Thursday, June 15, 2017

The largest living organism on our farm

Winthrop, our ram, is huge. He’s taller than I am when standing on four feet (Winthrop's  four feet) – probably 48” at the shoulder, and weighs at least twice as much as I weigh – near 250 pounds (that’s his weight, not mine). He’s a good ram most of the time. His babies grow rapidly and he doesn’t attack the other rams, but his size has become a problem. It took Dave and I and Tom our shearer to wrestle Winthrop to the ground to shear him. Dave and I held Winthrop down while Tom worked. 

Lately, Winthrop has become unpredictable. He’ll walk quietly with his head in a bucket of grain into a pen in the barn, then minutes later when we’re trimming Percy’s hooves, Winthrop slams into the fence between us and hits Dave so hard that he’s thrown forward. We’ve sadly decided that it is time for Winthrop to go – either to a new home or into the freezer as sausage.

As large as he is, Winthrop is not the largest living organism on our farm. That distinction goes to the grove of quaking aspen that grows in our woods pasture. Aspen make seeds, but they also reproduce by suckering, making new stems along their lateral roots. All the trees in a grove could be part of a single tree - exact clones of its genetic material, like the great Pando aspen clone in Utah. Pando covers almost 100 acres, weighs in total 14 million pounds and may be 80,000 years old. Our aspen grove only covers about an acre and is completely surrounded by pasture or hay field. 

Even at only an acre, the aspen grove is still the largest living organism on our farm, and unlike Winthrop, it gives us no worries. I love to walk through the grove in the early spring as the sun shines through the fresh green leaves. The rams shelter in the shade of that grove much of the summer and perhaps listen to the tremble of aspen leaves on their flattened stems, the rustle  that gives quaking aspen their name. The stark black and white trunks fade into the snow in the winter, home to squirrel nests and fox dens. All through the year, the largest single living organism on our farm creates space for all the other living organisms to thrive.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Point of View

A drainage ditch bisects our property. It was dug many years ago to drain the east fields. I think of drainage ditches as long barren gouges in the ground for removing excess surface water to keep fields dry and plantable. In my mind, ditches are lined with rocks or even culverts. They can be wet or dry depending on rainfall and snowmelt. When I was a kid in suburbia, there was a huge drainage ditch under a nearby highway where several hills converged. One of our great adventures was to explore that eight foot diameter tunnel of concrete, all the way to the end where the light was poor, the trickle of water threatening, and the possibility that the shape lying on the floor was a dead rat was electrifying. That was a drainage ditch.

After 40 some years, our drainage ditch has become a stream. Even this spring with very little winter or spring precipitation, water runs through it. Our grandsons slide along its icy path in winter. They slog their way through boot stealing mud at the end of summer when much of the stream is dry. Gnarled willow trees crowd the banks in places, walnut trees line the field edge, wild grasses fill the spaces in between. A simple wooden bridge crosses the stream. It’s still a drainage ditch, but to me it’s a stream. Just a matter of point of view.

This spring I realized that the same thing is true of Creeping Charlie, also known as ground ivy, a ground cover that is rapidly taking over our woods and lawn. For years we have struggled to keep it out of our gardens. It is particularly happy in shady places – under the lilac hedge, around the pond, up the driveway, in the lily bed. We’ve tried spraying with herbicides, but that kills the violets that bloom in the lawn. We’ve tried weeding, but every piece of ground ivy stem or root that remains in the ground just grows another plant. We’ve tried ignoring it and hoping that a more robust plant will overwhelm it, but especially in the lawn, nothing handles foot traffic as well as Creeping Charlie, not even grass. So I fret about the lawn, the gardens, the woods. Our daughter Laurel loved the wretched plant because it reminded her of her Grandpa Charlie and had intricate little purple flowers. She always pushed and attitude of acceptance.

