised her husband to stop keeping peanuts in the truck and now parks it in the sun to make it as inhospitable a lodging as possible.

            I digress. With Parker signaling, it was time to pop the hood.  Half expecting something to shoot out of the hood, I covered my face carefully lifted the hood and found nothing.  I did what every ignorant person does, yelled at the dog to shut up and quit wasting my time.  Stupidly thinking that her alarm was false and leaving my dog to her own devices, I returned to work in the field. Five minutes passed and now I turned around to hear ripping sounds and yelping coming from the truck.  Racing back, I discovered tooth marks in the tire well and a set of fresh wires lay on the ground.  This could not be good.  Popping the hood once again, there was the culprit peeking his head out of the engine block!  It was the ugliest little squirrel I had ever seen, not because he was not cute but in my head his soul was ugly for making my dog destroy my truck.  I ran inside, grabbed my air rifle and returned to the truck in a rage ready to shoot this troublemaker. Putting the rifle within inches of his butt ready to do the deed I could not pull the trigger.  I know, I know but I am working myself into this killing thing.  Time to call Mary Ann, a real farm girl.

            With the falsified story spilling out of my mouth of needing help lifting a ladder and the promise of a cold beer, I lured Mary Ann over and did a quick bait and switch with the rifle in one hand and that beer in the other.  With Parker ready to cut the squirrel’s exit off under the truck, I gently asked her not to accidentally shoot the dog or any important components of the engine. Rolling her eyes and laughing at my incompetence, she took the rifle in hand, aimed, shot and missed.  The squirrel buried itself behind the engine block and Mary Ann yelled for me to get the hose.  I could not believe it.  We were going to waterboard this thing from behind the engine block.  With the water running, the wet squirrel peaked its ugly/cute head out once from the engine and then disappeared never to be seen again.

            I have no idea whatever happened to the squirrel but I grabbed the keys and reluctantly put them in the ignition. I then turned, praying that my car would not be re-decorated in squirrel fur walls. Luckily this did not happen; but unfortunately my dashboard did light up with a wonderful red display of “Service Engine Now!” In my review mirror I could not tell if my face was red from this display, that day’s sunburn or my rising blood pressure.

            Two days later I dropped my truck at the shop with a $400 estimate and a barely audible warning to the technician that he might find a surprise under the hood. As far as the dog goes, she was just trying to help her daddy get rid of that nasty squirrel in his truck.  She is not as understanding as to why Daddy has not bought her a new collar or himself a new pair of jeans in a very long time.  Again, another lesson learned, albeit an expensive one, in this journey of becoming a farmer.


"Animals are A-holes" or "How farming is pushing me towards murder"

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There’s this type of owl called a screech owl that screams every thirty seconds all night long to his friend across the valley.  He always makes sure to perch himself perfectly outside whatever window is closest to whatever room I am sleeping in.  I’ve tried changing rooms in the middle of the night and somehow he follows me. “Oh owls are so cute people say,” but this little guy is a jerk. 

            My farm dog Parker randomly digs a hole under the neighbor’s fence to go run with the horses just to piss me off. She swears she cannot possible squeeze back under said hole into our yard when I call for her return. When she’s finished with her adventure, she picks the fence line without a gate in order to give me the lovely workout of jumping the fence and lifting a seventy-two pound dog over all six feet of it.  Her timing is impeccable.  I swear she waits for my freshly showered, pajama wearing, and first cocktail in hand self to emerge.  “Dad looks too relaxed after a day of farming.  Time to get him moving”. 

            The gophers try to drive me to an early grave by pulling down whatever crops and flowers they can get their hands on.  The rats love to keep me up at night playing their game of basketball in the ceiling after they have broken through the “umpteenth time” sealed attic. And of course the mice try to kill me by cutting my brake wires in my truck.  I think the rabbits are practicing the high jump in their spare time as they continually leap over my ever “growing in height” fence.  I must have Olympic contenders this year.  Oh, and the lovely ground squirrels, whom I think work for the California Transportation Authority, building their extensive tunnels in my pastures just perfect to break my animals’ ankles.  They always stop by my tomato patch at lunch break for just a bite of that ripe tomato, never the whole tomato, but just the tiniest bite to ruin it for me.  They must be watching their figures.  But my newest animal friend is testing my ethics.

            Returning from a weekend away, I stumbled into a scene from a slasher film but in my movie the victims were all plants, actually plant babies.  All my fall plantings of seeds and young seedlings were destroyed.  Beds overturned, fencing toppled and dirt scattered like blood everywhere peppered the crime scene.   

            This was no accident. In my mind something had targeted these beds in order to get revenge.  A quick pause took place to think if I had returned the neighbors’ borrowed dishes or slept with anyone’s spouse but I was safe.  A couple of years of farm experience and many episodes of TV’s CSI had taught me who this monster was, a raccoon.  In his search for grubs, this animal ripped up the newly planted beds. The blood in my head started to boil and I realized that my time spent planting the fall’s crops was wasted. I did not care that it was in his nature to do such things.  To heck with nature, I wanted this raccoon’s head.  I had done battle with these creatures earlier this summer when they decided to treat my peach tree as their own personal juice bar.

            I put on my best Elmer Fudd hat, grabbed my air pistol and the hunt began.  Of course my farm dog Parker was too busy chewing her 100th shoe to join me in my bloodthirsty quest.  I searched every nook and cranny of the farm but alas no masked bandit was found.   I’m sure he was perched in some tree dressed in camouflage with a bag of popcorn laughing at my fruitless mission.  Plan B was to set a trap baited with the fishiest irresistible cat food and wait.  The next morning there he sat locked in the cage.  I was so angry. I looked at him, I looked at my ruined beds, I looked at the trashcan that I could so easily fill with water and drop that cage into it.  I told him to wipe that smug look off his face but he refused.  I pleaded for him to show some type of remorse.  He turned his back to me.  My anger increased and in a rage I turned on the hose filling the trashcan with water.  Did he just laugh at me?  The water level rose.  I think I saw him put up his paw as to flip me off.  My face reddened causing my vision to blur and unknowingly the water started to spill out of the top of the can.  I was a maniac as if someone had taken over my body and put me in auto drive.  I grabbed the cage and held it directly over the pool of water.  I had never killed an animal this big before. I started to lower the cage feeling the weight of it in my grasp. And then it happened.

            My mind drifted to images of the wind whipping through the rye filled pastures and our wild quail playing follow the leader in the front yard.  I heard silence followed by the lightest melody dancing in the background. Time stopped for the briefest moment and then accelerated in a rush of light, smacking me across the face.  I was not that guy.  Like a sudden cold shower, I awoke out of my daze, jerked the cage upward and realized the enormity of my action.  Those big Antonio Banderas Puss in Boots eyes locked with mine and I melted.  Farming was not going to make me a murderer, at least not yet.  I convinced myself that that raccoon was only doing what nature taught him.  So I did it. I forgave him and released him even after he tried to bite me as I undid the latch.  Sorry little guy, I’m bigger than that. 

            I can’t say if that will change in the future.  I know if some predator were trying to kill my livestock I would pull the trigger.  But to kill, I’m not so sure.  I’ve started practicing a mantra in my head.  I cannot be responsible for nature’s actions but I do need to accept them and make the best of it. Or at least put up a good non-lethal fight. For now, I’m just working on raising my tolerance for these a-holey animals and in case of emergency labeled a good bottle of bourbon “Nature’s Cure” to break open whenever these guys push me to my limits.  


