Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sheep names

We bought two new ewes before Christmas. One, Mouse, was already named, but the second lamb needed a name. It has been our custom for years, to allow young friends to name new animals added to our flock. We give the child a topic based on the lamb’s mother’s name and they usually do quite well. For example, Brownie’s first baby was named “Chocolate chip” by a young friend. Fair’s first baby was named Cloudy. Polar Bear had a lamb named Teddy Bear. I thought I had a good technique, but when I asked a child to name Brownie’s second baby after his favorite food. He called her “Chicken”.

Even with that variation, our naming technique helped us remember who is related to whom and gives some help when we ask people to name lambs.

This fall, our grandson Jasper named a small brown wether that we added to the flock to be a friend for Winthrop the ram. The wether’s mother only had a number, so we let Jasper give him whatever name he wanted. Turned out he wanted “Shéngifr”, with a silent “r”. Now our grandson Kieran has named Mouse’s companion “Ervatungum” (pronounced air-va-tun-jum with an accent on the tun). At least we know that our grandkids are creative. Who knows what Ervatungum’s baby will be named.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Dog sense

In the last few weeks with the thermometer dropping as low as 20° below zero, Newton has behaved on our walks on the driveway like the perfectly behaved dog that we trained him to be. He sticks with us, checks back often when we lag behind, and in general seems to take great joy in walking and running with us.

Then, the temperature rose. I knew we might be in for a hard time when Newton persisted in wandering off the driveway into the deep snow in the west woods. I’d call him back, and he would meander back to me, but he was definitely more interested in the woods than he was in me. Rabbit tracks crossed and recrossed the driveway. Mouse trails led under the snow. Deer bedded down in the shelter of the woods. It was a wonderful area for wildlife.

Finally, when the thermometer reached 4°, the scents of the animals in the woods overcame Newton’s common sense. He was off and exploring, nose searching through snow drifts. He ran from site to site, buried his nose in the snow, snuffled loudly and then dashed off to another scent.

I stamped through the snow after him, calling uselessly. Fortunately, whatever scents Newton was following had gone to ground in our woods. I did not have to chase him across the entire west forty acres. I caught up with him, grabbed his collar and encouraged him back to the road. The next time we go for a walk, I will use my own common sense and put the leash on the dog before we leave the house.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Awesome beauty

photo by Dave Ellison

When I walked Newton this morning, the temperature had settled at two degrees below zero. The wind cut through my wool mittens, fierce out of the west. Fresh snow stretched unbroken across the fields. It was a beautiful day, although a spare, harsh kind of beauty.

An hour later, while washing the dishes at the sink, Dave and I watched real beauty unfold. The rising sun burned through the clouds of snow still in the air and sun dogs appeared. Bright cousins of rainbows, sun dogs are even more magical than their rainstorm equivalents. The sundogs are due to sunlight refracting through hexagonal plate shaped ice crystals, usually found in high, cold cirrus clouds. In the winter, these ice crystals are called diamond dust and they float in the air at low elevations. Many winter mornings we see flat plates of diamond dust settled out on snow banks and grasses, glittering in the rising sun.

This morning the diamond dust refracted the light of the rising sun into a solar halo that circled the sun and two sun dogs, awesome in their beauty. Who could ask for a better reason to do the dishes than a glimpse of awesome beauty.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Picky eaters

The sheep don’t have a chance to be picky eaters. They graze on grass in the summer, on alfalfa hay in the winter and are supplemented with a little bit of corn the six weeks before lambing. Not much variety in their diet.

Newton the dog has even less variety. He gets one particular type of dog food. If we change the food, he gets diarrhea. So we try never to change his food. Interestingly, he never gets diarrhea from snacks.

Simon my youngest grandson, at 9 months, eats everything that comes within reach, including that one particular type of dog food. He is always hungry and squawks if we slow down while spoon feeding him. He’s a lot like his older cousin Jasper who also eats voraciously, but would just as soon not eat tomatoes or cucumbers and some other vegetable type foods. My oldest grandson, Kieran, is the original picky eater. He doesn’t like much of anything except fish, snacks and dessert, certainly not vegetables. In fact, he knows before you even tell him what we’re having for dinner that he won’t like it. Presumably they’ll all grow out of these phases.

