Saturday, June 27, 2009

Relying on heaven

It rained Sunday, twice on Tuesday, and again on Wednesday. The hay is now a depressed black spiral running through our fields - not anything one would feed to animals. We put up a total of 480 bales - not the 1500 that we need to feed our flock over the winter. Dave is looking for someone we can pay to put the rest of our hay up in round bales which we will then compost to spread back onto our fields in a couple of years.

Not what we would wish, but we can cut again in late July and bale our hay then.

I am reading China Road, by Rob Gifford. In the book, he interviews a peasant farmer in western China. The man now works part of the year for the government building railroads. He goes back home to harvest his crops in the summer. Things are better because of his railroad job, the man explains, "We are not relying on heaven to survive." If the rains fall or the crops die, it will cause problems, but they will not die because they have a source of income other than their farming.

We too have another source of income. Dave works half time as an emergency physician; we do not need the money from our farm to survive; we don't need to rely on heaven.

Monday, June 22, 2009

When farming gets in the way of life (and vice versa)

Photo by Jenny Ellison

June is my busiest month. I would have thought March or April were, when we have a barn full of babies and we’re making maple syrup. But I schedule only a few outside activities during those months for that very reason.

Our farm work for June includes planting and weeding the gardens, killing thistles, and haying. We never know when the alfalfa will be ready to cut and bale. On a year with and early spring and rain at just the right times, we could cut in late May and be done baling by the middle of June. On a year with a cold spring and rain at precisely the wrong time, we could still be baling come July.

June is also the month when the Pelican Rapids Multicultural Committee puts on its major event of the year, the Pelican Rapids International Friendship Festival. The Festival only lasts two days, but planning and set up take months. This year, during the month of June, I wrote seven newspaper articles for the Friendship Festival and four for library events. In the last week, I ran two programs at the library and worked as a full time volunteer at the Festival on Saturday.

Saturday was the real conflict. I can write newspaper articles after dark and before the hay is ready to bale in the morning. But I can’t demonstrate Australian locker hooking, set up a tent and photo documentary exhibit, mind the public bathrooms at the park during the Festival, help craft demonstrators set up and take down their exhibits, and bale hay.

Saturday, the hay was ready to bale. We had a 20 to 30 hour window when there was no rain predicted and the humidity might be low enough for the hay to dry.

I felt horribly guilty when Aubrey, her Mom, Jenny, and our nephew Tyler helped Dave bale hay while I sat at the Friendship Festival. Of course, I would have felt even worse if I was out in the hayfield while other people with jobs of their own struggled to do my jobs at the Festival too.

I think that the Friendship Festival is one of the most important things that happens in our little town. We have an amazingly diverse population. Out of 2300 people, about one third are Hispanic. We have almost 200 Somlai refugees in town as well as Iraqi, Bosnian, Cambodian and Vietnamese. These people immigrated to our community because of the turkey processing facility in our town. They stayed because Pelican is a good place to raise children, the schools are good and the people are friendly.

The Pelican Rapids Multicultural Committee is one of the reasons that diverse peoples feel good in Pelican Rapids. The committee is a small group of volunteers that brings together lots of other volunteers to celebrate the diverse cultures which make up this community. Hundreds of residents volunteer for the Festival. Some bake Scandinavian cookies, others fry Somali sambusa. Some demonstrate Belgian lace making, while others play in the community band. People gather to eat, listen to musical groups from all over the world, watch local dancers and dancers from far away, and learn new crafts. But the best thing about the Friendship Festival is the friendships that are built by working together, by sitting beside each other, sharing new sounds, new foods, new ideas. The Festival means more to me than baling hay.

Working with the Multicultural Committee connects me to the community. Farming connects me to the land. Both connections are good, and are, in fact, necessary. But it is hard when they both demand the same space in time - when farming gets in the way of life, and life gets in the way of farming.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tough hay

It has rained three out of the last six days. Hard rain, one to two inches at a time. The days it didn’t rain, the humidity was 98% and there was no wind. The hay that was so beautiful on Friday when Dave cut it is now brown and yellow, and still tough, the word farmers use to mean “too wet to bale.”

If we bale tough hay, it might heat to the point where it catches on fire and burns our barn down (although with the amount of rain we’ve had in the last few days, even a fairly big fire wouldn’t have lasted long), or the wet hay might mold and if we feed it to the sheep when they’re pregnant, cause abortions.

Wet hay is just plain dangerous!

