Monday, December 27, 2010

Not quite Luddites

We don’t think of ourselves as Luddites, the weavers who destroyed mechanized looms in England in the early 1800’s because they had lost their jobs to mechanization. In fact, we don’t destroy machinery at all – Dave actually spends a lot of time fixing it. I guess I have been guilty of occasional destruction. The hay chopper comes to mind, (see, June 20 2010), but that wasn’t willful, and certainly wasn’t related to fears of unemployment. I actually wanted to use it to make my job as a farmer easier.

We don’t hold technological improvements in disdain. We both did our Masters research with some of the first computers, back in the early 1970’s when a computer took up the entire floor of a building and both the programming and the data entry were done with 3” X 7” cards punched with little holes. Interestingly, the Jacquard loom was developed in 1801 and it used cards with holes punched in them to create many different weaving patterns on a single warp. This made complex weaving a job suitable for an unskilled low wage person, not just a master weaver. It is ironic that one of the looms that created the Luddite movement, is an ancestor of the computer we use so gratefully today. Dave and I have had a personal computer since the first Apple II and we both use them daily for our work.

But the newest technologies seem to proliferate and become extinct so rapidly, that we have made it a policy to buy only what we absolutely need until forced into the next step up on the technology merry –go – round. We have a desk top and a lap top and use all the programs easily. We have a land line phone and FM radio. Since the television went digital, we haven’t had television reception because we live in one of those third world rural areas that was left out. We have DSL internet access and that keeps us connected with the world and its libraries. We’ve been perfectly happy without cell phones, Ipads or touches, Facebook, texting or tweeting.

We practice old fashioned farming. We don’t do pregnancy testing or computer assisted shearing. We don’t have a video camera in the barn to check up on the sheep at night during lambing. We don’t use a GPS system to plow the fields or aerial photography to spread fertilizer or herbicides. In many ways, we farm like Dave’s Grandpa Roy farmed fifty years ago.

Finally this fall we succumbed to the cell phone craze. With a six month old grandson and a second on the way, we wanted to be able to talk to our kids and our grandkids whenever they called. I have to admit that the cell phone has turned out to be an asset. However, the learning curve was tortuous. I still announce the obvious to the world in general when my cell phone rings;. I haven’t figured out how to turn it off yet, so it rings in places it oughtn’t; and I wander around the house to find the best signal. I still feel very obvious when I answer the phone, and am pleasantly surprised when a call actually goes through.

With lambing fast approaching, I have considered going digital.. I can carry my cell phone in my coveralls pocket and if I need Dave’s help, instead of trudging back into the house, I can press menu, people, contacts, Dave and he’ll answer. Isn’t progress amazing? Guess we really aren’t Luddites at all.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas miracles

December 1996.

“If you get all that knitting done, it will be a miracle.” My daughter Amber said to me.
“I know, I know. I always have too many ideas and not enough time. But I only have this last pair of socks to finish. Just the foot part. If I knit the whole way down to the cities, I ought to be almost done. Why don’t you go help your dad pack the car.”

“If we get all this stuff in the car it will be a miracle.” Dave said. “How could we have so much to pack? Presents for all the aunts and uncles and cousins. Wish we had a bigger car.”

“If Claire remembers to feed the sheep during her hectic Christmas morning, it will be a miracle.” Laurel said. “Don’t worry about Claire; did you feed and water the cats?” “Yes.” “Christmas tree watered?” “Yes.” “Outside birds fed?” “Yes. Can we go now?”
“All that’s left is to check the sheep.”

Lists cycled through my head as I walked to the barn. Would the fruit for the salad freeze on the trip? Maybe I should unpack it and wrap it in blankets. The family would kill me if I started unpacking. Did I have a good enough present for everyone? Would Tyler like his truck or was he out of his truck phase? Bob was always so hard to make things for. What would he think of the vest. Wonder if the kids gave the cats enough water. Really hope Claire remembers to feed the sheep tomorrow. Hope the sunnies will last the chickadees until we get back.

I turned the lights on in the barn and the ewes surged to their feet; all but Clooney who was lying in a corner. Something was wrong! Clooney wasn’t a solitary sheep; she should be dashing about the barn with the rest of the flock. I pulled the string on the light above Clooney’s head, throwing her corner of the barn into bright relief.

Clooney lay on her side, head stretched out, lips curled back, teeth bared. Her mound of a belly was hard in contraction. As the rest of the ewes quieted, I heard her panting.

Lambs weren’t due until the end of January. Either this would be a premature birth with lots of problems, or Clooney had spent some time with the ram before I formally introduced them. Clooney relaxed and maaaed.

Baaa, a soft voice echoed her. From the shadow behind Clooney’s massive body, rose a small black lamb, long legs shaking as it stood. I dashed to the supply cabinet, grabbed towel, knife and iodine, and rushed back to Clooney’s corner. She was concentrating on another contraction. And then another. I dried her lamb, cut the umbilical cord, poured iodine on the cord, and moved the lamb to her mother’s udder. Clooney labored. I waited. The lamb nursed. Clooney labored. Kneeling behind Clooney, I lubricated my hand and slid it into the birth canal. The tips of my fingers felt the ridges and hollows of the lambs skull. It was a huge head, filling the opening between Clooney’s pelvic bones. My fingers circled the head. No front hooves.
No wonder Clooney was laboring so hard. Carefully, slowly, I pushed the lambs head back deeper into Clooney’s body. Then I eased my hand in and felt for two front hooves. There! Against the pressure of Clooney’s contractions, I teased the hooves out into the coldness of the night barn. Slowly, the head followed. When the head was free, I tugged on one leg. The lamb’s big white body twisted, hesitated and then oozed out onto the golden straw covered barn floor. Clooney turned around and sniffed her new lamb. Her tongue began licking the membrane away from the lamb as it struggled toward her mothering gurgles. When the new lamb was licked clean, I carried both lambs to a clean pen and turned on the heat lamp. I toweled the second lamb dry and trimmed his umbilical cord. Soon, both lambs had nursed well and were sleeping curled at Clooney’s side.

I stepped out of the barn. The air was cold and crisp. Stars glowed in the night black sky. I could hear the sheep muttering in the barn; they had already resettled for the night. I took a deep breathe and realized that my worries were gone. The lists had evaporated.

The socks would be finished (or they wouldn’t. I could finish them tomorrow after we opened presents.) Everything would fit in the car (or it wouldn’t. My suitcase was still in the bedroom. If it didn’t fit, I could borrow clothes from my Mom.) Claire would check the lambs and feed the sheep (she’d probably come out to see the new lambs as soon as I called her, and we’d be home tomorrow night.) The real miracle had just happened in our barn. A baby had been born. A new chance. A new beginning. A real Christmas miracle.

Since this was first published in December 1997, we’ve had countless miracles large and small. The most recent and one of the biggest was the birth of our second grandson, Jasper.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Wild turkeys

photo by Roland Jordahl

7:32 a.m. Wednesday
From the kitchen sink, I watch a wild turkey skid to a snowy landing in the clearing behind the house. And then another, and another and another.

7:45 a.m. Thursday
I sit in a plastic lawn chair dressed in a white camouflage suit I made for Dave, with the long neck ribbing pulled up over my head. The only color is my face, my gloves and my camera. I hope that I look enough like a snow drift to fool the turkeys.

Several chickadees flit from branch to branch in the lilac hedge. Chickadee dee dee. I recognize their distinctive call. I can hear the turkeys waking. First a single voice, then another. As the sky lightens I see the large black mass of a turkey high up in the trees to the west of the house.

The day is crisp, with very little wind here, sheltered by the woods and the house. Wood smoke drifts languidly above me, scenting the winter air. My butt and my fingers are cooling, but the wait was worth it. Lots of turkeys are talking in the trees. Deep voices, shrill voices, complex calls, simple squawks. They drown out the chickadees.

A black shape lifts from a tree, spreads wings and tail and soars across the barnyard and onto the driveway. Another. Another. A few birds land out of sight, north of the house. The mass of the flock lower their feet and settle onto the driveway just beyond the pickup – well out of camera range. Each bird lands in front of and just beyond the previous bird, so they work their way from the pickup toward the spot where my camera is focused. Finally, two birds skid to a stop in front of me –still to far away for a good photo, but definitely not bothered by my presence.

They ruffle their feathers, the long tuft of feathers on the chest of the male birds stands out as a display. They move on the ground with a clunky, bobbing walk, as if the deep snow has broken their normal gait. Two turkeys explore the woods for a few minutes and then move back toward the rest of the birds and out of my camera range.

I stand and walk slowly toward the bulk of the flock. I am dressed in camouflage, but don’t walk in camouflage. The snow squeaks under every step. Walking turkeys can be completely silent. The crunch of my feet in the snow is distressingly loud. I round the corner of the house in time to see the turkeys flow up the driveway and into the woods, not at all clunky in their movements.