Frost's wrath

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The lone fig hung on the frost-laden tree framed perfectly as the only sign of life that remained.  The first strike of winter had made its attack.  Sad, necessary but way too early for cold’s army to unleash its wrath.  A wave of sadness usually sets in at this point but experience has taught me this is nature and I am only along for the ride so enjoy. This year is a rebuilding year for the winter garden as I lug wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of horse manure to replenish the soil.  A small bed of kale is fighting to get a start, the rows of seeds I planted failed to sprout or became victims of slugs and earwigs and a rogue raccoon decided to rip up the beds looking for grubs. Coming home after a time away to these discoveries was enough to put me into an early winter gloom but I fight on.

            The arrival of the new batch of chicks I ordered through the mail is bittersweet.  Yesterday they reached their four-week birthday but we lost two along the way. Try as I may to mentally prepare myself for weak babies that might not make it, it never works.  For two days, we bottle fed these little runts and tried.  Tried to help them along, tried to give them strength, tired to make them live.  How could I have so much emotion for a baby chicken that I only knew for two days?  But there I wept holding the lifeless body in my hands that only hours earlier contained warmth.  I have directed my full energy into the survival of the remaining batch.

            Painted Lady, our miniature horse, is pregnant and fattening up on feed to give life for two.  Motherhood has not softened her stubbornness but we are excited with the prospect of a new addition to the farm.  The fava bean plants are growing tall and I’m planning a second batch of seeds to have a nice long season.  Try as it might, the frost lost its match against these resilient plants and I cheered out loud for them to “Carry on!” with the season.

              My routines are changing. How did I become a seed saver?  Somehow after attending many farming classes, lecturers’ subliminal or not so subliminal messages have sunken in.  I find myself letting some plants go to seed and collecting for next year.  I am learning to choose the most successful plants with the hope that next year’s crop will be even stronger.  Some of the seeds like fennel, cilantro and mustard are finding their way into my spice cabinet.  It turns out that saving seeds is time consuming and I’m finding fewer visitors willing to come during this season unwilling to be roped into harvest.  I have counteracted with increased wine pouring and more appetizers during work.

            Becoming artisanal with what the farm provides is kicking in like a drug.  I now have my husband pickling green tomatoes and wet curing olives.  I love watching him beam with pride as he serves our guests his creations.  I’ve made fresh jams successfully and unsuccessfully just hoping I do not kill someone with botulism.  I still make guests sign a waiver.  And don’t get me started on homemade hot sauces.  My hot chili obsessed brother sends me great recipes that I’m perfecting.  My favorite involves Fatali peppers and lemongrass which I shamelessly suggests goes with everything.  Hot fudge sundae?  You need some Fatali sauce on that!  We have rows of California pepper trees that produce multi-colored berries that taste an awful lot like regular pepper.   We harvest, set out to dry and have fresh peppercorns in our grinders year round.  I think they are edible.   

            I’ve recently become a scavenger. I’m not picking up roadkill but funny enough I did have some neighbors ask half seriously if the prosciutto I was serving one night was cured gopher.  I guess I’m getting a reputation.  I’m a produce/veggie scavenger.  Driving home one afternoon I spied my neighbor’s olive tree heavy with ripe black olives. They would be perfect for making the dry cured Italian ones with olive oil and rosemary that turns my father into a selfish baboon.  Innocently, I stopped and asked what they were going to do with them.  “Nothing” was the response and I was informed that they were mine for the picking.  In the past I’ve imagined harvesting these trees like in the movies with a blanket spread underneath, a shake of the tree, a bottle of wine, and some Italian neighbor girl laughing at the spectacle with music in the background.  The reality was; me, a ladder and trying not to get poked in the eye by the branches.  I loved it. I now have a bag of olives and salt hanging in my barn curing.  It takes about a month I’ve read with another week or two in spices and olive oil for finishing. I have no idea how they will turn out but you can be sure that my neighbor will get the first batch and my dad will be on the first plane to California when they are ready.  Oh, and I notice the mushrooms peeking out from the fallen leaves beckoning me to pick them but I know with my luck that will be my demise.  Some things I’ll just leave to the experts. I’m getting close to stopping along the road to pick wild fennel but am not there yet.  Plus, I know the supermarket in town has certified death-free mushrooms and always a sale on fennel.

            And so my journey goes.  Another winter is upon me, another year of knowledge under my belt and another year of mistakes I hope not to repeat.  A light frost blankets the grass outside as I view it from the reflection of the bathroom mirror.  Somehow a glimmer of that grey white has touched my temples and spring’s return cannot come soon enough.


A Prayer for Rooster Meany

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First let me say: Nobody wants a rooster.  It sounds so sad.  Being a male in most societies tends to be a positive thing.  You have advantages, better pay, greater advancement, more respect in business and no glass ceiling.  Life is your oyster, yours for the taking. At least that is what many of my female friends tell me.  There are people who like to have a rooster in their flock but they are few out of many.  This lucky guy gets to have a harem of women and in case of a predator attack, sacrifice himself.  Many people love this dynamic but we have tried and they always seem to attack Mary Ann.  (For the record they have never attacked me but once they give her a go they are gone.) We hope, we dream but the reality is most roosters tend to be aggressive.  There’s always a chance that those new chicks that we have raised from day one are going to be boys.  And it sucks because they always attack Mary Ann… supposedly.  I have never been a witness.

            We loved Phyllis, our Polish breed chicken, but she mysteriously died one day, which sometimes happens with chickens.  So it was my good idea to order four more of her kind to join our flock.  These beauties have this fantastic top crest of feathers that looks like a stunning frilly hat.  It was our first time raising this breed so we had no idea of what to expect.  I will tell you that it is especially hard to sex these chickens at birth so it’s a craps shoot on the resulting sex.  Each week these young “girls” became more special, which we believed was the identification of their female breed.  And then things changed.  At first it was a usually Mohawk haircut that the “girls” developed, followed by an attempt to crow.  Then a full Kellogg’s breakfast alarm but we did want to believe it.  The fateful day arrived and the first suspect tried to attack Mary Ann.  There was no documentation.  No one heard the event but we were to believe that it had happened.   One by one these “girls” all turned out to be boys and I decided that it was not a good year for me to go to Vegas. 

            There are a few options, not all good, to “re-home” a rooster.  In our area, roosters have three options: dinner, fighting, and lastly placement in a flock of girls needing a guardian.  I had raised these gentlemen from day one so the first easy option I wanted to avoid as much as possible. My first attempt was to call on my PR background to make these guys look as good as possible.  I designed the most beautiful poster expressing how handsome, but not good for eating, how protective, but small and not good for fighting, but how excellent for a good breeding program these birds happened to be. 

            “Free to a Good Pet Home,“ the posters read.  One week later the phone rang and I had placed one gentleman in a home that recently lost an old rooster and was looking for a new man to protect the flock!  What luck I thought!  One down and three to go!  Another week passed and Mary Ann was starting to reach her breaking point with the increasing “attacks”.  So I posted on Craigslist’s Farm & Garden section, the local go-to for farm and garden news but in reality you never know what type of people respond.

