I have had more failures and mishaps learning to farm than most. My tendency to be cheap and, at times, careless has proven costly more often than not. In California, on a winery where we were also raising food, three heritage breed piglets were purchased from a breeder on the coast for more money than I would like to admit. They were brought back to their new home, and housed in a small makeshift pen meant to be a temporary home while we constructed a more permanent place for them behind a large storage facility. They were dropped off late in the afternoon as the sun was setting over rows and rows of grapevines. The next morning they were gone. We tried to track their hoof prints but were led in circles. They had vanished. I moved back east, time moved on and the pigs were forgotten about until a neighbor found them in their small pump house and refused to give them back.

Here on the Island I tried raising pigs with a whole new level of ineptitude. There was the shed that caught on fire when a poorly secured heat lamp was knocked over by a piglet. I fought back the smoke in time to keep the poor thing from becoming living bacon. Other adventures involved rescuing our small herd of piglets from the torrential rain and subsequent flooding two springs ago. In the middle of the night I waded through knee deep mud to bring them to dry housing. Bunny, our female Berkshire piglet meant for breeding, escaped during that episode and roamed the gardens all night. Somehow she ended up wearing a metal tomato cage that made her look like a robot in a very low budget science fiction movie. While on the subject of animals in costume, I once brought two goats back from Vermont. It was this time of year, when the afternoons still get cold and a rain shower can appear out of the blue. The goats were in the back of my truck inside a box made of old pallets. Sure enough, the rain came so I pulled over to the side of the road. I took off as many articles of clothing as I could, including a very handsome Ralph Lauren sweater, and dressed the goats in layer after layer. I felt like I was dressing a stubborn child.

I kept sheep one summer over at Julie Flanders’ pasture, across the street from the Chilmark Church. It was a great little paddock, until two were accidently let free one afternoon. They roamed the woods for about a month. Attempts to herd them failed miserably and every few days I would receive a phone call from the police reporting their whereabouts. They became a part of the neighborhood on Flanders Lane and homeowners didn’t think twice when they would wake up to find two beautiful fluffy ruminants grazing on their lawns. All it took to bring them down was four guys, one entire day hunting and tracking them diligently, and a twenty-two. I was then treated to the only “wild” lamb I will probably ever eat.

stinging nettle harvesting
Emma Young keeps the gloves on. — Albert O. Fischer

These were just the mishaps with four legged animals. Chickens and guinea hens have caused enough grief for their own book. Bt it is another winged creature that has given me real trouble.

Like anyone interested in homesteading (the practice of creating a small sustainable food production system on a small piece of land), I have tried to raise bees. I invested in durable fabricated boxes, went to bee school at the Ag Hall and equipped myself with everything I needed. Three separate hives were set up and I ordered nukes (small boxes shipped all over the country containing thousands of bees and a queen) from Connecticut. When they arrived I was in a rush. I hoped I could duplicate the Zen approach passed on by friends, where a calm disposition is transferred to the bees. No matter the scenario, if you are at peace they will not sting.

I peacefully transferred the first two batches into their new homes wearing only a long sleeve T-shirt and jeans. Something agitated the third batch, though, and I was attacked. Bees covered my forearms and neck and it was impossible to know how many times I was stung. I ripped my clothes off my body and ran as far and as long as possible doing a version of the butterfly swim stroke. Everything swelled up making me two sizes bigger and extraordinarily sore. I believe in bee sting therapy, the practice of intentionally stinging oneself with a bee for therapeutic reasons, but that incident was way too extreme.

A much gentler option is the use of stinging nettles. They grow wild all over the Island and are easily transplanted, but one must be careful as they spread rapidly and grow vigorously. Our patch on the farm is just starting to make its way skyward and has almost doubled in size since last season. The first shoots of the year are a dark, mossy green and just looking at them makes me feel nourished. Stinging nettles get their name from the small follicles on their surface that contain the irritant called formic acid which leaves your skin burning and itching for hours after contact. However, like everything else in life, this can be seen as a nuisance or a blessing. Many, including myself, believe that the reaction of the body to such irritation increases blood flow to the region affected and benefits ones circulation and exercises neurotransmitters in the body.

Stinging nettles are delicious when cooked and even a very quick toss in hot water or oil makes them palatable enough to consume. I would never eat them raw. I once witnessed a wild nettle eating contest on television where the contestants first numbed their mouths with hot sauce then devoured entire plants of nettles, which caused their mouths to turn black and their taste buds to burn for days.

Personally, I would rather be attacked by a swarm of bees.


Nettle Tea

4 cups, loosely packed fresh nettle leaves

6 cups water

Pick the nettles with scissors and gloves or, if you are daring, barehanded. Rinse in a colander and add to a pot with water. Measuring exact amounts is not really necessary. Bring the water to a boil over high heat and cook for three minutes. Turn the heat off and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Strain the leaves out and drink like tea. I keep it pure, and sometimes add honey. The flavor is not great, but if drunk twice a day you will feel the results within five days. Results include increased brain function, increased energy and a better personality.

Nettles With Butter on Toast

3 cups loosely packed Stinging Nettles, rinsed

1 tbsp salted butter

1 tsp lemon juice

2 pieces of toast

Melt the butter in medium sized sauté pan while toasting bread in the toaster. When the butter is melted and pan is hot, add the nettles, toss gently for 2 minutes until they have fully wilted and are cooked well. Add the lemon juice and remove from heat. Remove toast from toaster, spread more butter onto the toast if desired, then spread nettles and crack fresh black pepper over the top.