My half hour sitting outside on a winter morning has produced a crappy photograph taken from too far away of a pair of small black turkey shapes. But the process was much more important than the product. I don’t often take the time to sit outside on a winter morning and watch the sunrise fill the sky with gold. I should do it more often; watching wild turkeys, watching the sunrise, or just watching.

8:00 a.m. Saturday
The winds whipped through our yard. I want to get closer to the turkeys, but not enough to sit outside in a -9˚ wind chill. I sit down in front of my computer instead to email a friend, Roland Jordahl, asking for permission to use one of his wonderful wild turkey photos. I can hear the wind. But I also hear a scratching just outside my second story study. I look out the window. Nothing. The scratching comes again, from above me. I look up. Two large bird feet scratch at the snow on the window, struggling for balance. A crab apple falls onto the glass. A yellow turkey beak stabs through the snow and gobbles the apple. The clawed feet scratch at the window again and then disappear as the bird steps onto the roof and out of sight.

This bird was certainly close enough for a picture, but two large feet, viewed from the underside are not what I wanted either. My photos just didn’t do the wild turkey justice. I called my friend Jordy.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Big cities and small towns

I like living in a small town.

Last week we went to the big city and had a great time – but also because of things that big cities have and small towns don’t. mostly because we were visiting our kids

The architecture always interests me – new housing styles, a huge office building covered with glass that reflects the sky, a green building with gardens and rank after rank of solar panels all on the roof. I love the light rail and the riverfront, the lights on a bridge at night, the Christmas decorations glittering in the rain.

We visited fabric stores, touching fabrics, matching patterns and colors, running strands of yarn through our fingers. My mind opens up in that situation and I dream of new projects – clothes to create, knitting projects to try. I love working on projects with the kids – quilting, knitting, wood working and lead abatement.

In the city we eat wonderful Chinese dim sum, authentic shrimp tempura and okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes) and drink freshly roasted Peace coffee. But that is just the beginning of great tastes because we always make adventuresome tasty food with our kids - mud pie, bittersweet chocolate bread pudding, Indian nihari and bhendi, sweet potato turkey hash, and Sunday morning pancakes.

Our kids musical tastes have expanded beyond ours. They’ve introduced us to Rockabye Baby by Radiohead, Putamayo, and Stravinsky done live by orchestra and chorus, a chorus in which I swear I could pick out Laurel’s voice.

I love visiting big cities because of the way they tantalize my senses, take me out of the tastes, sights, sounds and smells in which I am normally surrounded and offer me new experiences, and because we spend time there with our kids. I love big cities; but I am glad to come home to my small town where I know what will happen tomorrow and who I will talk to next Tuesday at 8:30 am. Where we have comfort food left-overs in the freezer and the scent and warmth of wood smoke in the living room, and Oolong, the cat, who purrs all night long beside us in bed. And where the sheep laze in the barnyard, content in the winter sun.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


The first time I saw an alpaca I fell in love with the species. They have beautiful, soft, fuzzy looking fleeces, gentle, inquisitive faces and big golden eyes. The first time I saw an alpaca run, I was entranced. They move like liquid flowing across the ground. Their heads stretch forward and their bodies glide, apparently without effort just above the ground. The first time I saw a newly shorn alpaca, I laughed out loud. He looked exactly like a Muppet – topknot, long skinny neck, tiny body and bodacious long legs. The laughter has stayed with me. Just watching Kaylie, our alpaca, gives me joy.

I never considered buying an alpaca. They are out of sight expensive. I couldn’t make back the cost in fleece sales and I am not interested in selling breeding stock with all the showing of animals and public relations involved. But when a friend asked us to board some of his animals, I accepted without a moment’s hesitation. Just the chance to have alpacas on the farm was a good exchange for feeding them. When he sold those animals to a breeder, he gave me Kaylie in exchange for our feed and time. I’ve never had a better deal.

When I look out over the flock, Kaylie’s slender black neck and head rises above the sheep. She places herself between strangers and the flock. In fact, when Dave and I move the sheep into the barn, she tries to stand between us and the flock. When we work with the sheep in the barn, coating them, giving shots, or during shearing, Kaylie keeps up a constant humming. We’ve never figured out if the sound is reassurance for the sheep or warning to us. Perhaps it’s both. Alpacas spit with amazing accuracy and disgustingness when they are upset. They can also kick with their hind legs hard enough to seriously injure anyone unlucky enough to be standing behind them.

Kaylie acts as a guard animal for our flock. One day we took Buddy, a visiting dog, out to the barnyard to see how he responded to the sheep. Kaylie took one look at Buddy, laid back her ears, and screamed. The sheep disappeared around the corner of the barn; Kaylie stood her ground; and Buddy strained at the end of his leash, as far away from Kaylie as he could get.

When ewes lamb, Kaylie sniffs the newborns and then checks them out in their jugs as they sleep curled at their mothers’ sides. She is always aware of us, always on watch, a part of the flock, and much more.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Picky eaters

Our sheep are picky eaters. If we leave them on a single small pasture for a week, they eat everything down to about 2”. That’s the ideal. If the pasture is too big, they eat the best grasses and leave the rest. If we leave them on a pasture for longer than a week, they keep eating the best grasses as they regrow, leaving the rest to go to seed. And that leaves us with pastures full of overripe grasses that don’t have very much nutritional value and taste even worse than they did before they became overripe- judging by the sheep’s refusal to eat them.

In the summer, Dave cuts the long grasses that then grow back nice and juicy and the sheep eat them. In the winter, the sheep have to make do with what they get. But so far this fall, when we’ve fed them grass hay, they’ve chosen to eat the old grass in the pastures rather than grass hay. So next we gave them oat hay, baled from our very own oat field last summer. They liked that enough to mine it for grains of oats, but not enough to eat the leaves and stems.

We only have about 700 bales of our own alfalfa hay and that won’t get the sheep through the winter. So, late this fall, we found a source of nice alfalfa hay and bought 400 bales. The farmer delivered. In order to keep the number of trips from his farm to our farm as low as possible, he loaded his wagon and his pickup with an unimaginable number of bales. The wagon listed to the right; the pickup (eleven bales high)was riding on its springs. It looked like something out of a Dr Seuss book. I was exhausted just looking at it. Then the farmer and his brother helped Dave and I put the hay in the barn so that they could take their wagons home that night. It was the best deal we’d ever had on hay and the sheep are happy too.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hunting season

The hunters have been out for the past few weeks. I’m sure they appreciate the warm weather; I know I do. I haven’t unpacked my long underwear or winter coat yet. The sheep are still grazing pastures instead of eating hay. We have had time to finish farm chores – install a drain behind the barn, spread manure, take down and store the temporary electric fencing.

But there are disadvantages to the warmth. We still have flies. Dave kills dozens a day – their black carcasses litter the windowsills. Even worse, we still have mosquitoes! Absolutely unheard of for mid November. And we still have active deer mice.

Usually by this time in the fall, Oolong the cat and Dave have accounted for all the mice that attempted to winter indoors. But this year, they haven’t gotten torporous yet and an endless stream of little tan and white mice with big eyes and ears and long soft tails finds their way into the house.

Last night, sound asleep in bed, I heard a light scritching and a metallic thump. Suddenly, I was sitting bolt upright, eyes wide open, completely awake. “Mouse!” I announced loudly enough to wake Dave. “I heard it run across our headboard and jump to our metal lamp.”

Dave padded out of the bedroom and returned with Oolong. She snuggled down beside him and then jumped to her feet, intent on the bookshelves along the wall. Dave and I drifted back to sleep as Oolong waited patiently for the mouse to venture out again. We were awakened by a short flurry of squeaks and then silence.

I’m waiting for freezing weather, for an end to mosquitoes and flies and outdoor chores for the year. Oolong is still enjoying her long, extended hunting season.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Coats on the sheep

We raise wool for hand spinners. That means our fleeces have to be immaculate – no burdock burrs, no sweet cicely spines, no thistles, no tiny bits of alfalfa leaves. To meet this goal during the summer, we dig and spray the noxious plants in our fields. In the winter, we protect the fleeces by feeding small square bales of hay that the sheep can’t burrow into like they would a big round bale; and we coat our sheep. When sheep eat, they invariably take a bite of hay from the feeder and then chew it over the back of the sheep beside them. Little bits of alfalfa fall out of their mouths and drift down into the wool of the next sheep. Those little bits of alfalfa don’t wash out or card out. They are there forever to make unsightly bumps in an otherwise perfectly smooth handspun yarn.

Shepherds who sell their fleeces to commercial wool buyers don’t have to worry about weed seeds or alfalfa bits because the commercial woolen mills use an acid wash or high heat to destroy any veggies in the wool. However, those methods also change the surface of the wool fiber, making it feel scratchy and itchy.

So hand spinners are willing to pay extra money to buy clean, non-chemically altered wool that can be spun into smooth, even yarn with a people friendly texture. And for that extra money, I’m willing to spend an afternoon putting coats on my sheep. This year, it took three of us three hours. Not a bad exchange to be able to sell my fleeces for $10 per pound instead of $0.50!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Without Carly

The farm is different without Carly. Dave works nights this week and the house feels very empty. Oolong the cat is still here of course, but she is bonded more closely with Dave and rarely makes contact with me. I miss the ritual of feeding Carly and letting her outside during the day. I miss having someone to talk to. I even miss her labored breathing.

