Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Leaving the sheep

Whenever we leave the sheep alone, it is with a certain amount of trepidation. Bad things can happen. In 25 years of raising sheep, we’ve had dogs get into the barnyard and chase the sheep; we’ve had lambs try to jump feeders and tangle their legs and break them; we’ve had old ewes lie down and not be able to get back up to their feet. But these things rarely happen.

During most of the year we can leave the sheep for a weekend and feel pretty confident that as long as we’ve left them food and water, they’ll be fine. In the summer, we need to estimate how fast they will eat all the grass in a pasture so we will leave them in a big enough field, and we need to make sure that their waterer is working well. Lack of water can kill a sheep rapidly in the heat of summer.

In the winter, we have snow as backup if the waterer freezes, so we only have to make sure that the sheep have access to enough food. During October, November and December, we gradually increase their feed from four bales of hay a day to five, six, and finally seven. The nice thing about feeding hay is that we can set out enough bales for more than one day and the sheep will get to it, even if they have to dig through 8” of snow like they did this week.

By the first week in January, the pregnant ewes need more calories than they can get eating hay, so we supplement their feed with corn. The corn has to be fed daily or they’ll overeat and make themselves sick. So, beginning in January and continuing until the pastures are green in May, we can’t leave the farm unless we have someone to feed the sheep daily.

This week, at the cold end of 2009, we can set out 22 bales of hay and then slip away for three days with almost clear consciences. The sheep are young and healthy; they have enough food and water; and with Kalie the alpaca to guard them, they can take care of themselves.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Warm and cold are relative

When the cold really hit this month, I was ready. I put on my silk long underwear (black because if you have to wear long underwear you should at least attempt to be sexy or feminine under there.) I shifted from my short winter jacket to my long down coat, I replaced wool gloves with thick wool mittens, cotton socks with hand-knit wool socks, and I put on a hat.

That first cold was very cold - 12˚ below zero. The sheep had frost on their muzzles, the trees had frost on their branches, and ice crystals filled the air. Sun dog rainbows circled the sun.

Our dog, Carly, isn’t a sun dog. She is a wood stove dog. As the days get colder, she gets closer to the wood stove, soaking up the heat. We all spend more time in the living room, gathered around the stove. Our bedroom, upstairs, is cold, but a down comforter keeps us warm and snuggly – only our noses get cold, and fortunately, both Dave and I like sleeping with cold noses. On the other hand, I can’t snuggle beneath a comforter in my study, so I wear a fleece vest, fleece jacket and pants, fingerless wool gloves, and that black long underwear to work.

And then it warmed up. Overnight, the temperature rose above zero and I took off my mittens and down coat to go for a run. Warm and cold are relative. Once we’ve had the subzero cold to begin a winter, the average days seem really quite nice. When the temperature gets up into the twenties where it has been recently, I run with only a couple of layers and my windbreaker is usually unzipped. Just a little more snow and we’ll be able to ski across our fields and into the state land, the water fowl production area behind our house and we won’t even notice the cold.

When the weather first turns cold, I think how lovely it would be to visit Arizona or Texas, common destinations of snowbirds from around here. But then my body adjusts to winter and I feel invigorated every time I walk out the door. And if I don’t walk out the door as often as I do at other times during the year, well that’s part of winter too, a time to settle in, write, skirt fleeces, dye wool, card wool and knit. With the outdoor chores done, winter is a time for us to relax a little, to rest up for lambing, just two months ahead. And lambing, why that’s the first sign of spring. So, on the first day of winter, I can see the first day of spring.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Two worlds

thin line of deer tracks
two by two by two
across snow swept fields

deer in the headlights
cross the road to new fields
caught between two worlds

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Small apples hanging

small apples hanging
from gnarled, skeletal branches
red against the snow.

Monday, December 7, 2009


We’ve had a lot of gray days this fall. They’re hard emotionally, but elegant coat of frost on everything in the morning somehow makes up for the grayness. The prairie grasses are limned with white. The barbs on the barbed wire fences end in tiny ice crystals. Even the sheep’s coats have a glaze of frost.

And now we have snow. I love snow on the ground. The fresh white surface hides the yellowed grass of the lawn, the garbage left by careless passers by, the half done projects, the manure in the barnyard.

The new snow reveals as much as it hides. Today I saw mouse tracks cross the driveway, a small, sinuous trail of footprints. A hotdog bun at the edge of the road had attracted a bird of some kind. The snow was disturbed, but no trail of tell tale prints led to or from the feast. Two deer had also passed along the road, their hoof prints clean and sharp in the fresh snow. Sheep prints are harder to isolate. There are many more sheep in our home pasture than there are deer in our woods, so their tracks cross and re-cross each other until the snow is churned into the dirt. But every once in awhile, a sheep ventures out on her own, wanders over to the fence line, climbs a manure pile, and leaves behind a record of her adventure.

I love to find sheep tracks. The small crisp lines are simple and beautiful. It amazes me that humans need big, broad, soft feet to support our bodies and keep us moving while my ewes make do with sharp edged hooves, even the largest of which is still smaller than one fourth of one of my feet. And yet, my sheep walk and run and jump with no problem at all. They eat standing up; they drink standing up. They only lay down to doze and sleep. No wonder there are so many tracks in the pasture.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Today I finished weaving the seventh of two blankets. I cheered! I have been proofing a pattern which will appear in my next book and it has taken me seven tries to get the patterns for the two blankets correct.

I am an indifferent weaver. I know how to weave. I have woven several sets of placemats, fabric for a shirt, half a dozen pillow covers and several tapestries, but I don’t weave easily. The lace pattern in my From Sheep to Shawl book (due to be out this winter – keep your eyes open) has tried my patience and my brain.

The solutions to the problems I ran into were varied. First, I had to accommodate for the way I warp the loom. Because I’m short, when I warp, I lay the warp threads in from the front of the loom to the back, the opposite of what my two weaving reference books and most other weavers suggest. When I warped the loom my way, the treadling diagram made no sense, and the weft made no pattern in the woven fabric. I had to reverse the treadling diagram to begin to see the pattern I knew should be there.

The second problem was in my weaving technique. I have most recently been weaving weft faced fabrics. That means that I beat the weft threads tightly against each other so that none of the warp threads show. When I used the beater in my typical heavy handed way on the lace pattern I was trying to weave, the pattern that appeared in my fabric was only about one third the height of the sample pattern. I had to learn to be much more gentle as I wove.

The third problem was easily solved on my fifth sample weaving when I read the pattern carefully and realized that I wasn’t following the repeats written into the pattern.

The fourth problem was a misprint in the pattern I was proofing. By now, three months into an in depth analysis of the two sample pieces of woven fabric that I was trying to copy, of the written pattern with an accompanying graphed pattern draft, and of my attempted copies, I realized that there was a misprint in the pattern draft. When I corrected the misprint, the pattern appeared in my weaving, plain as day.

I listened to a lot of books on tape as I wove. I learned or relearned a lot about weaving as I worked. And I was forced to really stretch my brain, a painful, but ultimately exhilarating process.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A day to give thanks

When our kids were little and we had extended family visit the house for Thanksgiving, everyone cooked. We used our wood stove as much as possible. Laurel at 3 or 4 began making cranberry sauce. Amber took over peeling, boiling and mashing potatoes. Dave learned to make pie crust. Our visitors all had jobs too. Some specialized in pie fillings, others in salads, some set the table, others washed the endless dirty dishes. The littlest kids used white frosting to glue chocolate cream candies to fudge stripey cookies, added candy corn feathers and clove feet to create Thanksgiving place holders for the table.

By mid-afternoon, we were all ready for something besides cooking and board games, so we put on jackets and mittens and headed out into the fields and woods. First we fed the sheep; then we went exploring. A big piece of prairie stretches beyond our pasture fences. I love to walk that prairie in the fall. The grasses have dried to a landscape of gold and russet. Brown stalks of weeds thread their way through the grasses. Even in the cold winds of autumn, the prairie in the sunlight glows with warmth. We collected pasture grasses, milkweed pods, and dried goldenrod stalks to the bouquet.

Red osier dogwood and cattails accent the edges of ponds and sloughs. On dry years we cut cattails and dogwood branches to add to the bouquet.

Beyond the prairie and the ponds, lies a wood. We walked the wood with our eyes on the tree tops looking for the brilliant orange of bittersweet berries. When we found a plant, we harvested a few long twisting branches with berried tips, and then headed for the warmth and rich fragrance of home.

This year is different. We are in St. Louis celebrating Thanksgiving with our daughters and their husbands. The fields at home are dusted with snow. A friend is feeding the animals. Our pre-dinner walk will be along suburban streets, admiring green lawns and a few hardy azalea still in bloom. But the day hasn’t really changed. The house is filled with the sound of happy voices, good smells and warmth. We are with family. A day to give thanks.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Brussels sprouts

Today I harvested our last produce from the garden. The Brussels sprouts have survived through endless days of rainy cold, and almost a month’s worth of freezing nights. They have outlasted the cabbage moths and the garden pests - the chipmunks, raccoon, and deer.

