The Highway 89 books are officially sold out

US 89 btween Dupuyer and Bynum

US 89 between Dupuyer and Bynum, Montana

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget receiving three pallets of books on a snowy day six years ago. One of the pallets actually tipped over, and actually I’m lucky I didn’t get crushed. I don’t know which felt more daunting-the emergency of moving those cases of books out of the snow before they all were ruined before they even went on sale, or figuring out a way to sell them all without a distributor, a background in marketing books, or a huge advertising budget.

I sold them from card tables, in Costcos, at book-signings and on the Internet. I sold them in ones and in hundreds. I picked up two wholesalers and the greatest support from locally-owned retailers from Arizona to Montana. I was on the radio, and I even got to talk about my project in a room full of Ansel Adams originals and speculate on what he was doing in Manti when he made this photo. I met so many wonderful people on the road doing the project, and then even more interesting folks as I was peddling my books. A few people have told me they intended to use my book as a basis for their next road trip. Inspiring people to see and experience some of the greatest part of the American west was one of my goals, and those conversations made most everything I went through to get the book out the door worthwhile.

The sales have been winding down for a while. As the pile of books dwindled, I stopped producing but kept restocking my wholesalers. Then I got a big order this summer and went out to do inventory. And I was shocked to see that the massive hoard had almost completely disappeared.

So the book is now officially out of print. I won’t be restocking Amazon or any other retailers. I have a very few copies left for my own use, because I’m still giving a few speaking engagements and the like. You can still get the ebook version for Kindle” but unless another publisher wants to reissue it (hint, hint), there probably won’t be a reprint. I just don’t have time anymore with the ranch to be doing the shipping. I’m hanging on to Sagebrush Press, but its next product will be something else. I will treasure forever my time on Highway 89, but other highways are calling to my wanderlust heart these days.

The road goes on forever, but this chapter is closed.

I doubt this picture could be made today. The Montana Department of Construction has been doing road improvements to make the Dupuyer curves safer for high speed travel. When the road was built in the 1930s, top speeds where 25-30 mph. I photographed this image in 2008 and used it on the cover of my book.

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And the apple winners are…

Maturing Redfield apples

Maturing Redfields in the Kingbird orchards. We served up a Redfield at the tasting, but as a sour cider apple, it wasn't one of the more popular apples, despite its gorgeous red flesh.

Way back in October, we presented 19 apples at our fourth annual apple tasting party, and for the first time we had fruit from our own trees. Five of the samples came out of the Kingbird orchard. As if that weren’t exciting enough, our apples swept the top three favorites! It just goes to show you can’t beat tree-ripened fruit.

  • 1st place: Gibson Golden Delicious, a strain of Golden Delicious that russets less than the standard. Ours had a beautiful rosy blush.
  • 2nd place: Cortland: a McIntosh offspring, said to have a vinous flavor.
  • 3rd place: Liberty: a modern American apple, another McIntosh descendent with vinous characteristics.

Other apples that did well in the tasting were a mystery apple brought by our friend Nan from her new property in Torrey, the always popular Rubinette, and our Golden Russet. (Not placing, but pictured is the Snowdrift, an object lesson in astringency for those brave enough to try one.) After a late frost wiped out the blossoms in Kingbird this spring, we were lucky to harvest any fruit at all. The future is tantalizing: there are more than 60 other varieties in that orchard to put to the test, either on the table or in the glass.

This year we are working with a local community group to make the apple tasting even better for 2016. More on that when we have an exact date. Our fingers crossed for an easy spring and a wide variety of apples to share with folks come next fall.

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Life lessons from 6 months of puppy training

Carson on a training walk

Carson on a training walk

We have had Carson the McNab herding dog for almost six months now. Neither Robert or I have raised a puppy before, so training him to be a civilized and useful member of the farmstead has been a learning experience for all. There’s nothing like teaching something you don’t know, to loosely quote from one of my favorite books of all time.

At almost eight months old, Carson knows his basics: sit, stay, lie down, here, heel, leave it. He rings a bell to ask to go out, and pees on command (extremely useful before going in the car). He knows how to shake with one paw then the other, roll over, crawl on his belly and to back up. He can take a bow. This week, he’s learning to give a “high five”, and we are working on “find” various objects and eventually people. We’ve made a game out of picking up his toys and putting them in a basket. The hardest thing we are working on is to lie down on an object I throw down and stay-a friend trained her dog to lie on her jacket wherever she put it, and wait there until she came back.

