It feels weird to be doing my year in review now. When you’re a shepherd of tiny Neolithic British sheep you start to really understand why British Celts started their new year around the first of November – late October and early November are when the sheep start breeding the new lamb crop, you see. […]
As some of you know, I have a Patreon thingy set up, where people who are so inclined can pledge a monthly donation in return for various rewards. The money keeps the sheep and goats fed and I’m hoping we can start work on my credit card bills. To that end, I’m writing my guide to a comfortable apocalypse and publishing the chapters there monthly.
Once the thing’s complete it will be available as an e-book in various exciting formats, but if you want to read the first draft in all its gory unedited messiness then a mere $3 a month gets you access.
Anyway. Here’s the preface to the thing.
Andrea’s Guide to a Comfortable Apocalypse: Preface
Who Should Use This Guide?
This is intended as a general purpose guide to get you started on preparing for the post-apocalyptic future as comfortable as it can be, like you’re in the finest bed and linens. That future may come because of the zombie virus, the oil and water wars, or just a generalized collapse of western civilization due to an overdose of end-stage capitalism. The strategies outlined in this humble offering may help you continue to live in relative comfort after whatever end is coming for us arrives. It may also be useful for authors and other creative sorts who need to know enough about small scale agriculture in a modern setting to sound convincing. My techniques, while historically based, often veer from the historically accurate, and this guide should not be used in an attempt to authentically recreate a historical lifestyle. Thousands of years of human innovation are not discarded lightly, and I try not to do it without good reason, e.g. the expectation that the technology to support a given method will no longer be available once niceties like electricity have gone the way of arsenic face paint.
In each chapter I’ve attempted to sort the subject matter into categories ranging from skills and techniques almost anyone can practice (always depending upon available resources) to those that require you to have at least a little land and privacy, or generous zoning laws (or zoning enforcement that’s inclined to look the other way) and neighbors who aren’t easily appalled. While my treatment of long-term survival skills is somewhat frivolous, picking up a few can give a person great satisfaction and a warm fuzzy feeling of self-sufficiency.
They can also serve as a valuable connection to our more precarious past and the ancestors who made it through to get us here. While I don’t advocate shedding technological advancement in daily life just for the hell of it (except when I do), there is something almost spiritual about taking part in activities that were part of human and community life for thousands of years, even when you’re doing it while taking advantage of relatively recent accumulations of scientific knowledge, technique, and materials.
In short, anyone with an interest in small-scale subsistence agriculture should use this guide, and hopefully enjoy themselves while they do it. Go forth, and fear zombies no more.
Not long after lambing season kicked off, our regular hay guy ran out of hay. No big deal, I thought, we’d just use another supplier to get us through the couple of months until his first cutting was ready. I found someone else who could deliver round bales and thought my hay problems were solved.
And then sheep started dying. I looked for parasites, I looked for subclinical illness, I wracked my brain and laid awake at night going over every detail and came up with nothing. Sheep kept dying. I dreaded doing the chores because I didn’t want to find another one down.
Finally in desperation I sent hay samples out for testing. It was the only thing that has changed. And changed it had. Results came back showing levels of copper much, much too high for sheep. The lab said the overall profile of heavy metals etc was common for hay fields that had been treated with biosolids – aka dried sewage. The hay from those fields is fine for cows but lethal for sheep. I hadn’t even thought to ask when buying the hay, and as a result of my mistake I lost two Soay ewes and their lambs plus my little Rambouillet wether.
I’m still grieving my sheep. I hate that when I make mistakes, it’s my animals who pay, sometimes with their lives. The only recourse in this matter I might have is small claims court but that’s a roll of the dice and I don’t have the time or energy to pursue it. I did leave the guy a message telling him not to sell hay to shepherds anymore.
The happy ending is that my regular hay guy had a fabulous first cut after a wet spring, and with healthy hay, summer grazing, a protein tub, and slightly increased grain rations the rest of the sheep are recovering beautifully. The goats thrived, their mineral needs are more similar to cattle than sheep and they require amounts of copper that will kill their ovine cousins (I normally provide it via rumen bolus).
