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.