He’s still a puppy, and not very good at impulse control, and his recall is anything but bullet-proof. He’s had a few brilliant moments on recall, and more than one antic involving the turkeys that remind us we are still working toward a perfect “here.” He’s got to have that to be a good trail dog, and he loves to go on hikes. The deer we see on our walks in town are giving him many opportunities to practice not being an idiot.

Carson the McNab herding dog does not scare the turkeys

Carson the McNab herding dog does not scare the turkeys

Carson is finally starting to settle down around the cat, Slate. If Slate had only used his claws once to explain who was in charge when Carson was little, we would all be past this nonsense. 90% of the time, I can get Carson to lie down while Slate goes in or out the door. Slate taunts Carson and, when the dog responds by wiggling and poking the cat with his nose, has a really hissy fit. Some days I feel my mother’s pain for what it was like raising four girls. In the last month, the two of them actually fell asleep on the same rug, so we hold out hope for more peace in the future.

Crate-training is a godsend. We don’t use it for punishment, but sometimes he needs a puppy time out to compose his mind, or a safe place to be while we are in the middle of something. As a high energy dog, he has a great fear of missing out, and he eats better if put in his crate where there are no distractions. Any extra goodies appear only his crate, and it is his happy place.

I think we are making decent progress. I won’t sugar coat it: sometimes the training regime is more than I bargained for, but it has a lot of life lessons for the trainers as well:

  • Consistency counts My nature is anything but consistent, but Carson needs constancy to become the dog he deserves to be. There were days that every sentence began with “no” or “good.” “Good sit, no bite, good wait, no cat” and on and on. Skipping a single walk has consequences in his behavior, even if we wear him out playing.
  • Use any opportunity to train Carson needs to learn to stay in his lie down even when he can’t see me. The training opportunity: Carson wants to play with Slate; Slate wants the dog to disappear. Carson also would vacuum up all of Slate’s food if he could. So we feed Slate in our bathroom, and Carson is supposed to stay out. When Slate comes home from his mousing adventures, I will give him some of his treats. If Carson follows us, I put the dog in a lie down in the hallway while I go around the corner to treat Slate. If he stays there, I bring him some of Slate’s treats. If he follows, he has to go back and lie down again. He really wants the treats and believes they are coming, so he’s making decent progress in staying when I’m out of sight.
  • Give many chances to succeed and celebrate over-enthusiastically Robert jokes that my program sounds like “yay, Carson sat, let’s have a parade,” but Carson responds quickly to excited praise. If I give him the feedback that he’s done something really good, he tries hard to figure out what and do it again. Who doesn’t?
  • Direct toward the desired behavior I’m no good at playing the “bring me a rock” game, and why would a puppy be any better at it? Giving him a correction “no pull” when he jerks the leash doesn’t tell him what I want him to do instead, and how is he supposed to figure it out? I taught him the command “slack” and praise it as often as I can. He still hears “no pull,” especially when acting up if a deer crosses our path, but he knows the desired behavior is to keep the leash slack.
  • Clarity is more important than nice Carson is a working dog, and he was bred to be kicked in the head by a cow and keep on going. We rely on treats and praise, but there have been a few times where he needed the absolute clarity of who were the alphas in his pack, and that it wasn’t him. I’m not talking about beating or hurting him, but I have had him pinned down on the ground, making growling noises and baring teeth like a she-wolf until my point was clear. It wasn’t pretty, but neither is the life of a dog that is locked up, abandoned or worse because no one teaches it to control itself. There are hard limits: he can’t chase or hurt our birds, he can’t bite people even during play, he can’t chase cars, horses, or the neighbors’ llamas. Those are things that will get a good dog killed around here, and I have no problem teaching him those things in his pack language. There are times in my own life I would have appreciated clarity over someone trying to be nice about it. Dog language has no such subtleties, and Carson doesn’t speak human.
Carson the McNab cow dog herding his so far indestructible ball, the spherical purple cow, through the snow.

We’ve made some mistakes: I wish we’d started with a release command. Learning “stand” would have been easier to teach early on too. We had to reinforce his recall with a “here” because he decided “come” was optional. He knows the names for Slate, his toys, leash and “geese”, “turkeys” and “goats, but we recently realized he doesn’t know our names. Since we want him to be able to “find Robert” or “find Ann,” we have got to teach that now.

