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.

Monday, June 21, 2010


We finished baling last night at 10:00.

The moon was half a silver disc glowing behind the clouds. We watched it grow brighter and brighter through the barn window as evening turned into night.

It was a wonderful night. We have finally gotten this poor rained on crop of hay into the barn. The Dairy Queen, which provides our end of haying meal stayed open an extra five minutes to feed our hungry crew. I saw a fox kit dash across the road on my way into town for burgers. And I saw my first firefly of the summer on my way back home, the car full of the mouth watering scent of hamburgers and French fries.

Dave and I laid our exhausted bodies into bed at 10:30, completely at peace with the world. No bothers at all. If it rained, we would be fine.

Tomorrow, other chores will rear their horny heads, other thorny problems will erupt, but for now, we are content.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Taking risks

Tonight on my way home from town, I found a six inch strawberry turtle laying her eggs in the middle of the road. Actually, attempting to lay her eggs. Although it has rained for the last fourteen days, the gravel road is still not soft enough to dig a hole. She was trying when I drove into town and still trying when I drove back out two hours later. I couldn’t see that she was making any progress, the road was churned up a little, but no where near deep enough for eggs. And if she had been successful, the eggs couldn’t have possibly survived being driven over for the next thirty days. I herded her into the ditch beside the road. In the morning I’ll check to see that she has stayed off the road. The road is a part of the turtle’s ecosystem. Tall grasses, yellow clover and milkweed fill the space between pond and road. She was only looking for an open space with dirt to lay her eggs.

We’ve asked our township to stop spraying herbicides along the edges of the road bordering our farm. We have promised to keep the noxious weeds cut. Right now, the leafy spurge is blooming and the thistles are about to bloom. This is a bad time to cut road verges because ground birds are nesting, but I have to cut back the weeds. So tomorrow I’ll take the weed whacker or the scythe out to kill thistles and leafy spurge and I’ll keep my eyes open for whippoorwill and turkey and sand piper nests. I’ll cut around them, hopefully leaving the bird and her eggs undisturbed.

I disturbed a nest of eggs last week. I closed the big double wide barn door, and a nest with four spotted eggs fell to the ground. Yellow yolk spread around the broken shells. Why would a bird choose to build a nest on the handle of a garage door? I realize that birds don’t recognize garage doors as such. In fact, when we do shut the door, they get hysterical because we’ve closed off their normal exit from the barn. But we probably close the door weekly. One would think such a here today, gone tomorrow surface would seem risky.

Perhaps the bird who built that nest on our garage door handle was just a risk taker. I guess a turtle that lays her eggs in the middle of the road must be a risk taker too. Come to think of it. Anyone who tries to bale hay in Minnesota during the month of June must also be a risk taker. We cut the first of the alfalfa on June 3. We baled it when it finally stopped raining on June 14. We cut the rest of the alfalfa June 16 and hope to bale it this weekend, if it doesn’t rain.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Fifteen years ago, my friend Edith and I bought two cashmere goats, sight unseen. Their parents had been purchased some years earlier by a guy who wanted the goats to clean out his wood lot. He turned them loose and hadn’t seen them since.

So what Edith and I bought were the feral offspring of wild, but previously domesticated cashmere type goats. They were cute, little black kids, horns just beginning to look impressive, golden eyes with vertical black slits for pupils. They were nervous in our presence, but otherwise perfectly normal looking. It wasn’t until we released them from the truck that we realized that we might have made a mistake.

They both dashed across the pasture and cleared the first five foot high fence without slowing down. They quickly disappeared in the west woods. The sheep were all in that pasture, so we decided to leave them. We could begin taming them when we brought the flock in for the winter.

Beezlebub (named for his personality) and Phaedra were only manageable because their horns made convenient handles. They flocked with our sheep; so if we penned the sheep, we could capture the goats. Shearing came and went. We didn’t shear them, cashmere was supposed to be combed, removing the soft down fibers and leaving the coarse guard hairs. It took both of us to harvest a scant ounce of cashmere from each animal – one to hold the goat and the other to use the dog comb on their bodies. None of us enjoyed the process. Even with the combing, there were a lot of guard hairs in their cashmere. My mother worked all day picking guard hairs from the down fibers and ended up with a small handful of good cashmere. No wonder cashmere sweaters were so expensive!

Beelzebub met the fate of other famous, wild, un-manageable men (Frankie, Billy the Kid, etc.) He was shot while trying to kill our ram after jumping two fences during breeding. His hide made a beautiful drum head.

Phaedra lived a long life and was never combed again. She spent her declining years frightening little kids with her sharp, pointed horns.

Many years later, we adopted my niece’s pygmy goats. She raised them in her backyard until she was ready for college and then they came to our farm. They loved people and after their initial adjustments, enjoyed being part of our flock. They had hair, coarse hair, instead of fleeces, so they were never sheared.

Then one year, Cedar had a pair of white twins. Goat kids are small and dainty and impossibly cute. We kept them because they were Cedar’s babies. Imagine our surprise when they both developed thick wavy fleeces with lots of downy cashmere fiber.

Combing Phaedra’s cashmere had been so unpleasant that I kept putting off catching Cedar’s twins and combing their cashmere. And then one day, it was too late. They shed their fleeces. A felted mat of soft down fibers slid right off the guard hairs, like a woman throwing off her fur coat. Someday. I’ll have to come up with a fiber project that uses naturally pre-felted cashmere.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The scent of summer

Our backyard is heavy with the scent of peonies. Their magnificent pink blooms hang over the driveway and fill the air with a fresh, sweet fragrance. I’m immersed in a similar smell as I walk through the south pasture where the white clover blooms. The summer air is full of the scent of flowers.

