The Swallows Return to the Barn

IMG_2838Swallow Rail was the name my Dad gave the farm over thirty years ago.  He wanted it to be relevant, reflecting the spatial and natural qualities of his 18 acres in Western Shelby County.  His inspiration came from the swallows that swoop and swerve so adeptly in open fields, catching insects on the fly.  The rail of Swallow Rail comes from the two railroad tracks that flank either end of the road.

The name he chose remains as true today as it did thirty years ago; almost more.  The swallows still fly and the trains still run.  We value our swallows and it is remarkable how the population has rebounded from the years after daddy died and before the barn was opened back up for active use.  For 5 years if was mostly closed, storing a smattering of equipment; for over 5 years now it has been opened at both ends at daybreak to release the hens and closed at nightfall to protect them.  This time of the year we must also honor the swallows’ timing as the return to their nests for the night.

They fly about in rapid movement; sometimes I flinch because they come so close and at such great speed.  If they were bats catching insects I would be uneasy but because they are the swallows I feel a sense of comfortable familiarity; and that they belong here more than anyone else.  They are doing what they do best, out there in the field catching insects on the fly.  They know exactly how to manipulate their bodies to move this way or that.  Tail forked, pointed or fanned; wings outstretched or pulled close to their bodies, their flight truly is an aerial acrobat.  Swallows are one of the few birds that are entirely insectivores and they have all the moves to catch as many insects as possible.

The barn swallow is the only swallow that has a “swallow-tail”, a term that has come to mean deeply forked.  The colorations also make this bird easily identifiable (which is helpful to me because I am not a very good birder).  As they jet through the air you can catch glimpses of its blue-black back; the underside is buff-colored to cinnamon with a slightly darker throat; and then, of course, that amazing forked tail.

The barn swallow is most common but there are others including the tree swallow that has entirely white under parts; the cliff swallow has a rust-colored rump and a squared tail; the bank swallow is marked by its brown back and dark band that runs across its otherwise white breast; and the much desired purple martin, which is the largest of the swallows and has an entirely blue-black body.

To date we have about a dozen families nesting in the barn this year.  They swoop in one door and out the other end or perch a while on the rafters as they prepare their nests or tend to their babies.  I am watching 3 glean in flight just outside the window now, in the late morning.  Later this afternoon they will perch on a utility line above an open field and pond before they take their last flight for the day.

We so often do not take the quiet time to simply sit and observe.  Watching the swallows- or any other species for that matter- reinforces the reality that there is an extraordinary balance in the natural world.  I do not need to put out a hummingbird feeder full of sugar water if I let the native wild flowers grow on the dam.  The grove of catalpas in the middle of the back field makes it a perfect place for my little Eastern King Bird who watches from her perch for an insect meal. Her tail fans out and she shows off the unmistakable white band that allowed me to identify her.  I am often mesmerized by her moves because she hovers just above the grass with her wings out stretched, fluttering like a heavy butterfly or a papery puppet on a string, until she goes in for the snatch.   And, those amazing swallows that are worth keeping the barn doors open for.


June 5, 2013Permalink

The Spring Lamb Crop

lambs 2013Our lamb crop for the spring of 2013 totaled 23.  We had all twins including 2 sets of triplets.  All of our lambs presented perfectly with nose and two front hooves headed out first!  I was worried about #1065, my big ewe who had a little trouble with her first twins last year.  She was huge this year so we suspected triplets and that is exactly what she delivered under the night sky with the constellation Orion’s Belt above us.  We call her triplets Orion’s Belt!

We gave our ewes 3 cc of BoSe 2 weeks before lambing, the extra selenium (due to their all-grass fed diet on generally selenium deficient soils here in Kentucky) helps with muscle tone and therefore ease of delivery.  It also can help off-set white muscle disease in lambs due to selenium deficiencies.  One ewe (our Houdini-girl because she always slips away) did not get the injection so I gave each of her twins a .75 cc of BoSe at 3 days.  One of the Orion triplets exhibited some signs of wmd at about 1 month- looking a little puny, getting up and down and a hunched over appearance (not constipation because I saw him poop pellets)- so he got .75 cc of BoSe as well.  We are always mindful of selenium overdoses with lambs and never give more than .75cc.  lambing 2013 065

Look forward to about 13 ram lambs for the fall harvest.  If you would like to be on the “Lamb List” to be informed of the harvest email me at


May 28, 2013Permalink

The Chicken or the Egg?