The chickens are also picky eaters, but for them, it comes naturally. They wander through the barn and barnyard, pecking at the bedding, picking up bugs, grains and bits of sheep poop. In comparison to the chickens, I don’t mind my oldest picky eater so much; at least we don’t have to supply him with sheep poop.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

soft cluck in the dark
chickens in the barn again
fresh eggs for breakfast

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Winthrop the second

Winthrop our ram loves people. When we walk up to his pasture, he leans his head against the fence so we can scratch behind his ears. He’s always glad to see us, whether for the scratches or for the corn we bring.

Winthrop is a huge sheep but we can usually lead him anywhere he wants to go. He was trained as a 4H lamb, so we lead him with a leash or with an arm around his neck

During breeding, Winthrop has a personality transplant. He’s just as glad to see us, but he is also just as apt to knock us over as to snuggle up for a scratch. If we catch his harness, stand beside him and scratch, he’s perfectly happy. But if we try to walk away, he lowers his head and charges.

Monday, I heard Dave calling me. “Bring some corn.” He was standing in the middle of the pasture tugging on Winthrop’s harness, completely unable to move Winthrop or to escape himself. I picked up a bucket and rattled it. Winthrop trotted up to the gate and the corn, allowing Dave to escape. Yesterday Dave cleared a four foot high gate in a single bound and I picked up a 2” X 4” for self-defense.

During breeding we walk the pastures with one eye on Winthrop because we’re never sure if the ram approaching us is Winthrop or his alter ego, Winthrop the second.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Coating the sheep

I tell myself it’s like dressing a child. Head goes here, legs into the leg holes. But my self knows better. Dressing a sheep is nothing like dressing a child, not even a 150 pound child. Coating is enough of a challenge that if we didn’t earn a lot more money selling clean fleeces, I wouldn’t bother. But a clean fleece is worth $10 per pound. A fleece full of veggies, whether hay bits or weeds is worth around a dollar a pound. The extra work is definitely worth it. If I sold my fleeces to the shearer, he would sell it to a commercial woolen mill where they acid wash the fleeces to get rid of the veggies. But I sell my fleeces to individual spinners, felters and knitters and they would rather work with wool in its natural state – no acids, no bleaches, no veggies, nothing but wool and lanolin. So my sheep are coated from October through February when we shear them and my fleeces are wonderfully clean.

On the day we coat the sheep, we first put them into the barn. Lately, that’s been difficult as Winthrop doesn’t want us anywhere near his ladies. Once the sheep are corralled, we grab Winthrop’s harness, hold a bucket of corn in front of his nose and lead him back out of the barn, shutting him out. Only then can we work with the ewes.

Dave grabs the closest sheep and holds her against his legs. We inject her with a wormer and note in the barn log whether or not she has an orange crayon marking on her rump, evidence that she’s been bred. I pick out the most likely sized sheep coat and slip it over her head. That part is easy. Then we pull it down along her back. To fit well, the coat must hang down over her bottom by a couple of inches. If it fits, we wrestle her hind legs through the straps on the rear end of the coat. If we’re lucky, the coat fits perfectly. If we’re unlucky, the ewe backs over me, or runs Dave into the fence or we both end up on the ground.

Most coatings are somewhere in between the extremes. More often than not, when we release the sheep, it becomes obvious that her coat is too small (she has trouble walking) or too large (it hangs past her knees and she can easily step out of the straps) and we have to try a different size. Some sheep require two or three trials. The coats are various shades of beige, made in several different styles and embellished with denim patches where holes have worn in the fabric. Fortunately, we don’t have a mirror in the barn, so the ewes don’t complain about how their coats look. Coating would be really difficult if the sheep could tell us which patches suited their personalities or which coat style made them look fat. If we finish coating the sheep in a single day, we consider it a good day. And if they keep their coats on until shearing we know that we’ll have beautiful fleeces.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fallen leaves

The walnut leaves turned from green to gold, and after the freeze, lost their connection to the branch and vanished on the wind. The walnut fruits themselves are rotting in a bucket of water on the back deck. Next week, I’ll simmer them for a couple of hours and strain the dye liquor from the nuts.