The most obvious sign of Carly’s absence is the presence of wild turkeys in the yard. After the leaves fall, we frequently see the huge black birds scuttling through the woods or across the fields. They can weigh between 6 and 24 pounds - not something I’d want to tangle with. When I come down the driveway after a run, the turkeys pause in the woods, freezing into the autumn camouflage of brown, beige and gray. If I stop moving for long enough, the turkeys eventually go on their way. I saw my first turkey roosting high up in an oak tree while I was standing perfectly still, just watching.

Carly didn’t stand still and watch when she saw turkeys. She barked and ran toward them, chasing them rapidly out of range. She didn’t spend a lot of time out doors, but it must have been enough to make the yard smell like dog or in some way seem dangerous, because they never came near the house. With no dog on the property now, the turkeys are advancing.

First we saw one on the roof of the pickup truck. Next a pair strutted over the wood pile. This morning, the entire flock of eleven stood under the radiant crab right outside the living room window. They stretched their ugly, bare necks up and plucked apples from the tree. Turkeys have beautiful plumage in shades of gray and brown. I’ve found turkey feathers on the driveway. The colors on the huge pinion feathers form crisp black and white stripes. The softer, smaller down feathers are more subtle blends of brown and gray. For some reason, the feathers stop at the bottom of the turkeys neck and wrinkled gray and pink skin covers their heads. Up close, in the autumn, with their feathers sleek against their bodies, turkeys are ugly birds. Next spring, when breeding begins and the males spread their tails to reveal the iridescent bronze and blue and green feathers, the males, at least, will be beautiful. Without Carly to scare them off, we may see those magnificent displays up close.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Grandchildren and fiber

Although grandchildren have a direct line to my heart, they also engage my fingers and my fibers.

“The baby’s room will have an insect theme,” my daughter, Amber, said. And so, two months before our second grandson is due, I spread a piece of rug canvas on the floor and begin to imagine. Kieran’s rug held three goldfish in a purpely blue underwater world. For our next grandson, I drew a scene from a bug’s (or a small child’s) perspective. A lady bug climbs a grass stem; a honey bee hovers over a dandelion blossom; and three stages of a monarch – caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly, inhabit this bug’s eye world.

I spread five shades of green carded roving, yellow, red, orange roving and neutral brown, gray and tan around me on the sofa. Then I slip my locker hook through the first hole on the canvas, catch a loop of dark brown alpaca roving and pull the loop through to the front of the canvas. I hook another loop through the next hole in the canvas and repeat. When I have five loops of brown on my hook, I pull the locking thread on the end of my hook through the loops and begin again.

The rows accumulate slowly, only two per hour. There are one hundred rows of canvas in my design. I will listen to lots of books on tape as I create a rug for a baby to lay on, a tired mother to stand on, and a small boy to imagine himself within.

I appreciate the rovings as they slip through my fingers. The coarse gray-brown was from Fair’s fleece, my very first sheep. The variegated sage green was naturally dyed with common mullein from our fields. The roving for the monarchs wings simmered in orange Kool Aid for half an hour to turn a brilliant orange. Memories of dyeing with friends over wood fires mingle with anticipation of a new addition to our family as I create something that has never existed before – possibly an intriguing image, hopefully a beautiful rug, certainly a gift from my heart.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What are we going to do about Carly?

Carly is a people dog. When I work in my study, she lies patiently in the doorway. When I go downstairs to start supper, she follows me down. If we aren’t in the house, she lies next to the sofa awaiting our return.

Although we live on a farm, Carly really isn’t a farm dog. She certainly enjoys farm life when we leave the barnyard gate open. She slips in to eat sheep poop and scavenge the compost pile. She barks protectively when a strange car comes down the driveway, and used to enthusiastically chase squirrels. We noticed this summer that Carly wasn’t able to keep the squirrel population under control. They got all our sweet corn and nibbled almost every single squash. I know Carly would really love to chase squirrels, but this summer, her breathing didn’t allow it.

In the last two months, it has gotten worse. Even when she lies perfectly still she takes loud painful sounding inhalations and exhalations. Night times are the worst. She breathes heavily, stridorously, and then seems to stop. Seconds later, the stridor begins again. We’ve wakened half a dozen times now to her panicked movements as she wakes from an apneic spell and tries to control her body enough to rise or run away. I get up in the dark and snuggle her, stroke her head, murmur platitudes. When she calms, I return to bed, sure she’ll be dead by morning.

Carly is thirteen or fourteen years old, ancient for a Rottweiler. We took her to our vet and explained that we’d like to ease her discomfort, but not do anything heroic. Dr. Weckwerth put her on prednisolone and for a month she seemed a little better.

But now, her breathing is bad during the day too. It seems rational to have her euthanized, but when she settles beside me at meals quietly waiting for the intermittent rewards we’ve used to train her to sit quietly beside us at meals, she seems content. When she tracks me in the kitchen, hoping for a dropped tidbit, she seems herself. When she eagerly joins us for a walk, short tail wagging, she seems fine.

How can we take an alert, content dog to the vet to be euthanized?

Part of the problem is that Carly is an anxious dog. She came to us twelve years ago, in the middle of a blizzard, starving and afraid. Afraid of loud noises, raised arms, squeaky drawers, and new situations. Afraid she wouldn’t get enough to eat.

Over the years, we’ve reassured her, taught her to trust people, and to relax in her home even when it is full of activity and people. For a long time we kept her on a leash when we had company. She now runs loose even on fiber days, enjoying the activity, the crowds and the spilled plates of food.

As her breathing has worsened, so has her anxiety. She paces beside the bed as soon as Dave or I whisper in the morning. She follows us frantically around the kitchen, hoping we’ll feed her. She pants continuously, pausing only to lick nervously.

You can’t euthanize a dog because she licks her paws and pants, so Dave and I are learning to dial down our responses to Carly’s anxiety. Besides, our irritation just makes her more anxious.

But the day is coming when we’ll clip on her leash and lead her to the vet’s office. That will be the day when our estimate of her discomfort exceeds our grief at her loss. Until then we try to appreciate Carly for what she is and set aside our discomfort at the idea of euthanasia. Then we can make the decision to have Carly put to sleep. I know that’s not the proper word. I know I should say euthanize or put down. But that’s not what I want for Carly. I just want her to go to sleep, one last time.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Kieran's sweater

I like to make things from scratch. We bought our first four sheep so that I would have a source of wool to spin. I planned to knit the spun yarn into scarves, hats, mittens and sweaters. I'm good at scarves, hats and mittens, but in twenty-five years I've only knit two sweaters from my hand-spun yarn. They each took about five years from shearing the sheep to blocking the finished sweater.

I knew I didn't have five years to knit a baby sweater for my grandson Kieran. The day after he was born, I found a cute pattern and scavenged some washable acrylic yarns. I don't like to use acrylics, but my wool isn't machine washable and it’s crazy to give a baby a sweater that can't be washed.

I knit three fourths of the sweater in three weeks and then quit. I hated the feel of the fiber and the color range I had found was too babyish - pale green, pale yellow, pale pink, pale blue and pale orange. My daughter, Laurel, and I went to a nice yarn store and found a colorful self-striping wool sock yarn. The sock yarns are machine washable and this one was soft. Unfortunately, the yarn was also very fine and knitting on size two needles was slow. I finished the sweater in three months, but Kieran had already grown out of it. I began again, using the six to twelve month pattern this time. I didn't sew the pieces together until I got to Kieran's house last week because I wanted to make sure it fit. Good decision. I had to add an inch in length to the body and an inch in diameter to the sleeves. The sweater now fits him perfectly at six months. His height and weight are those of a twelve month old. Maybe, he'll grow more slowly until he doesn't need the warmth of a wool sweater anymore.

