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