Walnut is a substantive dye. That means I can dye wool with only the dye liquor, no added mordant. I usually get a pale brown color when I dye with walnuts, but my friend Kate discovered that she can get a beautiful deep brown color by soaking the walnut fruit in water for a long time. I’m perfectly willing to wait until next week for a deep brown dye bath. After all, I’ve waited all summer, since the leaves first appeared, for the trees to produce nuts. What’s another week after the leaves have fallen?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

In the dark

photo by Dave Ellison

It’s dark when we take Newton for his last walk of the day. I like to walk in the dark. We leave the house lights behind us and head up the drive way, feeling the path through our feet. Eventually, an area of paler dark appears at the edge of the woods, arched over by branches. Next the stars appear through the trees. Newton is a pale blur on the road, I locate him by the sound of his dog tags. One night last week, a coyote howled, and then a second. It sounded as if they were right outside our pasture fence.

Our sheep were all in the far pasture, the one without a top wire of barbed wire. I had just talked to a friend who lost nine lambs to coyotes. “I’ll get the head lights,” Dave said and turned back toward the house.I finished walking Newton and then headed out into the pastures. I could see Dave’s head light bobbing in the south central pasture, but I couldn’t see the sheep. I followed the fence lines down and met him at the gate. The ewes followed him, puzzled but not worried. They circled around, confused by the lights. I went wide, trying to get behind the sheep without spooking them and a few turned to follow me. This could be the beginning of a mass exodus back to the pasture from which they had just come. “Call them!” I shouted to Dave.

“Hay ewes.” The stragglers turned and followed him through the next gate. I continued on out to the far pasture, sweeping my head from side to side as I walked, trying to shed light on every section of the field, checking to make sure that no lambs or ewes had been left behind. Finally, satisfied that all the sheep had followed Dave into the barnyard, I turned around, turned off my head lamp and headed home.

Behind me in the distance, the warm glow of Pelican Rapids filled the western sky. Ahead of me, to the north, a pale patch of peach drifted in the heavens. Another patch to the east, further south than I had seen the aurora for a very long time. I stood and watched the charged particles shimmer in the sky and then begin to fade.


“Did you see it,” I shouted. “Was it the aurora?”

“I don’t know what else it could have been,” Dave said as I joined him. “It was beautiful.” We walked side by side through the barnyard , listening to the sound of sheep eating grass, smelling the ripe scent of fresh manure, and feeling the dew soak into our socks, content in the dark.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Dakota Fiber Mill - almost local

When I walked into Dakota Fiber Mill, I knew that my wool had come to a good place.

Chris Armbrust, the owner, had four huge sinks for washing fleeces, rack after rack of drying fleeces, and in the center of the building a carding machine, gradually spilling out a rope of beautiful brown roving. Her carding machine was at least four times the size of mine. It self- fed the picked wool into the cards and fed the carded wool through a small hole to create the roving automatically. It was magical.

After she’s washed and carded a fleece, Chris consolidates three batches of carded wool into one. Then she runs the carded fiber up over a pipe near the ceiling and down into the spinning machine. The back half of the Mill was an amazing spinning machine that reached from floor to ceiling. “It’s only a part of the original,” Chris said. “I couldn’t afford the entire machine and didn’t have room for it either.”

Chris has an unbelievable turn-around time. Her carded roving is beautiful and her three ply sock yarn was spun tightly enough so that it should wear really well. After years of frustration with slow turn-around times at mills and mixed up orders, it is a delight to work with a person who checks in by email if she has a question, is flexible and willing to try new techniques, and who works fast. The best part for me is that the Dakota Fiber Mill is only an hour’s drive away. I love to do things “locally”.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Sugar, fat, salt...

I just finished reading Sugar, Fat, Salt: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss and it pissed me off. It also amazed me to learn how much sugar, fat or salt, or all three are in most processed foods.

