Thursday, January 28, 2010


The original farmer knew what she was doing when she planned this homestead over one hundred years ago. During the last blizzard, I really appreciated that half acre of trees that lies north of our house and barn.

We could hear the wind roaring through the trees. But in our backyard, the air was still. Snow rushed down the road and across the fields east of the house, obscuring trees in the distance, But between our living room window and the bird feeder, snowflakes danced and glittered in the pale sunlight

Dave and I walked up the driveway to mail a letter. When we stepped out of the protection of the trees, the wind caught us, stealing breath and warmth. We both wore insulated coveralls and jackets, warm boots, wool hats and mittens, but it was cold! We walked backs to the wind, chins tucked into our scarves, mittened hands covering our cheeks.

I thank the farmers who left this windbreak, I thought as we raced back to the trees. Bless them for the warmth in our home, woodstove fueled by our own wood, and for the protection from the wind that steals that warmth.

I appreciate the windbreaks all year long. In the spring, birds nest there and does find shelter for their fawns. In summer, they are sanctuaries of coolth on hot days, nurturing chokecherries and raspberries - fruit for the birds and for us. In autumn, the leaves fall, adding another layer of humus to the soil. And in the winter, the trees catch the snow, dropping it in the woods and far into the fields, adding moisture to the ecosystem, water percolating into the soil, stored there against summer’s ninety degree days.

When we first saw our farm in 1980, we imagined our family settling into the house, painting it our colors, adding porches and bedrooms. But it was the windbreak with its maple trees, oak and ash clustered protectively around the house that sold us.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Feeding corn

The sheep know when they’re supposed to be fed – the same time as yesterday.

Dave feeds the ewes between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m.. When he’s gone, I feed them between 7:30 and noon at the latest, depending on my schedule. They always get to eat before I eat my lunch. But if I go outside and don’t feed them, their baas let me know that they’re hungry and almost certainly (in their minds at least) suffering. Of course, if I feed them at 7:30 one morning before I leave for a meeting, they expect to be fed at 7:30 the next morning, even though I have the whole morning to spend at home and don’t really want to go outside until it’s time to fill the wood box.

When we do go out to feed them, they hear the sound of the grain shovel in the grain bin and are standing at the gate when we climb the style into the feed area with their corn. At this time in their pregnancy, 5 – 8 weeks before lambing, each ewe should eat about seven pounds of hay and 5 cups of corn – not my ideal daily food intake, but it seems to do for them. We begin feeding corn the second week in January and feed it through lambing and nursing, until the sheep are out on pasture again in May.

We increase the amount of corn in their diet incrementally. Right now we’re feeding one and a half buckets of corn to fifty sheep. By the end of lambing we’ll be feeding seven buckets. The amount of hay they eat is limited by how much room there is in their stomachs. As they move further into pregnancy, and the uterus grows, the stomach has less room. That’s when we start feeding corn, to make up for the calories they no longer have room for. Unfortunately, sheep don’t have an internal regulator of corn intake, so we carefully control what we give them. A fat sheep has more trouble during lambing. Fat fetuses have more trouble during delivery. They get just enough calories to grow healthy babies. Next weekend, we’ll shear them, and then we’ll be able to check how well our feeding program is working. We’ll feel backbones and pelvic bones trying to judge how much fat the sheep are carrying. If they seem thin, we’ll increase their corn ration a little faster. If they feel fat, we’ll increase their corn ration a little slower.

It would be a lot easier to control Dave’s and my weight if we could just feel our pelvic bones and change the amount of one nutrient in our diet. Instead I have to do things like hide the chocolate chip cookies in the freezer (or even worse, not make them to begin with). I usually dish out our meals in the kitchen instead of at the table to cut down on my tendency to eat fast and then help myself to seconds; and I try to feed us lots of vegetables (read hay) instead of the fruit (read corn) that we’d rather eat. Dave and I both complain at times about our diet.

The sheep, on the other hand, don’t complain - as long as we feed them when they’re supposed to be fed...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Hoar frost on chicken wire

photos by Dave Ellison

Yesterday, the world was wrapped in fog. Frost crystals grew on everything, on the fence wires, on the trees, even on the black guard hairs on Sasha the goat’s back.

Frost is a pretty amazing form of water. Water vapor in the air forms on surfaces that are colder than the surrounding hair. Earlier in the week, on a cold, clear night, hoar frost formed long, elegant crystals on chicken wire, fence lines, and tree branches. Hoar frost crystals form on imperfections, scratches on the fence wire, or the tips of the barbs on barbed wire, or on the smallest twigs on trees. The woods were a feathery fairyland. In the cold morning, the frost remained even as the sun warmed the world.