When it rains hard on hay, several things happen. First, lots of leaves are stripped from the alfalfa stems along with much of the nutritional value of the hay. Second, the windrows are beaten into the ground, leaving no room for air circulation –it takes even longer for the hay to dry. And so, yesterday, Dave hooked the row turner to the tractor and began retracing the route he took around the hayfields with the haybine just over a week ago. The turner is a beautiful piece of machinery. Two spoked wheels run just behind the tractor, catching the edge of a windrow and turning it over. This action raises the windrow off the ground and flips it, giving air a chance to circulate through the hay and dry it.

The hay will still be more stems than leaves, and it will still be brownish yellow instead of green, but if it dries, we’ll bale it.


If it rains again before the hay dries, we won’t be able to bale it because we’re leaving for Boston to hear Laurel, our youngest, sing. Sometimes, the weather just doesn’t cooperate. And I draw the line at having family lose out because of the vagaries of the weather. So, if the hay isn’t ready to bale by the time we have to leave, we will either find someone who needs some fairly crappy hay at no cost, and who can bale it themselves, or else we’ll chop the hay back onto the field.

We always try to bale in June because the hay is better than the second crop later in the summer. But when the weather is against us, we take what we can get. The chances of this much rain in late July are slim. If we don’t bale this next week, we’ll cut and bale again in July.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


rain on the window
fresh hay rotting in the field
to farm is to hope

Monday, June 15, 2009

Rain clouds

photo by Jenny Ellison

scent of fresh hay
rain clouds on the horizon
pit man against time

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Aubrey and I were weeding. I was harvesting lambs quarters and amaranth from the carrots as I weeded, Aubrey was hoeing the corn. Suddenly, Carly gave two sharp barks and the scent of skunk filled the air.

“Oh, rats!” I said. I jumped to my feet and raced in the direction of the smell, calling Carly’s name.

“I don’t think that was rats.” Aubrey said, grinning, as she followed me.

Carly looked intensely happy when she trotted up to us, the odor of skunk a thick fog around her. Aubrey clipped a leash onto Carly’s collar; I headed for the computer.

I found four recipes for skunk smell removal online. The first, tomato juice, we had tried in the past and hadn’t been impressed. First because it took a lot of tomato juice, second because tomato juice is really hard to get out of dog hair, and third the combination of skunk and tomato smelled worse than just plain skunk. It could put you off tomato juice for life and I like tomato juice.

The second recipe called for one quart of hydrogen peroxide, one cup of baking soda, one teaspoon of dish detergent and one cup of water. I only had a pint of hydrogen peroxide, but we mixed the solution and donned rubber gloves. Aubrey and I rubbed the liquid into Carly’s fur while Carly shivered at the end of her leash, trying to stay as far away from us as possible. We rinsed her with water from the outside faucet; she looked pathetic. We sniffed her from head to toe – still an odor of skunk, but perhaps a little better.

The minute we released her, Carly shook – all over us – and then headed for the edge of the woods where she rolled – joyously, in the grass where she had met the skunk. When she returned to us, she stunk as bad as she had to begin with.

We leashed her again and moved on to the fourth recipe – organic apple cider vinegar and water. Our apple cider vinegar wasn’t organic, but I figured it would work just as well. And I was tired of messing around, so we poured full strength vinegar down Carly’s back and then rubbed it all over her body except her head. Then, using warm water from the utility sink, we rinsed her off, shampooed her with a citrus scented shampoo, rinsed her again and dried her with a towel.

We discussed the pros and cons of locking Carly in the barn until she was dry, to keep her from reskunking herself, but we figured she would spend the entire time she was in the barn happily eating sheep poop, and the farts that would follow her around for the next several days would be much worse than the slight odor of skunk, vinegar and citrus which presently emanated from her wet fur. Aubrey sniffed her again - declared her to be mostly non-skunk scented - and we followed the dog into the house.

Friday, June 12, 2009


An early morning mist fills the low spots in our fields. A blackbird glistens in the sunlight, just above the mist, the bright red and yellow bars gleaming on its wing. Dave cut 8 rows of alfalfa yesterday afternoon. Some places in the field, the alfalfa plants were up to my hips when I walked through. Other places, the fuzzy heads of the seeding dandelions were taller than the alfalfa. Every where, a mist of fluffy white dandelion seeds followed the tractor.

I like to see the windrows of hay drying, partly because it means haying has actually begun, but mostly because then our neighbors can no longer see the dandelions and thistles in the fields, and the thistles won’t be going to seed. The first time Dave took me to meet his grandparents and their dairy farm, back in 1968, we spent Sunday afternoon driving the country roads. Grandma and Grandpa commented on every field we passed. “Harold got his oats in late, Barry’s rows are straight as a ruler, old man Edson’s fields are full of weeds.”