            Day one after posting I received an email from a gentleman, let’s call him Joe, who loved the way the boys looked and was looking to start a flock of Polish chickens.  “How many do you want,” I asked.  “Three or four would be great.”  I had hit the jackpot.  Here I would be able to place these hand-reared chicks in a good home right away and not resort to sending them to someone’s dinner table.  Problem solved and I agreed to personally deliver them the next day with Mary Ann and Dave in tow so we could grab a nice lunch afterwards.

            The next day with roosters in back we drove up to an ominous looking gate in a remote part of the county on a not very traveled road. The gate creaked open and what I can only describe as the set to a creepy horror movie lay in front of us.  A run down compound with multiple small dwellings with blacked out windows dotted the landscape.  My mind flashed with images of soundless victims banging from inside the houses shouting “Save Me!” to deaf ears.  I drove further; thankful I had convinced Dave and Mary Ann to join me on this “getting creepier every moment” adventure.  A man on crutches waved us in as my horror movie-watching mind raced.  Niceties were exchanged and he wanted to see the boys in the back of the truck.  He told us about a recent successful pheasant-hunting trip and what a great time he had. He was so excited about the roosters.  So beautiful he exclaimed.  They will be perfect to start his new flock!  Almost too many times he expressed that they would be pets and “not for Thanksgiving dinner.”  He would take them!  And then things get strange.  He asked if we could take roosters to his coop since he could not cross the freshly dug ditch in front of it.  This is the part in the movie where the man is not really disabled, throws his crutches aside, hits us on the head and rolls our bodies into the freshly dug ditch.  “Sure!” I exclaimed!  (I really wanted to get rid of these roosters).  I crossed the ditch first with Mary Ann in tow to the coop, which looked like chickens had not lived in that thing for 20 years.  I stepped inside and gasped.  There on the floor lay three freshly severed poultry heads.  Mary Ann entered saw the heads and gave a startled yelp.  For a brief moment her eyes met mine, I searched her for guidance and time stopped.  Our crutch-welding host shouted to ask if everything was OK and Mary Ann strategically placed her box of hand reared from day one roosters on top of the severed heads and replied that we were fine.  Decision made and she wanted those roosters gone.  I was at a moral crossroads.  This is the point in the story where I wonder if God was testing me or at least where John Quinones from that “What Would You Do?” TV show emerges from behind the bushes with cameras asking me how I could allow sending my babies to their death.  I know it is always a possibility that roosters become dinner but I just did not want to be confronted with it.  I started to laugh uncomfortably as Mary Ann left to fill up their water bowl and Joe tried to pass off what looked like a box of fruit loops for chicken feed.  I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.  I exited the coop, thanked him for giving them a good home and Dave knew something was up.  I told him to get in the damn car as the perfectly cast villain Joe shouted that he would start looking for girlfriends for the new boys as we drove out. I had only one thought on my mind: Get past that gate to freedom.

            I could not stop my strange laugh during lunch at a favorite Thai restaurant in town.  I think I was in shock.  I half expected this man to walk through the back door with our wrung roosters shouting that lunch was served. I was in denial.  Once home, I searched for answers to convince me that these roosters were not going to be dinner.  And then it hit me.  I raced next door to Dave and Mary Ann’s and explained my case like a young Sherlock Holmes.  Those were not chicken heads in the coop!  Joe had said that he had recently hunted pheasant and those three heads were pheasant not chicken!  Mystery solved! Mary Ann was not convinced saying they did not look like any pheasant she had ever seen.  Google images fed into my crazy theory after 30 minutes of searching for something remotely similar.  She was still not convinced but it worked for me.  I was not a horrible person.

            And then the email arrived the next day.  Joe wanted to let me know that the boys were doing great and that “as I saw” there were three chicken heads in the coop.  These guys, he explained, were always fighting so they became dinner but not to worry my roosters would live a very happy life.  So my question is, did this email make it more or less of a possibility that they were destined for the dinner table?  I’ll never know but unlike the conclusion of the Irving novel, I won’t be asking God or anyone else to bring them back!


Sunday Morning in Amsterdam

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There’s a softness in the morning that permeates the city as if a warm blanket is wrapped around you.  The city is quiet as if the citizens have some unwritten agreement to tip toe around as silently as possible.  Breathing Sunday morning air that seems laced with bergamot happily shocks the system that only hours earlier strolling through the red light district was filled with thick plumbs of marijuana smoke.  I’ve learned that on Mondays the canals are flushed and new water is cycled through.  Perhaps they do the same with the air?  There is a sense of calm that overcomes me and I rest a little longer above a canal soaking in this goodness. 

In this city of bikes one is on constant watch for the Dutch daredevils who barrel through city streets, walkways and bike lanes that are never clearly marked.  They look like respectable people but may as well be robots programmed with GPS that will arrive at their destinations at any cost.  Strolling becomes a game of Frogger and one must navigate carefully or risk the chance of a crash.  “Will I be the first visitor who dies from a bike crash?” I wonder but realize the natives must have a required course in school specifically for avoiding tourists. Silent city trams pass by dangerously close and I swear the game of “scare the tourist” is a common one among conductors.  Surprisingly cars are your friends in Amsterdam.  Calm, courteous and careful these gentle metal carriers tread lightly throughout the city as if visitors themselves respecting the local culture.  They have a sixth sense which acknowledges the unwritten rule that bikes are kings in this small city.  It makes me think of India where cows are revered and given the right of way before all.

It’s a shame I’m here in autumn, as Holland is known for its spring tulips and flowers but glimpses of agriculture line the canals.  A lone fig tree planted between city cobblestone rushes to ripen its fruit before frost sets in.  In the window of one great home, a single tomato plant sporting one singular but proud ripe grape tomato mouthed “I made it” through the glass to passersby.  I imagine the impending day the family picks and slices this tiny fruit for the tiniest of tastes for each member of the family and relishes in its delight.   I smile as a horse drawn carriage passes by because I think the horse signals to me to say a hello to his American cousin on my farm.  And yes that faint smell of horse manure brings life right back to the country.  I even found a goat in the city!  It was a fake one perched proudly in the cheese store display windows but it was enough to remind me of my friends at home and bring joy to my heart.

            In some sense I believe that I am surround by a city of farmers.  The first thing you notice is how tall the Dutch are. The tall thin bodies of the Dutch were explained to me by one local to be a result of a history of farming.  I’m not sure if that is true but it does appear to make sense.  I imagine them working the fields, herding the livestock and using their height to make it just a little bit easier to load hay onto the upper reaches of the hay barn. Upon further research it turns out the Dutch were not always as tall.  In the past 150 years their height has risen.  Some studies suggest that this is due in part to a better diet, healthcare and more importantly natural selection among adults. Today I think it is all walking and biking they do throughout the city that keeps them in shape.

            A stroll through the Amsterdam flower market strongly reminds people of the rich history of flowers and bulbs that Holland is known for.  I spend hours perusing the stalls in awe of the range of bulbs silently planning out my selection in my head.  The owners must think I’m crazy as I pace back and forth like a panther stalking its prey. I make a promise to myself to return to this lovely place in the spring when nature is on its best display and to meet again the nice farmers of Amsterdam.


I want everyone to have a farm (or at least some version of it).

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I can’t help myself.  I want to spread the word that happiness exists right here on Earth for almost anyone. This of course is what goes through my head and in my delusional mind that everybody shares the same likes as me or just has not figured it out yet.  I’ve decided that it is my job to spread the word and educate their ignorance.  I’m talking about the joys of the soil, plants, animal friends and all that goes with a farm.  I’m not suggesting that people go out and buy a farm, have the means to do that or even the desire.  My vision is for people to incorporate some version of that life that fits into theirs.