When I begin making Kieran a sweater out of hand-spun yarn, I think I'll plan it for a twenty-one year old and he can help me spin the yarn over the years.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Last week we put the last two loads of hay in the barn. It wasn’t great hay – mostly grass with a little bit of mold. We had placed an ad for hay in the newspaper, but nobody responded. So when Dave ran into a friend of a friend at the elevator who had some extra hay – we bought it.
We feed small (50#) square bales of hay to our sheep. It’s easier to keep their fleeces clean when they have to reach down to eat rather than burrow into a big round bale. But baling and feeding small square bales is labor intensive and hard work, so most farmers use the big round bales. That means if we don’t bale enough ourselves, we have a hard time finding hay to buy.
This year, we didn’t bale enough and we haven’t found enough to feed the sheep over the winter. We’re lucky this year that our pastures are still lush and green in October; we’ll probably be able to put off feeding hay until November. But even with that saving, we only have 1100 bales in the barn. One ewe will eat an average of a bale of hay every ten days. That’s 18 bales per sheep until we can put them out onto fresh pasture in May. Eighteen bales times fifty sheep is 1300 bales to get us through the winter. We’re 200 bales shy. Doesn’t seem like many, but that means shorting the sheep about 22% off a really strict diet for anyone, much less a pregnant ewe. The only option we see right now is to sell some of our ewes.
Logically, I would sell the older ewes who are more apt to have problems lambing or feeding their lambs. But those ewes are my friends. I know their names. They know me. When they lamb, their lambs aren’t afraid of us. We have two wethers, both friends, but they produce no lambs and their fleeces aren’t great. They will go to the butcher this fall. The one and two year old ewes are the ones I should be saving, but they aren’t friends yet and they still have their original ear tags, so I still know exactly what their breeding is. They will be the easiest to sell.
My spread sheet listing all the ewes, their ages, fleece characteristics, lambing records and breeding lies on the kitchen table. Every day I look at it, trying to settle on ten ewes to sell. I can’t make up my mind. Saturday, we turned the rams in with the ewes. It won’t make my decision any easier, but it might make the decision easier for a buyer.
While I debate with myself, I hope for a late, late frost so that we can keep feeding the ewes on growing pastures and fields and put off beginning on our hay for as long as possible. With enough procrastination on my part and a late enough frost, I might not have to sell any sheep at all.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Under the trees

I love to gather wood in the fall in a forest full of drifting leaves. They crackle underfoot as I make trails through the trees, carrying armloads of wood. The leaves are dying, but the woods are alive. Mushrooms appear overnight, rising through the leaf duff – white, black, brown – always an interesting puzzle because I recognize so few of them.

This last weekend, our 11 year old niece, Becca, helped us gather wood. As we rounded a tree, we almost stepped on three patches of mushrooms. The first were tall, white and soft looking, like pale pronto pups. Next to them was a cluster of gray and black parasol shaped mushrooms, the black edges glistening in the sunlight. Finally there was a group of three mushrooms with tall, thin stems and tiny, flat black and slimy caps.

I know these shaggy mane or inky cap mushrooms; they frequently grow in our barnyard. The first day they push their way through the earth, white or tan, with soft scales, growing inches in twenty-four hours. The second day, the entire mushroom cap flattens out, begins to darken and the edges fray, becoming black and wet. Finally, the mushrooms deliquesce, dissolve, into slimy black spots on the ground, unrecognizable as mushrooms.

Becca had never seen anything like it; she didn’t think they could all be the same kind of mushroom. We picked one from each cluster and took them into the house to make spore prints. Becca laid each mushroom cap on a piece of white paper and set a glass over it. Then we went back to gathering fire wood, giving the spores a chance to drop from the underside of the mushroom onto the paper.

Back under the trees, our eyes saw mushrooms every where we looked. Each armload of wood included a stop to pick a new variety of mushroom for a spore printing. After we stacked the last of the wood, Becca led me back to the tree her father had just cut down. She knelt beside the stump of the trunk and pointed. Dozens of little brown mushrooms sprouted from the rotting wood. The smallest was the size and shape of a brown pearl. The biggest had a curved brown stem and a flat, slimy brown cap almost two inches across. Becca gently picked one of the bigger mushrooms and ran back to the house for a spore print.

Before she left for home, Becca lifted the glasses and then the mushroom caps from the prints. Most of the spores were white and she had to hold the paper up, for the sun to shine through it, to see the radiating lines of white on white. One rusty brown mushroom had spread a print of brown spores. And the three different stages of shaggy mane mushrooms were soaking the paper, but a dusting of black spores had settled out from each cap. Under the trees, the rest of the mushrooms would release their spores as they died, beginning the process of life all over again.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The turning of the seasons

The maple tree up the road from our driveway is turning scarlet. Leaves are beginning to fall from the trees and gather in drifts on the ground. Through the thinning leaves, I see the white blades of our wind generator flashing against an autumn blue sky. So many indicators of fall – the cool crisp morning air, swallows gathered on the power lines, mice in the house. But the biggest indicators, especially for people who don’t spend a lot of time observing outdoors, or who aren’t familiar with the countryside, are the leaves.

Mohamed, a young Somali man who came as a refugee two winters ago, watched the approach of fall with horror. “Why are the trees dying?” he asked.

In late summer, the bright green colors seem to drain from many of the leaves, leaving them dull, more bronze than green. The exceptions are the brilliant golds of the birch, aspen, and tamarack, the scarlet maples, sumac and dogwood, and later the red oaks all of which seem to get brighter in autumn. I don’t know if Mohamed appreciated the color changes, but he definitely worried as more and more leaves fell from the trees.

He had already lived a year and a half in Minnesota, but perhaps the first autumn he had been overwhelmed by the process of learning how to survive in a land so different from his own to notice the slow drift of trees toward skeletal dormancy. Or perhaps, living in a city, even a small city he hadn’t noticed the trees at all. Only after helping us on the farm for a summer had he begun to see the trees, appreciate the trees, and worry as he watched them lose their leaves.

Mohamed saw the loss of leaves as a precursor of death, not understanding that in Minnesota, autumn turns to winter, spring always follows, and that green leaves will come again.

Friday, September 17, 2010


I usually think of myself as level headed, clear eyed, one to see almost every aspect of a plan before I begin. But this week has shown me just how fully I can participate in self deception.

Because we have decided to spray herbicides over our east hay field in preparation for reseeding it to alfalfa and prairie grasses, we can harvest the food off of it as late in the fall as we want without worrying about damaging next year’s crop. So we decided to pasture the ewes on the hayfield and save the grass in their pastures to use later in the fall.
We have used temporary electric fencing in the past to sequester sections of hayfield. We turn the sheep out onto the field, secure in the knowledge that they can’t get through the fencing, and let them graze until everything is gone – actually until just before everything is gone. If we make them stay too long, they break through the electric fencing as if it wasn’t there in search of better feed.

It takes time to set out the fencing and haul the waterer and the hoses out to the hay field so I announced that I would spend the week being a traditional shepherd, sitting out in the field with the animals and letting them graze unrestricted (or protected) by fencing. I had ten interviews to transcribe, work that could be done sitting in a lawn chair in the east hayfield as easily as at my desk in my study or curled up on the couch. Monday and Tuesday, I had too many meetings to bother herding the sheep out to the hay field if I would just have to herd them back to the fenced pastures an hour later. Wednesday, I would begin.

Wednesday dawned dark and rainy. My vision of traditional shepherds with their flocks had not included rain. I could sit out in the rain as well as anyone. I had done so on many canoe trips. I can work in the rain too – tending animals, hauling wood, collecting sap. But I couldn’t transcribe interviews in the rain. A digital recorder and a paper notebook or a lap top computer were not up to the task. I couldn’t justify sitting out in the rain all day doing nothing but being a shepherd, so I gave up the idea for Wednesday. And if, in the back of my mind, a little voice said ‘you could sit in the car and work,’ I ignored it.

Thursday did dawn beautifully. This day I would be a real shepherd. I put on boots and a jacket, but decided to leave my shepherds crook, a tool I still hadn’t mastered, behind. I began working my way across the pastures, opening gates for the sheep. First the hole cut in the fence that borders the hay field. I untangled rusty wires and pulled the gate open. It seemed smaller than I remembered, barely three feet high and four feet wide. Perhaps the fence was sagging with age. Next, the wire reinforced gate into the south pasture – a tribute to farmer ingenuity, it consisted of an old metal gate reinforced with a layer of livestock fencing on both sides. Nothing could force it’s way through this gate. The third gate, into the south woods pasture, was the exact opposite of the second. It was two practically useless metal gates tied together with rotting baling twine. Not only did it have holes big enough for most of our sheep to get through, but it weighed a ton and was hard to open and close. The sheep had already knocked down the fourth gate and were standing there in the opening, waiting patiently for me to find them some better grazing land.

I smiled to myself; look how docile and well trained my sheep were. I would be a great traditional shepherdess. “Hay ewes!” I called. The sheep streamed from their pasture and around me like a river around a rock. They separated and ran to the farthest corners of the south woods pasture. I called them. They ignored me. I circled behind them, chuckling, shouting, singing. They seem to move best to old nursery songs sung at the top of my voice. Finally Christmas saw the next open gate and darted through into the south pasture. The rest followed slowly as I chivvied them closer and closer to the gate.

The same thing happened in the south pasture. The sheep were intent on finding the best grass and couldn’t read my mind at all. I took off my jacket and kept singing. Finally Christmas saw the gate to the southeast pasture and wandered through. I encouraged the rest of the flock, dropping back for stragglers, outflanking the more conservative who kept turning back, until every sheep was in the south pasture.

I only had to get them through that tiny little opening and out onto the hayfield. By now, on this 45˚ morning, sweat was running down my face and the older sheep were panting. They didn’t seem to recognize the gate as an opening in the fence. Time after time I chased them up to the opening, but not through. Once again, Christmas recognized it by some dim memory of a past autumn. Kali the alpaca wandered back and forth in front of the opening, but finally ducked her head, bent her knees and stepped through, determined to stay with her flock.

