Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Days of wonder

Christmas has always been a time of wonder for me. The sound of Angels We Have Heard on High, the scent of peppermint, the taste of Orange Danish rolls, the prickly feel of spruce needles as we trim the tree, and the sight of that tree glowing in the darkness as we creep down the stairs on Christmas morning.

When we were trying to figure out what Christmas traditions we should continue as our kids brought first their spouses and then their children into the family, one daughter explained that it didn't matter where Christmas was or even when, what mattered was that sense of wonder on Christmas morning. Sometimes we celebrate over Thanksgiving weekend,  sometimes over President's Day, and sometimes, like this year, at the farm on December 25.

This year we have two four year olds and an almost two year old celebrating Christmas. The kids are learning about not touching the ornaments on the tree and not opening presents until after breakfast on Christmas morning. It is sometimes so hard to wait.

One day I heard  four year old Jasper say "I'm sad."

He was sad because of a story that his mom told him, a story that has now been in our family for five generations.

When my great grandmother was a little girl, she woke up in the middle of the night and crept downstairs to see if Santa Claus had come.
Her stocking was full.
She unpacked it and found a silver ring in the very toe of the stocking, the very ring she had been hoping for.
She put everything back and returned to bed.
The next morning when she opened her stocking, the ring was gone.

My great grandmother told the that morality tale to her daughter, who told the story to my mother who told the story to me. But my mother added her own experiences to the story. She told me about the Christmas eve when she heard the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof of their house. That was a really wondrous story because my mother became deaf when she was three years old.

One winter day, when my small daughters were wanting to search through closets and peek into the gifts under the tree, I told both the stories to them. I wanted them to know that it was better to wait for your presents, but also that the wonder of Christmas was real.

Part of the joy of the season is wondering what you will find in your stocking or under the tree on Christmas morning, part is the wonder on the faces of children as they tear into their so carefully wrapped gifts. Part of the wonder is teaching the children to make presents for the people they love, and part is eating the cookies we make together. But mostly, the days of wonder are wonderful because we spend them together.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Putting food by; putting memories by

Last night we had winter squash, lamb sausage, and wild rice for supper, made from food we had put up ourselves.

The squash and sausage was a recipe my mom used to make - just cooked sausage and onions  mixed with a baked buttercup squash. Definitely comfort food.

The wild rice dish was from Many Cultures, One Community:a book of stories and recipes thanks to Carol Zielinski. It calls for fresh wild mushrooms and wild rice. Several years ago in late October, I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. The book inspired me to cook with as much local food as possible. My next trip to the grocery store after reading the book was sobering. The only local foods I could find were winter squash, eggs and dried shitaki mushrooms. I bought all three. We love the wild flavor of the shitaki mushrooms and I buy them preferentially now. Maybe one of these years we'll learn to grow our own.

We have learned to harvest wild rice. It is a slow process, that involves paddling a river for six or eight hours in late August or early September. Dave paddles and I sit in the bottom of the canoe and using a long stick, bend the rice stalks over the canoe and then hit the stalks to dislodge the rice grains. We enjoy the ducks and swans flying overhead, the insects crawling along the rice stalks and this last year, the enthusiasm and questions of our grandson, Jasper. It took twice as long to harvest the rice because we stopped every once in awhile for a snack, securely lodged amongst the rice stalks, but it was a delightful day.

In the cold of winter, when I bake a squash, fry our sausage, and cook up a dish of wild rice, we are grateful for the food we have put by, and for the memories of summer.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Creating a yarn

When we bought our first four sheep 30 years ago, I imagined that I would spin all their fleeces, knit all that yarn into sweaters and clothe my family. Caring for the sheep took up some of my spinning time and caring for my children replaced more.

I can knit anywhere - chatting with friends, riding in the car, watching television or, if it's a simple pattern, while reading. I can only spin while talking or watching TV. I soon realized that I couldn't spin fast enough to keep up with my knitting. As our flock grew from 4 ewes to 35 ewes, I also realized that I couldn't spin all their fleeces.