What’s next for Carson? I’d like to take him to someone who can teach him basic herding. It’s in his nature and we could use the help. For now, we are keeping him busy with the basics, loads of walks and loads of play with his indestructible ball,. He loves puppy play dates. In the spring we might bring in some agility training props, just to keep him on his toes. He learns tricks in a couple days, so I’m constantly scouring the internet for new things to teach him. If you see something cool he can learn, send it my way. It’s a long time until spring.

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Raising turkeys, ducks, and geese-it’s complicated

Two month old ducklings. The brown ones are hybrid layers, the speckled whites are Welsh Harlequins.

Two month old ducklings. The brown ones are hybrid layers, the speckled whites are Welsh Harlequins.

Winters are when I really get us into trouble. The relative ease of managing the homestead leads to foolish ideas on new projects that “won’t be that much more trouble.” From such folly emerges insanity like the great barnyard poultry project of 2015.

The idea was somewhat sound: see if layer ducks and turkeys could replace the functions of layer chickens and meat chickens in the orchards and on our table. Layer chickens are the gateway drug: fresh eggs can’t be beat and they dramatically reduce the pests in the orchard. But they aren’t perfect. They have relatively short laying careers, they all molt at once, and ours regularly revolt from using their nest boxes, hiding eggs that we can’t eat or sell.

The problem with meat birds

Knowing that we needed more birds on the ground but didn’t want to winter over more layers, we raised our first meat birds last year. I ordered Jersey Giants that turned out to be bigger birds but not all that giant. They took a while to grow to full size, but were enthusiastic foragers. This year I had the bright idea that we could raise up a batch of meat birds ready to forage just as the codling moth larvae started to emerge in the spring, and then we could harvest our year’s meat supply in one go. To make the timing work for when we could get hatchlings and get them ready to go into the orchard, we would need a faster maturing chicken. So I ordered a proprietary hybrid chicken that would supposedly be ready for table in 12 weeks. Never again.

Maybe it was the altitude, maybe the hybrid strain, but some of these meat birds literally fell asleep with their beaks in the food bowl. They grew fast enough that several developed leg deformities. Only a couple made it more than 20 feet from their home in the hoophouse. I feared for their lives as it got warmer as they were too lazy to move out of the hoophouse into the shade. If we want birds to run down grasshoppers, it wouldn’t be that breed. Once we harvested them, the color of the fat and their livers did not scream out “healthy animal” like the Jerseys did with the same or better feed and care. But any meat chickens have their limitations, especially that they all mature at once, and we needed season-long coverage for the grasshoppers. Was there an alternative to a foraging heritage chicken breed or more layers?

Bring on the turkeys

Heritage turkeys seemed like a good idea because 1) they haven’t had the foraging instinct bred out of them, 2) they might actually breed their own replacements, 3) they can be harvested over several months, rather than meat chickens, all of them threatening to go tough if not processed within a week or two, and 4) I like turkey meat.

So in the depths of last winter’s dark evenings, I ordered the minimum number of turkey poults: 15 from Porter’s Rare Heritage Turkeys. Fifteen is a lot of turkey dinners. Perhaps because turkey poults are exceptionally fragile, perhaps out of a glut of hatchlings that needed to go, or a simple act of kindness, they sent us 17 chicks. As is all too common with turkey poults, four died in the first few days for no apparent reason (we almost never lose a chicken chick, but turkey poults are legendary for falling over dead at random). After that, they were nearly bulletproof. Sturdy birds that took to foraging like champions, as their feathers came in we discovered we had an amazingly colorful flock. Then they started to grow up into displaying gobblers and hens, fearless but safe around visitors and especially small children.

Heritage turkeys in the orchard

Heritage turkeys in the orchard. One of these was Thanksgiving dinner. We gave the White Chocolate palm male (center) and his consort to some friends who have a farm. That pair has found life on easy street, getting fed treats out of hand.

In some respects, turkeys are not as easy as chickens. One day they absolutely refused to be cooped up anymore for their safety at night. They fly over the orchard fence if we don’t keep up with clipping their wings. They need more protein in their feed, which means we have to feed them differently than the other birds. There were times I thought once these were gone, we’d be done with turkeys and make things simpler again.

Then we harvested one in October. I’ve bought all-organic turkeys from the hippie natural food stores before, and its flavor pales in comparison to this meat. The verdict: turkeys are staying.

Introducing layer ducks

Last spring we tried goose eggs for the first time, and while our hen eggs are rich, they are nothing like goose eggs. Would duck eggs be similar? In the literature, ducks bred for egg-laying have many virtues: they lay for more years, they can lay more eggs per year than a hen, and they lay at night so they don’t hide their eggs.

