Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Putting food by; putting memories by

Last night we had winter squash, lamb sausage, and wild rice for supper, made from food we had put up ourselves.

The squash and sausage was a recipe my mom used to make - just cooked sausage and onions  mixed with a baked buttercup squash. Definitely comfort food.

The wild rice dish was from Many Cultures, One Community:a book of stories and recipes thanks to Carol Zielinski. It calls for fresh wild mushrooms and wild rice. Several years ago in late October, I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. The book inspired me to cook with as much local food as possible. My next trip to the grocery store after reading the book was sobering. The only local foods I could find were winter squash, eggs and dried shitaki mushrooms. I bought all three. We love the wild flavor of the shitaki mushrooms and I buy them preferentially now. Maybe one of these years we'll learn to grow our own.

We have learned to harvest wild rice. It is a slow process, that involves paddling a river for six or eight hours in late August or early September. Dave paddles and I sit in the bottom of the canoe and using a long stick, bend the rice stalks over the canoe and then hit the stalks to dislodge the rice grains. We enjoy the ducks and swans flying overhead, the insects crawling along the rice stalks and this last year, the enthusiasm and questions of our grandson, Jasper. It took twice as long to harvest the rice because we stopped every once in awhile for a snack, securely lodged amongst the rice stalks, but it was a delightful day.

In the cold of winter, when I bake a squash, fry our sausage, and cook up a dish of wild rice, we are grateful for the food we have put by, and for the memories of summer.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Creating a yarn

When we bought our first four sheep 30 years ago, I imagined that I would spin all their fleeces, knit all that yarn into sweaters and clothe my family. Caring for the sheep took up some of my spinning time and caring for my children replaced more.

I can knit anywhere - chatting with friends, riding in the car, watching television or, if it's a simple pattern, while reading. I can only spin while talking or watching TV. I soon realized that I couldn't spin fast enough to keep up with my knitting. As our flock grew from 4 ewes to 35 ewes, I also realized that I couldn't spin all their fleeces.

Now I sell fleeces to other spinners, have fleeces carded into roving and batts for spinners or felters, and have some fleeces spun into yarn. For years, I used the left over fleeces from the year before, combined them and sent them off for yarn. Our flock has about the same number of white, light  and dark fleeces every year, so our yarns come out about the same shades of light browny gray and dark browny gray each time.

I love having a supply of natural colored yarns in the house. If I need a skein of teal blue yarn, I pull out a big, black, dye pot, fill it with water , add a capful of dye powder and a skein of white yarn. Half an hour later, I have a skein of teal yarn. Unfortunately, the really beautiful, interesting yarns often contain more than one color. Sometimes the yarn is spun with bits of colored wool to produce a fiber with lots of short spaces of color. Other times, the yarn is actually made up of several strands of different colored yarns.

Last year, I asked Chris Armbrust from Dakota Fiber Mill to spin a three ply sock yarn for me. One third of the wool was a natural gray brown fleece. One third was a combination of 10% mohair and 90% wool, naturally dyed a warm brown color with walnut hulls, and the final third was dyed teal. Chris spun each color separately and then plied the three yarns together.

The yarn is soft (thanks to my Ramboulet sheep), strong, (thanks to the mohair and the three plies) and elastic (thanks to the amount of twist Chris spun into the yarn.) I'll be able to knit socks for everyone I know as well as sell a very beautiful sock yarn in my online shop and at Mercantile on Main in Pelican Rapids, thus solving two problems- having yarn with which to knit and decreasing the number of fleeces in my wool shed.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Friendly blue dots

We manhandle the sheep several times a year. It can be an exhausting job.  Over the years we have modified our technique many times. 

We began thirty years ago by penning the sheep and then grabbing each one by the hind leg, and then being dragged around the barn by the sheep until we subdued it or it escaped. Next one of us would lie on the sheep to control it while the other gave a shot or trimmed hooves or tried on a coat.