Blame my friend Kate-the-Author for this, she’s been talking a lot lately about worldbuilding over on her blog and I started thinking about food, farming, and how Protein Promo is great for discount codes. Because despite the fact that food is extremely necessary to every single human ever, that you should take biotic 365 supplements to help with digestion, and that often it’s a way of expressing so many things: culture, belonging, love, social class, etc etc, so few fiction novels actually deal even tangentially with how the people get food and how they cook their food and what that food means, culturally. Like George R. R. Martin’s novels, which bug the hell out of me. Winter can last for TEN YEARS or more in those books, so how exactly are people eating? “Well they store food” — not enough different kinds of food for everyone to eat a livable diet for a decade or more they don’t, not with medieval preservation technology and agriculture. By year five the whole damn population would be toothless from scurvy, showing neurological signs from beriberi, and floppy from rickets. And the livestock would all be dead. For instance, one bad spring in 1315 led to a two-year crisis in England that involved cannibalism and infanticide, sometimes one would assume in tandem. Medieval agricultural techniques can only produce so much, and trying to store it and keep it edible for ten years straight would be an unachievable nightmare.
Another series that bothered me was The Hunger Games. Chickens are referenced briefly as food for rich people in District 12, which, what? Chickens, which reproduce en masse, are not attainable for the Seam population, but goats are? Given that District 12 was Appalachia, a good chunk of the population would have had chickens when The Shit Went Down, and no way would a government that didn’t bother to eradicate goats go around seizing all the chickens. Everyone should have backyard chickens providing valuable protein in the form of eggs and the occasional carcass for eating. Chickens not only reproduce en masse, but they thrive on bugs and grass and human food waste. They’re like tiny feathery pigs, just waiting to convert things you can’t eat into things you can. Meanwhile, a dairy goat requires huge amounts of high-protein plant food to produce. Prim’s goat couldn’t make enough milk to feed the family and make cheese and sell on just the weeds in their backyard, but Collins claims it does. I wish, seriously. Collins also expects us to believe that somehow there is no trade in seeds and no one in the Seam has a backyard garden providing food. She wants us to believe that canny Katniss never brought seeds back from her forays into the woods to provide food closer to home. Why would Katniss and Gale go to the great trouble of stringing nets up around a strawberry patch in the woods, when they could bring berries home and plant patches? Also, have you ever tasted most wild strawberries? They’re terrible as well as tiny.
When writing about Katniss and Gale’s foraging expeditions Collins also apparently worked from the vaguest “what wild foods can I find on the east coast” checklist ever. She tosses off eating pokeweed as if the plant isn’t toxic to extremely toxic depending on which part of it you eat at which point in the year and how you prepare it. She writes of Katniss gathering dandelions that have flowered as if they don’t range from sort of bitter to inedibly bitter after flowering. Most of the descriptions are filled with vague language like “plants” and “greens” which points to a fundamental lack of knowledge beyond some internet-discovered list of what people forage on the east coast. Meanwhile there’s the Foxfire books, one of which features detailed descriptions of wild foods and all of which feature detailed descriptions of foodways in Appalachia.
When I stop and think about it, most science fiction and fantasy books simply elide the subject of where food comes from, which is unsurprising. Not everyone wants to get into the nitty gritty of a world’s agriculture, and that’s ok. But if you’re going to write a book that has a completely non-standard climate but a bog-standard western European medieval world like Martin, well, readers are going to start asking questions like “how are they eating?”. And if you’re going to mention it, like Collins, it would behoove you to maybe think through the physiology of the animals and the food culture of the region before your cataclysm and make your current food system and food culture match up. And I know I keep beating up on The Hunger Games, but the woods are not a grocery store and the food you find there (like strawberries) just isn’t going to match up with or be as desireable as the food you find in shops. To make a believable world people and their livestock must be able to survive and thrive enough for breeding. It’s not enough to do a couple google searches as a writer and slap what you find down on the page if it’s going to be a major plot point. You have to actually know enough of what you’re talking about to sound convincing and if you’re going to act like chickens have mysteriously become more rare than dairy goats or livestock can live through a ten year winter on sunshine then have a plausible explanation.
There’s been an article going around Facebook about a farm here in Virginia that’s soliciting volunteers to help provide round-the-clock care to the approximately 90 baby goats they’re expecting this spring. People are very enthused, and last I heard the farm had way too many volunteers after their plea for volunteers went viral. And in the middle of people being very enthused, here I am, very disgruntled.
The first reason I’m disgruntled is that this isn’t a non-profit farm that’s asking for volunteers. This is a for-profit goat dairy that is asking for people to do work and not get paid. I have no idea what actual labor law says about this, but ethically it’s a goddamned nightmare. They’re separating mothers and babies at 24 hours after birth so that they can maximize the profit they’ll make by maximizing the amount of milk they take. In short, they are making money off the unpaid labor of these people, and that’s not ok. They also have no idea where these people have been or how well they understand biosecurity. Lord only knows what a big pile of volunteers is going to bring in on their shoes and clothing that may harm baby goats.