I find myself bringing pots filled with soil and tomato plants to friends with balconies as house warming gifts instead of wine (I am noticing fewer invites to these things…).  I love planting lettuce for my friends’ kids in their backyard and getting picture texts weeks later of them picking the matured greens. And yes, I preach about the benefits of chickens and argue they could fit anywhere.  Apartment on the 23rd floor in Manhattan? No problem.  Just think about it. Fresh eggs! Recycled vegetable scraps!  Fewer trips to the dumpster! (I downplay the manure in this situation). I scan the world looking for situations to bring farm life into people’s routines.

By the end of first year of owning the restaurant, before I had anywhere to plant, the stress of small business ownership was getting to me. Long days led to long nights and somehow my waistline size increased.  Life became work and work became life.  I was missing an outlet and just when I was about to crack, a community garden saved me.  For years I had tried to get into one in LA and for some reason it is harder to get a plot than get into the hottest club in Hollywood.  I think the gardening angels saw my struggle and gently nudged my car down an obscure street that lead to a new garden.  I applied, waited and luckily was granted a 15 by 4 foot bed that I dreamt of filling with everything including my built up work stress.  And it worked. 

I would wake up early just to rush to that little piece of heaven before work and right back when the day was done sometimes just to sit there and watch things grow.  My community garden became an education.  People from all types of backgrounds had plots and I learned about new-to-me varieties of peppers from my Thai neighbors, crazy good herbs from my Latino friends and a fantastic way to trellis plants from a crotchety old southern woman.  I also learned that Borage spreads like crazy and not to plant it in a small plot. It really was a community with harvest BBQs, parties and characters. Even a garden smack dab in the middle of the city had its challenges.  Raccoons would dig for grubs upending new plantings, there was an occasional tomato thief and I found a way to discourage our local alley cat from thinking my plot was his personal litter box.  Boy did that cat eat a lot!  I produced so much food from that little plot by using intensive planting methods and realized that our garden was a perfect example of excellent permaculture with the diversity happening in the neighboring beds. I told anyone who would listen about the benefits of the community garden and for just ten bucks a month I had the cheapest therapist in town. But best of all my work/home life started to find that great balance and I really do believe it saved me.

I was lucky enough to sponsor a plot for a local homeless teen shelter.  Each week the kids would come to work their plot with me.  You know when people say they have life changing moments; well this was one of them.  In the beginning, the kids were shy and reserved but as we talked about plants they started to open up.  I loved how rosemary brought back memories of one child’s time working in the garden with her grandmother.  Tender summer beans awakened the warm memory of Aunty Madge’s soup and the smell of wet tomato plants lit up the eyes of one particularly quiet child. I watched most of them blossom working in the soil and loved how connecting kids to where their food came from really made sense.  I like to think they will make better food choices in their futures.

My constant soapbox preaching of farm life is starting to work. My friends Frank and Trish have started keeping chickens in their small backyard in the middle of San Francisco.  I get excited when they call with chicken related, and sometimes weird, questions. I felt like as I was there with them as they experienced the joy of their first egg.  My sister-in-law planted the fruit trees I sent her for her birthday and I am rewarded with pictures of spring flowers that will soon become food.  I look forward to the description of the taste of her first home grown plum.  My proudest accomplishment so far is the awakening of my lifelong best friend Brad’s love of growing food that he never knew he had.  He runs his own business, has three kids and a fantastic wife, and yet manages to find time to grow veggies.  It all started with the seemingly innocent suggestion to put a tomato plant in his food barren backyard.  Man has my friend come a long way.  The kid now starts his own seeds, become an avid composter and graduated to a full sized backyard bed AND a 500 square foot plot in the local community garden.  His kids work the gardens with him and his wife cans and freezes veggies that last throughout the year.  I am still working on her to put in a chicken coop out back but no success yet. He is my greatest student so far.

My not so hidden motive is connection.   When friends or even strangers create their own version of the farm I feel closer to them.  We have something in common and I love hearing about their adventure.  I’m there with them when they get that first tomato, pick that bunch of flowers and really enjoy the most satisfying meal that they grew themselves.  I love how reconnecting people to where their food comes from and the land educates all of us.  It makes us better stewards of this place we call home and forces us to want to take better care of it.  Maybe it seems a bit selfish but I want the joy that I get from it to be shared by all even if it comes in the form of the tiniest pot of basil on the kitchen sink. The Starter Farm is spreading and I want everyone to have some version of it.


Guarding Mt. Peach

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The clear warm juice runs down my face and I act surprised as if it were the first time I have bitten into the first peach of the season.  It just tastes like summer and all the critters know exactly when they are ready, eager to begin their assault on these prized fruit.  Of course I net the trees, wrapping them like Christmas presents locked with chain mail paper.  The birds begin to work the perimeter looking for weak spots like the velociraptors attacking the fence in the first Jurassic Park movie.  Pecked fruit is sometimes the tradeoff for the still delicious slightly scarred produce.  The bees move in and picking is done more gingerly after careless first harvests with sting-inflected hands. 

            This year I had to use my Sherlock Holmes skills to identify a new critter that developed a taste for my prized peaches.  The morning light unveiled half eaten fruit at the base of the tree with decidedly un-bird like bites.  These human like marks made all the neighbors suspects.  How did the fruit get picked off the tree behind the net? Was it Mr. Owens who peculiarly asked every morning on his suspicious “like clockwork” stroll about the status of the ripeness?  Or perhaps the too “happy all the time” neighbor woman who offered to help harvest these anticipated treasures?  It was a yellow peach after all.  I needed to set a trap and I knew just the person to help me.

            Mary Ann, always the brains of the operation, brought over a “Have a heart” trap, the type that catches the criminal alive so you have the opportunity to accuse them in person.  I think psychologically this is supposed to make you feel better to confront the thief or so I’ve been told by some Maury Povich type show.  Don’t judge.  We set the trap with said peaches and for some reason cat food.  I had some questions. Why would people want cat food I asked? Wouldn’t candy or chocolate be a better choice?  That is what would entice me.  How is a person going to fit into that 1 by 3 foot cage? Mr. Owens does not look like a cat food person.  Mary Ann just rolled her eyes.  I suggested a snare or perhaps one of those net traps as seen on Scooby Doo but those suggestions fell on deaf ears. We were now ready to find the culprit.

            Let me explain.  I love traps.  I’m impatient with traps but for all the right reasons. When we were kids, my parents would take us crabbing and my brothers and I could not wait to pull up the traps as soon as they touched the bottom of the bay floor.  Of course our irritated parents yelled at us and explained the “you have to wait for the crabs to go in the trap” concept but we were just too excited at the prospect of finding something and satisfying that immediate need.  We were always Christmas morning trigger-happy.  The same ritual happened, or is it happens? because we still do it, every year.  We had a pact.  Of the three brothers, it was the job of the first up to wake the rest of us so we can see what Jolly Saint Nic had delivered to us.  Each year the wakeup time got earlier and earlier until our parents put the kibosh on the 4am wake up call it eventually devolved to.  For years my parents plead for us to hit the sack early the night before or Santa would not bring toys.  They went as far as convincing us that the blinking red light on the nearby RCA water tower was Rudolf’s nose.  We never questioned why he was there on the other 364 nights of the year or why he never appeared to move.  We just believed.  So you see how this peach tree trap thing would go down.