Dave kept three bee colonies alive through last winter and they were full of hungry bees well before most flowers bloomed this spring. That’s when I realized that Creeping Charlie, that noxious weed, wasn’t completely evil. Both bumble bees and honey bees love the tiny purple flowers that began to bloom before the elderberry and the same day as the dandelions (another noxious weed) - almost the first flowers of spring. The ground ivy will keep the bees going until warm weather and spring rains bring other blossoms. I can certainly set aside my enmity for Creeping Charlie  in exchange for more honey. It’s all in point of view.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017


Photo by Jenny Ellison

The day before Easter we pulled the taps from the maple trees, washed the cans we collected sap in and the pans in which we boiled it. We stacked the split fire wood neatly and covered it. We’d boiled off the last syrup earlier in the week and the sap hadn’t run since then.

Even though we’d only finished 50 quarts of syrup compared to 200 quarts last year, it felt like time to close the sugarbush for the year. We’d heard the spring peepers croaking in the swamps and the sand hill cranes flew across the sky. Saturday, we found bloodroot in bloom, a sure sign that sugarbush was over. Every year the blood root bloom as we dismantle our syruping operation. Our instincts had been right.

Monday morning, I walked out of the barn in the pouring rain to feed Simone and let the chickens out of the pen for the day. Simone’s instincts told her that the square shape in the musty smelling green flapping poncho should not be trusted. She recognized the bottle and my voice, but I looked wrong and smelled wrong. She wasn’t about to get close enough to nurse. I took off the poncho to feed her.

The next day Newton and I walked the hayfield through the still damp grasses. He darted from side to side, nose busy following fresh scents – deer, fox, gopher. Suddenly he stopped, threw himself to the ground and wriggled ecstatically. I can’t begin to imagine what instinct causes a dog to roll himself in poop, but it sure stunk.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Maple syrup spring

It has been a strange spring. The sap hasn't run well. We'll have a day of almost perfect weather (nights below freezing and days in the 40's) and the sap will begin to run, but the next day will be too warm or too cool and no sap will run. We should have perhaps tapped our trees in February when the weather was perfect for an entire week, but we were in the middle of lambing and it was after all, almost a month too early. Even with global warming, we didn't expect the sap run to be three weeks early. This year we haven't known from one day to the next whether the sap would run. So we checked the trees every morning, and if the sap ran, we collected it, concentrated it and boiled it down to syrup. If it didn't run, we returned to our normal lives for a day or two and then rechecked the trees.

Over the winter, Dave built a reverse osmosis concentrator to take 2/3's of the water out of the sap. It worked well, cutting our use of firewood drastically. Even with boiling the concentrated sap hard to syrup, we ended the season with more split wood than we had when we began - and almost unheard of event.

We haven't harvested much sap this spring, but we have had a wonderful time in the woods and that is after all, what sugaring is all about.  It's about learning to recognize the difference between chickadees flitting branch to branch and the nuthatches who hop up and down the trunks of trees looking for insects - both small black and white birds, but with completely different habits.

Sugarbush is about the joy of drinking sweet tree juice right from the tap.

                                                                      video by Leah Rassmussen

Spring in the maple woods is the haunting calls of long skeins of swans high in the sky heading north, and the chuckle of sand hill cranes in the thawing swamps.

Sugaring is about inhaling the smell of woodsmoke and hot maple as we pour a 2' X 3' pan of finished syrup into a metal bucket.

Mostly, sugarbush is a time to sit in the sun and converse with the people who gather in the woods for reasons similar to ours. It is a slice out of time where chores at home don't get done, our lives are full to overflowing, and yet, we relax, slip back into a less pressured time and just enjoy being alive.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Of Patience and Politics

Three green went down in early February. In  farmer speak, “went down” means that the animal lay down and wouldn’t get up as opposed to “put down” which means that the farmer killed a sick animal because there was no hope of recovery. We should have turned Three green into sausage last fall, but somehow, we didn’t get around to it. By February she was very thin and walked as if every step hurt. She was obviously pregnant and she could deliver any day. Together, Dave and I stood her up every time we went out to the barn and turned her to the other side when we allowed her to lie back down. We laid hay directly in front of her, and held a water bucket while she drank. We gave her calcium to combat hypocalcemia, one of the most common pregnancy problems and then gavaged her, giving her calories and water through a tube to her stomach to combat pregnancy toxemia. 

The days dragged by. She didn’t get better. Eventually even when we stood her up, she couldn’t hold herself upright. Finally, we gave her the drug that would induce labor and delivery within 36 to 48 hours. I wasn’t at all sure that we could keep her alive that long. 