The second reason I’m disgruntled is that this is actually a terrible plan for caring for baby goats. It’s incredibly easy to kill a baby goat by over-feeding them, for instance. Baby goats will literally drink enough milk to kill them. If they’re using formula instead of milk, having differently mixed formula from meal to meal (eg one batch a little weaker, one batch a little stronger) is another great way to make a baby goat sick. Unless you’re monitoring every single volunteer (which then means you’re getting up every four hours to supervise the feedings, and they’re trying to get out of the lack of sleep that comes with raising baby goats) you are risking the health of the kids in the name of profit.
They could, of course, choose to leave the mothers and babies together for two weeks and then separate them overnight, milking the mothers out first thing in the morning. This would give the babies the best opportunity to be healthy while letting the owners get sleep during the early weeks of baby goat life and wouldn’t require a bunch of people to supply unpaid labor. But it would also cut into their profits. Margins are already tight on dairy farms, so they may not feel this is possible.
In short, this isn’t a warm fuzzy feel good story. This is about a for-profit business engaging in practices that endanger the goats and exploit people for free labor. No bueno. There’s a reason I offer to barter with my friends who come to help out.
Excitement! My friend Kate-with-Soays (not to be confused with my friends Kate-the-author or Kate-with-cats-and-soap and yes Kate-with-Soays needs a website) hit upon a fabulous deal on Soay ewes, at less than half their usual sale price, and graciously shared it with me! You may in fact have noticed the latest round of crowd-funding to expand the herd.
The new ewes have genetics I don’t already have, and have been sending time with an equally worthy ram. This will mean at least five but potentially eight ewes unrelated to Ferrington will be here, opening up the possibility that I can isolate his daughters from him and keep him an extra year before I move him on. Which would be nice, because I’m fond of Ferrington. He’s small for a ram and mellow and good with goats, sheep and humans (pigs occasionally drive him to violence and have learned to avoid him). So another breeding year with him would be no hardship, really.
The three new ewes are mouflon-patterned like my current flock, but come from South Carolina. And that is the extent of what I know as Kate-with-Soays will be surprising me with three of the six she picked up when she made the trip to get them. Unless of course the rain here in the southeast stops and she gets a chance to get pictures — cross your fingers!
Other things to look forward to: lambing should start in February, so cross your fingers that the winter stays mild. Ella and Mabel’s lambs will be raised for meat, Soay lambs get to live and grow wool. There may also be piglets around the same time, all of whom will be available as pasture-maintainers, pets, and meat. And of course now that rabbits are back up and breeding like, well, rabbits, there will be an endless assortment of meat bricks, a few of whom will get held over to provide prime furs next winter.
Yesterday was exciting in a bad way, as we discovered several baby rabbits born on the wire in their mother’s cage. This wasn’t her fault but mine, I had miscalculated her due date and didn’t have a nest box and hay waiting for her. Luckily all of them but one were still alive and kicking, so I tucked them in my shirt to warm them while we got a nest box set up, and then installed them. The mother went immediately to work putting the nest in order (humans are apparently very bad at making rabbit nests) and hopefully I’ll find them still in the land of the living when I check on them in the morning.
Normally, of course, baby rabbits would be born in the colony, but it’s severely in need of rehabilitation at the moment. Once the Christmas geese are harvested this weekend work on converting the former large poultry pen into rabbit spaces can begin in earnest, including putting down wire around the edges to prevent young rabbits from escaping via digging out. The trick will be to escape-proof the colony areas while simultaneously allowing rabbits to do things like dig, which make them very happy and also prevent losses to the ungodly warm and humid southern summers.
My incompetence aside, it’s nice to have baby rabbits around again. Rabbits are a faster and more reliable source of meat than poultry for us, most especially since to have chickens ready for harvest as quickly as rabbits are I’d end up raising mutant meat chickens and I refuse. I don’t want animals who can’t enjoy their lives while they’re here, and meat chickens most assuredly have problems doing much beyond eating and sleeping if you want them ready to go in 8-12 weeks.
In other news, the warm, mild winter continues. We’re sleeping with windows open to avoid overheating because it’s not quite warm enough to need air conditioning but not cool enough to keep heat from accumulating in our snug little house. The onions, garlic, peas, and other fall-planted crops that were meant to go dormant are instead having a grand old time with the rain and gentle sun. The one exception has been the einkorn wheat, which has gone surly and sleeping just as it’s supposed to.
Many months ago we moved juvenile ducks outside into the large covered poultry pen, which turned out to be a terrible idea. Two of them promptly went through rabbit tunnels between the colony and the main section and proceeded to make a terrible mess of the colony, which meant that we got no rabbit meat at all this summer.
