Sorry I’ve been out of touch for awhile. I’m in the middle of a hard-core fundraising effort with the Biofuel Oasis, a worker-owner collective that sells recycled oil-based biodiesel. Tonight we’re putting on a fun show at La Pena, and I’ll be MCing (my handle: NC-Hammer). Come on by and help support our station! Even if you don’t use biodiesel, we’ll have electric cars and a plug-in Prius parked out front, because we at the BFO know that this petroleum thing is not going to last. We also sell urban farm supplies, and with the new location, we hope to expand that end of things.
Yesterday I had a break-through with Bebe my milk goat. Every morning for the past few weeks, come milking time, I would have to catch Bebe. This involved chasing her through the goat pen, trapping her in the chicken house or under the stairs. Then I’d drag her upstairs and literally pick her up and put her on the milking stand. It made me feel like a real asshole.
My goat advisor had told me that having a milk goat is a delicate relationship. On one hand, you’re providing them food and water; on the other, you’re nursing from them as if you are a baby goat. The mom has to accept you as a legitimate milk-taker. I think Bebe’s been trying to figure out who the hell I am, and finally relented.
Today she came running up the stairs and jumped onto the stanchion, ready to be milked. I nearly wept with relief. Who wants to be the asshole all the time?
Though Bebe has tiny teats, she’s pretty easy to milk. Instead of using my whole hand to let down the milk, I use two fingers and my thumb. Sometimes I sit to the side and milk her, but I think she likes it better when I sit behind her. it’s easier for me, too, because I can reach both teats. My hands cramp up a little bit, but they’re getting stronger. I love milking, Bebe’s rumen rumbles, she eats some oats and chews her cud, waits patiently. Her udder is warm, her flank is a soft place to rest my head. She milks out about 2 cups of milk per milking, which is really all I need.
One of my chief reasons for getting goats was to have milk on hand at all times. There’s just something about that creamy substance. Harvey Considine, a man who once had 500 milk goats, said, “there are only two substances designed solely to sustain life without having a life of their own: milk and honey.” It truly is an elixir. I’ve been drinking it straight, making yogurt, and enjoying the best coffee drink ever: a goat milk cappuccino. The milk froths up pretty well, which makes me think it’s in the range of 8& fat.
When I was growing up, I wanted to be a veterinarian. A little friend and I would go down to the dog pound and stare at the dogs for hours. We thought about setting them free and having our very own Dog Ranch. I wanted a horse. But in the end, I was a city kid and the 4H children seemed wildly exotic–and kind of boring–to me. Now I wish I had done 4H projects in our backyard. I ended up ditching the vet plan when I saw a dog hit by a car. My friend and I followed the dog to a shady, ferny, moss-covered place. He was a big German Shepherdand he was dying in this little forest near the road. We sat there in the glade and pet him and said nice things, until his eyes dimmed and he died. I guess we were lucky he didn’t bite us–he was clearly a good dog. The vet came along (who called him?) and unceremoniously tossed the dead dog into the back of his truck, and took off. This was not what I wanted to do with my life.
So now I find myself, finally, doing my own little 4-H project in the backyard. I’ve got CDT shots in the fridge for the goats, and wormer mixed with cereal on the shelf. A few days ago I gave the goatlings their shots and felt awful when they yelled about it. The wormer, which is a bloody bitter mix of wormwood and other herbs, goes down better when it’s mixed with molasses and honey and puffed oats. The other day I half-entertained a thought about applying for veterianary school. I mean, I have a biology degree, I could do it. But then I’d have to drop this life that I’ve built, and that would be too bad.
Bill and I just got back from a quick trip to Gerlach, Nevada. I had been invited to speak about my ‘career’ as a writer for Gerlach High’s career day, and we couldn’t pass that up. It’s a six hour drive to Gerlach from Oakland, and as we drove we contemplated how this kind of spontaneous, semi-unimportant travel just can’t last. When fuel reaches $5 a gallon, a trip like ours would cost over one hundred dollars. We did use a combo of veg oil/biodiesel to get there, but with the price of food skyrocketing, even used veg oil has become a precious commodity. While I do look forward to trips, food, and fuel becoming more and more localized, I do feel nostalgic (already!) for the days when we could just jump in the car and go. I’ll wager the next generation will think us careless and wasteful.
The next generation in Gerlach was delightful, though. About five teens sat at my table to hear about the writing life. The rest of Gerlach High gathered around the National Guard and Marines tables who brought tons of swag to give away. They had posters and baseballs and camo hats. Really crazy. Anyway, my kids were the goth kids who wrote poetry! They were wicked smart and so sweet. I was excited to share my experiences as a writer, and to urge them to continue working on their craft: it will only get better and better.