I’m afraid they would be condemning our fields if they had driven by on Sunday. It isn’t that we aren’t aware of the weeds; we’ve struggled against them for years. We keep trying to move toward more organic production, but until we can get our weeds under control, we have no hope. I actually don’t mind many of the weeds. The mustard flowers are a beautiful yellow. The catchfly flowers stands up above the alfalfa on graceful stems and I always enjoy pulling the flowers apart to find the fat, round balls of white seeds hidden within them. I love the dainty light pink fleabane. If I ignore the dandelions and the thistles, I can think of our fields as mixed alfalfa fields, not a monoculture of alfalfa. But I realize that that isn’t the way things are supposed to be.

We’ve spread various forms of fertilizer from the Farmers Elevator over the years, but that type of fertilizer is ethereal, here today and gone by next season. We really need to be adding more substantial fertility to our fields. Last year, Dave began spreading the manure from the barn and a season’s worth of compost on the fields. The difference in the alfalfa was amazing. The field under the manure was a deep rich green with few weeds visible; the section nearby with no manure was a mass of dandelion heads with little or no alfalfa. We should be spreading manure, but fifty sheep don’t produce anywhere near enough manure to fertilize forty acres. We are looking for an outside source of manure to use this year.

We have always felt that not tilling our fields every three or four years protected our top soil, kept it from blowing away in the winter or washing away during a wet spring. But weeds are the down side of that decision. We are reluctant to use herbicides; so we have weedy fields. Maybe a sustainable field of alfalfa isn’t weedless. The sheep don’t mind eating mustard or catchfly. They even eat the thistles baled into their winter feed. But the dandelions are driving me to distraction. Where we have dandelions, we have very little alfalfa. The plants are short, their leaves are small and there aren’t very many plants per square foot. Baling those sections of field feels futile because we get so few bales per acre.

So we will study more about sustainable farming; we will try to find an outside source of manure; and we will probably end up replanting one of our fields in an attempt to get rid of the dandelions. But for today, Dave will continue cutting alfalfa and niece Aubrey and I will continue repairing hay wagons. And tomorrow, or the next day, we will begin baling.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dandelion seeds

dandelion seeds
drift languidly on still air
untroubled by time

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Owning a gun

I grew up in a family that didn’t own guns. Dave had a Red Rider BB gun when he was a kid, but we never had a gun in our house until the day after a predator got into the chicken coop.

Dave and I woke that night almost thirty years ago to the sound of chickens screaming. Well, chickens don’t actually scream, but they were obviously upset. We grabbed a flash light and rushed out to the chicken coop. Before we even got there, we could smell the problem – a faint hint of skunk on the air.

The loudest squawking came from the far corner of the chicken run. When Dave directed the pale beam of the flash light in that direction we saw a mass of black with a bold white streak. Dave ran back to the house to get his bow and arrows – the only options other than my Buck hunting knife for defense of our chickens. Neither of us was interested in a knife fight with a skunk.

It’s not easy to accurately shoot an arrow thirty feet through a chicken wire fence at black target on a moonless night illuminated only by the failing beam of an old flash light. Dave shot six times. He killed the skunk and the five chickens the skunk had hidden beneath his body in the tunnel under the back fence.

The next day, Paul, Dave’s little brother who was working for us that summer, buried the skunk, the chickens, and the arrows, and Dave bought a rifle.

The rifle is stored in pieces in our house. I am vastly uncomfortable with it, but have learned how to carry and shoot it safely. Actually, when I shoot it, my target is always safe. You can’t shut your eyes as you pull the trigger and expect to hit anything.

I am vastly uncomfortable with the rifle, but have come to recognize its value.

Old farmers often nod sagely and tell me “a down sheep is a dead sheep.” When my flock was young, I didn’t believe them. Most of the health problems we had were related to pregnancy and we could almost always solve them. In my mind, a dead sheep meant a bad shepherd. But as our flock aged, I have learned that health problems in adult sheep outside of pregnancy and lambing are more apt to be fatal because nobody knows what to do for them. No one is willing to pay for the lab tests necessary to find out what metabolic disorder is plaguing a ten year old ewe. It isn’t cost effective, it isn’t practical, and sometimes it isn’t even possible.

