Monday, June 20, 2011


When we bought this property, it came with two sheep and a potbellied pig, Petunia. I don’t call her potbellied as a judgment; That is, in fact, her breed. A Vietnamese potbellied pig. When considering whether or not we’re overfeeding her, it’s hard not to look down at that round protuberance, covered with wiry black hair, scraping just above the ground as she walks, and think, “Potbelly. Check. I guess we’re doing something right.”

The fact is, other than our 25 pound terrier mix, named Gorilla for the quiet grunting noises she makes while extending her neck to sniff something from her low altitude stance only eighteen inches or so above the ground, we don’t have a lot of experience taking care of animals. So after calling in an expert to have the sheep sheared, the next thing we needed was to have Petunia’s hooves trimmed. Now, I don’t know what a pig’s foot is supposed to look like, though I’m sure I saw some hanging in markets in Central America, but unless Petunia was going for some kind of Guinness World Record, it had to be done.



After a confusing call to Gorilla’s veterinarian, we were put in touch with the Cotati Large Animal Hospital. We arranged for a house call and were told to come by the hospital the morning before to pick up some tranquilizers. It’s hard to judge the weight of a dense little creature like our Petunia, but we guessed she was about 80 pounds and, at one pill per 50 pounds, 2 pills would be plenty. I gave her the pills pressed into some leftover potatoes and stepped back, expecting to see her stagger around like a secret agent coming to the foggy realization that she’d been drugged. I’d already started planning a video montage using the “David After Dentist” soundtrack (“IS THIS GONNA BE FOREVER?!”). We’d been told to confine her to a small area, presumably so that she’d zonk out in a convenient location, but when I led her into a pen and pulled a fence in front of her, she rooted her nose underneath and powerfully yanked it up far enough for her to crawl out. I tried a few more times with no luck before giving up and assuming she’d just collapse in front of the pasture gate like she did every afternoon.

As we walked towards the gate from the mobile vet’s white pickup truck, the back outfitted with so many drawers and doors that he may may well have had an operating room back there, we could see Petunia’s motionless form - the one I had mistaken for a rock about 20 times since moving here – lying right where we expected it. But as we approached, she stirred, swinging herself onto her stubby feet and standing up. I’d clearly seen her eat the pills inside the potatoes and there’s rarely anything left on the ground after her sensitive snout surveys an area where I’ve dropped food, but she seemed to be her usual self.

The vet didn’t seem particularly concerned and started taking out his specialized nail trimming tools. Wait, that’s just a Dremel tool with a sanding wheel, I have one of those. And that’s just a huge clipper like I was using to pull nails out of the wood for the planting boxes. The vet assured us that, yes, this was something we could do ourselves in the future and that it was more about the technique than anything else. His assistant came up behind Petunia and reached forward to grab her front legs. Then she rocked her back onto her butt and over onto her back, cradling her between her knees. Though the sheep shearer was a little less delicate about it, this is pretty much the same technique he used to get the animals to become submissive. Come to think of it, I’d even used this method recently on a wild animal that visited our house, although Gus had a different idea of how to trim his toenails.


With Petunia in position and seeming somewhat relaxed, the vet started clipping and shaping the curly fries that used to be her hooves.



At this point, I asked if he had anything in a high gloss candy apple red. Some salons give customers a glass of Chardonnay instead of pig tranquilizers. 


He said that in general, we had a nice little pig there. Good demeanor, average weight and in good health. The only other thing he wanted to do to her is floss. From his bag, he pulled out a piece of thick wire attached at either end to a wood dowel. It was like what they used to cut clay in that Intro to Pottery class you took in college to get your art credit but really just ‘cause you wanted to make a bong until you got paranoid that the glaze would melt more brain cells than the weed. He quickly rounded off her fangs with the Dremel, mentioning that she’d be a safer pig to have around afterwards, and then pressed the wire between her teeth and started pulling back and forth. This is basically how I will picture it the next time I go in for a cleaning and that one hygienist is super friendly in the waiting room but then turns into a masochist as soon as she pulls up that face mask.


It’s not as brutal as it looks in the pics, and Petunia handled it like a champ. Afterwards, she happily gobbled up some strawberries as a treat and seemed eager as ever for a scratch on the belly or behind the ears. Apparently the tranquilizers just kinda “take the edge off” rather than knock her out. I may have to try one myself if I ever stop rescheduling that cleaning appointment I set up last time I was at the dentist.

That night, Gorilla got ambushed. She was dozing lazily in her bed when she was accosted from behind and rocked onto her back, resting between someone’s knees. Then from the front, someone grabbed her foot and started snipping away at the little black nails that go click-click as she walks around our newly finished hardwood floors. She let out a few small objections then laid back and let us finish the work. Unaware how thankful she should be that we opted not to floss, she padded silently back to her bed and curled back up.