It’s not really a problem for Dave and me. We both enjoy cooking. Dave bakes our whole wheat bread and granola, and ferments our yogurt, wine and beer. I create dinners and salads from fruits and vegetables we harvest fresh from the garden for two to four months of the year and and from fruit and vegetables home canned or frozen the rest of the year. We eat meat that we raise ourselves. We steal honey from our bees and concentrate maple syrup from our trees. I buy staples - eggs, flour, cheese and milk, but rarely anything processed.

Most people don’t have the luxury of living on a farm. Many people have jobs that restrict their free time and energy and thus limit the amount of creative cooking that they do. However, I’m not a fancy cook and most of our evening meals take me half an hour or less to prepare.

Moss accuses the major food corporations of carefully adjusting the amounts of sugar, fat, and salt to make their processed foods close to addictive, and then using subtle and not so subtle advertising to persuade people into not only eating the processed food, but also eating more than our bodies need or than is healthy. Dave and I don’t watch much television and so miss out on that seductive advertising.

Moss puts the blame for the growing obesity epidemic in America on the food companies. Dave and I are fortunate that we have access to real, healthy food, an interest in preparing it, and time set aside in our days to cook and thus control the amount of sugar, fat and salt that we consume.

Monday, September 16, 2013


Dave spent a lot of time in the last ten days using a compass to figure out what direction we were going so that he could navigate through the lakes and rivers, bays and islands of Quetico Provincial Park, Canada. Our yearly canoe trip helps us reset our internal compasses, and figure out what’s important in our lives.

We come out of the wilderness a little behind on our to-do lists (we have been gone for 10 days after all) but clearer on the direction we want our lives to be moving. We talk about personal goals, about personal time commitments. We talk about how one person’s time commitments can interfere with the other person’s goals, and vice versa. We talk about needs and wants.

The waters of the lakes through which we paddle are much more lucid than our conversations, but in the end, after depending on each other for everything, we find our understanding of each other clearer and the directions we anticipate our lives taking in the coming year more closely aligned.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


Our fences are old. Some of them are thirty years old, some only twenty and a few interior fences, dividing one pasture into two, are only ten years old. But our fences are failing.

All but one of our exterior fences are woven wire stock fencing stapled onto wooden fence posts. The woven wire is designed with smaller openings on the bottom (2” high by 6” wide) and larger openings on the top (up to 6” by 6”). This clever design is to keep animals from sticking their heads through the fence and getting stuck and in the process destroying the fence. This clever design works really well for sheep, but not so well for goats. The goats put a lot of pressure on our fences.
We practice rotational grazing which means that the animals are restricted to one small pasture until they have cleaned it up and then are moved to another small pasture, repeating this schedule all summer long. This means that the best tasting grass is always in the next pasture and the goats are smart enough to know that, so they stick their heads through the fences to eat the fresh grass on the other side.

Over the years we’ve repaired a lot of holes in fences.

We also have one strand of barbed wire at the base of each exterior fence and two strands at the top, to keep dogs and coyotes out of our pastures and our animals in. Our interior fences don’t have barbed wire anywhere. They were made by stretching four foot high woven wire stock fencing onto metal fence posts designed for the purpose. Those metal posts worked well for about twenty years and then we began to run into problems.

After awhile, the wire began to sag. The four foot high fence became a three foot high fence in the middle between some posts. The sheep don’t often jump a fence; the goats reliably do. Every time a goat jumped a fence, she dragged a little on the woven wire. The fence got even lower. The sag combined with the patched holes meant that the fence was no longer stretched. It became increasingly easier for goats to force holes in the fence with their heads, then their shoulders and finally their entire bodies. Once the goats had made holes, the lambs followed. A good mother will follow her lamb anywhere, so the ewes followed the lambs.

Some of our fences are completely porous to animals. It’s been a hassle, but not a catastrophe on the interior fences until Bucklet, the cute, tiny ,bottle kid we added to our flock last year, became sexually mature. Yesterday we moved Bucklet and Winthrop the ram to the farthest pasture from the ewes and the goats and the lambs. By the time Dave had walked back across three pastures to the lamb pasture, Bucklet and Winthrop had rejoined him. We collected our fencing supplies and moved the two males back to their pasture. Then we wove wire and stapled until we were sure the hole was closed.