            Yes, of course I was out there night one with a flashlight, my camouflage, and a perfectly balanced pinot noir in hand with no success. The next morning I shot out of bed to find an empty trap, eaten bait and MORE peaches gone from the tree.  A rusty trigger was diagnosed, WD-40 was applied and fresh bait added with the addition of a caramel candy that I was craving and I knew Mr. Owens could not resist.  Two more days passed with similar results and just as I thought we would never find the culprit my farm dog Parker shot out of the house and made a beeline for the trap.  There the culprit said chewing on the last peach in the trap safely locked in as if he was waiting for me, not Mr. Owens, although they did share similar facial features, but a raccoon! Mystery solved, said raccoon went away, and I could finally relax and let my guard down on this thief.  Of course my luck is terrible and the next morning I returned to the familiar scene of eaten fruit.  So again I set the trap.  This raccoon must have Facebooked every friend he had.  We ended up catching three more of his buddies and we think for now that is last.  I still have the trap set and yes, still suspect Mr. Owens might still be a bit guilty of minor theft.  Unfortunately, that yellow peach’s harvest is over but next year I’ll be on the lookout for these new peach loving critters and let Mr. Owens, in a not so subtle way, know that I will be watching.


When the house sleeps

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I have this fantasy that I play in my head about what magic happens when the house goes to bed.  Humans and dogs are fast asleep and the house is quiet.  The kitchen light that I leave on paints shadows on the objects resting on bookshelves.  All still, no movement, resting in their daytime positions on the shelves waiting.  They must have a sixth sense for when the animals’ stirrings have stopped and entered into their deep sleep.  I imagine the objects begin to awaken.  At first a shudder, an opening of a book and the iron horse on the fireplace mantle shakes its metal mane.  The house sleeps but the objects wake for their nighttime play.  My fantasy is not creepy.  There are no dolls or creatures with knives at sleeping humans’ throats.  In my mind it’s their opportunity to stretch their legs, move a bit and socialize.  I imagine the books playing cards, the pig shaped wooden cutting board rooting around in the fridge and pillows moving closer to the windows to get a better view of the moonlight shimmering off the pool.  It’s a good magic, a warm magic a time for the house to relax from its daily stillness.

            I always try to catch the house.  A candlestick falls over from a joke the new vase just told him and I hear it.  My eyes open and I sneak gently out of bed hoping to witness the scene but the house knows and original places are reset in an instant.  I wander the house hoping some object has forgotten its resting spot.  The potatoes are still drying out in the pantry and the playing cards are safely back in their case.  The only changes I see are the new seeds have germinated and are poking their heads above the soil.  I know the objects are watching, giggling to themselves at this game we play and I know I am safe.  They will not let anything bad happen to me.

            A while back I received an email from our neighbors talking about prowlers seen in the area.  My immediate thought was, “Who uses the word prowlers anymore and why did I get this email an hour after I decided to send the dog for a sleepover at a friend’s for a night of dog free bed sleeping?”  Who will protect me? That night I heard every movement, every creak from the wind and what I thought were the highball glasses playing a pick up game of basketball in the attic.  (Turns out they were rats.)  I was worried at first and then settled in realizing that the objects will be awake when the house sleeps.

            I never watch horror movie when I’m home alone.  That would be just stupid with my idiot imagination and it does not need any cinematographic encouragement.  Yes I know that movies are not real but I live in the country in a house that is just perfect for a horror movie set.  My kitchen knives are just asking for some Jason character to release them from their butcher block home.  My cornfield is perfect for the scary “run from the killer, fall twice and stumble” chase scene and don’t think I have not imagined some evil Japanese water spirit rising out of the pool perfectly backlit by the blood red pool light that I stupidly installed thinking it would be fun for parties.  Oh and thanks interior designer friend who suggested installing dimmers on every light inside.  Have you ever seen a scary movie in a bright lit home?  Dimly lit farmhouse, check.

            And don’t get me started on ghosts.  I’m afraid to openly admit that they don’t exist just in the off chance that one of them decides to try to convince me otherwise.  Ouija boards are banned from the premises. Clowns and their like do not make it past the front gate.  (Thank you Poltergeist for ruining many a children’s birthday party, carnivals and most Cirque de Soleil shows for me.) My chainsaw is safely locked up in a box just in case somebody from Texas tries to chase me through the barn with it.  As a rule, I purposely do not engage in any major excavation to avoid digging up some long forgotten haunted cemetery because I am not equipped to deal with that.  You get the idea.

             But I digress. There is something about the house that makes me feel safe especially at night.  There’s good there.  I’m not sure if it’s a balance with the outside, the energy that our guests bring in or the soft humming of the refrigerator that gently lulls us to sleep.  Sometimes I try to increase my chances of catching the objects in their nighttime play by falling asleep on the couch.  It never works.  I only can imagine as the first light of day breaks over the distance hills signaling playtime is over for them.  They yawn, settle back to their places and wait for the next night of adventure and fun when the house sleeps.


Horse Poop Stinks and Other Fun Stories

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I remember the first day I took over my restaurant like it was yesterday.  I was so green, so young and so ignorant about what I was getting into.  I’ll never forget standing at the back door watching with pride as the delivery of our first supplies arrived.  It was really happening and these first products signified the beginning.  I was about to dive into an adventure with such optimistic zeal that it was sure to be an easy success!  Sure, I had heard stories about how difficult the restaurant business was but my business partner and I had a plan that was bound to ensure easy success.  We did build a successful place but it was not without times of stress, sleepless nights of worrying, and realizing that those deliveries had to be paid for in 30 days after receipt.  Being a business owner taught me about actions and the consequences that follow.  Farm life is proving no different but with a little less pressure because right now it’s a hobby.  You think I would have become a little wiser in my growing age.

“Goats!  We need goats!’ I argued my case to Mary Ann, “They will eat down the pastures for free and we will not have to spend money mowing the fields.”  I explained how in turn we would not have to spend money for feed, as they would eat from the pastures!  Sounded like a win-win to my inexperienced ranching ears not realizing that the fields did not provide food year-round.  I selfishly wanted these goats and downplayed what comes out the other end of them to Mary Ann.  And of course they could provide milk and cheese having no idea that we needed to breed them and wait for babies; Oh yes the babies were another thing!  I had convinced myself of the perfect goat selling scheme that was bound to pay for the whole lot with money left over for wine!  Free wine Mary Ann!  Imagine that!  Oh and I could easily find a free buck for studding service.  Goats cost nothing to feed, clothe, vet and clean up after!  We bought 6 and now both Mary Ann and I have second jobs.

We do have predators in the area so I hatched a plan to buy guinea hens as guardians.  Some people use them to scare off predators with their alarm-like call.  On telling my husband of this brilliant idea, he silently walked me over to the computer to pull up a YouTube video of the sound guinea hens make when they spot predators or are scared.  The most ungodly sound erupted from these fowl like nails scratching a chalkboard crossed with the sound of a screaming velociraptor giving birth.  Apparently they are scared of everything and they make this sound at even the slightest movement of a leaf all day long.  Suffice to say, I did not get them.  Maybe next year?

I cannot fault the chickens.  They do rock providing eggs, pest control, scrap removal and entertainment.  I will not admit that we probably could buy the best gold dipped farm eggs and save money.  I just act like cleaning their dirty coop is an action that I have to do like breathing.  It is required and involuntary.  I purposely do not know how much a bag of chicken feed costs and will spend my entire life in ignorance.  I just love them too much.  I do dream of selling eggs out front to cover whatever this cost me.  In my mind, this will work.

