Stories from the Workshops


I’m smack in the middle of a series of back-to-back workshops. There was one last Saturday, there’s one this Saturday, and another one the Saturday after that. Then I have Thanksgiving weekend off, and another two workshop weekends in a row in December. Then that’s it for the year. Since spring, I’ve held three workshop weekends a month, most months, and it’s been a busy time of it! But I really enjoy it, and enjoy the people, and have accumulated quite a few stories along the way, which I enjoy telling to attendees. People, you never know what they’ll do! So, since workshops take up so much of my time these days, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite stories with all of you also, and take you into a typical workshop day. These photos are from the November 7, 2015, Taste of Sassafras Farm event.

Workshop days, for me, start with biscuits. Lots and lots of biscuits.
I have the tables set and ready for attendees. Typically, there are 12-14 attendees every Saturday.
There’s a roll of paper towels on both tables–trust me, they’ll need it, all day. Salt and pepper, name tags, and Chickens in the Road business cards. As people arrive, they often stop to visit with the animals.
When you deal with people on a regular basis, you notice certain things. Here’s one, which amuses me quite often. Whoever arrives first sets the beat. If they drive up the driveway, everyone else will drive up the driveway to park. If the first arrival parks along the road, everyone else will park along the road. This almost never fails! Breakfast is “officially” served at 8:30, which is the start of the workshop day, but people generally trickle in between 8:30 and 9 and are welcomed to get breakfast as they arrive. I greet every single person as they arrive with a hug and instructions to get their name tag on!
Breakfast is typically farm fresh fried eggs, homemade yogurt with honey and granola, fruit, biscuits with apple butter and assorted jellies, and some kind of sweet–coffeecake or muffins or something like that, along with juice and coffee.
I fry eggs on a short order cook basis, as long as there are people wanting more eggs, and deliver them hot off the skillet right at the tables.

After breakfast, I give a short introductory talk, explain where is what around the studio–such as where to find bottled water and snacks and so on, have each person tell their name and where they’re from so everyone gets to know each other (and so that I know them!), and lay out the plan for the day. A Taste of Sassafras Farm day starts with milking, so I discuss milking and my cows for a few minutes before I send everyone out to change into their muddy boots, if they’ve brought a change of shoes, and to meet me at the gate to the front barnyard. This is where I usually tell one of my first stories, about the time there was one attendee who decided to go around to the backside of the barnyard and let herself in with Glory Bee. And then all the other attendees followed her, and next thing I knew, all the attendees were in the back barnyard with the cow instead of out front of the barn waiting for me. This is one of my cautionary stories–don’t do this! I can’t have attendees inside the back barnyard with Glory Bee. While Glory Bee is a generally docile milk cow, she’s feeling in a pushy mood of a morning when she’s waiting for her big feed at milking time, and I don’t allow attendees inside fenced fields with livestock anyway, as a safety rule.

Once we arrive at the barn, I have attendees stand back in the alleyway while I bring in Glory Bee from the back then everyone comes into the milking parlor. I demonstrate how to use the milking machine, but the focus here is on hand milking and each attendee has an opportunity to give it a try. I go over instructions, then set them to it, reminding them that Glory Bee will be happy as long as she’s eating–so don’t be shy, get after it! Most people will milk her, and rarely is there a “milk failure” where someone can’t at least get a squirt. Occasionally, I will hear someone standing out in the alleyway saying, “I’m not touching that cow!” Of course, no one is required to touch the cow, though this does always entertain me. (Did they know where they were going?) But I understand that sometimes seeing is enough! Not everyone wants to touch.

We head back to the studio for cheesemaking. Here is where I get to tell one of my favorite stories. Attendees make mozzarella as a group, one pot per table, and I have portable burners on the tables. I bring them their pot, their spoon, other ingredients and supplies, and their gallon of milk.
Here’s what happened one time a few months ago when I brought the pot and milk to the table. This photo was taken to demonstrate the items and what happened. (Obviously, the pot and milk are not at a table in this photo–it was taken just to show you.) Here’s a pot and here’s a gallon of milk.
I said, “Put your milk in the pot.”

