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 manĂºr 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.