There’s stuff you learn by reading and then actual knowledge gained by doing things. I read the part about ducks being messy with their water, a problem we only recently thwarted by putting their waterer on a pad of gravel so they don’t excavate ankle-breaking holes in the mud. They were even putting their heads through the fence into the goat pen and messing up their water. And their manure is, shall we say, pungent compared to the rest of the fowl. They are foul fowl. But they are very happy barnyard critters. To my ear, a cranky duck sounds more cheerful than a satisfied hen. And hens are rarely satisfied.

In mid-September, while the juvenile ducks were roaming around eating earwigs and swimming in their kiddie pools, the hens all molted at once. We had no more eggs to take to the farmers market. No eggs for our own table. Just an ongoing feed bill that would carry on until spring without any returns in productivity. Some of our hens are a bit “senior” and are past their egg-laying prime anyway. About then we started getting duck eggs, a pretty nice supply that should increase in the spring.

So we have duck eggs. I was somewhat surprised at the farmers’ market that I couldn’t even get people to try a half dozen at a cheap price. There must be some nasty duck eggs out there that scare people off. Ours are wonderful. But if I can’t sell the excess, even if the ducks are happy, should we continue yet another layer of complexity in chores? We are still undecided. We are keeping one drake from the Welsh Harlequin group (I also ordered some hybrid layer ducks) and if any of the Harlequin females goes broody and raises a clutch, that might increase their odds of staying. We learned from the geese that letting the girls do the mothering makes for healthier babies and a lot less work on our part.

Where we are now

The geese are staying. We’ve harvested some this fall, I made amazing rillettes and that decided that. We gave away some of the babies, and are working our way down from a high of fifteen to a trio of females and two ganders. One gander would be better, but we are keeping a back-up unit that turned out to be a pretty attentive father last spring. Once the apple trees are bigger, they are going to be highly effective orchard mowers–they kept the rest of homestead well mowed all summer.

I can sell all the hen eggs I can raise. But they are my least favorite of the birds. But if I had some hens as loss-leaders, I could hook people on duck eggs. Undecided as to how many we will keep/add for 2016. (Update: the entire flock is going to be replaced this spring, except maybe Red. We have discovered we have egg eaters pecking at the duck eggs. We suspected as much late last summer. Now we are sure, and that behavior, once learned, is nearly impossible to break. Most of them were overdue to be replaced anyway, having more than passed the declining side of their productive lifecycle. Now we just have to decide how many chicks to get.)

The ducks are still on probation. I want to see how far they will forage come spring, and whether we get any babies. I love hearing them murmur and quack at dusk, they just sound so happy. And we are awash in eggs in winter for the first time ever. But we aren’t going into duck egg farming in a major way until I figure out how to sell them. The only ones we add for 2016 are the ones they raise themselves.

Blue red bronze male turkey

Blue red bronze male turkey: this one stays as patriarch for future flocks.

Turkeys for the win. We haven’t yet put any birds yet onto the new orchard down the street, in part because we don’t have it fenced tight enough and in part because it adds yet more complexity. But the grasshopper situation this year was getting dire. There’s a lot of work for foragers to do. After kicking it around for weeks, the turkeys won out. Once we get a good watering system in place, they should be easier to care for off-site than layer hens. We won’t fight them about the coop, clip their wings regularly, and accept that there might be raccoon losses. I ordered 15 more for delivery in May or June. And we are keeping one tom and two hens from this year that we hope will see enough in each other to make babies in the spring.

Right now, in the cold, short days of winter, it seems like a sound plan. Just kill me if I mention peacocks.

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Canning food but not tomatoes

Tomato tasting party

Tomato tasting party

Our tomato haul this year was pitiful-we still have a lot to learn about gardening at 6850′. In my defense, not too many folks did well with tomatoes around here. We had a long cool spring and the tomatoes didn’t really take off until late. One of our friends got exactly two ripe tomatoes. We didn’t get many more.

It probably wasn’t the best year to plan a tomato tasting party, but we stalled it until late September. Everyone brought different varieties, which was instructive in itself to find which ones would actually ripen in the challenging conditions we all experienced. Amish Paste is doing well for us; our neighbors swear by Stupice, which might replace our go-to Early Girl, and we liked the Black Krim as well. At least we got a bunch of Sun Gold cherry tomatoes. I ended up ripening a few gallons on the counter after the frost and got a dozen jars in the cupboard, but I fear we’ll be doing the walk of shame down the Costco canned goods aisle before next summer.

