Adventures in the dirt
Jenna Woginrich, of Cold Antler Farm, in Washington County, New York, is a blogger, writer, farmer, shepherd and musician who is inspiring the world with her unique journey. From Scratch magazine had the chance to talk to Jenna about her life, farm and inspiration.*
What made you decide this was the lifestyle for you? How did you get started? Did you have any mentors?
I started farming shortly after I graduated from college (with a degree in graphic design, not agriculture!) because of an experience I had in the Smoky Mountains. It’s a long story, including a near-death experience and a 35-ft tall waterfall but to put it bluntly: I realized life was short, and if it wasn’t for a grocery store and gas stations I had no idea how to live it. So in the spirit of those first pioneers in the Southern mountains I did as they did. I moved west. I got on some rented land. I learned beginner livestock husbandry through bees, rabbits and chickens. I learned to cook and sew and bake bread. I even taught myself the fiddle. It was in their honor and out of a love of the feeling of independence it welled up in me.
I did have a few mentors, most notably a fellow coworker in the office I was working at named Diana. She taught me the basics of chickens and bees, and showed me it was possible to have a farm and a desk in a cubicle at the same time. Something I never would have thought possible.
Tell us about your farm.
Cold Antler Farm has had many incarnations, and is currently on its third. It started on a rented ex-cattle ranch in Idaho, then moved to a log cabin in Vermont, and in the spring of 2010 I bought my first ever scratch of land. I now proudly own and farm six and a half acres of a mountainside in Jackson, New York. Here I raise sheep, dairy goats, pigs, working horses, poultry, honey bees, rabbits, and vegetable gardens. It’s become my full time job to keep this place (and its home online: barnheart.com) running smoothly.
Who helped bring Cold Antler Farm to life?
Cold Antler is my home, and I am the only person who lives here, but it is the work of hundreds of people and thousands of readers around the world. The list of people would be too long to print, but know that none of this was a one-woman operation. I had mentors, neighbors, coworkers, family, relatives, friends and organizations create the farmer I am now.
How did you make it self-sufficient?
It’s not entirely self-sufficient yet, but that is the goal. I moved from oil heat to wood stoves shortly after moving in. My goal to move towards solar and wind keeps me saving my pennies. The animal systems are not a full-circle. I need to buy in hay and feed for my animals, because I can’t grow it. I have adapted to bartering though, and learned I may not have enough trees to grow all my firewood but I can trade lambs or sides of pork for cords of wood, and so even if I can’t create everything I need to keep the place moving, I can trade for a lot.
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
I think buying the farm has been the biggest step, but what feels like the biggest achievement has been taking on horses. When I started homesteading five years ago I would never think I would be putting a harness on my own cart horse and driving down the road with lines in my hands across the country just five years later. Learning to ride, drive, and live with my wonderful Fell Pony, Merlin, has been as magical as it sounds. He changed my life, my self esteem, and gave me courage I didn’t know I had.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
I find it is the finances I have the most trouble with. The reality of any business is it needs capital to keep moving and growing. I had to adapt and change to the very true fact that I needed a lot of money to do this and didn’t have any. It required a lot of sacrifices, penny pinching, and learning to do things like barter for basic supplies and move from shopping at Banana Republic to Goodwill. When I left my job to do this full time, it got even harder, but the mortgage still gets paid and the blog readership grows and I feel like I am winning a secret game every morning I wake up here and don’t have to drive into an office. It’s not easy, but it is so ridiculously worth it.
What advice would you give someone who is just starting out?
Start now. Go out to your bookstore or library and get a book on your agricultural interest. Visit local farms, become a CSA member, or ask to be an intern. Turn your vacation time into haycation time and instead of going to the beach, go to a workshop on dairy goats or fiber management. If this is something you want, you can have it, but it requires constant immersion in a new world. Go get it!
What is a typical day in your life like?
I wake up around 5 am, winter and summer, and head outside to do morning chores. There are no tractors here, so I carry buckets to troughs, carry bales of hay and bags of feed, and check the health and status of the animal crew here. My border collie, Gibson, is always by my side. Together we herd and watch our animal staff go about their lives of life and birth, and in some cases death. I raise pigs and chickens for the table, some lambs too. I would love to tell you what happens next on a typical day but it varies so very much depending on seasons and the farms needs. For example, an April day would have me checking for new lambs and getting shots in babies and tails docked. A June morning would have me knee deep in the garden weeds, or plowing a field with Merlin for a pumpkin patch.
An October day could be cider apple collecting and pressing, or hosting a workshop. Regardless, every day I write and every day I make time for some good meals and exercise. My day is book-ended with another set of evening chores and I head to bed early. Some nights I tie one on, but most nights it’s a book or a fiddle by the wood stove and a dog curled up at my feet.
What do you see as the future of Cold Antler Farm?
I see it growing as I grow, becoming larger and more productive. I’m sure i will find more adventures and bigger pieces of land. I hope to find love out there in the dirt as well. Right now it is as open a book as could be, but my thoughts are positive and my main focus is to help get other people who want this started and thriving. For all the kindness I have received it is the least I could do.
What would you like your legacy to be?
Luceo Non Uro! (I shine, not burn!)
Story by Melissa Jones
Photos provided with permission by Cold Antler Farm. Originally by Jon Katz.