The sheep stopped moving as soon as they hit the hayfield. Even as sparse as our hayfield had become over the last few years, it was still more interesting to graze than the pastures. I looked at the little cluster of sheep in the fifteen acres of field. They would be fine.

I thought back to my hour of herding independent sheep across three pastures. Would I be able to force these sheep back through that little gate come evening? Could I leave them on their own long enough to go get my recorder and notebook? Could I leave them long enough to make lunch?

Finally, my rational brain stepped in. Of course I’d get them through the gate come evening – I always had before. But did I want to be herding sheep in the dark with no help? Of course I could take the time to run back to the house for my recorder and notebook, but did I want the sheep to wander into the slough and fill their fleeces with burrs while I was gone? Of course I could take the time out for lunch, but the mosquitoes were already feeding on me.

I ran back to the yard, loaded the car, and drove back to the hayfield. The sheep were still quietly grazing in the same spot, but I was taking no chances. I was going to be a traditional shepherdess in a twenty-first century sort of way. I set up the electric fencing.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


The sun is shining, there is no wind. Flowers still bloom in my garden and we are still picking cucumbers, melons, and peppers. After the frost we will dig potatoes and harvest squash. Yesterday, we harvested our honey crop

In slightly more honest terms – yesterday, we stole the honey from our bees. And all we have to show for it is a few dozen frames of honey, three stings and a lot of really angry bees.

We always dress as comprehensively as possible to steal honey. We wear coveralls over our clothes. We wear bee hats and veils. We pull boots up over our coverall legs to keep the bees from crawling under the cuffs and we pull arm length gloves over our hands.

At first, the bee yard is an idyllic sort of place – plants, trees, two hives, bees. The air was full of bees in that lyrical sort of ‘the air was soft and warm and full of the buzzing of the bees as they flitted from flower to flower’ sort of full.

Then using his hive tool, Dave cracked the wax seal between the lid of the hive and the top super. He lifted off the lid. The entire surface of the super was covered with bees.
And suddenly, the air was full of bees in a real, meaningful, one bee every six inches all around us sort of full.

Relax, I told myself, relax. Breathe slowly. Some bee keepers used to do this without veils. Right! myself said back. They must of been crazy. I could hear bees running into my veil – soft little thuds. I enjoyed my feeling of invulnerability for almost five minutes until the first bee found its way inside my veil. A bee inside your veil is hundreds of times worse than hundreds of bees outside.

Now this was not the first time I’d had a bee inside my veil. The first time it happened, I was working one of my father’s hives. I ripped my veil off right then and there and instead of having a bee inside my veil I had an entire swarm tangled in my hair. That time I ran screaming to the lake and stuck my head in the water. My mother knelt beside me and picked bees out of my streaming hair, squishing each one as she found it. Amazingly, neither one of us was stung.

This time, I calmly announced that I had a bee under my veil and started walking rapidly up the path, beginning to untie my veil. “Wait!” Dave said from behind me. “You have bees all over your back.” He brushed at my back as we walked. When we reached the house, I ripped off my veil and Dave started looking for the bee. I could hear it, but he couldn’t see it. Finally I pulled the clasp out of my hair and shook my head. Mistake. I could still hear the bee, but now my hair was much messier. Finally, he found it when it settled to sting my head.

We put our veils back on and duct taped them to our coveralls. Then we pulled on our gloves and went back to the bee yard. Dave lifted a frame from the hive, brushed it off with his brush and handed it to me. I set it into a super on our cart and covered it to keep the bees out. Relax, I told myself. Think like a tree. It didn’t work. Soon I had another bee inside my veil. We repeated the bee clearing process without my being stung this time.

Back at the hives, the bees were really upset. I could feel their little bodies vibrating when they crawled around on my gloves. Bees clustered on the open boxes, on the honey comb exposed to the air, on the leaves and bushes beside the trail, and on our bodies.
Relax. I told myself. Relax.

Dave handed me the last frame and began restacking the supers. “I’ve got a bee in my pants,” he said, hurrying to the cart. “Let’s get out of here.” Dave had also had a bee in his pants before and had learned, like I did that panicking and removing your protective gear was not a good idea. Its really hard to run with your pants down around your ankles.

We wrapped each harvested super in a plastic bag, sucked all the air out with our vacuum and then filled the bags with carbon dioxide to kill any remaining bees. Next month, when friends come north with their honey, we’ll get out our extractor and finish stealing the honey from our bees.

Monday, September 13, 2010


after days of gray
sunlight breaking through the mist
cranes cry overhead

mist fills the valley
silvers grasses with dew drops
soaks into my socks

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Birth and death

I think of summer as an easy time for farming. We aren’t fighting the cold and lamb death by starvation. We aren’t fighting the risks of pregnancy, labor and delivery. We aren’t constantly on the watch for metabolic diseases or worms and other parasites. If we’ve been good shepherds, the only animal deaths we face during the summer months are those we impose on the animals. Deaths we choose for them.

What kind of a disconnect exists in the brains of farmers that allows us to nurture a cute, cuddly lamb for three months and then sell it for slaughter. I could say we sell that lamb for meat, but that sanitizes the process. If I am to be completely honest, we sell it for slaughter. That’s why meat processing facilities used to be called slaughter houses.

Jiana, a young friend of ours, dissected a chicken wing at school. She came home that night and said to her parents “Do you know where that chicken came from? The grocery store!” Jiana became a vegetarian that day.

When our girls were little and we only had a few lambs each year, they always named the lambs, even the boys that we knew we wouldn’t add to the flock, and I only served “meat” not lamb or beef or heaven forbid “White Boy.” They both eventually became vegetarians for awhile. Dave and I eat very little meat, more for nutritional reasons than for ethical reasons. The girls and their families have moved back to more omnivorous life styles.

But I am always aware of the fate of our lambs. When we have a buyer, we bring the lambs in from the pasture. They circle the barn and trot through the door into the barn where it has always found warmth, security, and safety. We pen them in a corner and a Bosnian or Somali man steps forward to make his selection. We weigh the lamb and agree on a price. Then Dave helps carry the lamb to the corner of the barn yard where it’s new owner cuts the lamb’s throat.

The lamb looses consciousness in seconds bleeds to death in a minute or two. The fifteen minute process between pasture and death is much shorter than any meat processing facility can provide. Selling the lamb to a meat buyer away from my home involves herding, trucking, herding, selling, trucking, and a final herding into the abattoir.

Scientist, Temple Grandin, has worked her entire career to improve the conditions of animals at processing facilities, redesigning the building, the handling equipment, even sound and light control to keep the animals calm.

Our goal is to shorten the end of life process to minutes, to not subject our animals to the stress of transportation and to sell them from the security of their own barn yard, their own barn. Our technique assuages my guilt, but doesn’t eradicate it. I am, after all, responsible for seventy-five lamb deaths this summer, way more than would happen by those natural causes that I fight so hard against in winter and spring.

I once knew a farmer who shifted from raising beef cattle to raising strawberries. “I’d lie awake nights before taking my cattle to market,” he said. “I don’t lie awake for strawberries.” I could never raise strawberries; I don’t like weeding well enough. But I don’t like killing animals either. It is good that we sell lambs in the summer, right up until the time we put the rams and the ewes together for breeding because then the death of lambs is vivid in my mind as we begin planning for the birth of lambs.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Thoroughly wet with the rain

"As soon as I was thoroughly wet through on the way home,
I became one with the weather and would not have changed the day.
It is only when one is dry that one is out of sympathy with the rain.
When one is wet through, one minds it no more than the trees do,
Having become a part of the day itself."
Sir Edward Grey

Some times we can put off working in the rain and sometimes, we can’t. Last Sunday, lamb buyers arrived with the rain clouds.

We have eleven fenced pastures. We rotate the animals through the pastures, hoping they eat the grasses down in each pasture in about a week. We return the animals to the same pasture about six weeks after they leave, giving the pasture grasses time to re-grow.

A six week rotation is our goal, but right now we have three groups of sheep rotating – fifty ewes, thirty-five lambs, and four rams. Obviously, four rams eat a lot less than fifty ewes or thirty-five lambs. So the rams usually rotate back and forth between our smallest pasture (the ram pasture) and the woods pasture that has so many trees that not much grass grows there.

The lambs go into each pasture first, to eat all the young, tasty blades of grass. After a week, we move the lambs to a new pasture and let the ewes into the pasture the lambs have just vacated to eat up the cheese plant and amaranth – species that the lambs won’t touch. Usually our rotation scheme works quite well. However, right now, the ewes are in the barn yard, the rams are in the next pasture and the lambs are in the third pasture out.

To sell a lamb, we have to put the lambs into the barn so the buyer can make a selection. First we have to move the ewes into a side pasture, move the rams into a different side pasture, and finally herd the lambs into the barnyard.