When Dave and I first met, corn was the only vegetable he ate. My mother loved vegetables and served at least two at most meals. Dave’s Mom had raised him well and he always tried a little of each vegetable, but not with enthusiasm.

My mother was a clever cook. She adulterated all her vegetables. Eggplant with onions and cheese, scalloped corn, green beans with mushroom soup and dried onions, broccoli with Italian salad dressing, cauliflower with mustard and Miracle Whip. Perhaps her most successful adulteration was Brussels sprouts with grapes.

Dave eats more and more vegetables. Planting our own garden has been a big part of it; but he has also realized that he likes vegetables. Some he eats just plain – home grown tomatoes, sweet corn, sugar peas, and winter squash, but others he eats for the adulterations. Every fall we look forward to the Brussels sprouts harvest, to the combination of flavors you taste with pungent red pimentos, the fresh green globes of Brussels sprouts, the earthy chewiness of mushrooms and the sweet burst of flavor in the grapes.

Brussels Sprouts, Mom’s style

3 cups Brussels sprouts
½ cup sour cream
2/3 cup drained mushrooms
1 cup seedless grapes
¼ cup chopped pimento
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup grated cheese

Cook Brussels sprouts until bright green and tender. Drain. Add everything else but the cheese. Heat in double boiler or microwave until everything is hot. Sprinkle with cheese
and paprika. Enjoy.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Some people plant fancy bushes along their front sidewalk. Others place statues or beautiful lights outside the door. Dave and I try not to consume conspicuously, except when it comes to firewood. Six cords of dry firewood lining our front walk, row after row, stacked solidly and beautifully, makes us feel secure and warm. It also tells everyone who visits our farm what we value – firewood!

Splitting and stacking firewood are a completely different processes. When you stack, all you care about is the shape of the piece and the size of the piece. As long as there are pieces of wood lying on the ground, the stacker is busy. Splitting firewood means picking up a log, setting it onto the splitting rail against the wedge, and holding it in place with your left hand. Then your right hand pulls the lever that engages the hydraulics on the tractor and moves the splitting ram forward. As the splitting ram moves, you have time to appreciate the wood which is being split. Ironwood has a finely corrugated bark. Young red oak’s bark is smooth, almost like popple, but when the log cracks open, the warm red wood proves it is oak.

The crack of wood splitting gives me great joy. The clean crack of ironwood, the longer, more drawn out crack of dry oak, and the muffled crunch of rotting logs are all different. But they all imply a strength far greater than I have.

Fungi leave patterns under the bark and in the wood of some trees, branching trails of blackness. I watch with interest the creeping pattern of trails in the wood I split. The wood itself has patterns too – little dark dashes in the cross grain define the growth rings of maple and oak. Unsplittable elm has tough strings of wood running parallel to each other through the log. Ironwood logs split reliably in half, making them perfect for the end columns.

When the stacking is done, our front walk is lined with row after row of split wood. For a few days, the wood shed is solid, and then the rows begin to dwindle. You can read the pattern of winter weather by the wealth in our woodshed. Last year we ran out of wood in February. This year, we hope to have wood heat through March. But however long it lasts, the row at the very front of our wood shed will greet us when we drive into the yard, a wonderful pattern of color, texture, shape.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ice Crystals

cold night, no wind
long feathers of ice crystals
melt under the sun

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Quiet Day

Only the sound of rain dripping on sheep coats, the slightly higher pitched sound of rain dripping into puddles, and the soft whir of the wind generator in the distance disturb the silence.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Katie's Day Out

Photo by Glen Larson

Katie is a sheep dog. She used to live on a farm with our friend Glen, a shepherd. When Glen retired and moved away from the farm, Katie moved with him, but she hasn’t forgotten the joy of herding sheep.

Glen and Katie came on Monday to help us coat our sheep. The coats keep their fleeces clean. With no veggies in them, they spin up into really lovely yarn or make beautiful felt. The quality of our fleeces means that I can sell the wool for a higher price, making it worth the effort involved in coating the sheep.

Herding sheep was obviously worth the effort for Katie. She was pleased to get into the barnyard. Her tail was up, her eyes were bright. She looked to Glen for commands. He gestured and spoke. “Walk up.” Every movement Glen made and every word he said was calm. It looked like Katie read his mind.

On the farm, Katie had trained her sheep to do what she wanted them to when she wanted them to do it. Our sheep were not trained. The first to notice Katie was Christmas. Instead of moving away from Katie, Christmas approached her. In fact, Christmas walked right up to Katie and touched noses.

In Katie’s mind, this was not proper sheep behavior. She looked at Christmas, darted forward. Christmas ignored her. Glen gestured. Katie began moving the sheep around the barn. Sammy, a wether who had belonged to Glen, obviously remembered the procedure and moved easily to the front of the flock. When our sheep paused, Katie darted up to the rearmost ewes and nipped at their wool. They began moving again.

Apple Blossom lagged behind the flock, intent on the salt feeder. “Katie,” Glen said, pointing back toward the dallying sheep. Katie left the others to circle around Apple Blossom and drive her back into the flock.

Most sheep run when a dog approaches. For most sheep, Katie’s technique worked. But when Christmas wandered back to see us, away from the rest of the flock (which she frequently does), Katie had a much harder time intimidating her. Christmas wanted to be friends; Katie was all business.

At the top of the hill, just before the descent into the barn, all the sheep stopped and milled around again, almost daring Katie to react. Christmas moseyed up to Katie a third time, sniffing, open to a little nose touch. But Katie was fed up with these untrained, insubordinate sheep. She darted around Christmas, nipped at a flank or two and the sheep moved away from her, down the hill and in the barn door.

Dave, Glen and I followed the animals into the barn, closed the door and penned them. Fifty five sheep inside a fence; a dog outside. “That’ll do,” Glen said, releasing her from responsibility. But Katie lay panting, alert, ears pricked, watching the sheep intently. She knew that her job was to keep the sheep, even these unruly sheep, under control and she was on the job.

Friday, October 30, 2009

After the leaves fall

We woke late one morning earlier this week, just in time for sunrise. It has been a gray October, and the gold and orange and purple sky that morning was rejuvenating.

The leaves had mostly fallen, so the ancient oak that screens our yard from the rest of the world, stood black and tall, its bare branches intricate and beautiful against the colors in the sky.

Without their leaves, the trees reveal a new world. We can really see the birds that inhabit those bare branches. Yesterday, I watched two crows harry a red tailed hawk through the woods and out above the hayfield. In the woods, the crows had the advantage; in the open air, the hawk rapidly outpaced them.

Dave was sealing the ends of a freshly cut cherry log when he heard a rush of wings. He glanced up and saw a huge bird laboring through the trees, something black with a touch of white clutched in its talons. Dave raced back to the house. “Is Oolong inside?” Oolong, our black with a touch of white cat, was sleeping in Dave’s study. Back outside, Dave stalked slowly through the woods trying to locate the bird and it’s prey. Finally he saw a Great Horned owl sitting high in an oak, finishing up its meal, a hint of skunk smell in the air.

When we walk quietly through the woods in the fall, we hear all kinds of birds. Woodpeckers looking for bugs in tree trunks, crows defending their territory from hawks, and the soft rustle of grouse. When you hear a grouse, you have to look very carefully because their camouflage is so good. you stand very still, sweeping our eyes across the forest floor. There! A lump on a log that might not have been there before.

It moved. With feathers mottled black, brown, gray, and white, grouse are perfectly designed to fade into the woods in autumn. The grouse stretched it’s neck, grabbed a rose hip with its beak, twisted its head, and moved on to the next rose hip.

By noon, the day was gray again. But after the leaves fall, the monochromatic birds, the tiny yet brilliant red rose hips, gold leaves on the ground and the green moss against the browns of the tree trunks give a special kind of beauty to the rain drenched autumn woods.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Carding wool

I love wool. I raise sheep because of their wool. I love the lustrous white fleeces, the fine, wavy brown fleeces, and the rich, black fleeces with tightly crimped fibers. I love touching the wool, smelling the wool, working with the wool.

We began raising sheep 25 years ago, just for their wool. Our first four sheep produced more wool in a year than I could possibly use, so we decided to learn about marketing. At first we sold only fleeces, the wool shorn from a sheep (minus the dirty bits) in one year. I sent out a newsletter describing the various fleeces; people wrote and asked for samples; I sent the samples; they wrote and ordered a fleece; I shipped their fleece. It sometimes took as much as a month to complete a transaction.

Times change and eventually, most of my wool buyers ordered their fleeces sight unseen on the internet to save time, but complained that they still didn’t have time to wash and card their own wool to prepare it for spinning or felting. Washed wool is not dirty or greasy. Carded wool has been processed so that all the fibers lay parallel to each other - much easier to spin or felt. So I began washing our fleeces in our washing machine and sending them off to a woolen mill to be carded. My wool buyers didn’t mind spending a little extra money for nice balls of roving or carded batts of wool.

As the economy changed, the cost of shipping our wool to the woolen mill equaled the cost of carding it, and the cost of carding kept increasing yearly. The only flexibility in the system was what I charged for my wool. We breed exclusively for wool quality. Our pastures have no thorns or burdock in them. Our sheep are coated all winter long to keep their fleeces clean. I hated cutting the price we received for our wool.