The morning of February 15 when we went out to the barn, Three green was licking a white lamb. Somehow she had delivered, and managed to turn around so that she could reach her lamb with her tongue. She only seemed to have milk in half her udder, the nipple that was exposed when she lay in her most comfortable position, so we only stood her up a few times a day and we didn’t force her to turn over. I was sure that this meant that she would become weaker and weaker, no longer strong enough to stand on her own, making “putting her down” inevitable.

 The lamb nursed enthusiastically. Three green mothered her well, licking and encouraging with soft rumbles and baaas.  We continued to feed mother and baby, forcing Three green to her feet several times a day. Then one morning when we opened the big barn door, Three green struggled to her feet. Her baby immediately got into position and nursed well on both nipples. Then Three green settled herself very carefully back down, nudging her lamb out of the way.

This week, we moved Three green and her lamb into the group pen. She walked the twenty steps to get there with her lamb bouncing around her. Now when feed her, she walks slowly (and painfully) to the feeder. She stand for her lamb to nurse. She walks to get water. Through her own strong mothering instincts, and the persistence of her lamb and her shepherds, Three green has survived to birth and raise a lamb. With patience and persistence, a hopeless situation can improve.

Since the election I’ve felt hopeless, as if there was nothing that I as an individual could do to stop the flood of hate and un-American behavior, nothing that I could do to help our neighbors. No one answered my letters to political leaders, their phones are always busy. I sign petitions on line and hope that they actually are seen by the people who are supposed to lead the country. 

About a month ago, I realized that other people are standing up to help. I received an email from a composer who would like to work with a group of young women refugees and immigrants and young women whose families have lived in the US for generations. Together she hopes that they can explore dreams – the American Dream, their dreams for the future, their actual dreams. 

Two weeks ago, a sculptor contacted me, looking for a Somali weaver who would be interested in working with him on a commission to create a piece of sculpture for a city park. 

Last week, a woman from my community asked what she could do to help the new immigrants in town. We put together a planning meeting and decided to run a focus group including local leaders of the different ethnic groups in town as well as leaders from the medical community, the schools, the business community, the city government, and the turkey plant, the biggest employer in town. Our goal was to learn what problems the new immigrants were facing right now and how that was affecting the rest of the community, but also what the feelings of the non-immigrant population were and how that was affecting the rest of the community.

A young man from the Historical Society is presenting a talk on the effects of WWI in Otter Tail County between the immigrants and the locals at that time.

I received emails from three of the legislators I had written to.

Yesterday, I noticed that the lighted sign outside our local Cenex gas station was flashing a message that read “Peace begins with a smile.” 

Perhaps I have been too impatient. Three green is recovering in spite of my foreboding. People who are kind, who care for their neighbors as for themselves, who don’t define stranger as enemy are beginning to stand up for their beliefs, to find ways to help. With patience and persistence, a hopeless situation can improve.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


“I didn’t know that sheep had personalities,” a friend said. “I thought they were just white blobs on a hill.” Most people think of sheep that way. You usually see them from a distance; you don’t get to know them. They are just white blobs on a hill with all the attributes that people who don’t know them assign to sheep – stupid, timid, meek, embarrassed at having done something wrong, and if you’re a cattleman out west or grew up on cowboy shows - damaging to grasslands. All stereotypes.

Once you spend some up close and personal time with a sheep or two, you realize that they are not stupid. They know the importance of finding their next meal and will berate the shepherd who doesn’t provide food in a timely fashion.  They may be seen as timid when they run from dogs and coyotes who will kill them, but they aren’t timid at all when they stand between their lambs and that same dog, risking fatal bites to protect their children. They aren’t meek when I move a newborn lamb into a pen. The mother runs interference, almost knocking each other over trying to keep their lamb from being adopted by another ewe. 

In thirty years of raising sheep I’ve never seen an embarrassed sheep, although I have seen other personality traits. You see joy in a lamb bouncing and pronking around the pasture with other lambs. 

You hear loss in Dot’s plaintive calling for a dead lamb. You recognize good mothers in their infinite patience with their lambs. 

As for damage to grasslands, if the pasture is managed well, the sheep are moved to a new pasture when the old pasture needs time to regrow, then the sheep do no more damage than any other grazing animal.