And on this particular day, this particular attendee picked up the gallon of milk…..


….put it…..

…..in the pot!
I never get tired of telling that story.

And then there was the time that somebody said, “What does rennet taste like?”

I said, “I don’t know…..”

Next thing I knew, she was pouring out a bit of rennet into a spoon and drinking it.

In case you ever wondered what rennet tastes like, she said it tastes acidic. Not good. So no need to try that yourself!

The groups often compete in a friendly way to shape the prettiest ball of mozzarella. By this point in mid-morning, everyone has gotten to know each other and there is usually a lot of laughing going on.

Before lunch, we get the fats and oils melting in pots outside to prepare for soapmaking. I run all the soapmaking and candlemaking outside on the studio deck, which keeps the tables cleared inside for other activities and meals.
(That’s a messy picture of the outside workshop table before I’d set it up for the day, still messy from the previous workshops.)

Lunch is usually a selection of deli sliced meats and cheeses with buns and chips and cookies for dessert. I lay everything out on the prep table in the studio kitchen, except for condiments–which I put on the attendee tables. I have learned so many things about people! One of those things is that sometimes people take a really long to paint the mayonnaise on their sandwich. In order to speed up the lunch line, they get their mayo at the tables! I send one table at a time to the kitchen to load up their plates. I’ve also learned another thing about people–you are all so polite! If I say, go to get your lunch one table at a time–then they sit there looking back and forth at each other. Nobody wants to go first! So I’ve learned to instruct one table to go first–and tell the other table that they’ll be first at supper. Usually by supper-time I’ve forgotten which table I sent first at lunch, but believe, they never forget!

After lunch, we’re back to soap on the studio deck. (This is a thumb picture!)
People are often taking pictures throughout the day.
I have them do the candles in multiple pours, so they are going back and forth between soap and candles during the afternoon, and also starting bread inside in the studio. I show them how I grind grains, then everyone makes a whole grain loaf of their own to take home. This means I’m baking 12-14 loaves of bread of a weekend. I instruct attendees to make their loaf unique, so they’ll recognize it when it comes out of the oven. Because I won’t. They’ve gotta know their own loaf. I’ve seen bread shaped like bears and ducks and bunnies. I’ve seen strips of dough used to make initials on top. I’ve seen hearts and flowers. I’ve seen all kinds of slashes and shapes and twists and braids. One time, I saw a young woman make a bread shaped like a gecko. And it really looked like a gecko! I’ve seen it all! And yet…..
Sometimes I can still be surprised.

A few weeks ago, an attendee shaped her loaf like….

….a certain…..



And like the gecko, it looked just like it! Even after it was baked!

People are so entertaining!

Supper varies, but lately it’s been roasted lemon-pepper chicken and salad, along with some sort of cake and homemade ice cream. They also get to taste four different whole grain breads that I bake for them, made from freshly ground whole grains. Along with the bread–they get to eat their cheese!
This is truly the highlight of the day because attendees are always very eager to taste their cheese. And do you see the man in the photo? People often ask–do men attend? Yes, they do! There’s usually a man or two every weekend, and I’d love to see more!
The cheese is delicious!

After dessert, I cut their soaps for them to take home. They also take home their loaf of bread and their container candle. If there’s any cheese left over, they punch each other until someone wins and gets to take it home. (Just kidding!) At this point, if they’re buying anything from my little “studio store” of soaps and jellies etc, they pick that up, bag everything together, and I give everyone a hug goodbye.

And go back to the house for a glass of wine without cleaning up. Because there’s always tomorrow.

And, most often, another workshop day the next Saturday!