Yesterday morning, the temperature was a balmy 18 ˚ F. The frost this morning was more like rime, an icy, solid surface that forms during fogs. There were no beautiful crystals, but white still coated everything, like a glove, even the tendrils of my hair that drifted around my face as I fed the sheep.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


red sun rising
a fraudulent promise of warmth
in winter’s cold depths

Friday, January 8, 2010


An ecosystem is defined as the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment. Our farm is made up of several different ecosystems.

First, there is the ecosystem Dave and I have imposed on it by raising sheep and farming. We have a much healthier farm ecosystem today than we did 24 years ago when we began. I was looking at old photographs yesterday and the pastures in those photographs were brown and sere. Thistles were the only green, healthy looking plants. We’ve learned to never overgraze our pastures to that point. In the sheep/ Dave and Joanie ecosystem, we provide food and water for the sheep and they provide food and manure for us. For a farmer, that’s a pretty good trade. The manure enriches the soil in the pasture and the hay fields; the lambs feed our Bosnian immigrant neighbors; and the hard work keeps Dave and I strong and engaged with the out of doors. We give the sheep life and they enrich our lives in return.

The birds at our feeders are part of another ecosystem on our farm. We feed them suet and sunflower seeds in the winter and we provide shelterbelt trees for fruit, insects and shelter in the summer. During the summer, the hummingbirds and other nectar feeders pollinate our trees. Other birds eat insects in our gardens and on our fruit trees. The chickadees, nut hatches, juncos and wood peckers at our feeders this week also provide something not so obvious. The crisp demarcation between the white feathers and the gray feathers on a junco’s back is absolutely beautiful. The nuthatches, hopping upside down along the trunk of the crab apple outside our window make me smile. The pileated woodpecker clings to the suet feeder and then drops and rolls into a swooping flight through the trees. It looks so much like I imagine a pterodactyl would look, flying through the skies of the prehistoric earth that I am reminded of our connections to the past.

And finally, I have ecosystems within my house. This week when I did the laundry, a long overdue chore, I wondered exactly how long the laundry had been waiting for me. At the bottom of a pile of sheets, I found a cluster of squash seeds. The squash have been quietly rotting in the basement since October. I know that I’ve done the laundry more recently than October. So just when did a mouse decide that our dirty sheets would make a good storage facility? Mice are a part of rural living. In the fall, when the nights turn cold and the days grow short, they find their way into the tightest houses. Oolong, the cat, does her part, leaving gifts of mouse parts in surprising locations, but evidently, she’s not working quite hard enough. Usually, we hear mice in the walls, but this year, they’ve been quiet – building granaries in our dirty clothes pile, I guess, expanding their ecosystem to include parts of the house I had always considered mine.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Do shepherds dream of painted sheep?

I don’t know if sheep dream, but I imagine they do while sleeping in the sun. I imagine they dream of running through lush pastures or finding a feeder full of bright yellow corn at the end of a well worn path through the snow.

I don’t know if sheep dream, but I do know that I dream about sheep. Last night I dreamed of a big orange school bus, all the seats occupied by children in woolly coats of brown, black, gray and white. Some children had little black noses, some broad pink noses, but they all had big golden eyes with long lashes and long fuzzy ears. Every child had a sheep face. It all seemed perfectly normal to me, a school bus full of sheep.

When I have trouble falling asleep, I count sheep, sort of. One, a single sheep, with pink stripes, standing in a field. Two, a pair of sheep, one green and one red. Three, a blue sheep standing on the backs of a yellow sheep and a purple sheep. And on, through eleven, five spotted sheep standing on the backs of six plaid sheep. At some point, I drift away and the pyramids of sheep dissolve into thin air, no longer needed.

And then there was the night I awoke to find a ewe in bed with me. Not a ten pound lamb, I’ve actually done that several times, but a one hundred fifty pound ewe with white curly wool, four legs, and big floppy ears. I was unbelievably relieved to wake all the way and realize that the sheep sleeping next to me was actually Dave.

The sleeping mind processes data in amazing ways and it is quite a privilege to dream close enough to wakefulness to catch a glimpse of my mind at work, or at play, but definitely not asleep. I don’t know if sheep dream of me, but I am very glad that I dream of sheep.