Rangers at 9 weeksYes, the age old question about which came first springs to mind this time of the year as the stores start to stock the shelves with chicken raising paraphernalia.  We had a total of 130 chicks in brooders in the basement and barn this early spring. It was not a warm season so we were met with many new challenges.  The Brown Leghorns and Araucanas that have joined our other laying hens are thriving after being brooded in the basement; the 100 Freedom Rangers now totals 95 after spending a week too long in the brooder due to 22 degree nights! They content today in the nut grove but it was a season mounting in stress for all of us.  I learn something new each season as the variables of animal and Mother Nature are never the same.

We have turned chicken farmer in less than 5 years from keeping our first chickens.  I had wanted chickens so my friend and neighbor Kay Yount gifted me a dozen of her mature Barred Plymouth Rocks in the spring of 2008; the following spring, on my 40th birthday, we were brooding our very first batch raised from day old chicks.  How does one go from raising a few chickens for eggs to raising enough to sustain a small broiler and egg business, you ask?

I will attempt to answer that question for myself as we navigate our second year of raising animals for food.  My first thought on the matter is that I really like food and I take what happened to this food before it reaches the table very seriously.  This includes animal, vegetable, mineral, water, worker, environment- the whole lot of what it takes to turn something into sustenance.  Okay, so the second thought (which is only now becoming evident after being engage in animal husbandry) is that the very hard work of carefully raising living creatures is not for cheap and convenient eating but for mindful living.

I have pondered, too, that perhaps our disconnection from the actual processes of procuring, raising and transforming edibles into edibles has left us disconnected with one another.  When it took the collective help of neighbors to get the fields planted, cultivated and harvested we were accountable to one another; we valued each other’s successes because it was a reflection of ourselves.   To help your neighbor was an investment because the favor was often returned in short order.

Basket of fresh figsSo, back to raising food for ourselves today:  try it in the garden, with some hens for eggs or a few broilers for the table.  If you keep them alive long enough to reap the rewards you will learn to value food in a way barely imaginable by most who eat with no thought as to where their food came from before the cellophane wrap.  It is so easy to eat today, just go to the grocery and pop it in the microwave?  Drive-thru?  Instead, consider playing a little role in what keeps you alive and healthy.  In just a few weeks you could be planting potatoes and onions; maybe raising some chicks that will give you eggs in 6 months (yes, it is an investment in many things including time and patience).

We are at the threshold of another growing season.  Grow something…animal, vegetable, mineral, mindfulness, horseradish, whatever!



April 24, 2013Permalink

Don’t forget what’s in the pantry, root cellar or freezer

figs and plums canning pantry 030 canning pantry 025Perhaps this can be a reminder of the payoff of “putting up” the garden in spring, summer and fall:  we have extended our homegrown eating pleasure into the winter months with some basic preservation methods.  If you froze, dried, canned or otherwise preserved fresh fruits and vegetables in 2012 do not forget about them (or horde them for some unreasonable time.)

First, open the freezer and assess what’s there:  blanched Romano beans with some ice crystals forming inside the freezer bag?  Plan a stew for dinner.  A big bag of grilled corn (from Gallrein’s, which you cannot beat) sliced from the cob?  This corn is so sweet we just use it as a side dish with a little salt and pepper.  The tomato and zucchini mixture is holding up well so I will search out anything else that is starting to look freezer-weary.

Spring peas are ready to be steamed in a little water and finished off almost sautéed in olive oil with some garlic.  These were blanched briefly, iced down to cool, drained and frozen in deli containers.  Better than grocery bought from the frozen vegetable aisle.