Lately we’ve been doing some thinking about what animals we’d like to keep on the farm. We always liked the idea of goats and had visions of making cheese and drinking fresh milk, but the reality is that dairy goats need to be milked everyday, equipment cleaned and milk safely stored. All take time and money that we’re not willing to put in at this point. We’ve loved having the goats – all males or non-breeding females -  for the past month or so. Once they’d mowed the grass in the lower pasture, they finally started eating the invasive purple star thistle that was the reason we’d gotten them in the first place. As a reward, we opened up the gate and let them loose on the tall grasses in the upper part of the property.

Job well done…


And the reward…


Of course, Petunia and Sheeple Dee and Sheeple Dum got in on the back pasture action.



The herd returned that first evening, drunk on fresh forage, bellies bulging from the feast, and slumped into a sleepy pile of goaty contentment. Billy, the patriarch – both literally and figuratively - and “spokes-goat,” nuzzled us both with a firm but gentle headbutt of thanks.



We actually checked to see if this one was pregnant. Nope, just the big boy, “Digger,” full and happy after gorging on fresh grass.



Everyone was so zonked after the feast. It was pretty bizarre.


Check out this super sleepy goat…

After this display of adorableness, it’s hard to even consider raising goats for meat. Of course, all animals are cute in some way, and we’re interested in exploring the willingness we all have to eat the ones that are confined and force-fed in unnatural and unhealthy environments while we get squeamish when we see them frolicking in a pasture. Of course, there are those who would suggest not eating meat at all, an acceptable solution if your body functions well without it and you’re willing to accept that many animals that are only raised for meat will cease to be. Sure, some produce milk or eggs or wool as well, but with the synthetic or vegetable substitutes available, there will be no incentive to raise and breed these species as humans have done for thousands of years and they’ll go extinct.

We like the idea of finding a few “heritage breeds” – those that can live on grass alone and have retained their parenting instincts, something that’s been bred out of factory breeds so that babies can be easily separated from their mothers – and experimenting with having a few “processed” (remember that euphemism for “slaughtered?”) each year for our own use. We’re paying a lot closer attention at farmer’s markets to which breeds of pigs or sheep each farm is raising and at some point will look into maybe buying a few animals from one of them.

A visit to the Sonoma-Marin Fair gave us a chance to check out a bunch of breeds and soak in the carnival atmosphere.

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Luckily, we caught the finals of the ewe judging. Teens dressed all in white with scarves or belts from their 4H club, arranging their newly-shaven ewes - head up, rump down – along the back line. As the imposing judge paced the row, a subtle flick of the wrist called contestants forward and adjusted their order. Finally, he went from top to bottom, explaining over the loudspeakers to the crowd gathered on the bleachers under the tin roofed shelter his reasoning on each.


First Place: “From the front here, you’re gonna like what you see. Get around to the back and it’s more good news. Good balance and configuration on the is animal. This ewe’s gonna produce you some high quality offspring.”

Second Place: “Like my first choice, you’ll like ‘er from the front. You’ll like ‘er from the back, but she’s too long in the midsection. I need a variation in the width that’s gonna make this ewe the one you go to come lambing season. Get the right ram on her and you could be back here next year with a winner.”


For the time being, we joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program from Marin Sun Farms about a half an hour away in Point Reyes. Every month, we’ll pick up 15 pounds of grass-fed beef, pork, lamb or goat in a variety of cuts. We figure that having a stocked freezer will encourage us to cook at home more, hopefully combining small portions of meat with whatever our garden is putting out, rather than having to run out to the store for every meal. (Note that the CSA prices are about 20% less than grass-fed meat at the grocery store, bringing the price back down into range with conventional.) Worst case, we throw a BBQ for friends a couple times a year with any extra we have. After six months, we may move to a farm that’s even closer like Tara Firma.

While eventually we think it’d be fun to raise our own Thanksgiving turkey, in the meantime we’ll have to be content with the wild turkeys wandering the property. We’ve been seeing turkeys like this one in the side pasture… (before Gorilla saw it, chased it until it ran into the fence and then madly fluttered up into a tree)



… but the other day a mother led a string of tiny chicks across the small lawn just outside the sliding glass door. I’m not really sure why they chose this route or where they came from but, when the convoy came up against a fence, the mother would jump and flap wildly to a series of perches before dropping in over the other side and the chicks would squeeze through the mesh.


By now, Gorilla’s pretty much over it.


Chickens will likely be our first addition to the farm. In fact, it seems like everyone except us has chickens. Every day there’s another article in the newspaper about backyard chickens, and while that kind of publicity tends to make me want to do the opposite, one visit to backyard flock like the one kept by our friends Finn and Susie and it’s easy to see why people like them so much; They’re generally easy to keep, deliver a steady supply of eggs, are pretty and have a ton of personality. More to come on this as we build a coop in the next weeks…

Ann with Chicken

The hawks, Ethan and Tony, are anxiously waiting this next project from a tree overlooking the proposed site for the chicken run…