Finally, Dave and I decided to buy an electric carder so that we could card our own wool and cut out both the professional carding and the shipping. Dave cards wool very professionally. He makes beautiful batts of fluffy fleece, all the fibers lined up in a row. Carding at home means that we can also produce batts of dyed wool in dozens of different colors. He can card as little as an ounce of a specific color – perfect for people who can’t afford to pay $25 each for a pound of green and a pound of blue and a pound of pink.

The only hang up is the time. It takes fifteen minutes for us to card two ounces of wool - two hours per pound. On any reasonably imaginable pay scale, that makes our finished product either luxury fiber or our income third world pay. Fortunately, Dave listens to his continuing education tapes while he cards, so the carding is free.

Yesterday, Dave was spreading manure, so I carded wool for an order to ship out today. Even listening to a good book on tape, I found the work tedious. I didn’t enjoy the feel and the smell as I eased the clumps of fluffy washed wool onto the deck of the carder; I just waited for the carder to fill up. I didn’t imagine the beautiful yarn that could be spun from this variegated brown fleece; I just added up ounces in my head. I didn’t think of the children who would learn how to make felt with this wool; I just kept carding.

Obviously, I am very lucky not to be working on the line in a factory. I love wool, when I am spinning, felting, knitting, even carding for one of my projects; I just don’t love it when I’m working on some one else’s project.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Living with manure

Every year we harvest 75,000 pounds of alfalfa from our fields. That’s 1,776 pounds of potassium, 222 pounds of phosphorous, and 1,110 pounds of calcium. Alfalfa replaces the nitrogen in the soil by fixing it from the air with the bacteria that cluster around its roots, roots that sink themselves up to twelve feet into the dirt. The roots of the alfalfa also sequester carbon dioxide, taking it from the air and holding it underground until the next time the soil is tilled or the alfalfa plant is killed. So growing alfalfa is good for our sheep and good for global warming, but is it good for our soil?

We thought of alfalfa as a self sufficient wonder crop until it occurred to us that whenever we tested our soil, it always needed fertilizer. And every time we spread fertilizer, the cost went up. We also noticed that every year we harvested less alfalfa from our fields – they just didn’t produce as well as they had 10 or 20 years ago.

We began reading about sustainable agriculture. Obviously, the way we were making hay was not sustainable. Last year, Dave spread manure on a sparse, weedy section of hayfield. This year, we could see exactly where he had driven the manure spreader – a patch of deep green, weedless alfalfa towered over the rest of the crop. The manure had made an incredible difference.

Manure differs from fertilizer in several ways. It’s nutrients are released into the soil slowly as it decomposes. It contains vegetable matter which adds to the top, organic layer of soil and keeps the soil more porous so water can seep into instead of run off. So now, we look for extra manure to add to our fields.

Today, Dave is cleaning the barn. He uses the skidsteer to scrape manure and straw off the floor and to dump the mixture into the manure spreader. He combines the manure with compost from our one year old compost pile and spreads the results on the west hayfield.

It’s a wet day. I tracked manure into the house when I walked back from the barnyard this afternoon. But no matter how much I complain about the mess, I don’t complain about manure. When we first started farming, I couldn’t even pronounce the word manure properly - it’s pronounced manúr with a soft “u” like in “yer”, not with a long “u” like in “unicycle and it has only two syllables, not three – and now I can’t live without it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


We’re home after two weeks away, and see a lot of changes.

The most obvious is that Mohamed, the young Somali man who has been house and animal sitting for us, rearranges things. I found the canola oil in the mixing bowls, and the cat food in the cast iron frying pan drawer. He must either have a short memory or not understand my filing system.

Morning light reveals other changes. Many of the leaves have turned yellow and fallen to the ground. The ash trees are bare as are the popple. The crab apple with it’s russet leaves and bright red apples still glows, even in the rain. Our young Somali friend was stunned by his first fall. “What happened to all the leaves?” he asked. Growing up in the middle of a war in Africa, with no formal education, doesn’t teach a person the things that the youngest Minnesotan takes for granted.

The garden froze – plants droop black and blighted. We will still be able to dig potatoes and carrots. The winter squash that had already hardened are fine. The still unripe squash will make good compost. And the brussels sprouts are still green and crisp, sweetening as the weather gets colder.

There have been changes in the barnyard too. Many of the ewes have red, yellow or orange crayon marks on their rumps (some have all three colors) – evidence that the rams have been busy breeding and that about 140 days from now we will have new baby lambs.

Our oldest ram died while we were gone. He had been lagging behind when we last moved the animals. So it wasn’t a complete surprise. Mohamed said that he hadn’t been able to get him up one evening and by morning he was dead. I mourn the deaths of sheep. But a rapid death for an old sheep is a blessing.

The changes in Dave and I after being unharnessed for two weeks, are also a blessing. Our yearly autumn trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to canoe and camp and commune with each other is as necessary to us as any other part of our lives. We talk about our goals, our schedules, our responsibilities. We try to prioritize projects and brainstorm ways to avoid becoming over-committed.

Without friends like Mohamed and the other young people over the years who have house and animal sat for us, we wouldn’t get away from the farm. Dave and I both enjoy farming, but we also remember with horror, that Dave’s Grandpa Roy, a dairy farmer, never took a vacation and left home for less than twenty-four hours when his grandson was married. Animal farming is not an occupation that allows much time off. The choices and the changes we have made from Grandpa Roy’s farm mean that we can raise sheep.

Change, a blessing.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Short tempers

Saturday was full of the sound of laughing and talking, the smell of wood smoke and wet wool, and the sight of twenty - eight people in knit sweaters, carrying felted bags, working at knitting, dyeing, felting, crocheting and weaving. Every autumn, we open our farm to friends who take a day outside of time – a day to play with fibers, walk in the pastures, learn new techniques, and talk with friends. Alice, Dave’s mom, was the oldest person here, at 84. A couple of sisters came who weren’t ten yet, so the range of ages was about as wide as it could possibly be. So was the range of interests. Some people come to dye wool over an open fire, others to visit our sheep. Some people like to renew friendships, other’s, like myself this year, need advice on projects.

The girls wanted to go visit the sheep. “Why are the big ones in a separate place?” one asked.

“Those are the rams,” I explained. “At this time of year they have short tempers.”

”The big ones have low temperatures,” I heard her explain to her sister. Their grandmother and I grinned at each other.

The rams are ready for breeding. They have been stalking the fence line for days, anxious to mingle with the ewes. We watch the fence line warily, hoping it will withstand their 200 – 300 pound bodies leaning longingly. Our guests watched the rams from a safe distance.

Today, we brought the rams into the home pasture and squeezed them into a tiny pen. Then we strapped marking harnesses onto each of them. The Lone Ranger, our brown ram got an orange marking crayon strapped to his chest. Big Boy, our first Ramboulliet ram got a yellow crayon and Backup, our second Ramboulliet got a red crayon. When the rams mount a ewe, the crayons rub off on the ewe’s rump, marking her, so we know who is bred to whom.

The rams stood patiently as we put on their harnesses, almost as if they remembered what was going to happen next. Dave opened the barn door and the rams rushed out and across the pasture toward the ewes. Backup and the Lone Ranger hassled each other, tried to shoulder each other aside, snorted at each other, wrinkled their noses and stuck out their tongues (all perfectly rammy behaviors) as they trotted across the pasture. Meanwhile Big Boy had raced ahead to his first ewe. He sniffed her butt, she didn’t move away, so he mounted her.

When the Lone Ranger and Backup realized that they were missing out, they stopped bugging each other and sprinted for the flock. If a ewe is in estrus, she’ll stand still when a ram approaches. If she’s not quite ready yet, she’ll keep walking or running just ahead of the ram. Big Boy had already marked his first ewe by the time the Lone Ranger found a receptive one. Breeding was off to a good start.

The rams are probably still short tempered, but their temperatures are definitely high.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


The sumac leaves have turned a deep red. The Virginia Creeper that twines around small trees and large trunks in the woods are just beginning to turn – one leaf red, one mottled, one still green. Autumn is here. The shorter days have shifted the chemical processes in deciduous trees and bushes to produce a hormone that weakens the cells at the point where the leaf attaches to the branch. The tree forms a layer of cells at that point to block off the circulation of water and nutrients between the roots and leaves. This layer of cells is called the abscission layer (abscission means to cut). Without the flow of water and nutrients, photosynthesis stops and no more chlorophyll is produced. As the chlorophyll breaks down, it changes from green to clear, letting the yellow, gold and red pigments that have always been present in the leaves shine through.

The abscission layer in the branch tips protects the little branches from rapid loss of water during the winter. The plants further protect themselves from winter by a process called hardening. Cells go dormant and the amount of sugar inside the cells increases. With more sugar inside the cells, the liquid freezes at a much lower temperature. It’s the same process that causes salt to melt the ice on our sidewalks because the freezing point of the water is lowered by the salt. Hardening allows plants in our part of the world to survive until spring.