I am embarking on my first moneymaking chicken venture in the spring.  One night I drunkenly ordered 20 specialty chicks online, which seemed like a good idea at the time.  Hey some people drink and dial, I drink and order livestock.  Don’t judge.  Friends think I am cruising the Internet for pornography but really I am looking at sexy chicken breeds to add to the flock.  My perplexed husband did confirm this order in the am with a phone call asking, “Did you just spend a couple of hundred dollars at  This seems like you but just wanted to confirm.”  There was no way I could cry credit call fraud.  The plan is to raise them for a few weeks, keep a few, and sell the rest for a premium and watch the money roll in!  I have totally blocked what it will take for me to raise them.  As I explained my plan to the chicken lady at my local feed store, everyone there basically rolled on the floor with laughter of my plan to make money off of chickens.  I’ll show them this spring!  Time will tell.

The mini horses were not my idea.  I repeat, the mini horses were not my idea but Mary Ann fell in love with them.  She had to have not one but two of these poop producing machines.  Let me be the first to tell you, mini horses may look small but they produce regular sized manure and it stinks.  We’ve experience the same thing with Springer Spaniel puppies.  Do not be fooled.  Yes, the minis help with the lawn mowing and some people get them to pull wagons (not us) but the reality is they are just lawn ornaments.  And depending on the day sometimes they are friendly lawn ornaments and sometimes they are not so friendly. You also have to feed these ornaments, brush these ornaments and hire someone every few weeks to give a full mani/pedi to these Jekyll and Hyde creatures.  But Mary Ann loves them and because of that I will gladly look after them.  I just wear nose plugs when picking up after them.

Yes, I do have grand ideas to add sheep, more goats, more chickens and continue with my huge money making plan but I will try to take the time to think all these decisions through. Or not.


When plants attack

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A rose bush attacked me today. I was being an innocent caregiver, a helper to a flower that needed my attention like a visit to the beauty salon.  How could something so beautiful lash out so horribly?  I was just doing what I was told to make it look its best but this bush had other ideas.

            The day before, I had tricked Mary Ann to wake up earlier than usual to attend a rose trimming class at our local nursery.  I dangled the carrot of a breakfast of corned beef hash and hot coffee.   (This usually does the trick with her).  Taking our too cool for school approach, we took the back row seats, drank our coffee and acted like we could barely be bothered with the lesson even though I was secretly glued to the instructor’s every word.  I did not let on to Mary Ann that I was enthralled as not to be outed as the class dork.  I came for a lovely instructional class but what I witnessed was a nightmare. 

            I watched in horror as the instructor massacred this 4-foot tall rose bush into a 1.5-foot pile of sticks poking out of a pot of dirt.  What just happened?  Where were the police?  We had thirty witnesses to this crime and yet not one of them screamed out in horror as we watched the slow dismemberment of this lovely bush with no voice.  Of course, I could not say anything; remember one, I was doing the cool kid thing not to be discovered and two, I just though someone else would say something like in the “Bystander effect” we all read about in college where like 20 people witness a crime and everyone falsely assumes someone else will call 911.

            No sirens sounded, no police arrived and the group happily sat there asking questions about cutting and ripping suckers off the bush like it was a normal day in the park.  I was freaking out, screaming, “You’re killing it!” but of course keeping it all inside as to not alarm Mary Ann who happily sipped her coffee that I suspected was laced with Baileys.  (What other reason was there that she was so calm?)  And then it happened.  My eyes glazed over and I gradually slipped under the hypnosis. I became part of the flock like some convert under a spell, brainwashed into thinking that this was normal.  Yes, of course this bush needs its arms sawed off and yes that old cane that started this rose’s life needs to be eliminated.  It has served its purpose and now must sacrifice itself for the good of the community, err plant.  Get rid of those stupid leaves that produce food for the plant, the rose needs to go into a coma so it is prepared for the new born-again season.  Yes, yes it all makes sense now…

            One year I stupidly, or I might have just been lazy, did not trim the roses.  I thought, oh well what would nature do if I were not here to intervene, of course forgetting that deer, goats and wild herbivores existed.  That year I was rewarded with a lack-luster display of crappy flowers, an overgrown thorn fence that I did not install and a recurring disapproving stare from the neighbors with a side of “I told you so.” relish.  I now realize that you have to prune a rose back pretty harshly to stimulate good growth and flower production.

            So yes, I am now a believer.  I am still horrified by the dramatic pruning of roses (They will never survive that!) but am amazed at the miraculous recovery and explosion of growth and flowers that arrive in the spring.  I still do not think the roses like it at the time that it is occuring and perhaps that is why the incident happened.  There I was giving them their necessary trim and in my mind helping them, when one particular nasty bush decided to lash out and rip a hole the size of a finger in my new glove, barely sparing my skin.  I think it was a warning from the rose bush-“I know you have to do this to us but don’t get crazy.” 


Coming Home

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I’m sitting on a plane returning from a family trip, watching a movie about food, life and vegetables and I’m sobbing.  It’s not a sad movie but I’m welling up in all the wrong places.  At first, I did not know why but slowly it comes to me. I miss home.  I miss the farm and all that it provides.  I’m inspired from this little independent movie and for some reason a sense of renewal is awakening.  The past two months I’ve written nothing because I’ve not been moved.  Maybe it’s being away from the farm for too long or focusing on chores a bit too much when I’m present but I’m not interested in forcing a story or having content just to fill a page.  I desire to fill the lines with stories that move me.

            I feel like last week when the first real winter rains came down in sheets, flooding the dry earth, overflowing the gutters, and I realized I should have done a better job of cleaning them.  We were so happy as a community with people talking of nothing else in town.  These first rains renewed sprits and gave hope to the local farmers.  Maybe, just maybe this would be the year the drought’s thirst would be quenched and life could return to normal.  Oh how washing the earth clean of dust and dirt changes people especially in farming communities.  Some how I’m changed as well.  I feel more driven, creative and realize that I need to put more energy into what ever this is.  Much like my vegetables, my inspiration needs to be nurtured but instead of with water and weeding, with literature, influence and just plain living.  We move too fast and you can’t blame me because I’m a “child of the MTV generation”.  But the reality is I’m stopping more to absorb more.

            I remember years ago in a bleak parking lot in the middle of Hollywood waiting for a friend to emerge from her square building.  I had a moment and there it was, a gorgeous plume of purple bougainvillea tucked into the corner of this drab lot.   It was incredible.  I’m not sure if it was the juxtaposition of extremes but it stopped me in my tracks, this gift of color from nature.  The world stopped, the noise of everyday life was muted, the sun directed its spotlight on this tiny peace of beauty and I was there to witness it.  I realized then that beauty surrounds us all the time but many people never slow down enough to see it. 

            I’m seeing more of it every day.  I spend more time watching the sun paint the most beautiful colors in the sky creating nature’s artwork, the first tulip to bloom in the spring and that solitary mushroom to pop up in the middle of the grass after a rain emerging like a lone tower on an empty lush green battlefield.  What’s wonderful is that things happens everyday like a grand show that plays 24/7.  How fantastic.  Our own daily theater for free that we just have to slow down a bit to see. 