Knowing a sheep changes her from a blob on the hill to an actual individual, a real sheep, just as knowing a friend turns them from just another person we pass during the day to someone we are glad to see, an individual. That knowing gives us insight into their thought processes, into their actions. It allows us to accept them as they are.

It works the same way with strangers, people who are different than us – people with a different color skin, speaking a different language, following a different religion. Our Somali friends frequently sound like they are arguing when they speak Somali together. But when I spoke to a group of Somali Elders about the possibility of a four day school week with a good translator, I knew what he said to them and I knew that what he passed on to me was a good translation of what they said.  I knew they weren’t arguing; they were just speaking loudly and fast. Many people raise their voice when speaking to someone with questionable English. We don’t raise our voices because we’re angry, we raise our voices in the mistaken idea that if we speak more loudly that non-English speakers, like some deaf people, will understand us better.

At first I thought that women who wore hijabs (the head covering of many Muslims) were doing so because their fathers or brothers or husbands made them dress that way. As I spoke to more Muslim women, I realized that their dress was their way if honoring their God, and that not all Muslim women felt the need to cover their heads to honor their God.

One third of the children in our community school don’t speak English at home, most of them are African, Asian, or Mexican, they don’t look like the blonde, blue eyed kids who went to school with my daughters thirty years ago. And yet, they still love having their teachers read them stories, their favorite lunch is still pizza, their favorite class is still recess. Children are children, no matter what their race or creed or color.

We fill our world with stereotypes, not real people. Just as a sheep is a white blob on a hillside, a person who looks different than my family and friends is just a blob on the hillside, not a real person with emotions, hopes and dreams similar to my own until I get to know them. And then, strangers can become friends, not stereotypes.

Friday, February 17, 2017



Shengifr, (pronounced Shengif, the “r”  is silent- he was named by 2 year old grandson Jasper) is our bellwether. A bellwether was defined originally as a wether, a castrated male sheep that leads the flock, often wearing a bell so that the shepherd can find the sheep when they are out on pasture or in the mountains beyond sight. Shengifr is a wether, but he doesn’t actually lead our flock because he never gets a chance to hang out with the ewes. He keeps track of the rams – moderates their behavior, tags along where ever they go.

The second definition for bellwether is a person who assumes leadership. Does that mean that our political leaders should be bellwethers? In 1980, musician and song writer Tom Paxton released a funny, protest record called The Paxton Report. One of the songs on that record,  We All Sound the Same, spoofed political leaders.  

"We'll fearlessly take our positions when we know how you feel
We've taken the polls, and we know it's the safe thing to do
We've studied the trends for the feelings that we're allowed to feel
We'll be out there leading, about two or three steps behind you."

Sound familiar?  I thought it was hilarious when I was 32 years old and have continued to make disparaging remarks about political leaders who need to look at the polls before they speak or vote. Today, I wonder if we really do want our leaders to be to be followers rather than leaders.
The third definition of bellwether is a person or thing that shows the existence or direction of a trend. Who are the bellwethers today? Are they  Patrisse, Opal, and Alicia, the women  who created the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013? Is it Brian Manley, the police Chief of the city of Austin, Texas, who said Austin police officers are not concerned about a person’s citizenship status and are instead “absolutely 100 percent focused on the safety of citizens.” Are they the hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens who are protesting the ban on people from seven nations which are primarily Muslim, who already have Visas allowing them to enter the United States, from entering the country. Is it Standing Rock Elder Brave Bull Allard who established a camp as a center for cultural preservation and spiritual resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. He gave people a space and a chance to consider the pipeline as a threat to the region’s clean water and to ancient burial grounds. Who is the bellwether? Is it an individual? A political system? An organization? A movement?

The real bellwether in our flock is not a wether  nor does she wear a bell. Waffle, a two year old ewe, was tamed by friends Budd and his daughter Kate. Waffle knows that good food comes from people and she eagerly greets each person entering the pasture. That means that people who visit the farm are charmed. Also, when Waffle rushes toward people, she draws the rest of the flock behind her into a new pasture or into the barn.  Both of those traits make her a valuable resource for our farm.