Not all plants can do that. Yesterday I brought in a rosemary bush and my purple basil. They fill the house with wonderful scents and will survive (as long as I can keep them watered) away from the freezing days of winter.

Our sheep don’t have an abscission layer, but they do add layers to keep them warmer. They’ve been growing wool since late February, and many of them have fleeces four inches long or more. Wool is such a good insulator, they stay warm even in the drenching rains of the last few days. I only worry about sheep and warmth when we have ice storms and immediately after shearing. Even in those situations, the animals do pretty well. Sheep lay on extra calories to use during the winter as a layer of fat all around their bodies. The fat will be burned if their bodies need extra calories for warmth or to nourish a fetus or three, but until that time, it also acts as an insulating layer against the cold.

Dave and I, their shepherds are not nearly so well designed. I suppose we could eat on an extra layer of fat for ourselves, but I doubt very much if that layer would be burned away by spring. Instead we layer on clothes. This week I have shifted to long sleeved shirts and hooded sweatshirts. Yesterday when I left home I realized that I should have worn a crew neck shirt instead of a v-neck shirt. It won’t be long before we add long underwear bottoms and turtle neck shirts to our layering. And that’s just in the house. In another month, I’ll have my Thinsulate jacket on and my down coat out of the dry cleaner’s bag. Winter is coming.

Every spring I look back on autumn and marvel that I needed a coat for forty degree weather. Come April, we’ll strip off coats, hats, mittens and scarves and run around in our shirtsleeves at temperatures well below room temp. But for now, as the nights grow longer and the leaves turn from green to gold, we join the trees and the sheep in using layers to protect us from the cold.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Last night I went to dinner at a friend’s house, a Bosnian feast to celebrate Eide. The food is amazing, and I always eat to much because I have to try every one of the ten dishes that she has prepared for her guests. When I leave, I am lucky to escape with just a plate of baklava and coconut, chocolate cake because she tries to press some of everything on me to take home to Dave who is working nights this week and couldn’t be at the party.

I drove down our road, enjoying being the night. Suddenly, at the crest of the hill at our driveway, I saw something move. I took my foot off the accelerator. Two somethings. And then in the beams of my headlights I saw them all, fifty somethings. Fifty sheep, our sheep, who were supposed to be grazing quietly in the south hayfield, safely surrounded by electric fencing, were milling around on the road just north of our property.

Okay, I thought, I can do this. I had to get them to go south down our driveway and to the safety of our fenced pastures. I stopped the car and turned on my hazard light. Then in their dim yellow beams, I walked up to the sheep, talking quietly.

“Hi Ladies, what are you doing up here? You’re supposed to be safely down in the hayfield. Did you eat all your alfalfa?” Just as I got to the flock, a car topped the second hill west of our farm. Please, please, please, don’t drive past my car, I thought.

I crossed the driveway and moved into our hay field, trying to get on the other side of the sheep with out making them run away from me until I knew they would run the right direction – down the driveway. There! I was past them. “Shoo, shoo,” I murmured the little tune I use to move the sheep in front of me. They started to circle.

The driver pulled up beside my car and left her lights on. Bless you, I thought. The extra light helped a lot. The sheep moved down the road past our driveway and toward the two cars. The driver got out of her car and moved quietly toward the sheep. The sheep turned and tried to go north across the road. I hurried up beside them and they circled again.

Kali the alpaca headed east down the road away from the cars, the driveway, and our farm. The lambs followed her.

Then Christmas found our driveway and turned south. A white sheep followed her, another and another. Finally the group who had been following Kali turned and ran across the hayfield to follow their mothers. The flock was together on the driveway heading down toward the barnyard.

I thanked Audrey for her help. They had animals too; she knew what a disaster it could have been. “I thought maybe someone had hit one of our horses,” she said. “Are you alone? Do you need help getting them into the barn?”

I reassured her. “From here on it will be easy.” She waved and drove off down the road. I turned the car onto the driveway and rolled down the windows so I could hear. But I saw the sheep before I heard them. They had stopped at the bottom of the driveway and were were milling at the entrance to the east hay field. I stopped the car, but they had already decided that foot high alfalfa plants in a hayfield felt safer to walk through than the hard packed, unfamiliar driveway that led to their barnyard. They turned east and disappeared around the corner.

I jumped out of the car and followed them quietly down the hill. My footing was unsure in clogs. As I walked down the hill I could feel the air getting colder through the thin silk of my blouse. The sheep paused to taste the garden, but kept moving.

I didn’t know how the sheep had broken out of their temporary pasture, so I didn’t know where the opening was. But it didn’t matter. The sheep turned west, toward the security of their permanent pastures. I walked east to the temporary pasture. The little red low battery light blinked in the darkness. I turned off the charger and began walking the fence line, looking for the opening where the sheep had escaped. I found it way across the field in the south east corner. What had they been thinking to get from there to the road? I reset the posts and the opened up the fence in the corner closest to the sheep.

“Hay ewes,” I called. “Hay ewes.” The horizon still glowed a dusky pink, but at 8 pm, even by the light of a quarter moon, I really couldn’t see anything in the distance. “Hay ewes.” They answered me. I kept calling. They kept answering, and each answer sounded a little closer to me. Finally, I could see them clustered at the entrance to the pasture. I stepped over to the fence, planning to outflank them and come in behind them (the position Dave would have had if he hadn’t been at work, or Audrey if I’d taken her up on her offer.)

But the sheep turned and headed back north, up the hill along the woods at the edge of the hayfield. Now I was running in my clogs, up hill, through dew wet, knee high alfalfa plants. The sheep paused again at the garden and I got in front of them. This time I worked them down the hill trying to force them east toward the temporary pasture.

They were not interested. At the corner of the woods, they turned right again, back toward their secure home pasture. My only hope was to walk through the flock to the fence line, disentangle the “gate” and try to encourage the sheep through that little three foot opening to the security of one of the permanent pastures.

I kept thinking of the night only about a week ago when we had heard the coyote chorus. The only sounds I heard now were the far off rush of cars on asphalt, a dog barking in the distance, and the munching of the sheep as they grazed.

Working by feel alone, I disentangled the gate from the fence and pushed it open. Then I stepped through and began calling the sheep. “Hay ewes.” Christmas stuck her head through the opening. “Hay ewes.” Her baby followed her. “Hay ewes.” The rest of the flock crowded in behind, eager for the safety of familiarity. I refastened the “gate” and walked up the hill, my moon cast shadow walking before me. Tomorrow I would buy a new battery and then once again, lead the sheep out onto temporary pasture in the hay field.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Leader sheep

Christmas in a leadership role

It is the rare sheep that is a leader. Christmas is. She’s hungry and fearless, so she’ll walk right up to us, check out our hands for snacks, and finding none, go back to grazing at our feet. Her lamb follows her, but won’t eat from our hands. She hovers just out of reach, interested, curious, but not a leader.

Most leader sheep grew up as bottle lambs. They learn that people are good and people bring food. Most important for shepherds without sheep dogs, bottle lambs learn that people will lead them to food. Christmas was a surprise, born just before Christmas, about two months before we expected any lambs. Her mother didn’t have either the milk or the patience to mother a lamb, so Dave and I did the mothering. Beginning December 23, and for the following month we went out to the barn every three to six hours to feed the new baby. We learned to love her and she learned to follow us.

When it is time for me to move the sheep from the close cropped yellow pastures of late summer out onto the fresh alfalfa growing in the hayfield, I expect Christmas to follow me and the rest of the flock to follow Christmas.

I open the first gate and walk through, calling “Hay, ewes.” Christmas is right on my heels and the others stream out behind us as we run through the next two gates. Suddenly, everyone comes to a screeching halt when we reach the perimeter fence on the very last pasture.

When we first fenced our land we didn’t imagine that some years we would run out of pasture. We were more interested in making our fences invincible to predators than in creating a gate to the outside world. When we found we needed to move the sheep out into the hayfield, we did the quick and dirty thing and just cut a three foot opening in the fence. We patched the opening with a section of hog panel and the “gate” has worked well. But three feet isn’t a very big gate and we only use it a couple of times a year – once out and once back into the pasture from the hayfield. So the sheep just don’t recognize the opening as a gate to a new pasture.

I harried them across the last pasture, closer to the gate. They ignored it and started grazing in large circles away from where I needed them to be. “Hay ewes!” I called, stooping to step through the gate myself. “Hay ewes!” I moved into the hayfield. They still ignored me.

I trudged back to the barnyard to get Dave. Together we harried the sheep like sheep dogs, running back and forth behind them, trying to herd them through the opening, not exactly biting at their heels, but wishing we could. They milled around. “They don’t remember there’s a gate here,” Dave said. “Why don’t you go through and show them how.”

”I already tried that,” I said. “It made no difference.” But this time when I stooped and stepped through the gate, calling the sheep as I moved, Christmas lifted her head and watched me. Then she began to move. Dave watched quietly from behind the sheep as first one, then another and finally the entire flock streamed through the tiny hole in the fence. Kalie, the alpaca, was last. She looked carefully at the opening, then ducked her head and stepped gracefully through.