Not really urban farm related, but I thought it was fun.
When Bill and I took our urban farm roadtrip in October, I met some cool farmers. One was a goat herder in North Carolina (she wasn’t technically an urban farmer) who told me about biological fly control. In her barn and milking area she placed these predatory gnats that live by eating fly pupae. Cool! With the goats and all, the flies out back are pretty fierce (here’s where you banish your vision of my farm as a utopia, all sweet smells and baby animals). So I figured I’d give it a go.
I sent away to Bugological (there are quite a few companies that sell these gnats, but I’m a sucker for bad word play). A paper bag arrived with a bunch of sawdust and little black pellets inside. The black nugs were parasistized fly pupae. I held up the bag to the light and looked for hatched gnats every day. And every day was a disappointment.
Finally, on a warm Monday a couple weeks later, a few of the gnats (Muscidifurax zaraptor and Nasonia vitripennis) could be seen flying around the bag wondering, where the hell can I feed on some more fly pupae? Per bugological’s instrux, I parsed the sawdust and pupae in my “hot” areas. It’ll take 21 days before I notice if it worked or not. The cool thing about this strategy (versus fly strips) is the gnats keep reproducing and feeding on the flies! They’re tiny and don’t bite, so they won’t become a pest themselves.
Who would steal milk from this adorable little goat? This innocent, hungry love muffin who bats her tail around, gets on her knees, and oh so cutely sucks from her mama’s breast?
On Monday I started a weaning program that will go on for almost two months. At night I lock the little ones into a dog crate near where Bebe and Bilbo sleep. In the morning, Bebe’s udders are full and the little ones make these heart-breaking bleating noises. Before they get their milk, I put Bebe on this stanchion (jankity construction by moi) and milk her. The first day was a total bust, I felt like such an ass, and I couldn’t get any milk to come out. I mean, Bebe is a dwarf goat, she has small little teats!
Tuesday my friend W came over and gave me some moral support. Although she hasn’t milked a goat either, she encouraged me to keep trying. What’s the worst thing that can happen W asked–Bebe will tell Bilbo I’m a total creep? So I kept on and finally got a few sprays of milk out of one of her teats. Yippee!! Today I got them both to work. Tomorrow I’m going to milk her dry. The idea is that when the babies go in for milk, her udders will refill and supply the demand.
I still feel bad for stealing from the little ones, but as you can see I only took a little bit. Here’s the bounty.
After filtering it, I gave it a taste. It’s very sweet and mild. Nourishing.
P.S. I wrote a profile in Monday’s SFGate.com that earned me a lot of hate mail. If my inbox is any reflection, we hate the rich more than the poor here in America.
I’ve a beekeeper for many years and yet I’ve always been a hands-off beekeeper. I guess you could say I’ve been a bee-haver. But lately I’ve taking a more active role: taking classes, learning from old-timers, going to beekeeping meetings. The other day I realized that I could spend my whole life studying this insect and would still never know everything about them. Somehow, I find that comforting. I still want to learn as much as I can.
With that in mind, my friend John came over and we opened up the hive. We took some honey supers off, and really got into the brood chamber area, a place that makes me sweat. The bees were not disturbed at all, these girls are the most gentle bees I’ve ever worked with. We didn’t see the queen, but evidence of her was everywhere: that brown capped stuff is brood comb. In the hollow spaces are little white larvae that the workers feed for 6 days. They then cap the larvae which transforms into a bee in 8-10 days. We saw a few young, soft looking bees–the young ones who remain in the hive all day long cleaning and feeding everyone. After a few weeks, they become field bees, out collecting nectar and pollen. We didn’t see any swarm cells–peanut-shaped protrusions that indicate the colony is planning on splitting into two. It was a successful spring inspection.
Lately many hives have been hit by varroa mites. I was curious about my mite counts, so I did the powder sugar test (sorry there are no photos, Bill wandered off). After our inspection, we closed up the hive and dumped two cups of powdered sugar over the top. The idea is the mites can’t hold onto the bees when they’re covered in powdered sugar. After waiting for the sugar to disperse through the hive for a few minutes, I pulled out a hastily devised “board” (aka a cookie sheet). In a class a beekeeper showed slides of the squirmy red mites floating around in the powdered sugar. I pawed through the sugar and couldn’t even find one from my colony. Hooray!!
Then we harvested honey. Yum.