Of course on a farm, there are other smells in the summer too. When Dave hugs me after working on machinery I smell transmission fluid and grease. Those two odors are almost impossible to wash out of his clothes. I throw the rags he uses away, but wash his work clothes in hot water with lots of soap.

There is an even worse smell in the home pasture. We started selling lamb last weekend. Our customers pick out the animal they want and then kill it and butcher it behind the barn. They are very frugal, using everything but the feet, the skin, the lungs and the stomach. We salt the skins to send off for tanning, and the feet, lungs and stomach go into our compost pile to be covered with manure and to rot until next summer when we spread the compost on our fields.

The manure smells like manure, a perfectly normal farm smell; one that I don’t even notice anymore. But Monday through Wednesday of most summer weeks, if you take a deep breath in our barnyard, you catch a whiff of the sickly smell of decomposing animal. I try to think of that as the smell of fertilizer in the making, of unused lamb parts being recycled, of sustainable farming. But mostly that smell is a reminder of the fact that animals are killed here. And I hope that no one comes to visit until the weekend.

The scent of summer is in the air and as with all of life, some of it stinks, and some of it is wonderful.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

To farm is to hope

scent of fresh hay
rainclouds on the horizon
pit man against time

sheets of falling rain
strip alfalfa leaves from stems
nothing left for feed

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

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Beautiful fleece

This week we gave the lambs their second overeating vaccination and weaned them. As we held each lamb, we examined its fleece. What color is it? how long is the fiber? How much crimp? How soft?

Of course, the big question is how many lambs are we adding to the flock this year? For the last several years, we have been rebuilding our flock, adding six or eight lambs per year. But we are up to fifty breeding ewes right now. Do we want our flock to get larger?

A larger flock means more variety in our fleeces and more income from sales, but it also means putting up more hay in June and spending more time in the barn in March. Is the trade worth it?

I sell very few fleeces anymore. People don’t seem to have the time to wash and card raw wool, so I sell mostly washed and carded wool. It’s a shame. The fleece is where you can really see what the individual fibers look like – how much crimp (waviness) the fibers have and how long they are. You can look at a lock of wool and know that this fleece will spin up into a fine, white, elastic yarn that will knit into a sweater that drapes beautifully. Or you can look at a brown fleece with patches of dark, light, and white wool, and envision the finished look if you dyed the entire fleece lucerne green and know that you’ll be able to create a felted forest out of just that one fleece – tall evergreens with the sun lightened green needles on the tree tops, dark, greeny black trunks and beautiful variations of green branches everywhere else.

Unfortunately, very few spinners and felters take the time to buy and process a fleece. I wash fleeces in our clothes washer, and dry them on the living room floor. I dye them in a big pot on the stove or over a wood fire in the back yard. With our new carding machine, Dave can card a fleece in a few evenings, separating out the patches of color or blending them together to make subtle variations in the wool.

Perhaps we should sell our time to custom dye and card fleeces for people. Even if that happens, we are still back to that major question – how many lambs can we add to our flock? Perhaps this year, I will restrict myself to just one lamb, Pepper, the quadruplet with the lovely speckled gray fleece and horns.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Farm machinery

Machinery is a part of farming completely opaque to me. I can barely tell if a piece of machinery is running, not to mention running well. All of our machinery is really old, with the exception of our tractor that we bought in 1985.

The haybine and the baler are used twice every summer, but we can’t bale hay without them, so Dave keeps them in good repair. The hay wagons get a lot of use too. We’ve replaced tires, the boards on the bed of the wagon and those of the back supports. We’ve tied the beds of the wagons to the wheels and running gear with spikes and chains. In fact, the only parts of the wagons we haven’t replaced are the metal parts – the running gears, axel and tongue. We repaint the wagons every few years when we need an easy job for a new employee. Our daughters Amber and Laurel did the first paint job when they were young – one wagon blue and purple, the other red and orange. The painting gave the girls a sense of ownership in the farm.

Maybe repairing machinery does that for Dave also. If that’s true, I’m lacking that sense of involvement. I don’t repair machinery. I pump the brake pedal when Dave bleeds the brake line. I tighten the valves when he bleeds the fuel pump. I add brake fluid, gas and transmission fluid when necessary, but I don’t make repairs.

In fact, I cause repairs. Several years ago, we bought an old chopper to use in rainy years when the hay molds too much to feed to the sheep and we have to chop it back onto the field. I had pulled the chopper home over the back roads because it was too wide and too slow to drive down the highway. Last summer I hooked the tractor to the chopper to pull it down the driveway, but somehow, in the intervening years, I’d forgotten the too wide part.

So when I started down our tree lined drive, I didn’t think to check the clearance between the chopper and the trees at the edge of the drive. By the time I did think of clearance, it was too late. I had already exceeded it.

Fortunately, the chopper seems to have been designed with people like me in mind. After the first metal bar bent and the first half inch bolt broke, the upper half of the machine swung aside to let the tree trunks pass. Dave was able to disconnect the top half from the bottom and drag them down the driveway. The decapitated chopper now sits at the end of our drive, taunting me every time I pass by. I’m not sure what Dave thinks when he walks by, but I pray we get the hay baled before it rains so that Dave won’t have to repair that particular piece of machinery any time soon.