The ewes move easily, always hoping to move onto young, tasty grass. At this time of the year, just before breeding, the rams want to move anywhere that puts them closer to the ewes. They pace the fence line, anxious for the day we open the gate and allow them to mingle. The lambs, on the other hand, have not yet learned to herd on their own. They followed their mothers with no problem, but no single lamb has stepped forward as a leader. Last year, we kept Kali, the alpaca, with the lambs. But she didn’t like it when we sold a lamb and carried it off to be butchered. Unhappy alpacas can be quite vicious. Other years, Cedar the goat led the lambs (bringing to life the phrase ‘Judas goat’). But Cedar is old and struggles to keep up with the flock. We couldn’t ask him to lead the lambs to the barnyard on a daily basis. So this year, Dave and I move them without the help of a leader. On a hot day, it can be exhausting, on a cool, rainy morning, it is good exercise

Last Sunday, as we ran back and forth, circling the flock, herding the lambs closer and closer to the gate into the barnyard, it began to rain. The droplets cooled my face, saturated my windbreaker until the nylon fabric clung to my arms, and finally drenched my hair. I tasted salt and mosquito spray when I licked my lips. And yet, I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I was a wet Joanie, instead of a dry Joanie. I didn’t try to stay dry. I didn’t rush from one dry place to another dry place, hoping to avoid damp clothing, shoes, or hair. I had become a part of the rain itself, just as the sheep were..

Friday, August 27, 2010

Bad mother jerky

Before we breed the sheep for next years lamb crop, we need to cull the flock. I have never been good at culling – setting aside ewes that are not good mothers or that have aged enough to have problems lambing in the spring. I can set them aside, but I have trouble with that next step - getting rid of them.

When an animal has lived beyond her useful life, we really have only four options: 1) sell her as a cull ewe to the stock yard, 2) take her to the butcher ourselves, 3) let her continue to live on the farm, but don’t breed her, 4) do nothing.

Many years we do nothing. It’s easier at the time than making any of the other three decisions. We just don’t remember the hard part until we watch that ewe staggering slowly after the rest of the flock when they change pastures or until we see how pregnancy and lambing are almost more than she can stand and we end up with a sick mom and babies that need to be bottle fed. Doing nothing in the fall means a lot more work for the shepherds during lambing.

Sometimes I choose not to breed an especially good ewe, one with a beautiful fleece or an engaging personality. We just allow her to die in her home pasture at her own time. It is like watching a beloved pet die, an exercise in patience and repeated self questioning. Is this the best thing for her?

If we have a ewe who is a bad mother, the decision is much easier. Bad mothers abandon lambs, they don’t produce enough milk and they cause problems for the shepherd. We load bad mothers into the pickup and transport them half and hour to the best butcher I’ve found. He turns old ewes into summer sausage, Italian sausage and wonderful jerky. It’s a relatively rapid, painless and delicious end to a productive life. When I allow the lambs to be born, part of the agreement I make with myself is that I will also give them a good life and a good death.

And that is why I never use option four – taking the old ewe to the stockyard. The trip is long and the end is out of my control. Even a bad mother deserves a better end than that.

Tomorrow, we will take three animals to the butcher; two have had mastitis and can no longer feed lambs adequately, and one a ewe who has had several lambs with physical problems. I will thank those ewes for their lives when we load them into the pickup. We will give thanks again when their meat appears at the dinner table. And when we lamb this winter, I will give thanks a third time for having had the wisdom to pick bad mother jerky instead of bad mothers.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Golden days

By late summer, the golden rod are a glorious golden yellow, the sumac are beginning to turn a deep russet and the southern most leaves of the maples are shifting from green to orange. Intellectually, I know that fall is still a month away, but I am not ready for it. I am ready to be done weeding and done watching the grass grow faster than Dave can cut it. I am ready for the mosquitoes to be gone. But I am not ready for the end of summer. I need some more of those lazy days that are almost too hot for work, days that beg you to go swimming, days when an ice cream cone with a scoop of coffee ice cream seems right next to paradise. Days when my book calls to me much louder than the weed whacker, the lawn mower or the chain saw.

I remember those days from childhood. Summer recreation was over. No more bike trips to school to make craft projects. Swimming lessons were over; so we could swim during the hot time of the day instead of in the cold mornings and we often took a picnic lunch or dinner out to the lake with our swim suits and towels. But best of all, we could read. Weekly or at the least biweekly trips to the library kept us well supplied with books. I read Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Follow My Leader. I found new authors – Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Stewart, Alistair MacLean, Andre Norton.

As an adult, I know that we still need to find more hay for the sheep. We need to put up fire wood for this winter and that means cutting lots of small, very dead trees whose wood is absolutely dry. We need to can tomatoes, freeze broccoli, and harvest squash and potatoes. I need to look at the farmers market for more of those gigantic onions grown just across the fields from us and store them in the cellar along with the cans of tomatoes and honey and syrup.

As an adult, I know we need to do all those things before the temperatures drop and the cold winds blow, but the golden days of summer have caught me in their hold, and for this afternoon, I lay back with an old Alistair MacLean book and relax.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hawks and gophers

Photo by J.R. Douglas, from

For the last few days, a red tailed hawk has been screaming as it soars over our pastures. I really didn’t think that a hawk could carry off a seventy pound lamb, but we have a few closer to fifty pounds, so I was worried. Turns out that the hawks eat squirrels, gophers, and mice - never something as a large as a lamb, not even a baby lamb. So I can listen to their screams with enjoyment. I can watch them soar over the pastures and know that they are using their extraordinary vision to spot chipmunks, squirrels and gophers, their favorite foods.

Anything that eats gophers is fine with me. We struggle with pocket gopher mounds in all our fields. Gophers especially like alfalfa roots, so our hayfields are a perfect habitat. Gophers dig holes and leave the dirt outside the hole on the surface of the ground. When we drive over the field in our haybine, the triangular cutting blades cut into anything they encounter – alfalfa plants, thistles, and piles of dirt left by the gophers. But the dirt dulls the blades, shortening their useful lifetime. After cutting dirt, Dave has to replace broken or dull cutting blades – a real waste of time.

Most farmers trap or poison their gophers because of the amount of damage one animal can do to a field and a haybine. We used to poison ours, but weren’t very successful at it. Now we hire a retired farmer to do the job. He sections our field in a four wheeler right after we finish baling hay. When he finds a gopher mound, he digs a hole in it and inserts a trap.

The township still pays a bounty for gophers. Trappers catch the animal and then have to save a piece to prove that they have trapped it. One year it will be right ears, another year, left front feet. The Pelican Township board meets at the Pelican Rapids Public Library. One day, I made coffee for a program in the meeting room. I opened the coffee can off the top shelf, and found it full of mummified gopher feet. Someone had been working hard and brought his gopher feet into the Town Board for the bounty. You can’t get rich trapping gophers, but you can earn the undying gratitude of a farmer or give fodder for nightmares to a group of people waiting for a cup of coffee.

One of the exciting things about planting prairie grasses instead of alfalfa is that pocket gophers don’t like grass roots as well as alfalfa roots, so maybe we’ll have fewer gophers. Another exciting aspect is that bull snakes like prairies and they like pocket gophers. If we plant some of our hay fields to prairie grasses, we may be able to control the pocket gophers with bull snakes waiting patiently on gopher mounds and red tailed hawks screaming overhead.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Another kind of beauty

I walked across the pastures, my eyes searching for flowers. Bumble bees visited the fat red clover blossoms with their tiny pools of nectar at the base of each petal. Small spheres of white clover were almost hidden by the grass, their leaves the three leafed clovers of legend. In the distance, feathery stems of deep purple alfalfa shifted in the wind. I stepped through the gate from high grass to the freshly cropped turf of the pasture the sheep were presently grazing. There it was, a small, star-shaped vertebra blooming in the grass, it’s central hole dark against the bleached white bone. A few steps beyond it lay a leg bone, long and thin, knobby cartilaginous ends gnawed away by whatever animal had dragged the bones from their resting place in the woods. Beyond the leg bone, two ribs nestled in the grass, curved slivers of white in the verdant green.
I gathered the bones as I walked. These bones were from a lamb - small, almost dainty, beautiful in their color, in their sculptural form. Not so much parts of a dead animal as pieces of art, waiting to be recognized. Art that had lived beneath the wool, the skin, the muscle of a bouncing, cuddly lamb. A lamb who had died, for some reason, lack of attention by the shepherdess most likely, but a lamb who was not wasted. Worm food, fox food, fertilizer. And finally, simple beauty. Flowers of a different kind.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bats in the bedroom

I woke from a deep sleep to the distinctive shush, shush of a bat circling our bedroom. If I was home alone, I would open the window and wait, watching through the almost non-existent light, until the bat flew out the window. But Dave was home, and so I allowed my instincts to take over. I didn’t actually cover my head with the sheet and shriek, but I did wake him.

“We’ve got a bat.” Dave immediately reached over our head and opened the skylight. Then he turned on the bedside light. Sure enough, we had a bat. It swooped through our bedroom, missing the hanging plants and the beams up near the ceiling. It seemed to be just above my head, circling, circling, but never noticing the open window.