I looked at Dave. He looked at me and we both laughed. Then before either of us could close the gate, Christmas turned around and walked back out of the hayfield and into the empty pasture. “You get back in there!” Dave shouted. And miracle of miracles, Christmas led herself back out through the gate.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Temporary fences

Dave and I walk out to check on the sheep. When we approached, they stood, stretched and stared. “Okay,” Dave said, “they still have enough grass to eat. We can leave them in this pasture another few days.” But as we passed them, they all fell in line behind us, obviously ready for new forage.

We have eleven different pastures. We try to rotate the flock through each pasture at about weekly intervals. That way, the sheep eat everything in the pasture but aren’t there long enough to nibble the new shoots, giving the pasture grasses time to recuperate.

Our different pastures have different grasses, some have cool season grasses, some have grasses that grow best in the heat of summer. Some pastures have alfalfa mixed in with the grass to give them some drought resistance and others have weeds mixed in with the grass (actually, they all do.) In my imagination I say that we don’t have monoculture pastures, that the diversity of species makes them healthier. But actually, I think the diversity just means we’re human. Since we don’t spray herbicides on our pastures, weeds grow. Over the years we’ve had dozens of young people join us in our attempts to destroy all pasture weeds (especially the thistles), and they just keep coming back (I am speaking of the weeds, not the young people – although they also come back, just not to kill weeds).

Our sheep move from pasture to pasture as the summer progresses, until late August or early September when all the pasture grasses are sere and brown. By this time of year, the grasses have little or no nutrient value, and the sheep don’t like to eat them anyway. Now is the time to move our sheep out onto temporary pasture.

It takes me about three hours to set up a temporary pasture. First, I lay out ten rolls of electronet fencing. This fencing is a 100 foot by 3 foot web of plastic strands interwoven with bare metal wires. The plastic strands give the fence structure, the metal wires are hooked up to a charger, a battery and a solar panel to electrify the fence.

I unroll a fence section and lay it on the ground along one side of our hay field. Then I walk back down the fence line. Every ten feet of fence fabric has a 3 foot post woven through it. As I come to each post, I ram it into the ground and then continue on along the fence line. At the end of a roll, I begin a new roll, making the electrical connections between the first and second sections of fence. I continue setting up fence in a large rectangle, trying to use the hayfield as efficiently as possible.

Alfalfa needs time to regenerate after it has been cut and before the freeze, so we try not to use our hayfields for grazing until after the first hard freeze. But this year, we will be digging up much of our east hayfield to replant. We don’t need any alfalfa to survive the freeze, so we can graze the sheep on it now.

once the fences are up, I set up the solar panel, the battery and the fence charger. I drag the garden hose down to the hayfield and hook up the water. Now all I need to do is persuade the sheep to follow me through a three foot wide hole in the pasture fence to the hayfield. With luck, it won’t take anywhere near as long as setting up the fence.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Stealing honey from the bees

Friends Steve, Kanitta, and Ondine came for the weekend to help us steal honey from the bees. When we are done, we put the frames back outside and let the bees clean them up and steal their honey back.

Dave uncaps the honey comb

Steve loads the extractor with frames

Extractor full of frames

Ondine helps strain the honey


Ondine helps me fill jars

The bees clean up the frames
Photos by Kanitta Cella

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Autumnal silence

catching the west wind
an eagle soars - huge circles
over field and trees

after the wind dies down
at the cool edge of evening
autumnal silence

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Calm river, wild rice

The Otter Tail River was calm and clear. Clouds, trees and grasses reflected off the surface that Dave poled our canoe through. The grasses were the reason we were spending the day on the river. Huge beds of wild rice bordered this bend in the river and we were harvesting the slender seeds for the winter.

Wild rice is actually a grass, not a rice. It grows in three to five feet of water, and the seed heads of healthy plants towered above my head when Dave forced the canoe into the thickest clumps. The seeds ripen from the bottom of the stalk toward the top and on Saturday, most of the grains were not yet ripe, but by Sunday, many more seeds fell into our canoe as we harvested.

To harvest wild rice, you need a license from the state. Then you need a boat (no more than three feet wide, like a canoe), a paddle or pole to move the boat, and two knocking sticks (no more than 30” long.)

Dave worked from the stern, paddling the canoe through the grasses, sometimes using his paddle to push where the grasses grew very close together. I sat in the bow, facing Dave and used one stick to bend the rice stalks over the canoe and the other stick to thwack the seed heads. With each thwack, seeds fell into the canoe in front of me. It was almost meditative. My hands and arms worked without direction from my brain. I didn’t have to steer the canoe. All I had to do was sweep rice over the gunnels of the canoe with my right arm, thwack it with my left, sweep grasses over the gunnels of the canoe with my left arm, thwack it with my right, and repeat. My eyes and ears took in the world around me, narrowed down to a patch of clear water below me, a patch of blue sky above me, and grasses as far as my eyes could see.

Saturday, five of us worked on that patch of wild rice. In two hours that morning , we harvested almost 20 pounds of rice. The individual seeds lay in the bottom of our canoes with the heavy end down and a single beard like fiber pointing straight up. Little bits of rice has drifted into our shirts and pants and even into our underwear. We stopped to bag what we had harvested and to have lunch.

We sat on an old bridge overlooking the river and ate ham and tomato sandwiches on fresh baguettes with fresh peaches for dessert. The sun was warm on our backs. Swallows swooped and disappeared under the bridge. Dozens of small green and brown leopard frogs greeted us when we walked back down to the water to work the afternoon shift.

My license allows me to harvest rice from 9 am until 3 pm until the season closes sometime in mid September. By the end of the day, we had gathered 47 pounds of rice. The man who processes wild rice has a 300 pound minimum because of the size of his processing equipment.

Sunday morning, we attempted to process rice on our own. We had spread it out to dry over night. Then we put several cups of rice into a cast iron skillet and Dave’s brother Paul, his wife Jenny, and nephews Graham and Tyler heated it over medium heat until it browned. The seeds popped and crackled. When they began to smell like popcorn, we poured the parched rice into a bowl and tried different techniques to remove the outer seed coat. Niece Becca, Jenny and Dave rubbed it, stomped on it, pounded it with rocks, cooking utensils, hands and feet.

Finally we resorted to the internet and learned that we should have only parched the seeds until they began to pop and were not at all brown. We had popped our rice seed and then burned it. The Ojibway used big cast iron kettles on open fires, constantly moving the rice around on low heat for up to half an hour. They next poured the parched rice into holes in the ground lined with deerskin and people danced on the seeds to remove the outer coat. Finally, they winnowed the rice by pouring the seeds from one cowl to another in the wind, allowing the chaff to blow away and the rice seed to fall into the bottom bowl.

At this point, we decided to try to harvest another 250 pounds of rice. There was no way that we were going to process our own. Dave’s sister and her family joined us. If anything, Sunday was an even more perfect day on the river. A bald eagle soared over head. We startled a flock of red winged blackbirds feasting on the wild rice and they rose and flew with a loud rush of wings. We paddled into a small clearing in the rice stalks and found a pair of water lilies blooming.

By 3 p.m. we had 100 pounds of rice. If we can get in one more day of harvesting, we might reach 300 pounds. Alternatively, the processor could combine our rice with another small batch and we won’t have to learn the patience of the Native Americans or the persistence of the subsistence hunter gatherer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


We harvested the first of the tomatoes; they’re late this year, but so appreciated. Homegrown tomatoes are so sweet that they hardly taste like vegetables.

Of course, tomatoes aren’t vegetables, botanically, they’re fruits. They are the part of the plant that nurtures and protects the seeds, so that a particular plant will survive to the next generation. Lots of vegetables are anatomically fruits. Turnips, onions, beets, and carrots are roots. Celery is a stem. Spinach, lettuce, and Swiss chard are leaves. Peas, dry beans, and corn are seeds. Most of the rest, cucumbers, squash, peppers, eggplant, and green beans are fruit. But the best of the vegetative fruits is the tomato. And homegrown tomatoes leap right over into the real fruits with their sweetness.

We plant four kinds of tomato seeds every spring, Golden Sweet yellow grape, Orange Blossom, Bellstar, a paste tomato, and Big Beef. And then we spend the summer weeding and waiting for those first homegrown tomatoes to ripen. Dave brought in a handful of tiny yellow grape tomatoes still tinged with green. not quite as sweet as they will be in a week, when hundreds will hang golden and heavy on the vines. We’ll eat all we can and then friend Budd will turn the rest into yellow tomato marmalade – a treat almost as good as real English orange marmalade.

Last night, we sliced vibrant, red Big Beef tomatoes and interspersed them with thin slices of a home grown cucumber on a small green glass plate. They needed no dressing. The rest of our meal was sweet corn, fresh from the garden. Nothing in the world tastes better than sweet corn, fresh picked and steamed, and then just touched with butter and salt.