            Is it sadness or happiness I feel as I watch this on-board film?  I once had a friend who told me that I needed to go talk to a therapist because I was too happy.  I laughed imagining that he wanted me pay someone money to uncover some deep buried reasons for me to live life sadder. No thank you.  I told him I would just keep whatever that is supposed to depress me buried and live life finding happiness in the smallest things everyday.  I think making everyday the best day it can be is a much better way to spend my life.

            I’m smiling now as I eagerly wait for my plane to return home.  I’m looking forward to my hands returning to feel the coolness of the winter soil, to brush the new winter coats of our dairy goats and once again sit on the porch and discover what new painting nature will surprise me with tonight as the sun sets.  I guess when you find that place you truly belong, leaving it becomes harder and harder.


Dividing Irises sucks

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Most of the time I find myself waxing poetically about life on a farm.  Oh, the joys of raising chickens!  Oh how wonderful the ripe tomatoes taste! Oh the bounty of roses and abundance of fruit from the trees!  But sometime the reality of what it takes to get there is actually work and not always that bundle of kittens that I make it out to be.  Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy most of it but at times it is a labor that is not always of love.

            I’ve mentioned before that I write lists of chores that I need to tackle daily on the farm and there are always ones that I fail to cross off and I guess I convince myself I can do them another day.  Automatic chores like feeding the animals and daily light cleaning of stalls never make the list but let me be the first to tell you that those wonderful birds that give you eggs are pigs.  They can turn a just cleaned coop into a mess and have you wondering if they ate a Mexican feast the night before that you were not invited to.  When they slow egg production down in the winter or hide eggs you do question if all this cleaning is worth it or if they appreciate you!  Our goats also love to wait nearby as we are cleaning their stalls and come in at the exact moment after it is swept clean to add a few more of their “pellets” as if to say “You missed a few”!  Are they just toying with us?  The animals are all free ranged after all but do appear to silently mess with our heads and workload.

            Planning makes a difference in vegetable work.  I made the unfortunate decision one year to grow too many cherry tomatoes plants.  The first ones that ripen are a joy to pick but as many know these puppies produce hundreds of tomatoes that harvesting starts to feel like that episode of I Love Lucy where she works the conveyer belt and the candies just don’t stop.  If you leave them too long they start to spoil and I hate wasting the bounty of what this plant has given me.  Luckily, the chickens love tomatoes so I see it a great way to supplement their diet and I feel better. I’ve learned to only plant one red cherry plant and an orange variety called a Sungold that tastes like candy to feed the household. 

            The saddest job for me with crops is thinning.  Thinning is the process of removing seedlings that sprout too close to each other so they do not compete with plant production.  It is a necessity for the development of beets, lettuces and radishes to name a few but I hate it.  I just feel bad.  Here you planted these seeds, nurtured them, and they did this amazing feat of producing life.  But then you have to play God and choose which ones you will rip out of the ground in their infancy as they are enjoying the first warmth of the sun for the sake of the others to produce.  It’s just not fair and I know, a little dramatic.  I’ve tried to save the bunch but you are just left with crowded plants, no produce and lessons learned.

            And then there’s dividing Irises…  Apparently they need “thinning” every 3 to 4 years to continuing blooming and not crowd themselves out.  This year was my first attempt at the job.  You dig them out, thin and replant a few tubers with plenty of space to grow.  What I thought would be a simple dig and replacement job turned into two backbreaking days of suckness (Is that a word?).  The tubers had grown so thick that I needed practically a sledgehammer to break them apart.  These beautiful above ground beauties had launched a full-scale assault on the neighboring roses and any others in their path.  The positives?  I now have more iris tubers than I know what to do with but am hoping I will become very popular with my neighbor as I gift them out.  Or am I being evil by doing so in hoping they too will share my pain in a few years with their own future horrible divide?  For fun, I did price the tubers out in the store and discovered that at five dollars a pop I have a small fortune in my garage.  Only next year’s bloom results will let me know if all that work was worth it.

            I guess the general maintenance of some things is just work but without it irises fail to bloom and beets fail to produce.  That’s just life, nurturing and what it takes to get what you want.  Yes, I’ve chosen this life and I love most of it but I did not want to just paint some idyllic painting that failed to show that sometimes dividing irises just plain sucks.


Kindred spirit

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I fell in love today.  No my marriage is not ending nor am I in jeopardy of having an affair.  I met a kindred spirit of the farming/gardening type that one is immediately drawn to as a goose recognizing a member of its flock.  I sometimes stop myself when in conversation with “normal folk” talking about farming.  I slip into this rhythm, assume the audience is as fascinated with goat behavior, the life cycle of a carrot or whatever farm stuff is keeping me up at night and then catch myself and make some lighthearted excuse about my “farm dork talk.” I am so fortunate to have the farm and love the life so much that I always wonder if in talking about it does it sounds braggy.  My friends have truthfully reassured me that the love part comes through and she was no different.

            I knew I was going to like her.  She sent heirloom tomato seeds before her arrival and I immediately knew she was farm kinfolk.  Upon her arrival, she went in for the full bear hug and greeted me like a long lost friend.  Her warm soothing southern drawl filled the room like the scent of warm apple pie baking in the oven.  She liked wine, tomatoes, and animals.  What other requirements did she need for my instant friendship?  She was a painter, writer and the type of person you moved closer to hear every word in her storytelling.  The term Renaissance woman came to mind with the spirit of a pioneer able to tackle anything before her.  I loved how inquisitive she became on subjects that she had little familiarity of, always an attractive trait in people.  We spent the weekend walking the fields, talking endlessly of plants and did a brief stint of clipping goat nails.  (Not many of my friends volunteer to assist in this job).

            I guess depending on your likes, everyone is attracted to people that share common interests.  In reality, we are drawn to them, share our life with them and make sure they stay in touch.  Are we all just sheep looking for our flock? 

            We have many visitors to the farm but not all of them get into the actually farm part.  It reminds me of one trip to Italy to a “working farm/B&B” in Chianti.  We arrived and they wanted to show me the accommodations but in reality I just wanted to tour the farm.  The proprietors made the mistake of telling this farm dork about a trip to the butcher to break down the lambs that were sent the day before for culling and I begged them to include me.  No, I am not some sicko but I thirst for knowledge on food and animal husbandry.  My friends back home stared in horror and disbelief in my vivid retelling of this trip to the butcher in Chianti as if I had witnessed the birth of Christ.  We were fortunate enough to have a famous Italian chef there who walked us through their process of making a world-renowned prosciutto from a special breed of pig.  Like I said, a trip of a lifetime!

            In this same visit, I discovered farming does not have a language barrier.  I was introduced to Patricia, the farm gardener who spoke not a lick of English to my very limited Italian.  (I know how to say eat and wait in the language thanks to my grandma).  Yet we toured and communicated throughout my trip around the farm like gardening was our first and only needed language. We are now Facebook friends.

            I find myself looking for teachers for this farming life.  I am starting to surround myself with those who can impart their knowledge and I try to absorb it like a sponge.  I realize I can learn from their mistakes, improve my farming practices and in the process gain mentors and friends from my experiences.  I look forward to planting my new heirloom tomato seeds from the South and the newfound friendship of a fellow plant geek.  Happily in this continuing adventure, I’ve learned the useful Italian phase for “Run, you just walked into a bee hive you idiot!” and the spirit of a true Texas greeting.