That’s not to say that the canner has been sitting idle on the shelf. I put up a bunch of fruit, mostly apples and pears foraged from the park and friends’ orchards. Our peach trees lost all their blossoms in the frost, but R brought me boxes of peaches from Salt Lake to put up. We had plenty of green tomatoes to make this pie filling, which is wonderful on oatmeal when we want a change from peaches or pears.

That’s not to say that the canner has been sitting idle on the shelf. I put up a bunch of fruit, mostly apples and pears foraged from the park and friends’ orchards. Our peach trees lost all their blossoms in the frost, but R brought me boxes of peaches from Salt Lake to put up. We had plenty of green tomatoes to make this pie filling, which is wonderful on oatmeal when we want a change from peaches or pears.

There are jars of jam, herb-infused vinegars, a tomato-apple relish and enough salsa to make a thousand tacos stacked up around the place. It’s a different way of thinking about food, to try to estimate how much of something you’ll use before it comes back into season. And when the ducks destroy the winter squash crop, there’s no recovery for another 15 months. Happily, our friends were awash in squash. But that’s a different kind of food resiliency than relying on the grocery store for variety.

The next step up in home food preservation is putting up meat. I’ve also been getting more comfortable with pressure canning chicken and broth. The first few times are nerve-wracking, in that messing it up could potentially have deadly results. After a few times, my approach is now careful and respectful of the risks, but not anxious. We have a half a lamb on order from our friends, so I’ve been emptying the freezer of last year’s poultry harvest by boning it and canning it up. And once the meat is off the bones, I make that into some of the best chicken stock ever.

Another thing we’ve been doing is experimenting with fermented foods. Lacto-fermenting is hard to get used to, it’s so different compared to canning in that there are basically no rules. All the canning recipes warn of impending death if you change the proportions of ingredients. When making fermented vegetables like sauerkraut or salsa, so long as you get enough salt in the mix, you can change it up however you like. And the stuff lasts forever in the frig. We made a green tomato-apple salsa in October that is still crisp and fresh two months later.

Styrian pumpkins from the garden

Styrian pumpkins from the garden

Now it’s December and almost everything is safely stored in the freezer, jars or our make-shift collection of ice chests in the garage standing in for a root cellar, stuffed with carrots and potatoes. The only thing left to process are these bad boys, pumpkins grown for their hulless seeds rather than their flesh. I’d never heard of them either, apparently these are where shelled pepitas come from. The flesh doesn’t have much flavor. Even the goats aren’t so interested in them. Right now they are stacked up in the guest shower, waiting to be processed.

And in case you wondered, we actually eat all this stuff. A can of boneless chicken and some leftover mashed potatoes get made into a quick shepherds pie. I love polenta cooked in chicken broth for lunch. Or I’ll make creamed chicken on biscuits, the kind of recipe in my mom’s cookbooks from when she got married in the 1960s that fell out of fashion, replaced by “convenience” foods, mostly made by dumping Campbells soup mix onto frozen vegetables and calling it homemade. It’s a marvel of 20th century marketing that convinced people that “escaping the drudgery of housework” could trump good taste. Fifty, seventy-five years later, the standards are so low, it’s hard to call most of the packaged stuff food, it’s so filled with artificial flavors, extenders, substitutes.

We got lucky, we rediscovered real food and we aren’t going back to the false promises of big ag, tv commercials, and factory food. It started with homegrown tomatoes, then potatoes, and getting layer hens blew the lid off of all the assumptions that what we buy was as good as it gets. It’s not the same, it’s better in almost every case. Actually I can’t think of anything we have grown or raised that hasn’t been better.

The truth is, the work isn’t drudgery, either in the garden or the kitchen. Even when the quantities coming out of the garden are overwhelming, there’s also a sense of abundance. And there’s a special satisfaction I get when I hear the canning jars seal with a ping as they cool on the counter, only exceeded by the sound of R popping open a jar of peaches in January. It feels correct to be engaged in the cycle of the seasons, from the first spring greens to the stored up goodness of winter squash, even marked by the occasional absence of a tomato. We’ll never produce 100% of our own food, nor do I think we should. Neither do I think we should be dependent on an the big ag-pharma industrial complex that cares nothing about our health, our environment, or anything but extracting from our pocketbooks. In the fight against the machine, every tomato counts.

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