They rejoined us five minutes later. We led them back to their pasture and spent half an hour actually inspecting the fence and checking for all possible holes. The males were back with the lambs by lunch time. We left them there. The lambs are too small to get pregnant yet, and the ewes are still two pastures away in a well fenced pasture and we need a little breathing room to figure out what to do next.

We have walked every foot of our fence line in the last month. It looks thirty years old. We were thirty something when we first learned how to fence. Now at sixty something it seems a much bigger job. Maybe that’s why farmers retire, they can’t bear the thought of refencing.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Nine vultures

photo from

Nine vultures circled our pastures. Something bad had happened. I wasn’t surprised that there might be a dead animal out there. Lamb #59 had been getting weaker and all the intestinal wormers, coccidiostats and antibiotics had made no difference. We could see his backbones and his pelvic bones. He looked and acted like he was starving.

Nine vultures seemed a little extreme for one tiny lamb. It wasn’t just lamb #59; six lambs were dead.

Vultures are scavengers, not predators. We did not lose six animals to vultures, the vultures were benefiting from our losses. Why were lambs dying? The animals were in four different pastures. They all had access to fresh water, to shade for part of each day, to grass. We thought we had a basically healthy flock on luxuriant pastures. This was supposed to be the easy time of the year for the sheep.

However, a fair number of lambs had diarrhea. We took a fecal sample in to the vet. They found lots of round worms, a high enough concentration of which can kill lambs. We had wormed our lambs three weeks previously, they should have been protected for several months. Why hadn’t we had this problem before? What was the difference?

One month seemed to be the difference. Normally our lambs are born in February and March. We feed them creep feed for the next month or two and they are ready to wean and turn out on fresh pasture by the end of May. This year, our lambs were born in April and we didn’t wean them until the end of June so they’d have two months of creep feeding. They spent an extra month in the home pasture, a place where intestinal worm cysts had been collecting all winter. They had eaten so many worm cysts, that a single worming was not enough. I should have realized that diarrhea meant there was a problem. The first lamb I lost twenty-nine years ago was infected with Haemonchus contortus, the barberpole worm. I thought I had learned that lesson forever, but this year, my mind was somewhere else when I watched lambs with continuing diarrhea. . The diarrhea dehydrates the lamb. The worm also causes irritation in the gut lining and protein leaks from the cells of the lining, starving the lamb. My lambs didn’t have a chance. They depend on their shepherd to make the right decision and this year, I hadn’t.

We wormed our lambs again. Fewer have diarrhea, but we’ve lost another lamb and two more still look like they are starving. They are on fresh pasture and hopefully will recover. I am ashamed that it took nine vultures to alert me to a problem that I should have recognized immediately. The next time we change anything about the way we lamb, we will try to keep our brains engaged.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The price of lamb

The price of lamb is down this year. For years, we’ve ignored the market price of lambs at the stockyard because we sold our lamb for $1 per pound, a price that the Bosnian refugees, who had so little to remind them of home except traditions like roast lamb, could afford. It wasn’t until several years ago that we increased our price to $1.25 per pound live weight at the suggestion of our CPA. It followed the market price to $1.50 the next year and two years later to $2 per pound. Our lamb sales stayed steady. Obviously, our Bosnian friends were doing well in their new lives. Our lamb sales were finally covering the cost of feeding a ewe and raising her lambs.

This year, the first man who called for lamb told us that the stockyard price was $1.25 a pound in South Dakota. Dave said our price was $2 and politely suggested that he buy his lambs in South Dakota. The second man who called also said $2 per pound - $140 for a lamb roasted and eaten on a Sunday afternoon - was too expensive. In theory, I agreed with him. In practice, I need my lambs to bring in enough money to pay for their upkeep.