I was just beginning to ponder moving the last two rabbits, Nahadoth and Syenite, out of the colony and into cages when lo and behold, we spotted a tiny Naha look-alike hopping around in there. Hooray! Whatever the ducks did, the colony is recovering! If this little guy makes it to adulthood we’ll probably use it in the breeding program just on the general principal that as the first survivor, it’s a tough little booger.
Meanwhile the Christmas geese are the last feathery occupants of that pen, and one they’ve been slaughtered we’ll be converting it to a hybrid cage/colony set up for rabbits. I’ve found rabbits to be easier, cleaner, tastier, and more productive than poultry in general, so while we’ll continue to keep a free range flock to help with pest control and composting, rabbits will be responsible for the bulk of our protein production.
But I digress! Look carefully at the cinder block on the left side of the photo:
You can see Naha, my black and white colony buck, catching some sun in the house. His lady Syenite is behind him but since she’s black and in shadow you’ll have to trust me on that. And there peeking out of the cinder block on the left is a tiny black and white rabbit, like a miniature version of Naha. Evidence of resurrection!
It’s been a while since “slow food” was the food buzzword. Buzzphrase? Anyway. These days we’re all “locavores” but I found myself contemplating the slowness of food recently as I looked around my tiny farm.
Nothing really happens quickly in the agricultural world. Things move not in the scale of days, but months and seasons and years. For instance, I planted one small test plot of einkorn wheat this fall. I’ll plant another in January or February, depending on what the weather is doing, and the last one in mid-March most likely. The test plots will tell me the fastest way to get wheat (I’m betting on the fall plot) and all of this year’s harvest will bee conserved for seed. In 2017, we may actually have enough excess for us to use some of it, but not before. There’s also oats and rye (planted in spring) and sorghum (planted in summer) to experiment with in my endless quest to find out how much of our livestock’s food we can grow. Sorghum isn’t a usual grain addition to livestock feed, but evidence suggests goats find it extremely palatable, given that several of them went over a fence and ate the grain heads the last time I grew it.
The pregnant onions also probably won’t provide a lot of food this year, although hopefully I’ll have extras to share for seed onions. Permaculture beds generally take at least a year to get established, so it won’t be until next fall that we dig some onions for eating. Meanwhile I’m nibbling the tips of the greens periodically, and they are amazing: sweet, spicy, and complex. This is a variety traditionally grown in the south in the days before it was easy to order new onion seed every spring. Our ancestors knew deliciousness no grocery store can provide!
Grow, delicious little onions! Grow!
Garlic is the fall-planted fast food of our garden this year, ready to eat in summer. Mainly this is a function of the fact that I still haven’t figured out exactly when collard greens and kale like to be planted for fall harvest. By the time I got them in the ground the conditions were already off for germination and the days too short for the few that germinated to grow. We do however have pea vines to nibble. The humble pea is a wonder, it wilts a bit in the heart of summer but otherwise is a mainstay of the garden, giving us edible greens, young pods, and of course the delicious globes of ripe peas. It’s another fast food, shooting up in weeks and flowering in just a month or two in the spring.
On the meat side of things, the fastest food we have is rabbit. Since beloved friends have hooked me up with meaty beasts, I only have to wait 28 days of gestation and then another 8 weeks of growing before I can have rabbit pot pie. Cornish Rock broiler chickens could match that speed, but I’m morally opposed to raising birds who have to be slaughtered before they’re adults because otherwise their bodies will overwhelm their joints and circulatory systems. Heritage breed birds generally need to go 4-6 months before they’re a decent size to eat.
Provided Ferrington has been able to settle my two non-Soay ewes without a step ladder, there will be lamb next year, after nearly a year’s wait. Sheep have a five month gestation period and need to be five months old or more before they’re of a size to make slaughter worthwhile. Slow food, indeed. Pigs average out about the same, with a roughly three month gestation followed by a longer grow out, although I short-circuited that by getting eating pigs who were already 8 weeks old. I’m hoping they’ll be of a size to go for slaughter in early spring.
All these wait times apply not only to people like me, of course. When you pick up a package of pork chops at the grocery store, the same months-long wait is behind it. The same goes for your bag of flour. Most of us are just totally divorced from this process of waiting that I either find peaceful or tedious depending on the day. Right now I would really like some rabbit, and the twelve weeks between putting a buck and doe in together and getting my rabbit pie seems ungodly long.