On the pantry shelves I can reach for canned tomatoes for my cottage cheese or chili; lacto-fermented green beans go great with roasted potatoes and olives.  Next I will make a salad of pickled beets, walnuts and blue cheese.  Some blackberries preserved in balsamic vinegar was great on vanilla ice-cream last week, I know that sounds weird, but it was really good.  That plum compote would be good on pork.  And of course, Andy’s oatmeal has our dried apples, figs, persimmons and pears in it; the combination made more complete with peaches from Mulberry Orchard.  My husband’s routine peanut butter and jelly is not complete with my blueberry or blackberry jam.   How much to shelve is a calculation based on how many sandwiches need to be made before the berries come ripe again.

Root vegetables

There are many vegetables that do not need to be transformed from their fresh state to be preserved for later.  For example:  we are eating turnips from mid-summer that I just tucked away in a plastic bag in the back of the crisper drawer.  I like to eat turnips raw and after several months chilled in the refrigerator these turnips not only remain crisp but they have largely lost any of their heat.  I am also getting turnips from my friend Janice Walls and her later season harvest taste as fresh as one’s just pulled from the ground.  This is why people used to eat turnips…they lasted and they fed you and your family through the winter.  This is no lowly vegetable

And, at my fingertips in our basement, I have loads of potatoes stored on slated racks.  I admit they are getting a little shriveled but quite frankly once they are roasted, stemmed or mashed no one would suspect anything other than perfect potato.  The winter squash are holding up well, as we monitor for any decay which means you get eaten next.

I do realize I am obsessed with all aspects of food but it didn’t seem like I went to great measures to stock up for the winter and 2012 was a busy season that took me out of the kitchen more often than not.  Still we have good food that we grew and we have chicken, eggs and lamb to make the meal complete.  I am so grateful for each animal, fruit and vegetable, perhaps that’s where the obsession comes from.

And, I must share this last anecdote about the early summer harvest.  My friend Mary Courtney gave me a big, beautiful head of Napa cabbage back in June sometime.  We enjoyed that Napa cabbage cooked, raw, on BLTs, and as an experiment in freshness.  I kid you not; I have one lone piece of Napa cabbage in a little zip lock baggy in the refrigerator today (yes, February 2013).  I will deliver it back to Mary as a symbol of how great or local farms and farmers are.

January 30, 2013Permalink

2012 Reflections from the Farm: Follow Your Instinct

Follow your instinct…ewes first day home

If there was anything that I came to understand more profoundly this year it would have to be the power of instinct: mine, our animals and the forces of ideologies of which I agree and disagree.  I reread my year end column from 2011 which reminded me of where I was 12 months ago; it helps me better appreciate where I am today.  It seems we did not do too badly, after all, and it’s all because both Andy and I recognize the power of instinct.

Before we got sheep people kept saying “sheep are stupid”; and chickens are stupid; and nature needs to be mowed and paved and tamed and sprayed…I could go on.  I think that these naysayers have been wrong largely because they never took the time to notice instinct.  Sheep eat grass and in order to do so effectively they need to move forward, that’s what they do.  It is smart if you live off of grass; and if you don’t want to live around your own manure.

Chickens eat grass, too, and move about in search of it and other protein sources (and away from their manure): they are maybe better omnivores then humans. Don’t judge the knuckle head moves like getting jammed into a roll of wire fencing or going broody. When we decry the instinct of an animal we do so in an anthropomorphic righteousness that deems any behavior outside of what we want “stupid.”  This year consider it otherwise.

Last December I wanted to raise chickens for eating; and last December we had 10 pregnant ewes that I hung my hopes on delivering lambs in April. They delivered in so many ways.  We had 13 lambs (I know, we were bound for some trouble!) We lost our first born to a crushing accident which taught me lambs will get into trouble if there is anything in their midst that might allow for trouble.  I was sick to my stomach over my oversight as their shepherd.  We lost another little girl to parasites, which is the number one killer of sheep, second to domestic dogs.  I finally got the hang of it a raised some happy, healthy animals for a fall harvest. The lessons learned were about good animal husbandry, protection, life, death and the completion of a life cycle meant for food.  This year I learned more about death than the average year! My first crop of lambs would, of course, be harvested for meat. This was why we got into the sheep business, after all.