Our friend Glen used a shepherd’s crook to pull the sheep in to himself. Glen is a very gentle, calm man and his sheep never seemed to run around the barn dragging him. 

When Dave worked full time away from home, I asked clueless volunteers for help (following the Tom Sawyer method). I don’t have the strength or the sports training to grab a sheep by the hind leg and wrestle it to the ground. So I developed another control technique. Several summers ago, Hillis, our summer worker, and I became very good at rushing a sheep together from the side and pinning her (the ewe, not Hillis) against the barn wall or pen fence. One of us held the ewe in place while the other gave the shot. By evening, Hillis and I were on our knees, but we had successfully vaccinated half the flock.

When we were young and not so clever, we kept track of which animals had been vaccinated by lifting them over the fence when we were done, separating them physically from the unvaccinated animals. Being older and more experienced, we now mark the forehead of each vaccinated ewe with a squirt of stock paint – no lifting involved. 

This year, Dave and I were not rushed for time when we vaccinated and coated the ewes. We penned the sheep, then Dave walked casually up to a ewe standing next to the fence and pressed her body against the fence. He held her in place with his weight and his grip on the fence wires. I vaccinated her and then slid a sheep coat over her head.  The sheep was still calm enough that I could hold her head still as Dave released her and then maneuvered her hind legs through the straps on her coat. I talked to most of the ewes as Dave worked, thanked them for their cooperation, told them that lambing would come soon.  

The entire day felt different. Dave and I never lost our tempers. Even the skitzy lambs that had never been coated before didn’t ruffle the calm much. Our new technique worked well, but I really think that it was the friendly blue dots on the forehead of every animal that colored the whole experience.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Dressing the sheep

When we were kids, my brother, sister and I dressed our German Shepherd, Haidi, in my brother’s underpants and t-shirt. We thought it was hilarious. Haidi endured.

Now, Dave and I dress our sheep in polyester coats.  We do it to keep their fleeces clean during the winter when they eat hay. My youngest grandson’s bib keeps his front clean. The sheep coats keep sheep backs clean. When sheep eat they chew with their mouths open and hang their heads over their neighbors backs. Fragments of hay dribble out of their mouths and settle in their neighbors fleeces. Thus the need for coats. 

A fleece with veggie bits in it is lousy for spinning and for felting. Big woolen mills treat their fleeces with acid to destroy the veggies. That acid also changes the wool fibers. Dave and I use coats instead of acid to produce clean wool. 

Coating sheep is not easy. The sheep don’t help at all. They don’t remember what size they wear from year to year (Dave and I don’t seem to remember either). They don’t like to put their heads in the neck hole and they fight us when we put their hind legs through the leg holes. As often as not, we look at a sheep after she’s coated and decide that the coat is too big or too small. We undress her and begin again. We’ve never had a sheep learn to dress herself, so Dave and I keep at it year after year.

Haidi, our German Shepherd, was embarrassed to be wearing clothes. The sheep don’t show embarrassment. Once they realize that they can’t rub their coats off on the barn door or a gate, they relax and, hopefully, enjoy their new windbreakers.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Inside the magic honey house

My grandsons love the Magic School Bus books. One of their favorites is The Magic School Bus inside a Beehive by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen. The boys have watched Dave inspect the hive and of course tasted our honey, but have never seen what happens to the honey after the bees cap the little comb cells once they are filled with honey. This post is for Kieran and Jasper.
Boys all dressed up and ready to harvest honey...
Friend Steve and Grandpa Dave working in the honey house (really, we don't have a honey house, we just work in our house). The beehive boxes are stacked in the dining room. We put newspaper down to keep floors and tables from getting too sticky.
Each box of a bee hive has nine or ten frames in it, all filled with honey. We use a hot knife to slice the wax caps off the honey comb so the honey can run out.
Each frame of honeycomb has its own space in the extractor. When we have 12 frames in the machine we turn it on. The frames spin round and round for five to ten minutes. Honey flies out of the comb, hits the wall of the extractor and drains to the bottom of the machine.