We can’t eat the fresh vegetables fast enough. I’ve frozen cauliflower and broccoli three times. The sugar peas finally succumbed to the heat because I couldn’t keep them picked and watered. Now the corn is ripening faster than we can eat and share it. it must be time to start freezing corn.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Things in the night

Spruce Knob Night Sky 8
photo by www.forestwander.com

Last night was beautiful! Dave and I took a bottle of wine and two lawn chairs out to the edge of the eastern hay field to watch the sky. There were no mosquitoes. A warm breeze brushed my face as we sat looking at the stars. The Milky Way arched overhead, millions of pale stars partially obscured by the clouds of dust somewhere between Earth and the far reaches of our galaxy.

I am not as familiar with the summer planets as the winter. But Cassopiea stretched to the northeast beside the summer triangle of Deneb, Altair and Vega. The planet Jupiter glowed in the south, the brightest object in the sky. below it, two points of light twinkled.

“Satellites,” I said. “No, that’s too big for a satellite.”

“A plane, I think.” Dave said. And sure enough, one of the blinking lights was suddenly two blinking lights. We followed it with our eyes and eventually heard the sound of its engines.

Trees at the edge of our fields showed dark against a horizon that was lit with the last remnants of the setting sun. Carly, our black dog, was all but invisible in the darkness, but we followed her progress across the field by the sound of her snuffling as she investigated things in the night.

“I hope she’s not after a skunk,” Dave murmured.

We sipped a nice Merlot, and watched the sky, letting the silence and the calm seep into our bodies.

This morning, Dave went out to the barn yard to check the live trap. We had lost fifty chickens to raccoons last summer and I didn’t want to buy new chickens until we were sure the chicken coop was safe. Also, Dave’s bee hives were not producing as well as they should be and the scratch marks in the dirt in front of the hives led him to suspect coons. His plan was to deport any animals he caught in the trap to the sugar bush – far enough away so that they wouldn’t be eating our chickens or our bees.

When I came home for lunch, Dave had a crooked smile on his face and the backyard smelled awful.

“You caught something!” I said.

“Well, lets just say that I have strong empirical evidence that skunks like Fancy Feast cat food.”

Our plan had been to put the trap and trapped animal into the back of the pickup, drive it ten miles down the road, set it in the woods, hold down the lever and pull up on the door. Theoretically, the animal dashes out the front, away from you.

When Dave found a skunk in the trap, he had to improvise. Plan A involved a face shield and a ten foot long pole with which he tried to release the trap door. Plan B included a large piece of plastic sheeting held in front of himself as he laboriously climbed over the half fence in front of the creep shed where he had set the trap. The trap was designed for two handed release, so he had to lower the plastic. Dave crept closer: he depressed the lever and pulled up on the door.

The skunk strolled out. As he headed for the exit, he raised his tail and squirted, just a little bit, sort of a farewell, just enough to remind Dave that he could have done much worse.

“I don’t think live trapping is going to work,” Dave told me after he had bathed with hydrogen peroxide, spread his clothes on the deck to air before washing them, and bathed again. “If I catch three or even four raccoons, there will still be more out there. I don’t want to kill them just because they eat our bees and chickens. And I won't release another skunk. I think we should put electric fencing around the bee hives.”

“We could try that for the chickens too,” I said. “Then we wouldn’t have to worry about things in the night.”

Saturday, August 22, 2009

One windless morning

Every year, during the months of August and September, Dave and I wait for a windless morning to coincide with a day when neither of us have anything scheduled. Neither unscheduled days or windless mornings are very common.

We need the windless morning do the yearly maintenance on the wind generator. We need the unscheduled day because you can’t schedule the windless morning and maintenance on the wind generator requires our complete attention. Dave climbs the 120 foot tower and does the mechanical work. I stand at the bottom of the tower, belaying him so that if he falls, he only falls 30 feet instead of 120 feet. I also ferry supplies up to him with a 300 foot rope on a pulley system. My job is tedious; Dave’s is terrifying (at least to me. I don’t like heights). So I am glad to be the person on the ground even though I don’t get to appreciate the spectacular 360˚ view, the wind on my face, or the thrill of defying gravity.

We begin as soon as the dew has dried on the metal climbing pegs on the tower. Dave sets the brake on the generator, then buckles on a climbing harness. He straps on a fanny pack containing the tools he expects to use. He hangs chains on the harness to attach to the tower which will act as his belay points. Finally he hangs the pulley system onto the harness. Then he ties his belay rope onto the harness at chest height.

I check the knot to make sure it’s properly tied. I check the harness to see that it’s correctly buckled. Then I put on leather gloves and pick up the belay rope. The rope goes from my hands through a grisgris to Dave’s harness. The grisgris is a braking device that catches the rope in case of a fall.

“On belay?” Dave asks.
“Belay on.” I reply.

Dave puts his foot on the bottom rung of the tower and climbs. I begin letting rope through the grisgris. The sun is bright and hot and shines into my eyes as I watch Dave ascend. I move until a leg of the tower blocks the sun, only a bright halo traces the web of strut-work that supports the generator and my husband. I tip my head back as he moves up.

He pauses to clip onto the first belay point thirty feet above me. Then he climbs again, gradually decreasing in size. He pauses again, second anchor. I pause in my rope handling; I don’t want slack in the rope or his belays won’t save him from injury if he falls. Climbing again. Finally he reaches the third belay at the top of the tower. There, he straps a belt from one side of his harness around the tower and back on to the other side of the harness. The belt makes it possible for him to lean back and use both hands to work.

The first time Dave worked on the tower he had a hard time letting go after attaching the work belt. He could see that he was securely attached to the tower, but his hands were not convinced. It took considerable internal dialog before his mind was able to overcome his instincts. I might never have overcome my instincts. Imight never have overcome mine. The reason that Dave climbs the tower instead of me is that I once spent almost an hour frozen in place on the face of a mountain, unable to lift my feet or to tear my eyes away from the valley floor, 500 feet below me.

Now, ten years later, Dave looks forward to the view from the top and his feeling of accomplishment when he finishes the yearly maintenance.

“Off belay,” Dave’s voice drifts down to me.
“Belay off.” I shout back.

My next job is to raise the supply bucket to him with the tube for draining the oil from the generator. The pulley rope is just long enough to reach the ground, twice. On windy days, it drifts out of reach and I can’t raise it. So to be safe, I tie one end to the tower. Then I begin pulling. The trip up is easy, just the bucket and tube. The bucket occasionally bounces off the horizontal struts of the tower, but progresses smoothly upward. When it reaches the top, Dave hangs it from the tail behind the blades and attaches the tube to the generator. When the oil has drained into the bucket, he tosses to tube off the tower. As it falls, I watch for the round golden globules of oil that were left in the tube to fall - glittering bubbles in the sunlight.

I ease the bucket full of oil back to the ground, focused on not letting it tip when it runs into a strut. This time, the rope cuts into my gloved hands. I stand on the shrinking coil of rope to control it’s progress through the pulley. Then I send up a bucket with six bottles of fresh oil.

Once the gear box is oiled, Dave throws down the empty bottles and I lower the empty bucket to return it with grease guns. The grease guns don’t really fit in the bucket and their ungainly handles and their length ensure that I lose at least one on each trip up the tower. This time, the guns tangle in the tower struts repeatedly, dropping one or both of them to the ground. Finally Dave moves the pulley further out on the wind tail and I can finally get the grease guns to him.

Greasing the generator takes forever. When Dave moves from place to place on his perch 120 feet above the ground, he goes on and off belay and I handle the rope and watch as needed. But most of the time while he works, I sit in the sun and read. This year I decided to listen to a book on tape instead of read, but when I turned on the tape player, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to hear Dave’s voice. So I turned off my book and began to watch the world around me.

Our wind generator is at the top of a hill. All around us the ground slopes away, to the road, to the Erhard hills in the distance, to the swamps and small ponds in the state Waterfowl Production Area. Swallows swoop around me, eating on the wing. Some work just inches off the ground, others fly at Dave’s height. Their wings sharp arrows of black, their underbellies white, they stand out against white cirrus clouds drifting in the deep infinity of a summer blue sky. When not on wing, they rest on the electrical lines, 10, 20 50 swallows in a row, facing the sunlight.

Closer to home, a bumble bee and a honey bee move from one thistle blossom to the next, crawling across the brilliant pink petals. Other thistles have matured and their seeds drift languidly, gossamer umbrellas in the air. The hops Dave planted on the tower are blooming, their distinctive pinecone shaped seeds just beginning to form. Even though there is a world wide shortage of hops, Dave will have his own supply for next year’s beer.

I squat in the alfalfa, resting my back. Little orange and black lady bird beetles trace the edges of alfalfa leaves, tirelessly running from leaf to leaf, harvesting whatever smaller insects they can find. An ant scurries through the alfalfa stems, dragging the body of a much larger ant. So much activity in such a tiny world.

I try to do a species count – how many plants of what variety exist in one square meter of our hay field. Grass – 15 plants. Alfalfa – 25 plants. Thistles - one plant. Dandelions- 50 plants. Oops, the dandelions won. Not what I would have hoped for. But the sheep can eat dandelions as well as alfalfa, after all, we ate dandelion greens in salads all through the spring.

“Bucket ready.” Dave interrupted my inventory.

I scrambled to my feet, Took the rope in my hands and began lowering the bucket.