The challenge of 2012 was to grow food beyond vegetables, fruit and eggs.  We wanted meat to make the offering complete; and to fully use our gift of land.  We harvested 6 ram lambs and nearly 150 chickens for our customers and ourselves.  My friend Angie said “you have done what you set out to do,” as I cried in anticipation of taking our lambs to be processed.  I did not cry over the chickens because it was very hard and dirty work during a recording breaking hot summer.  I did love every one of those chickens but the human emotion is stronger (which is our instinct) when a living being has eyes and lashes and a personality that we can more closely relate.  The chickens had personality, to be sure, but the lambs knew how to manipulate me with more finesse.  The totality of the farm was cared for with great affection; they lambs were sweet to me, the broilers not necessarily so, they just wanted me to feed and water them.  I suppose the lambs did, too, but they also courted me in a conscious effort to be favored.  Favored here, is a lambs’ instinct to get food and affection.  So perhaps we are more alike than we ever imagined?

Early on in my shepherd training I was instructed that lambs forget their mothers a few months after being weaned.  I do not agree: #0010 (also known as Violet) ran straight to her mother, dropped to her knees and tried to nurse when they were reunited in a pasture several months after weaning.  Her instinct was no doubt keen but mama was long dried up. To this day Violet and her mother Brownie are still best of friends.  And, with them as a guide, we will raise more food for local tables in 2013.  Happy New Year!Violet and Brownie

January 3, 2013Permalink

The 2012 Lamb and Chicken Harvest is Complete

The 2012 Lamb and Chicken Harvest is Complete

The animals we raised for food this year have all reached their full potential, if you will.  The 6 ram lambs and some 150 chickens have found their way into local freezers and onto local dinner tables.  The farthest that any of it will travel will be to Montreal in a carry-on bag by my side so that I can eat my own lamb with dear friends later next month.  It was a year full of many lessons and you can read more about the trials and tribulations in the January-February edition of Edible Louisville.

IMG_3287The winter season progresses with a supply of eggs and frozen whole and half chicken for sale.  The egg shares are sold out for now; winter solstice is December 21st so as the days start to lengthen so will the prospects of more egg-laying! We are also pleased to know have Animal Welfare Approved status for our laying hens and eggs.  This is a nod to our responsible animal husbandry practices.Animal Welfare Approved

Let me know if you would like any pastured poultry for winter roasting.  Andy and roast a chicken each week and eat on it for several days, we have determined that the texture and flavor stands out as the most significant difference between the taste and texture of factory farmed poultry (plus we are not contributing to antibiotic resistant bacteria, contamination and pollution!)

We will be doing this again and hope that our customers will continue to support the farm by purchasing Ky grazed poultry, eggs and lamb.  Happy New Year!

December 15, 2012Permalink

The lambs are at Bluegrass Lamb and Goat

On thursday Andy and I loaded the lambs into the back of the truck at 5 am to head off to Paint Lick, Kentucky where our processor, Bluegrass Lamb and Goat, is located.  Optimism is overrated when it comes to loading livestock without the right handling equipment.  It took twice as long as we thought.Our plan partially worked to use a hay bale to have them step up on and then heaved into the cage we have built for the truck.  Once we crowded them into a smaller area and once we had two loaded, the rest were eager to follow. I felt desperate at times; Andy kept us on track.

We drove about an hour and half quietly contemplating the morning and the the surrender of our 2012 ram lambs.  They were indeed happy animals, friendly and curious and well cared for; I now trust Bluegrass Lamb and Goat to complete the circle.