“If nobody buys them because they’re too expensive, we’ll have to sell them at the stockyards,” Dave said, “and who knows what the price will be then. I think we should sell them for $1.50 per pound.”

“We’re losing one quarter of our lamb income,” I said. “We sold all our lambs last year at $2 per pound. If we sell them all this year at $1.50 our income will be down 25%. You’d quit your job if they docked your pay 25%.”

It was a true statement, but hardly relevant. Selling lambs allows us to pay for the upkeep of our sheep. We “pay” ourselves nothing. If we dock our “pay” by 25% it doesn’t change a thing - 25% less than nothing is still nothing. However, the farm wouldn’t pay for itself in 2013.

Prices paid by farmers rarely go down. Farm prices fluctuate all over the place and the farmers have to absorb the difference. One of our successful business friends told us that lamb was a luxury and we should price it that way. If we drop our price by 25% we move from the luxury market into the commodities market, those necessities which are priced like milk and corn. Lamb isn’t like those commodities; the government won’t pay me a subsidy to make up for low prices.

Dave and I talked and talked over the problem. Neither of us could persuade the other.

We sold our first lambs to two of our oldest local customers, friends. Dave made the sale. They wouldn’t have complained about $2 per pound, but he only charged them $1.50. We couldn’t charge them $2 and then drop the price for the rest of our customers if the lambs didn’t sell. So this year, our price for lamb is $1.50 per pound. I feel like we have taken a giant step backward. Our farm on which we expend so much effort, so much time, so much money, looks like a hobby instead of a business, just because of the price of lamb.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Outside of the box

Our baler is essentially a box with attachments. Rolling pickups lift the dried alfalfa from the ground and feed it into a giant screw. The screw directs the alfalfa into a three sided box. When the box is full, a plunger compresses the hay, metal needles and knotters tie two strings around the firm rectangle, and then the plunger pushes a fifty pound bale of hay out the back of the box. Dave repairs the baler when necessary, but most of the work involved with baling takes place outside of the box.

Dave learned to bale from his grandfather fifty years ago. I learned from Dave thirty years ago. We begin baling as soon as the dew dries and put the hay in the barn in the late afternoon when the day is the hottest. For most of the years we've been farming, we have worked with three people building a load on the wagon, one person to drive the tractor and two on the wagon. Then we need three to four people working at the barn, one or two to unload the wagon and three or four in the barn stacking bales. It worked well as long as we had kids at home or friends of kids or kids of friends to help out.

In the last few years, Dave and I baled on our own, taking turns driving and building the load. We hired four Somali boys to help put the hay in the barn. This year Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, fell during baling. During that month, Muslims don't eat or drink anything between sunset and sunset. Dave feels that it's dangerous for the kids to be working in the ninety degree heat in our barn without drinking water so we were at a loss to find workers. A Somali friend asked if we could put the hay in the barn in the morning when it was still cool.

What a great idea. The only change we had to make was to cover the filled hay wagons with big plastic tarps every night in case of rain or heavy dew.

Our young workers were mostly ninth graders, slender and not used to hot, hard work. Ato helped me transfer bales from the wagon to the bale elevator that moves the bales into the barn. Usually, I either did it myself or had one of the boys drag the bales across the wagon so that I could load the elevator. Ato suggested that we lift each bale together. We each grabbed one twine with both hands, walked across the wagon and lifted the bale onto the elevator together. It was so much easier.

In three days, baling had changed. We could do things more easily and coolly just by thinking outside of the box.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


We have finished the spring lamb roundup. They are all weaned, vaccinated against over eating and internal parasites and “branded” with a dot of orange spray paint. The paint is a “just in case” measure. We lift each lamb over the fence after we give it its shots, but sometimes a lamb gets excited and jumps over the fence, or a big group of lambs run right through the fence and knock it down. Without the brands we wouldn’t know who had been done.