“On Belay,” he said when the bucket hit the ground. I stepped into position at the base of the tower and grabbed the climbing rope. “Belay on.” I shouted.

“Climbing.” As Dave worked his way down the tower, I gathered in the climbing rope, coiling it into a great purple tangle at my feet. Two hours after he first said “On Belay,” Dave stepped off the tower. He unbuckled his harness and we packed up all the gear. When Dave let the brake off, the blades began to spin lazily. We had finished just in time. Our windless morning was over.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A good day to dry

Today dawned sunny and windy with low humidity. A perfect day for drying hay after one and three quarters inches of rain over the weekend. Lots of people have hay down. But not us! Today, all we have drying are the blue and the green clothes on the line.

This afternoon, when the rain inevitably began, all I had to do was bring in the clothes. No wagons full of hay bales to cover with tarps. No equipment to cover. No worries. Today we can accept the rain in all its beneficial glory as wonderful for our hay fields and pastures.

Last week when it rained, we tried to think of the pastures, the gardens, and the hay fields receiving beneficial moisture; but all we really saw was rotting hay, hay losing nutritional value. So last Monday, when we put the last bale into the barn, Dave ran a hay drill into half a dozen bales and collected samples of hay to have analyzed at the Farmer’s Elevator. The hay had an rfv (relative feed value) of 130- okay, not great, but much better than he expected. So in spite of the rain, the thistles, and the thin windrows because our alfalfa is aging and not producing as much hay per acre, we have almost enough, okay hay to feed the sheep next winter. Dave is looking for an additional 250 small square bales. Hopefully, some farmer will have bales to sell and we won’t have to sell any of the springs lambs that we had set aside to add to our flock. Right now, we will have to sell eight lambs unless we find hay to buy. With luck, other farmers baled on this perfect morning for drying hay.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Baling and enjoying it

There is nothing quite so wonderful as riding across a field on the bed of a hay wagon. I feel 8 feet tall. The world is spread out before me. I can see the hills and valleys of our land, all exposed to the bone and contours delineated by the windrows of cut alfalfa. Summer wild flowers bloom at the edges of the field – goldenrod, purple prairie clover (an native prairie plant that is gradually making its way back into our habitat, milkweed, just beginning to bloom (with its attendant monarch butterfly caterpillars,) fleabane, black eyed Susans, yarrow, and several varieties of wild sunflowers. The fragrance of cut alfalfa fills the air, and every once in awhile, I catch the herbal scent of wormwood. Beyond our fields, the hills east of Erhard rise up to meet the sky. And the sky stretches from horizon to horizon, a deep summer blue, striated with cirrus clouds. The wind cools us and defeats the mosquitoes and gnats, although it does sometimes blow bits of hay into our eyes.

The baler spits out bales at a reasonable pace, and they are just right – green 3’ X 18” X 18” rectangles that are solid and heavy enough to stack well, but light enough so that we can keep baling all afternoon.

Grab a bale with the hay hook, drag it to the back of the wagon and slide it into place. After the first five bales, we have to lift the next five, but even lifting to the top of the stack, three bales high, is not impossible. The fifth row of bales is much more difficult. Dave can lift a bale five rows high using only the strength of his arms and back. Aubrey and I boost the bale up on top of the fourth row using hands, arms, shoulders and each other. Often, one of us crawls up onto the fourth row and the other pushes the bale up. Then the person on top can push it into place on the top of the load.

We build the load of hay bales toward the front of the wagon as we build it up, aiming for 90 to 100 bales on the wagon, but usually settling for 70 to 80. Our fields are hilly and bumpy. Speeding along on the top of four bales of hay, on a wagon with no springs, on a bumpy, rocky field that slopes at a 30˚angle, is an exhilarating experience – also dangerous – so we usually limit the sizes of our loads.

On Tuesday, Aubrey lifted 1000 pounds of hay, one fifty pound bale at a time. Dave and I take turns driving the tractor, but because she doesn’t drive a standard transmission, she always works on the wagon. I’m not sure who has the best end of that deal. I only lifted 500 pounds of hay (hardly seems like any compared to Aubrey), but I spent half the day in a tractor that smells like a mouse nest.

Thursday, toward evening, the clouds moved in and the humidity rose. We stopped more often to check the moisture in the bales, trying to keep it below 18%. Our friend, Glen, learned to make hay as a child. When he helped us bale in June, he showed us how to scrape the alfalfa stems with our fingernails to test for dryness. Now we can recognize wet hay as it comes out of the baler. But the evening humidity is another matter. As the humidity rises, previously dry hay picks up moisture and the bales become heavier. Of course, we are also tiring, so we resort to the moisture meter to give us a more objective opinion.

Sun light streamed just below the accumulating clouds. Rain is predicted for Friday. We covered two wagon loads of the best hay we have baled this year. Our muscles are tired, but the day has been perfect. We drive to Maple Beach for the best hamburgers and French fries around and collapse into bed around 9:30.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


sweat drips down my face
follows wrinkles and creases
salty to my tongue

five bales in each row
eighty bales on a wagon
exhaustion rides me

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Yellow butterflies

sulfur butterfly
yellow against green fields
races my tractor

golden butterflies
flirting with eternity
mate on a windrow

Monday, August 3, 2009

Baling, or not

This morning, the humidity was way over 100%. We couldn’t even see across the hayfield through the fog. And although it wasn’t actually raining, under the box elder, the fog condensed on the leaves and produced a fine patter of rain drops.

The wagons are covered, waiting clear weather so that we can move the bales into the barn. The windrows are drenched, waiting warm sun and a good wind so that the alfalfa will dry enough to bale. If not today, then tomorrow.

Dave has decided that a 30% chance of rain for any given day actually means it will rain 30% out of the 24 hours, roughly 8 hours, over our hayfield. It’s been doing it since the second week in June, I don’t know why we expected the weather to behave any differently for this crop of hay.

Last week, Aubrey said “Well, we baled in June and we’re baling in July, but at least we won’t be baling in August.” It is now August 3, and we have 500 out of 1500 bales of hay up. Dave figures if we can keep up this pace, we’ll be done baling about the middle of September...

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Seeking perfection

Sometimes, it feels as if I never meet my own expectations.

I expect to have a beautiful garden. It should be easy – some seeds, some annuals, some perennials that come up on their own year after year, and of course, the weeding and dead heading that any garden requires. Simple, all things within my abilities, but even after hours and hours – no, days and days - of weeding, the garden doesn’t look like those in the books.

We expect to bale good hay. We try to keep the thistles, mustard, leafy spurge, and dandelions that grow in our fields under control. We read about what makes good hay; we fertilize our fields; we cut at the appropriate time for maximum nutrition; we make small square bales that are stored in a barn instead of the large round bales that are all to often left outside to begin the process of rot; we watch the weather. But somehow, we know that Dave’s Grandpa Roy wouldn’t think well of our hayfield or our hay.

I expect to have a nice looking house, and yet, our house nearly always needs to be cleaned. Structurally, it is a beautiful home, with a lovely wood circular staircase, white tile floors, beautiful oak cabinets and lots of big windows to let in the sun. But somehow, my house never looks in reality like it does in my mind.

In spite of all our aspirations, in spite of all our work, we never meet our goals.

A tooth broke on the haybine when we cut in June, leaving a three inch trail of uncut alfalfa and thistles spiraling through the fields. Dave cut hay again on Monday. On Wednesday, when it should have been ready to bale, the rain began. Rain is still falling as I write. The windrows are turning brown. Tomorrow, or Saturday, when the rains stop, Dave will cut the next field. Meanwhile, the three inch trail is a spiral of lovely purple thistle blooms – blatant evidence of our failure to control the weeds. Perhaps on Monday we will finally bale some good hay. By the end of next week, the thistles should all be gone, hopefully before their seeds have matured.

In my more rational moments, I know that I will never have a garden like those in the books. I have a more relaxed sort of garden, where some hollyhocks stretch up four feet high at the front of the bed, and the grasses that weave their way between the Russian sage stems are impossible to remove. Daisies bloom and go to seed faster than we can deadhead them. Only one zinnia and one sunflower forced their way through the untilled soil at the back of the garden, two patches of Batchelor buttons reseeded themselves. I love the relaxed air of my garden, the sense of whimsy that the haphazard collection and arrangements of plants implies.

Our house feels welcoming, homey. We have wonderful art work by friends and relations, and the walls are lined with favorite books. But the rooms are messy, piled with half read magazines and books. My spinning wheel (well, two spinning wheels) sit along one wall, next to a floor loom that is almost warped. The rocks we’ve gathered that don’t fit in the curio cabinet line the walls. Baskets of wool and fiber work in progress fill all the corners. Further, living on a farm means that every time we step into the house, we bring dirt with us, from the garden, the unpaved driveway, or the barnyard. Dog hair and hay bits gather in the corners, cat fur and pieces of raw wool tangle around furniture legs, and the throw rugs always harbor spoonfuls of sand. We are people who would rather work on a fun project or read a good book, than clean.