Fall's arrival

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It’s too early!  I did not want to notice it.  I tried to ignore it.  I moved a little more into the sun to not feel it creeping in but there is was - fall.  The breeze came out of the west and contained that first start of chill that whispers something new, like a villainous witch, has arrived.  Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a blush on a nearby tree, the tomato plants showed a bit of yellow, and nighttime was colder than usual.  It was time to face the reality that fall was upon me and I would just have to deal with it.

            Growing up in New Jersey the signs of fall put me into a tailspin of depression.  My growing season was over for the year and I would have to wait about six months to begin again.  Living in California is different.  I still do not welcome the end of summer but we can grow year-round and that, my friend, provides the drug I need for the entire year.  Fall and winter gardening is not as easy but what I have learned is it is all about timing.  Cool weather crops like peas, lettuces, broccoli and fava beans love the colder weather and most of them can take a frost or two.  The first couple of years my crops were not so successful because I waited until the summer crops were exhausted to plant the fall veggies.  Unfortunately they were planted too late and did not have the required amount of daytime so they just stalled.  I’ve learned recently to plant fall crops at the end of August through September to give them a healthy start and actually get a decent harvest.  This is the first year I am following that advice so I will let you know if that is the trick!

            Fall is not all bad.  My pumpkins are finishing their maturity and the butternut squash will be ready in two weeks.  I get to make hot soups for the cool fall nights and fireplace season is about to start!  The first batch of spring chicks born in April are starting to lay and will do so throughout the winter.  The May Polish chicks should follow shortly.  Our last attempt at breeding the goats in the spring did not take but we are bringing in a buck for the fall with new hope.  Oh, and the puppies!  I experienced my first batch of puppies this week.  The tiniest noses you have ever seen were delivered on one relaxed Friday afternoon to the delight of all.

            Perhaps fall is not that evil witch I mentioned before but just a different type of gal that I am figuring out.  It is a bit more complex with the growing season but does present a challenge and change from the summer.  As I think about it, it’s actually the longest growing season with kale, beets and other winter crops producing for months. I will miss the summer flowers that are fading and not present in winter.  Will I now welcome this breeze that tells me fall has arrived?  Probably not, since I still like taking a dip in pool during that wonderful hot summer weather. Not everything is about plants!


Garbage 2.0

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Today I see clearer.  Things I would have never noticed before now have arrows pointed at them or appear lit up with neon lights.  I’ve learned how much I have wasted in the past and how I can make best of what is available.  Before I had the farm, I thought nothing of throwing away vegetable scraps or running the faucet while water washed away down the drain.  Life is different now. Life feels more real now.  Life is more present.
            I finally realized that I had changed today as I drove down my country road.  There under a neighbor’s oak tree sat a bounty of acorns just laying there for the taking.  A year ago I would have just driven past without a second glance at this pot of gold just ripe for the picking.  I realized that instead of paying fifty dollars for peanuts from the feed store, my goats would have one of their favorite treats for free.  Experience is teaching me now as I look at the surrounding world with new eyes.  I see food differently now.  The chicken bag is a permanent fixture on my counter.  Our guests are trained to know what this bag is for and to use it.  All vegetable scrapes go to feed the chickens or compost bins letting almost nothing go to waste.  Meat scraps are fed to the dogs.  Nothing goes in the trash unless it cannot be used and I am surprised how empty my trashcans have become.

            Horse manure makes the fields richer, chicken poop becomes fertilizer and coffee grinds help the compost bin.  Today I find myself repurposing even household materials.  Old doors are the new goat playgrounds and empty dressers become the chickens’ nesting boxes.  I thought it was strange when dining out with Mary Ann how she always took leftovers home, even the smallest things.  I now understand that extra food can go to feed the dogs or treat the chickens.  Farming has made me appreciate more.  I also always drain my wine glass in the spirit of zero waste…

            Let’s not get crazy.  I am not the guy returning to a food vendor at a convention asking where the used “fork return” is located, yes that did happen.  I don’t reuse my old water bottles but do recycle them.  And I am certainly not that guy judging other people and getting in their face like some zero waste “save the plant” martyr.   I’m just saying I’m better and more conscious today than in the past while doing my part for my farm.   It makes financial and environmental sense to cut down on waste and figure out reuse.  I guess I’ve become on of those “do your own part guys but don’t preach it” people and that I’m OK with.  I still do not want to eat with a used fork or share some dental floss with another human but I’m making baby steps in the right direction.  Now do you want some used gum?


A cat worth its weight in gold

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You would think they were a dime a dozen in the country, overflowing every shelter from coast to coast in every small town in America.  But in these small towns, unlike their big city cousins, these precious gems are the rarest of the rare with a waiting list a mile long begging for the chance to give them a home.  A purebred bloodhound dog with a razor sharp nose perhaps?  The newest Labradoodle from the most sought-after line? Or maybe the silkiest Siamese straight from 101 Dalmatians? No, I am talking about the feral cat, aka the perfect barn cat.

            A barn is under constant attack from mice, rats, birds and gophers.  Managing these pests to protect feed supplies and to keep barns clean is an ongoing issue on a farm. The best way to keep these critters under control is to put an expert on the job.  The barn cat is a perfect predator.  One cat will wait hours by a hole just waiting for a trespasser to show its face and then strike at the right moment.  Barn cats will feed themselves by just catching prey but don’t expect a true feral cat to lie across your lap for a scratch under the chin.  Real feral cats will avoid people or threats at all costs because they have a true survival instinct to stay alive.  In the country, these predators can become prey for owls, hawks, dogs, coyotes and even people so it is important these golden felines are on their toes.

            About a year ago we decided that we needed an enforcer to assist in keeping our barn clean of such varmints and we found two.   Louis and Clark were discovered in an old drawer in an old factory on a random trip looking for farm supplies, a perfect start to a Disney movie.  Their mom abandoned them; probably a teen mom wanting to hide her pregnancy from her family, at least this was the story in my mind.  These two little creatures were so small that each one fit conveniently in a wine glass, usually our closest measurement tool available nearby.  Too small to eat on their own, Mary Ann bottle-fed them every few hours to ensure their survival and eventually they grew to become healthy little kitties.  Life was good for a couple of weeks and then the realities of farm survival emerged.  Clark fell asleep under a friend’s car and met his demise on our friend’s departure.  We all felt terrible but realized that we could no longer call our remaining cat Louis without a Clark.

            Boozer is a hybrid barn cat.  He’s a pretty good hunter, sometimes lazy because we feed him, but overall he does his job.  Our intention was to make him feral but with Mary Ann’s nurturing disposition and my penchant to hug him daily he is about as feral as a trained seal.  Kids adore him for his ability to be as malleable as needed and his knack for purring like a well-oiled machine.   He’s not all pet though.  He’s figured out how to survive as an outdoor cat with many outdoor enemies.  He’s wary of strange dogs, knows not to hunt the chickens, stays hidden during the evening on the lookout for owls and is a very good team hunter when we drown out gophers.  Unfortunately, he’s pretty good at catching birds as well. He disappears and reappears.  We’ve discovered Boozer is quite the star of the neighborhood as neighbors talk of his visits and offer to adopt him.

            Basically we got lucky.  We have the best of both worlds, a cat that serves the purpose of a feral/barn cat and a cat that won’t try to scratch your eyes out if you pick him up.  We do talk about getting him a new friend down the road but worry that our expectations are a bit too high right now.  Oh, and Boozer’s name?  Let’s just say he really enjoys his milk!

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