This year we also weighed each lamb to see if lambs born in April gain weight faster than lambs born in the cold of February. So far, it doesn’t look like we’ve learned anything useful. Single lambs gain weight faster than twins; twins gain faster than triplets and everybody gains faster than quadruplets. We already knew that. When the quads were born, we knew they’d still be tiny and too small to sell until well into 2014. But they are so much fun we don’t mind. I’ll have to sit down with my salesreceipts from last year to see how early we had 70 pound lambs and how fast the rest reached 70 pounds. As of last Friday, we had one 80# lamb, four 64 – 68 # lambs and a lot of 50# lambs.
We worm the moms first, giving each animal an orange bindi on their forehead after the shot. Then Dave picks up a lamb and hands it over the fence to me. We weigh it, give it two shots and spray a dot of orange on its tail. The lambs practically jump out of our arms to get away. When all the lambs have been marked, we enclose them in a corner of the barn and open the ewe’s pen. We chase the ewes out of the barn and through six pastures, hoping to keep them moving until they reach the farthest pasture from the barn without having any turn around and run back for their lambs. This year things went very well. The ewes all ended up in the far pasture and the lambs settled noisily into the home pasture. It will be several days before they stop calling for each other.

Weaning is hard on everybody. Dave and I each lift every lamb at least once. After they’ve been separated from their moms (by even a few feet) some of the lambs start to cry. Then their moms cry. Then of course, other lambs get upset because of all the crying and they start to cry, and their moms join the chorus. By the time we finish, our arms are weak, our ears are ringing, and our throats are sore from shouting to each other.

We will keep the moms and babies in separate pastures from now on. Even weeks later, if they get together, the babies start nursing again. Moms who are still producing milk very seldom get pregnant. So if we want to breed our sheep in October, we need to have a roundup and wean them in June.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


One of our friends who raises strawberries and beef cattle mentioned that farming is more a life style choice than a livelihood. I think it’s also a culture and as such, has its own peculiarities.

It is a culture of appreciation for new lambs in the spring, for fences stretched taut and gates that are sound, and for fresh hay drying in the field under a cloudless sky. It is a culture of hope against the odds. If you cut too early, the alfalfa has a lot of water in it and dries too slowly and doesn’t come back as well. If you cut too late, the thistles in the fields are beginning to go to seed. If you cut at just the right time, it will still might rain or the machinery might break down. It is a culture of hard work. Each bale of hay weighs 50 pounds and we lift it at least three times to get it stacked in the barn.

Baling is always an interesting time of year.

Dave struggles to make sure that the machinery works – it’s old machinery.
He struggles to find helpers – we have several young friends in the Somali community in town and they round up three or four junior or senior high friends to help. But it is hard to depend on workers whose first language is not English and who have never done farm work before.
I struggle with cultural differences. When I work with Somali boys and men, they persist in trying to snatch every bale from the baler and stack it, leaving me with no job. I know that they think they are protecting me, but I don’t find it charming; I find it a pain in the neck. It is exhausting to build a load on a wagon by yourself. I want these guys to keep working for three or four wagon loads a day. I don’t want them exhausted too soon. The Somalis also have to learn to take orders from a woman. Until we get to know each other they tend to listen politely to what I tell them and then to continue doing things in their own way. If we were working in Somalia, in their hayfield, that would make sense. But we’re working in Minnesota in my hay field and I know what I’m talking about. They have to learn to follow my direction if they want to be invited back to help with baling next month. Of course, just like some of our American employees, they may not want to help bale the next crop of hay. We’ve had American kids and Somali kids work a few hours and suddenly remember they had other pressing previous commitments. We’ve had Somali kids and American kids work hour after hour, day after day, trying to learn what we’re teaching and working as hard as they can to get it right.

This summer, we have a young Somali man who comes to the farm to help after his college classes and his work study job are done and if his wife doesn’t need help with their children. Although he still has trouble letting me pick up a bale, he loves working on the farm.