Last week, Dave found a ewe in the barn who was bloated. During pregnancy, sheep sometimes bloat when they get pregnancy toxemia. We induce labor, hydrate them, and relieve the air in their bellies from metabolic shut down. If they deliver their lamb soon enough, we can usually bring them through the bloat. The other time sheep might bloat is when they eat too much feed too rapidly - corn after a fast, or fresh alfalfa when they haven’t had any for awhile and their intestinal bacteria aren’t set up to digest alfalfa. This kind of bloat is more mechanical. They either get a clump of grain stuck in their throat, or lots of gas in their stomach. in either instance, we slip a3/4” diameter tube down their throat. It either dislodges the clump of grain, or emits a foul smell of badly digested alfalfa. If we get the smell, we pour vegetable oil into the tube. It forms a layer on top of their stomach contents and stops the gas from forming. We keep the ewe on her feet and walking, and eventually, the bloat disappears.

So our first step when Dave found a bloated ewe was to intubate her. Nothing happened. I poured in some cooking oil and waited. The bloat continued to worsen. When a sheep’s stomach and intestines swell, they have less room in their abdomen for their lungs to expand. Sheep suffocate when they bloat.

We watched her, slowly expand. Bloat guard, a veterinary preparation didn’t help. We could hear where the gas was gathering. When we thumped her belly with our fingers, it made a hollow sound over the tautly stretched areas. We slid a large gauge needle into the hollow sounding spots on her side. Gas rushed out.

We could relieve the bloat, but we still had no idea what was causing it. We continued to relieve the bloat over the next 24 hours, but the ewe was getting weaker. When Dave first found her, she ate hay and drank water. Twenty-four hours later she wasn’t interested in either. This was not a disease I knew how to cure. This was an old, old ewe. She would not have lambed again in any case. Finally, we decided to stop her suffering. We could have had the vet out to put her down, but that was expensive and it was of course Saturday evening and I hated to call a vet away from his family for a problem for which I knew the solution. Dave took his rifle out to the pasture and shot her.

Being able to put an animal out of its misery is a good reason to own a gun. I am not a brave enough person to shoot a sheep when necessary, but I am grateful that Dave is.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Ready for haying

Dave and the haybine

I am not mechanically inclined. I have put air in my bicycle tires - and blown one up. I have used a ratchet wrench to try to remove a spark plug in my car – to no avail. I have fixed the knot tier in the baler - every third bale, for an entire day of baling.

Fortunately, Dave manages to figure out how to fix nearly every piece of machinery on the farm. He uses tattered old repair manuals, patience, and persistence. We have two extra balers for parts and a huge supply of shear pins and wrenches (both the ratchet kind and the ordinary immoveable kind). Dave gets oil and grease under his fingernails, grass stains on his jeans and shirts, and bruises on his head from sitting up too fast under a piece of equipment. The newest piece of farm equipment we own is our tractor and that’s almost 20 years old. The baler, haybine, chopper and disc are much older than that and they all need constant upkeep.

Every spring, about the time we set out the garden, Dave begins to put the haybine back together. He tightens the rivets on the sickle teeth and replaces teeth that are broken. Then he forces the nine foot sickle bar between the sickle guards on the bottom of the haybine. He greases all the zerk grease fittings and makes sure that all the moving parts meet where and when they are supposed to.

When it’s all back together, Dave takes the haybine for a test run. He cuts the pasture the sheep have just finished grazing to keep the grasses the sheep didn’t eat from going to seed. He understands the mechanical processes that come together to produce a long windrow of cut alfalfa. From my point of view, it is more like a series of magical events. The tractor engine turns the power take off shaft (somehow); the power take off shaft connects to the slip clutch on the haybine (the slip clutch is two dirty, yellow discs that seem to be connected only by black grease); the slip clutch turns the gear box which drives another shaft which pushes a rocker arm that slides the sickle teeth back and forth within their guards. At long last, the alfalfa plant comes into play. The alfalfa stems are pushed into the sickle teeth and the sickle guards by the reel; the stems are cut; and then grabbed between two heavy metal rollers that are both turned by the shaft from the gear box (remember the gear box? It also drives the sickle teeth); and the rollers shoot the hay out the back of the haybine to lie in the sun and dry. Now you know as much as I do about how our haybine works.

Dave still needs to check out the baler; I’ll make sure the hay wagons have solid decks and air in their tires (I can do wagon tires without exploding them); and finally, we need to mulch the new trees and gardens with the old hay in the barn and set up the bale elevator so that we can fill the barn with hay bales, after we bale it, after we cut it, after the hay first begins to bud out, after we get some warm weather and rain so the alfalfa will grow taller and produce buds.

Then we’ll be ready for haying.