Our bedroom ceiling is full of odd planes and angles. The skylight, although large, opens only six inches. You would have to approach it at just the right angle for your sonar to fade into open air rather than bounce back off of glass or wood or sheetrock. “Maybe it can’t find the opening, ” I said after several more circuits. My eyes were focused on the skylight.

Then suddenly, it was gone. Dave turned out the light and climbed back into bed. I saw the flicker of a bat outside, beyond our window. “Is that it?” Dave asked. I shook my head in the darkness, virtually certain that the bat had not gone out the window.

After a few minutes of silence, the shush, shush of bat wings resumed. “I don’t think it likes the light, and I don’t think it can hear the open skylight.” I said. “Maybe we should leave the lights off and open a regular window.”

Dave turned the light back on. “I can’t see in the dark,’ he said, just as the bat threw itself against a screen and dropped to the floor, motionless. “Get me a pair of leather gloves.”

I slid out of bed and crouched to cross the room. When I returned, the bedroom door was closed, light streamed from the crack under the door. I opened the door a sliver and passed the gloves through, the bat was back to circling.

If Dave wouldn’t listen to my ideas, I didn’t have to feel bad about retreating from the scene. Feigned disinterest was much easier than standing in the bedroom waiting for the bat to tangle itself in my hair. I know intellectually that a bat would be unlikely to find my hair either attractive or a possible exit from the room, but the stories of bats in people’s hair still linger at the bottom of my mind, chittering like little demons, draining my courage.

Two minutes later, Dave emerged from the bedroom and closed the door behind himself. “Bat’s gone, room’s full of mosquitoes.” he muttered, “I opened a regular window.”

We gathered clean sheets from the linen closet and bedded down in the guest room. No mosquitoes, no bats. Only the problem of how the bat got into the house in the first place kept me from sleeping. But that was a problem for tomorrow. Bats in the house wasn’t nearly as urgent a problem as bats in the bedroom.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Single white male

Single white male looking for doe eyed female.
Hair: long, white, lustrous.
Horns: magnificent.
Hobbies: long walks in the woods, Emily Dickenson and Nora Roberts (paperbacks taste best), and head banging.

Sir PeesaLot is a six year old angora buck. He has a beautiful lustrous, white fleece, wonderful swooping horns, and an ├╝bermale personality. His favorite activity really is crashing head on into trees.

We bought him from a farm in southern Minnesota because of his marvelous fleece. We carried him home in a dog kennel in the back of our station wagon. Even with towels on the kennel floor, we ended up with quite a lot of goat urine in our old car – thus his name.

After six years, I am no longer breeding my old angora ewes, and it is unfair for Sir PeesaLot to wait around all year for no reward. No wonder he crashes into trees. So we’re looking for a home for a horny, horned, angora buck. If you can use him, all you have to do is transport him to your farm. For a good time, you can contact the farm at

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What is a farm?

What is a farm? An obvious definition might be a place where you grow food (animals, vegetables, grains) with a lot of hard work and luck. But not everyone agrees with that.

A year ago, we received a letter from a government office, the Farm Service Agency, saying that since we hadn’t registered our crops for several years, they were declaring us not a farm. We actually had only registered our crops once, about fifteen years ago, when we applied for an incentive payment for having such high quality fleeces that we could sell them for $6 per pound when the wool pool was only paying $0.25 per pound.

Turns out that every year we have to make an appointment to go into the Farm Service Agency office and draw a map of our crops or the FSA won’t consider us a farm. I wonder if drawing on the map is the only criterium they require for being a farm.

The IRS has different criteria. One is that they require us to make a profit three years out of five to be a working farm. We struggle most years to meet that goal. If our lambs and fleeces sell well, and if we don’t have to buy hay, and if we don’t have any veterinary bills, we can make a profit. But if any of those things are not optimum, we don’t make a profit and we risk being audited, meaning that we have to prove to the IRS that we are a farm, receipt by receipt.

And then there is the government office that determines our property tax. If we can prove we are farming, we pay agricultural homestead rates on our land. If not, we pay for a suburban house with an eighty acre yard.

The most aggravating definition of a farm was the Federal grant program that insisted we had to be a big farm before they would help us improve our energy efficiency, before they would help us become greener. I don’t necessarily think that the government should be in the business of handing out grants to farmers, but if they do, it should be applied to any size farm, not just to the farms that are so large and successful that fifty percent of the farmer’s gross income comes from the farm.

The year we received an incentive payment for our high quality fleeces was financially the most successful year in the history of our farm. The year we raised seventy-five lambs out of thirty-five ewes was emotionally the most fulfilling year – we had surpassed all the farming goals set out by the books on how to raise sheep. The year our daughters and their boy friends and my nephew all worked for us was the most fun year in the history of our farm. Each year was best for different reasons.

So what is my definition of a farm? It’s the place where we enjoy what we’re doing, where we are emotionally fulfilled, where we raise food without degrading the land or the atmosphere, and in a good year, where we earn more money than we spend.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Farm improvements

Dave discovered two federal grant programs for farmers – one to help pay to improve the energy efficiency of your operation and the other to help pay for installation of solar, wind or geothermal systems on the farm. We were especially interested in the energy efficiency grant because we want to shift from raising alfalfa hay to raising prairie grasses hay. The alfalfa needs to be fertilized yearly or at least biennially, and needs to be replanted about every five years. To replant alfalfa, we either have to spray the fields with herbicides and no till drill the seed into the ground, or we have to plow, drag, fertilize, plant a grain, harvest, plow, fertilize, plant alfalfa. The prairie grasses, once established, should grow well indefinitely with only mowing and occasional weed control. It doesn’t need fertilizing or spraying for weeds once the crop is established.

The prairie grass seems like an environmentally good option for our farm. It will require no ongoing applications of herbicide, use less diesel fuel and cause less soil compaction. With the ground continuously covered by grasses and forbs, there will be little or no wind or water erosion and then the black top soil will improve year after year. Instead of releasing tons of carbon into the atmosphere by making fertilizer and herbicides and burning diesel the prairie will sequester several tons per acre each year

The second program is also interesting. We already have a wind generator that produces as much electricity as we consume. We also have solar hot water. We’ve been considering setting up a ground source system for heating and cooling our house. Right now we heat with wood and cool with natural breezes. Some day, Dave and I may not be able to cut and split six cords of wood a year, which makes ground source energy a possible alternative.

Ground source heating and cooling is not without problems. I worry about the long term heating of the ground and the pump and dump systems that remove water from a lake or from a deep underground aquifer and then just dump the warmed or cooled water . Dave worries about the necessity of using electrical back up heating, a really inefficient way to heat a house.

But our hopes and concerns are irrelevant for these two grants. The first qualification a farmer must have for either grant is that you must receive 50% of your gross income from your farm. We know a lot of farmers, and only two are the sole wage earner of their family and work as full time farmers. These grants are not meant for folks like us.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Animal babies

Photo by Jennifer Ellison

My lambs are all getting big. They don’t look like babies anymore. In fact, some of them are bigger than their mothers and they can all take care of themselves. They just eat grass and drink water from the water tank, safe within the confines of our pastures, protected by a four foot stock fence and three strands of barbed wire.

Today I was reminded that there are still young animals on our farm, just outside the pastures and the barnyard. My lunch was interrupted by a rhythmic tapping just outside the door. I pressed my face to the screen and waited. A three inch high woodpecker hopped into view, tested the aluminum door frame for bugs, and, disappointed, moved on to try the siding on the other side of the door. I had never seen such a small woodpecker. The red on the top of his head was no bigger than my fingernail.

I glimpsed more babies on our quarter mile driveway. Three turkeys scuttled across the road, followed by three little, dull gray pullets. They immediately blended into the underbrush at the side of the road. Just as I moved out of the trees, a young deer bounded across the drive in front of me and then ran along side the field, its golden brown coat thick and healthy looking. At the top of the driveway, a young kit fox trotted out of the high grass and crossed the road, its bushy russet tail streaming out behind it.

If I had a day job, I would have missed those babies. I am so lucky to work at home and have a flexible schedule. Because of that flexible schedule, I can take the time to visit Kieran, my grandson, the animal baby closest to my heart.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Day lilies blooming in July

Some things just happen, like day lilies blooming in July. I don’t weed the day lilies; I don’t water them. But they come up year after year and bloom ferociously, each flower open for only a single day.

Some farm activities are like that. The grass grows, the alfalfa blossoms, the rains come and the sun shines – all without my help. But most of the rest of farming takes work and planning on our part. This year, the exception has been finding strong bodies to help with baling.

Over the years, we’ve taught dozens of young people how to bale hay. First they learn to stand on a moving hay wagon without falling. Next they learn to use a hay hook to pull the bales off the baler and onto the wagon. Finally, they learn to stack the bales in alternating layers on the wagon. We pay them for their work, and they work hard. Everyone is glad when we finish baling.

For the past few years, our balers have been young Somali men, high school and junior high students. When the hay is cut and the sun shines, we begin to get calls “Are you baling today?” They’re willing, eager to work, and appear, just like day lilies blooming in July. It’s nice to have things just happen.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Laurel's birth day

Thirty years ago My daughter Laurel was born on the hottest day of the summer. Dave brought me three books to read while I was in the hospital – all about raising sheep.

