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.