Farming is indeed a lifestyle choice, a culture of sorts.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Old machinery

We have old machinery. I think of our tractor as new, because we bought it new – in 1985! We decided on a new tractor rather than an old one because the new ones have a wide wheel base in front as well as in back and because of that, are less apt to tip over. But from then on, we bought our machinery used, mostly at auctions.  I usually had Amber and Laurel with me. We’d look at the machine we needed and try to decide if it was in good shape (For me this was a challenge.  In the 1980’s I was able to use a socket wrench to tighten sparkplugs. I discovered that shifting the little lever back and forth for each crank made turning it much easier. It was frustrating though because the plugs didn’t tighten until Dave came over to see why I wasn’t making progress and explained that the lever is supposed to stay in one position for tightening and the opposite position for loosening). If the machinery looked good, We’d scan the wagons for interesting household items and things for the kids to bid on and then we’d stake out a piece of lawn or pasture, spread our blanket, get out books and toys and lunch and wait for whatever we were bidding on to come up. Once we bought a bale elevator, once several long extension ladders. Another time we came home with a hand cranked farrier’s forge and several auctions garnered us hay wagons.

I think all of our big machinery (three very old balers, two old haybines, an ancient chisel plow, a disc, a chopper and a windrow turner) we either bought from friends or found in ads in the newspaper.  Used machinery is good because the cost is much, much less than that of new machinery. Used machinery is bad because it needs more upkeep. A lot more. In fact, used machinery is more of a life style choice than an investment. If you’re really unlucky, the farmer is selling the piece because he can’t stand the thought of fixing it one more time.

Dave has learned to repair machinery – over and over and over. I can change tires and replace decking and structural supports on the hay wagons. I’m a specialist. Dave has to be a generalist and every year he proves his skill (gets by) on the haybine, the baler and the tractor. Every year, he has to learn something new. The people who ask us if we don’t find farming beneath us because we are so well educated have never tried it. A major part or our education is what we have learned (and continue to learn) about machinery and ourselves. Even more important is what we learn to appreciate, by farming. The value of old machinery is one of those things.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Two weeks ago, Kieran my three year old grandson, and I peered through the leaves and branches of  a bush watching his parents who were finishing their supper at the restaurant next door. I worried about broken glass, trespassing on the neighbors’ property, and losing sight of Kieran. He reveled in the entire experience. This last weekend, I tucked myself into a lilac and remembered what was so entrancing about the world from inside a bush. Leaves brushed my cheeks, branches crisscrossed my body, and the scent of lilac engulfed me.

The fragrance took me straight back to our backyard in Roseville Terrace  in the 1950’s, where for a few weeks every spring, the scent  of lilacs filled my head and my heart. My friends and I were given two sample size bottles of French Lilac eau de toilette. We thought the idea of dabbing toilet water behind our ears was gross, but the scent was wonderful.    Anytime during the year, we could open the little bottles, sniff, and slip right back into spring.  Perhaps that’s why I love lilacs, their fragrance is a direct line to my childhood memories.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Golden yellow violets bloom in the woods and bring joy to my heart. Golden yellow dandelions bloom in the hayfield and I worry.

Each dandelion plant can be as large as a foot in diameter, and although they are nutritious, they aren’t tall enough to be cut by the haybine, so everywhere a dandelion grows, we lose a square foot of our hayfield and as a result, feed for the sheep. Two years ago, because the dandelions were so bad, we dug our hayfield, sprayed it with a combination of herbicides, and planted it to oats. Last year we replanted alfalfa.

I had hoped that by now the alfalfa would have choked out the few remaining dandelions, but they hunker at the edges of the field and when they go to seed, as they are doing right now, they re-infect the hayfield. They are too short to cut with a scythe and there are too many to dig each plant individually. Dave remembers being paid 10 cents, when he was a kid, for each brown paper bag full of dandelion flowers. Nobody works for that kind of wages anymore (and that’s good.)

So here we are, two people who use herbicides sparingly and grudgingly, trying to decide which herbicide to try next. Even worse, the guys at the mill say that dandelions are becoming resistant to the herbicides normally used to control them. We will have to use nastier herbicides. Fortunately, we won’t have to make that decision for a couple of years. All of the herbicides that kill dandelions also kill the alfalfa plants. Each year, I’ll watch for the golden yellow flowers in the hayfield. I’ll measure the number of alfalfa plants per square meter and the number of dandelions. When the ratio gets too bad, we’ll spray our fields and replant the alfalfa.