It is a fun, fun day. I have two workshops left to fill for December 2015. (You can see the available dates here.) I’ll be posting my 2016 schedule in January! If you haven’t been here yet, I hope to see you at the farm! Next year will be more Taste of Sassafras Farm events along with a whole lineup of brand new workshops–and new entertaining stories. I can’t wait!

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Counting in Cow Time


Bradley the bull has gone bye-bye.
The separating and loading went quicker than I expected, but it still wasn’t easy. The owner of the bull backed his truck and trailer into the access road behind the back barnyard. The cows were all in the back barnyard. The gate was opened and the bull guy used a bucket of feed to convince the bull to come out into the access road while the girls were blocked from following him. Once he was in the access road, he was herded in the appropriate direction and all went swimmingly for a few minutes until he decided to turn around. I was down by the trailer to block the open space next to one side of the trailer. I threw some feed over the fence to the girls, causing them to run down the field. This convinced the bull to run down the access road alongside them (separated by the fence) toward the trailer. At this point I was worried he was going to keep going along the side of the trailer and mow me down, but luckily he was diverted by his owner’s feed bucket to go right behind the trailer. He was eventually convinced to step on, and the job was all done in about 10 minutes.
I don’t think Bradley was too pleased to discover himself locked into the trailer, but it’s part of his job. Even if you love your job–and surely Bradley has to love his–there are always parts of it Not to like, and I suppose riding around in trailers is one of those for Bradley. He left behind three mothers-to-be, and a job well done. Bye, daddy.
Now we wait. Cows are pregnant for the same amount of time as people. The bull was here a full three months, and I think they were all bred in the first month, in the order of Moon Pie then Dumplin then Glory Bee. Calves should start arriving about a week apart, with the first one sometime around mid-April.

And then there will suddenly be six cows on the farm. That is, like, a little herd!

Cows are central figures on a farm. They provide milk, butter, cheese, and beef. They are the family farm machine, all wrapped up in one. Throw in some chickens, and you’ve got almost all you need along with a garden and some fire wood. A family cow used to be called a house cow. Back in medieval times, the cow was so important, it would actually be kept inside the house in the winter. You don’t want your cow getting cold! It was not that many generations ago that brides brought milk cows with them to their new homes as their dowries, and that families kept cows in their small yards in the cities. Most of us can probably look back to either our parents or our grandparents who were raised with a family cow, and yet in such a short time span, our collective knowledge has disintegrated to the point that you can ask kids where milk comes from and their most likely response will be–the store. Because of the workshops I do here, a lot of people come through my farm. Even adults ask questions like, does a cow have to have a baby to make milk? And does a hen have to be with a rooster before they lay eggs? (Just to make that confusing, the answers are contrarily opposite! A cow has to have a baby–and have been with a bull, of course–in order to have milk, but a hen lays eggs whether she’s ever met a rooster in her life or not.) And those aren’t stupid questions–there are no stupid questions, the search for knowledge is the epitome of wisdom–but it is demonstrative of how distanced we are from our food sources today.

The family cow is growing in popularity again, though. Not because we can’t survive without it, as was the case in the old days, but because we choose it, as a lifestyle. And it’s not a lifestyle everyone can take on, but it’s a very rewarding one if you can. Like chickens, cows are grounding. They put your life on their time, cow time. Whether it’s the big cycle of the year from breeding to calving to milking, or the daily care and tending of feeding or moving them between pastures, or the tiny moments–the sound of mooing in the morning or the feel of full warm teats beneath your fingers, life with a cow is about the cow. Moments, days, weeks, months, and years are measured in cow time. Milking time, feeding time, hay time, bull time, calving time.

I love cow time, and I am gonna love next spring. Three calves. I can hardly wait!

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The Slanted Little House

"It was a cold wintry day when I brought my children to live in rural West Virginia. The farmhouse was one hundred years old, there was already snow on the ground, and the heat was sparse-—as was the insulation. The floors weren’t even, either. My then-twelve-year-old son walked in the door and said, “You’ve brought us to this slanted little house to die." Keep reading our story....

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