When the extractor has spun all the honey out of the frames, three people lift the extractor onto the counter and then drain the honey out of the bottom.

We have to strain the honey because their are pieces of wax (the cappings) floating in it. It is so beautiful falling into the strainer that we just have to taste it at this stage. This year the honey was really sticky so Kanita helped push it through the strainers.
When all the honey is extracted from the honeycomb and strained, we bottle it to save for the rest of the year. Grandpa uses our honey when he makes bread and granola. Grandma uses it on toast and pancakes. And of course, we always have some for our grandsons.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Northcroft Sweater

                                                                                    photo by Katy Olson

I can follow a pattern and knit a sweater. I can alter a pattern from straight needles to circular needles, but I can't create a pattern that fits the human body well. However, my young friend Cedar Walters is a genius at pattern design. She doesn't like sewing seams at the end of a knitting project so she has figured out how to create beautiful fitted sweaters with a minimum of finish work.

In exchange for five skeins of Northcroft yarn and my endless gratitude, Cedar designed the Northcroft Sweater, a beautifully simple pattern that knits rapidly, fits well, looks extraordinary and uses the five colors of yarn that my sheep naturally produce - frost white, silver gray, charcoal, chai and coffee. And as an added bonus, the sweater needs no finishing work.

Other knitters rapidly picked up the pattern. One used it with her own handspun yarn. Another dyed the Northcroft yarns in a single dye bath to get a wonderful gradation of a single color. A third  knitter loved the mock cable design and fit of the pattern and is knitting the sweater in a single color of Northcroft yarn.

Cedar blogs at You can also get the Northcroft Sweater pattern, and the Northcroft yarns, or a Northcroft Sweater kit at the Northcroft Store on this blog. If you're driving through Pelican Rapids, MN, the Mercantile on Main is the only physical store that has an exclusive right to sell our yarns and Cedar's patterns.

The Northcroft Sweater illustrates the skill of a talented designer and beauty of our natural yarns. It also shows me that all those cold nights in the barn during lambing, the hot sweaty days baling hay and the work we put into having beautiful, clean fleeces, have really paid off.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Solar power

Last fall, Lake Region Electric, our local energy cooperative, offered an opportunity for members to buy shares of photovoltaic collectors that would be located onsite at the Cooperative offices. This was a perfect opportunity for people without good solar access to invest in solar power. I was intrigued.
Dave and I started figuring out how much more solar power we would need to be completely  powered by the sun and the wind. We had several sites on our farm with good solar access. We decided that with the incentives available to us as individuals, it made more sense for us to invest in our own solar photovoltaic system and leave the Lake Region system investments for people who didn't have a good site for solar power.

We contacted several solar power companies and All Energy Solar responded immediately, answering all our questions and some that we hadn't thought to ask. They designed a system for us, contacted Lake Region Electric Cooperative to make sure that the connection would be compatible with their system.

This summer, in just under a week, two young men installed 32 solar panels down by our bee hives at the end of the orchard. The panels glisten in the sun, reflecting the blues of the sky. They connect to a cable that carries the electricity to our power pole. When the sun shines on the panels, the solar cells make electricity which we use in the house. If the cells produce more than we need, Lake Region Electric buys the surplus from us.When the sun doesn't shine, we depend on our wind generator or buy electricity from Lake Region Electric.

Our investment in the photovoltaic panels is well over $20,000, but with tax credits and depreciation, they should pay for themselves in 8 years, a much better return than any of our other investments and they will help slow global warming too.

 Dave has figured that each year our wind generator produces 16 kwhr of power and prevents the emission of about ten tons of carbon dioxide. Our solar water heater heats about 2/3 of our hot water and as long as I wash clothes and fleeces when the sun shines, it also reduces our carbon pollution by  12%. Our prairies sequester another 33 tons of carbon. If we heat our home with sustainably harvested wood, we avoid another ten tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

We aren't carbon neutral yet, but with the help of our photovoltaic system and the sun
we are a bit closer.