We had moved to a five acre piece of land in the country in March. We tapped maple trees for syrup, and were raising baby chicks. We toyed with the idea of becoming farmers. Our land had a house, three old chicken coops, a small feed shed, a quarter mile of driveway, four acres of woods and a small square acre of grass where a barn and barnyard used to stand.

The store where I bought wool for spinning had just closed. We could buy a few sheep and raise wool so that I would no longer need to buy it at a store. The idea fit right in with our deelusions of self sufficiency.

That summer we bought a Rototiller for the gardens and for that acre of grassland. The next spring we planted a quarter acre of alfalfa, a quarter acre of pasture grass, a quarter acre of oats and a quarter acre of field corn. The tilling took several passes to break up the grass. Dave planted the oats, grass and alfalfa seed with a hand powered seeder we found at an auction. We planted the corn using the traditional stick a stick in the ground, drop in a seed, cover the hole technique. It seemed to take forever.

No matter how fast we weeded, the weeds faster, big, lush, voracious. The only thing that grew more rapidly than the weeds, were the mosquitoes, especially in the corn. By the time the corn was chest high, the weeds were definitely winning. We called in reinforcements. A high school student accepted our offer of a job. I took him out to the corn patch, showed him the difference between corn and weed and took my place weeding several rows away from him. At lunch time, he declined our offer of a chef salad with home grown lettuce, went home for lunch, and never returned.

We stopped raising our own field corn in part because I don’t like the idea of spraying our farm with an herbicide. I’ve let my shade gardens naturalize themselves because I can’t keep the ground ivy, the dame’s rocket, and the European bellflower under control. Only in the vegetable garden and my sun garden do we still continue the battle. The vegetable garden is set out in rows, which means we can use the tiller to accomplish a lot. Weeding is hard work. I know if I could just for once get ahead of it, I could pull them all, but somehow, it never happens. Even the places that look like I’ve pulled all the weeds are six inches deep in grass, thistle, lambs quarters or pig weed in another three weeks. It’s a never ending battle.

The sun garden, which I planted for Laurel’s wedding and expanded for Amber’s, is not tillable. So summer after summer, we pull grasses, daisies and thistles. There aren’t nearly as many thistles now as there were in that first field of corn, so we must be making progress. But the grasses and daisies are all descendents of the first grasses and daisies, growing from the extensive root systems that I never completely eradicate, or from the millions of seeds that somehow escape my weeding.

Laurel’s birth was the beginning of sheep in the barn and alfalfa in the field. Her wedding was one of the reasons I planted a sun garden. As I weed, early in coolness of the morning on the anniversary of her birth, I can blame her for my presence in the garden on my hands and knees pulling grasses, but I also have to thank her for my presence there when a humming bird buzzes me and then pauses to sip from a brilliant red monarda flower

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sound of the wind

Yesterday was hot! During the night, the wind cooled everything back down. When the wind rushes through the trees for more than a few hours, my mind sort of loses interest in it and I don’t even notice the sound.

After we put up our wind generator, one of my friends complained that it had ruined his view. When I went to his house to check, I could see the generator on a distant hill. It had, in fact, changed his view. When we planned to put the generator on the highest hill on our property, we hadn’t even considered that it would have an effect on other people. We couldn’t see it from our house, a copse of trees hid it from view.

We didn’t usually hear the generator from our house either, until the Christmas Eve night in a blizzard that a bolt on the generator mount broke. Suddenly it sounded like a freight train was roaring down the hill, headed straight for our house. The lights flickered and the upstairs lights went out.

What was happening? Amber and I bundled up and struggled up the hill against the wind. We kept our bodies low, unconsciously hoping to be missed if the tower fell. I tried tightening the brakes on the generator, but the blades were spinning so fast that sparks flew out from the motor casing. We ran back to the house, called the power company and the generator repair man.

The power company man came on a snowmobile, escorted by two of our neighbors at whose homes the road became impassable. He disconnected the generator from the electrical system. The repair man called from his Christmas dinner and told us to put on the brakes. The night returned to normal, lights on in the house and only the sound of the blizzard rushing through the trees.

When the generator was repaired, the only sound of the electricity we were generating for ourselves and the other members of our electrical co-op was a soft hum.

Then, last month, another neighbor caught me at the grocery store. “I’m real sorry to say this, I really like it that you make green energy, ” he said, “but the sound of your wind generator is driving me crazy.” For the past six months, the generator had been noisier. A bearing was going and the repair man hadn’t had time to replace it yet. But when Dave and I heard the drone, it was just a reminder that we needed to get a hold of the repair man again.

I knew what our neighbor meant. Once you identify something as an irritant, it can become impossibly obnoxious. To us, the sound of the generator, even with a faulty bearing, meant pennies in the bank and the tons of coal that aren’t being dug out of the ground in North Dakota, converted to carbon dioxide by the electrical plants and released to the environment. To our neighbor, it was just an irritant. We called the repairman again and shut down the machine. We want to be good neighbors.

Last week, my friend who had first complained about the wind mill in the view from his living room window stopped me to ask about the generator. “Why isn’t it running?” he asked. Another friend mentioned that she used our generator to tell how windy a day it was and what direction the wind was coming from.

I miss the gentle hum of the wind generator, the feeling that I can use as much electricity as I want on windy days and not hurt the environment. As soon as the repairman replaces the bearing, we’ll let off the brake and start up the generator again. It will be nice to hear the wind blow and think of the green energy flowing from our hill top out into Otter Tail County

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

When the wind blows

The wind in the country is an amazing thing. A good wind is the best way to dry forty acres of hay or drive off the mosquitoes that make working in the garden so impossible,
but it can destroy a barn.

Sometimes the wind doesn’t do what you’d expect. A friend with a very old barn on his property called his brothers the day after our fifty mile an hour winds. “I have some bad news,” he told them. “You know that big wind we had, well it didn’t take down the barn.” That job was still ahead of them on their schedule for the summer. But on our barn, it tore off shingles for the third year in a row.

That wind left our peonies in full glorious bloom, but blackened and withered the leaves on the clematis. It knocked over tomato plants but didn’t bother the potatoes growing in the next row. We’ve seen entire field of sweet corn lying sideways after the wind. When we propped the stalks back up, they recovered. That same wind dried an entire field of alfalfa in twenty-four hours, a new record on our farm at least.

When the wind blows, clouds scud across the sky and I lie on my back and watch, hypnotized by the motion. When the wind blows, the birds can stand still in the sky. When the wind blows, we generate enough electricity to completely power our house and farm. All in all, it is a good day on our farm when the wind blows.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Beyond alfalfa hay

After who knows how many years of harvesting well washed hay in Juune, Dave and I are considering other options. All month we worry about the hay. Should we cut now? Dave has to go to work in three weeks, two weeks, one week. But it keeps raining every day, every other day, every third day. Should we cut now? Should we turn the hay that has been beaten into the ground by rain? Should we turn it again?

We once read that you should cut the hay at the best time for protein, 10% bloom, and not worry about a little rain. But in this part of Minnesota, a little rain always seems to be followed by a little more and then a little more.

This year Dave took the first three week of June off from work so that we would be sure to be done with haying by the time he had to leave. We cut the last field June 17 and put the last bale in the barn June 19, 33 hours before he left for work.

There must be a better way to do it.

So, we are exploring the idea of prairie hay. Prairie grasses have deep roots, better to with stand hot dry summers and cold dry winters. They sequester carbon dioxide, one of the major green house gasses. They hold the soil extremely well to both wind and water erosion. It seems like planting our hayfields to prairie grasses might be a good idea.

But we don’t know enough. We don’t know when the grasses are best harvested for hay, how palatable that hay is to sheep, or how nutritious it is. We don’t even know that our old hay fields are fertile enough for prairie grasses to grow well.

So today we began our research. Dave started studying palatability and nutritional quality. I looked for seed sources and prices ($1200 per acre at one site). And this evening, we walked the restored prairie in the waterfowl production area south of our farm, in some places, I was neck deep in grass. The sun was low on the horizon, setting the tiny yellow flowers of one of the grasses aglow. Big swaths of sweet yellow clover frosted the hillsides with a light yellow haze. A turkey scuttled away , moving surprisingly rapidly for such a big bodied bird. A yellow and black meadowlark sang its heart out on a nearby willow. We picked flowers and grasses to take home for identification.

After we got home I spent an hour bent over samples and identification guides.
We found big bluestem, only about a foot tall, and Gray’s sedge in bloom. We found white campion and crown vetch and tall meadow rue, all blooming. The wild rose, the Showy Goldenrod and the Joe Pye weed aren’t even budding yet. We will have to walk this piece of land again and again this summer, learning the plants that thrive there and when they bloom. We will talk to hay experts and prairie experts and sustainable farming experts. Only then will we have some idea of the possibilities that prairie hay presents to us.