I am not a perfectionist; I know this about myself. So why do I seek perfection in my garden, my house, or my hay field? Seeking is not the same as finding. To seek perfection is a worthy goal. Finding perfection, at least in garden, hayfield, and home, is perhaps more than anyone could reasonably expect.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When the wind blows

photo by Aubrey Ellison

Dave and I just finished a week long canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. We had a wonderful time! There were great people, great scenery, great food, and best of all, there was the wind!

The mosquitoes were bad. On the portages and in the woods where we pitched our tents, the mosquitoes swarmed around our heads and feasted on any bits of uncovered or unsprayed flesh. The wind saved us.

We always chose campsites on large expanses of rock that ran right up to the lake, rocks that thrust out into the wind, sweeping the mosquitoes away from us. When the wind died in the evening, even a fire couldn’t keep the mosquitoes from invading; so we took ourselves early to bed. After a fierce massacre of all the insects that had followed us into the tent, we lay in our sleeping bags and listened to the mosquitoes buzzing just beyond the tent netting, and the wind high up in the trees.

At home again, I still feel grateful for the wind. We’ve had a wind generator in our hay field for thirteen years now. It supplies about one half of our electricity. Because we can’t use all the electricity generated by our tower when the wind blows, we sell about three fourths of the electricity generated to the power company. The machine has nearly paid for itself and is now producing clean, pollution free power for us and for our electrical coop.

The wind also helps us at ground level. Dave began cutting hay today. With warm sun and a nice breeze, the hay will dry rapidly and we’ll be able to bale it before it can be rained on and ruined.

And finally, Aubrey weeded the asparagus patch. The breeze kept the mosquitoes out of her way – only four bites in seven hours. Life is good when the wind blows.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Eating locally

I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, on a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. It changed my outlook on eating.

My first shopping expedition after the trip was a big disappointment. I hoped to convert our diet to locally grown foods, but in a small Minnesota town, in October, the only locally grown food in the produce aisle was winter squash.

A friend aaked “Why are you doing this?” when I said I wasn’t buying bananas any more.

In part, it’s to see if we can live off the land – grow or barter our own food. We are fortunate to live in the country. We have infinite garden space and plenty of room for animals. But I also like the idea of supporting the local economy. I buy strawberries and raspberries from a woman I know at the Tuesday farmer’s market in town. I buy cabbage, beans, and summer squash there also.

If someone sold local cheese, I’d gobble it up, but unfortunately, no one does. I learned how to make mozzarella after reading of Barbara Kingsolver’s adventures. It was dead easy and tasted wonderful with dried leaves from our own purple basil plant mixed in. But I might as well support our dairy farmers by buying cheese from a Minnesota dairy rather than use nonfat dried milk from who knows where, to make my own. Also, although my first batch of mozzarella was almost perfect, each succeeding batch was less successful. I am perhaps not cut out to be a cheese maker.

In fact, a large part of our diet is locally grown – lamb, maple syrup, honey from our own hives, eggs from the neighbor just north of us, and garden produce starting sometime in late May or early June.

This year, I decided to find other local foods, and to stretch our garden season. The neighbor who sells eggs also sells chickens. I harvested lambs quarters, dandelions and amaranth along with some self seeded lettuce from last year for May salads.

We also began picking rhubarb in May. With thirteen well established plants, we had an almost inexhaustible supply. I froze it, gave it away, made sauce and desserts. Rhubarb grows enthusiastically and easily and continually for over a month, almost two - it would be a perfect food if you didn’t have to use quite so much sugar to make it palatable.

As gardeners, we are quite successful. Dave orders seeds in January and plants melons, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, peppers and herbs in the house in April. He nurtures them, rotating the flats so they get the best warmth, the best sunlight, the best chances to grow, until late May when we set them out in the garden. He tills the garden behind the house, a spot that was once solid clay and is now a wonderful, rich bed of black dirt and humus, thanks to thirty years of mulch.

We plant corn, cucumbers, squash, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, cilantro, peas and spinach. I add nasturtiums to the flower garden for spicier salads, and perennial herbs to harvest in the summer and dry in the fall. And then we wait for things to grow.

It has been a cold summer. Nothing is growing rapidly. But we finally are harvesting cups of sugar pod peas – perhaps our most successful crop - daily. We cut off all the Swiss chard and all the spinach yesterday, and blanched and froze all the leaves – two quart bags for spinach soufflé next winter. At that rate, two bags of frozen spinach from ten feet of row, we’ll never be self sufficient. But we’ll re-harvest the spinach in a few weeks and by then the cucumbers will be ready and we can shift from eating chef salads made mostly of greens for supper, to chef salads with cucumbers added.

June berries look like small blueberries, they have an intense flavor and more seeds. They taste great on granola and freeze perfectly and easily for winter. In the past, the birds had always picked all our June berries as they ripened and I never found any to harvest. It took us several seasons to figure out what was going on. Now, we cover the bushes with bird nets and several weeks later, pick quarts of the berries.

Nankin cherries ripened in mid-July, but their seed to fruit ratio is quite high so I only use them for jelly or juice. I froze a scant two cups of juice yesterday – not enough to do more than flavor apple sauce.

We won’t have apples until mid-August when the first summer varieties ripen. Those are also best used in sauce or pies. I’m not a good pie maker, so last year, Dave and I sliced our early apples and dried them. Tomorrow, we’ll take dried apples on our next canoe trip.

Monday, July 13, 2009

When the daisies bloom

Daisies grew at the back of my grandfather’s land on the railway embankment. I loved going out to pick them. I was blonde and blue eyed and the daisies reached my waist. My grandfather used his pocket knife to cut the stems; I carried the armload of blossoms. In my mind’s eye, it is a beautiful image.

Perhaps that is why I have such a hard time ripping the daisies out of my garden.

They are wonderful flowers, simple flowers – crisp white petals surrounding a warm yellow center. They withstand strong winds and harsh temperatures. Their seeds over-winter well in our part of Minnesota. They make beautiful bouquets, and they grow like crazy.

Thus the idea of ripping them out of my garden. In June, as I weed, I leave the daisy seedlings with their charming little ruffled leaves, except right around the perennials that will be growing larger through out the summer. I am always optimistic that the perennials will grow faster than the daisies.

In July, when the daisies are in full, riotous ( and I do mean riotous – as in wrecking carnage on their surroundings) bloom, the perennials are struggling to be seen. And the annuals that I planted in June, the alyssum, nasturtiums and zinnias, are struggling to survive, blanketed as they are by masses of daisies.

Dave doesn’t have my fond memories of daisies. He recognizes them as weeds and treats them accordingly. I cut the daisies to fill vases all through the house, hopeful that they will re-bloom later in the summer. Dave rips them out of the ground in great flowery bunches.

By August, the gaillardia will be in full glory; the fragrance of alyssum will saturate the air; and tasty orange nasturtiums will form mounds at the edge the garden. The glads and hollyhocks will tower over the blossoms in front of them; and the phlox will just be coming into their own. The garden will be a mass of brilliant colors and textures.

But my favorite time in the garden is right now, when the daisies bloom.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


“I have to change my internal dialog,” Dave said to me last night, “from ‘Oh My God! for the last four weeks it’s been raining and we’re not going to get the hay up’ to something more positive like ‘Let’s go canoeing with a friend, it’s a fun thing.’”

Dave and I keep having these conversations over and over. Life is too busy. I am too busy. You are too busy. How do we solve this problem. How do we find more time to relax. We only do the things we love, why are we complaining?

Canoeing was great. The sky was a summer blue, flecked with clouds. Purple iris bloomed in the cattails along the banks of the Otter Tail River. Blue dragonflies drifted from one yellow pond lily to the next, touching down, then drifting on. There were no mosquitoes on the water. A soft wind kept us cool. Cattails rising above our heads obscured the houses along the river. We moved as if in a wilderness, our paddles pushing us along the current. The water was clear; the clamshells on the sand below us seemed within reach. We paced a great Blue Heron; a pair of bald eagles flew buy. We drifted slowly past a pair of loons, close enough to see the brilliant red eyes, the black and white checks, the thin line of white feathers circling their necks. They watched us as we watched them. Then, ten feet away, they tipped their heads and disappeared under the surface.

It was a day out of time, laughing, talking, relaxing with a friend.

When we returned home, Dave looked at the thistles towering above the alfalfa in the field, their buds beginning to swell, ready to bloom. “We need to cut hay before the thistles bloom,” he said. “If I cut the east field on Friday, maybe it will dry while I’m at work and we can begin baling on Wednesday. We’ll have four days to bale. If it doesn’t rain, we’ll be fine.”

My heart sank. I wasn’t ready to begin worrying about rain and hay quite yet.

This morning we walked out into the east field to look at the alfalfa and the thistles. At its best, the alfalfa was a foot high. The thistles were at least six inches taller and were indeed ready to bloom. But there weren’t thistles everywhere.

“We won’t get much hay if we cut this week,” Dave said. “It will be a better crop in a few weeks when the alfalfa is taller. Let’s just cut the thistles by hand, either with the scythe or the weed whacker.”

He took my hand and we walked back down to the house. We would both need to cut thistles to get most of them, but just cutting thistles seemed much more doable to both of us than the idea of beginning baling already. We could drift just awhile longer.