After we left Paint Lick we traveled another hour to Cardwell where my lamb mentor Eileen O’Donahue and her husband Randy Banks live.  Eileen operation, Two Shakes Ranch and Kentucky Lamb, is a place Andy I always leave feeling a renewed commitment to growing our own operation and what better way to recognize that than to get my “rental” ram from Two Shakes Ranch.  Maurice is a fine Dorper hair sheep that went straight to work once he arrived at Swallow Rail.  Instinct is a powerful thing.  In less than 24 hours I had 3 ewes marked by the yellow marking harness that Maurice is wearing so we can monitoring when ewes are bred.  It helps to know when we are expecting come April.

November 2, 2012Permalink

Baxter our Maremma livestock guardian dog at 10 months


Baxter just celebrated his 10 month birthday; can you guess his weight?  He has turned out to be great at protecting the Freedom Rangers down in the nut grove but he is still not trustworthy with the sheep.  No doubt he is protecting them, too, with his presence and imposing bark but he cannot be in the same field just yet.  We tried that for a few weeks in the summer and he ended up chewing on “Brownie’s” legs.  She is fine but he did leave abrasions that took some time to heal.  His training continues and it is reasonable to let him reach adulthood before we expect his full instincts to kick in.

The freedom Rangers at 9 weeks and growing…..

Operation Drumstick Part III (ODS III) is underway with a breed of chicken called the Freedom Ranger.  This active chicken forages well and plumps to broiler weight in about 11 weeks.  We have about 70 in the nut grove ranging freely and supplemented with a 20% grow ration that is antibiotic and animal by-product free.

We feel strongly about not feeding any of our livestock medicated feed which makes it more challenging to source. The good news is that I think I finally found a locally sourced product that meets our specifications.  As feed prices rise due to low 2012 corn yields (due to heat and drought throughout the west and mid-west) I am concerned where my feed dollar goes.  If I have to pay a premium I want it to go to someone close to home…not Cargill.

The Freedom Rangers from ODS III will be harvested on Election Day in November so we should have whole chicken to last us through the winter until the cycle begins again in early spring.  Consider a whole chicken for Thanksgiving! ~ Jeneen

September 28, 2012Permalink Leave a comment

Sorting Lambs

Sorting Lambs

From Swallow Rail Farm

Our routine is changing a bit because I am back to teaching part-time at University of Louisville.  Sadly, this means I am no longer at Courtney Farms in the morning to help put the fruit CSA shares together; I do miss the conviviality of the barn.  It did feel good to be back on campus, however, as the students greeted me eagerly.  I have a unique opportunity to share the realities of the farm in the course that I teach called Food and Body Politic, so we can continue our work.The Deluxe brooder

Speaking of which, the work continues at home: irrigation has begun as the drought settles in (hoping for rain out of Hurricane Isaac) still picking figs, drying apples, making jam and pickles In fact we reached another milestone in our shepherd management:  we sorted our ram lambs away from their sisters.  At about 5 months the lambs reach sexual maturity and we don’t need any premature accidents!  We were able to entice them out of their temporary pasture with a trough of food, we only allowed the rams through the opening, and then they followed our buckets back to the nut grove pasture. All are secure in three separate pastures for now.and tending to the flock, both 4-legged and 2-legged.

Separating lambs

75 Red Rangers in brooderWe also were able to weigh and dose copper sulfate for parasite control last weekend.  My mentor and friend Eileen O’Donahue brought her livestock scale so we could properly does each lamb.  Copper sulfate is a natural and very effective wormer BUT it can kill your sheep because they are susceptible to copper toxicity.  Everyone is still standing and has pink noses so we did good; anything less than pink indicates anemia and high parasite loads so we monitor for good color in eye membrane, noses, etc.through a practice called FAMACHA.

And, the new deluxe brooder is complete in the barn.  75 Red Ranger chicks arrived in the mail late last week and they are running around enjoying their large accommodations.  These meat chickens should be less labor intensive then the Cornish x broilers and they will range freely in the nut grove once the brooder stage is over.  In the pasture with electro-netting around them, Baxter the Maremma guardian dog around that and woven wire fencing around that should keep them secure! We will have more whole chickens available in November from this batch of Red Rangers.