“We are as gods to beasts of the field. We order the time of their birth and the time of their death. Between times, we have a duty.” — Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men
It’s time to start building lambing jugs, which despite the name are not actually jugs. They’re small pens, in which a ewe gives birth and is confined for a few days with her new lambs, so that they’ll bond and the shepherd can monitor them all to make sure both mother and lambs are healthy. I don’t really expect the Soays to need them, you don’t survive for a couple thousand years on a tiny rock in the North Sea, the farthest west of any of the Outer Hebrides, because you have a tendency to forget you gave birth and wander off without your lamb. But there’s Ella the American Blackbelly sheep and Mabel the Southdown ewe, both of which are more modern breeds that may require some assistance in remembering that yes, this small bleating woolly thing belongs to them and requires their care.
The Soay Island that Soay sheep come from. When you were bred to survive a rock in the North Sea, Virginia weather is laughably mild and you tend to remember that you gave birth.
Lambs should start arriving in February, if Ferrington has done his job. I was slightly worried at first that he was incapable, since I’m used to goats and let me tell you, male goats make sure you know that they have a penis and like to use it. More experienced shepherds have reassured me that rams are much shyer creatures, preferring to woo the ladies at night when no inquisitive shepherd is around to watch. Unlike goat bucks, rams also don’t pee all over their own faces to make themselves attractive to the ladies, and in the absence of another ram with whom to have junk-measuring contests, you may never actually see a ram’s reproductive apparatus beyond his enormous, dangling testicles. The more you know.
But I digress. The lambing jugs will be built in the barn, so that ewes and lambs are sheltered from the occasional winter storm. Adult sheep are extremely weather resistant and the Soays honestly barely seem to notice rain unless it’s absurdly heavy, but lambs are small and their surface area to volume ratio is much more conducive to hypothermia than it is for adult sheep, even with their woolly fleeces to keep them warm. While some shepherds with breeds and flocks selected for being excellent mothers choose to let ewes lamb in the fields, I’m more conservative, especially since this is the first time for both me and the ewes. I’ve handled goat births no problem, but sheep are startlingly different animals for all that they and goats are nearly indistinguishable skeletally. And I have a duty.
Every sheep is more than a sheep; it is all the sheep it has ever been, and everything we have done to them, and everything they have done for us. — Elodie Under Glass
After lambing, round about April or so, comes rooing the hair sheep and shearing the wool sheep. Rooing a sheep means simply to round it up and pluck the shedding wool from it so that humans can use the wool, rather than leaving the sheep to scratch the wool off on trees and the barn. In the days when Soay sheep were the cutting edge of farming, rooing would have been a social affair: the sheep would have been rounded up in their winter pastures and brought down to pens near villages, and everyone would get together and have a fine time plucking sheep. At the end, the newly naked-er sheep would have been taken to their spring pastures, and village life would have moved on to planting.
Rooing is surprisingly hard work, mostly because you have to catch the sheep and set it on its butt (which causes sheep to relax and go immobile) and then pluck, and pluck, and pluck, pausing to stash your precious handfulls of wool in sacks. Do it too early and you’ll be doing it all over again later, do it too late and you’ll be scavenging wool from tree branches, fence posts, and the sides of your barn and hay feeder. Shearing is much more convenient, at least for the shepherd, because timing isn’t so very important. Gather up the sheep, shave them bald, and call it good and move on to processing the fleece. When you need privacy fencing, you can go to https://www.longfence.com/residential/fence/privacy-fence for more details.
Every man can tell how many goats or sheep he possesses, but not how many friends. — Marcus Tullius Cicero
In summer the spring lambs are reaching the age where they’re old enough to be sold. Sometime in June, Ferrington’s sons will hopefully head off to spread their genetics into new herds of Soays, preserving the gift of DNA that ancient shepherds left for us on the small rocky island in the North Sea. Ferrington himself will also be seeking a new herd, as his daughters will remain here to build my own little flock of Soays. I’ll exchange him for a ram as unrelated to my ewes as I can manage to find. The Soay cross lambs from Mabel and Ella, on the other hand, will stay here and get fat on pasture and hay. In summer one or two of them will probably be slaughtered for the table and to keep the load on our pastures low. The rest will eat, and may be offered to one or two shepherds who want to experiment with adding Soay blood to their flocks. Honestly, it depends on whether I need cash or meat more.
And then a few months later, at the start of fall, the remaining extraneous lambs (including any of Ferrington’s sons that didn’t head for new homes) will go to slaughter, as we pare down the flock to only the animals we want to support over the winter. Hay costs double with cold weather and a lack of pasture, so it’s important to keep flock size to something supportable. And thanks to the growing demand for local food, there’s good odds that I can manage to sell some of the meat provided I can afford to use a USDA inspected slaughter-house.
Meanwhile, the young ewes will be separated so that they don’t get pregnant too young, the older ewes will begin cycling and growing in their wool, and the entire calendar swings back to the beginning, with the exception of lambing jugs already being built.