Now I sell fleeces to other spinners, have fleeces carded into roving and batts for spinners or felters, and have some fleeces spun into yarn. For years, I used the left over fleeces from the year before, combined them and sent them off for yarn. Our flock has about the same number of white, light  and dark fleeces every year, so our yarns come out about the same shades of light browny gray and dark browny gray each time.

I love having a supply of natural colored yarns in the house. If I need a skein of teal blue yarn, I pull out a big, black, dye pot, fill it with water , add a capful of dye powder and a skein of white yarn. Half an hour later, I have a skein of teal yarn. Unfortunately, the really beautiful, interesting yarns often contain more than one color. Sometimes the yarn is spun with bits of colored wool to produce a fiber with lots of short spaces of color. Other times, the yarn is actually made up of several strands of different colored yarns.

Last year, I asked Chris Armbrust from Dakota Fiber Mill to spin a three ply sock yarn for me. One third of the wool was a natural gray brown fleece. One third was a combination of 10% mohair and 90% wool, naturally dyed a warm brown color with walnut hulls, and the final third was dyed teal. Chris spun each color separately and then plied the three yarns together.

The yarn is soft (thanks to my Ramboulet sheep), strong, (thanks to the mohair and the three plies) and elastic (thanks to the amount of twist Chris spun into the yarn.) I'll be able to knit socks for everyone I know as well as sell a very beautiful sock yarn in my online shop and at Mercantile on Main in Pelican Rapids, thus solving two problems- having yarn with which to knit and decreasing the number of fleeces in my wool shed.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Friendly blue dots

We manhandle the sheep several times a year. It can be an exhausting job.  Over the years we have modified our technique many times. 

We began thirty years ago by penning the sheep and then grabbing each one by the hind leg, and then being dragged around the barn by the sheep until we subdued it or it escaped. Next one of us would lie on the sheep to control it while the other gave a shot or trimmed hooves or tried on a coat.

Our friend Glen used a shepherd’s crook to pull the sheep in to himself. Glen is a very gentle, calm man and his sheep never seemed to run around the barn dragging him. 

When Dave worked full time away from home, I asked clueless volunteers for help (following the Tom Sawyer method). I don’t have the strength or the sports training to grab a sheep by the hind leg and wrestle it to the ground. So I developed another control technique. Several summers ago, Hillis, our summer worker, and I became very good at rushing a sheep together from the side and pinning her (the ewe, not Hillis) against the barn wall or pen fence. One of us held the ewe in place while the other gave the shot. By evening, Hillis and I were on our knees, but we had successfully vaccinated half the flock.

When we were young and not so clever, we kept track of which animals had been vaccinated by lifting them over the fence when we were done, separating them physically from the unvaccinated animals. Being older and more experienced, we now mark the forehead of each vaccinated ewe with a squirt of stock paint – no lifting involved. 

This year, Dave and I were not rushed for time when we vaccinated and coated the ewes. We penned the sheep, then Dave walked casually up to a ewe standing next to the fence and pressed her body against the fence. He held her in place with his weight and his grip on the fence wires. I vaccinated her and then slid a sheep coat over her head.  The sheep was still calm enough that I could hold her head still as Dave released her and then maneuvered her hind legs through the straps on her coat. I talked to most of the ewes as Dave worked, thanked them for their cooperation, told them that lambing would come soon.  

The entire day felt different. Dave and I never lost our tempers. Even the skitzy lambs that had never been coated before didn’t ruffle the calm much. Our new technique worked well, but I really think that it was the friendly blue dots on the forehead of every animal that colored the whole experience.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Dressing the sheep

When we were kids, my brother, sister and I dressed our German Shepherd, Haidi, in my brother’s underpants and t-shirt. We thought it was hilarious. Haidi endured.

Now, Dave and I dress our sheep in polyester coats.  We do it to keep their fleeces clean during the winter when they eat hay. My youngest grandson’s bib keeps his front clean. The sheep coats keep sheep backs clean. When sheep eat they chew with their mouths open and hang their heads over their neighbors backs. Fragments of hay dribble out of their mouths and settle in their neighbors fleeces. Thus the need for coats. 

A fleece with veggie bits in it is lousy for spinning and for felting. Big woolen mills treat their fleeces with acid to destroy the veggies. That acid also changes the wool fibers. Dave and I use coats instead of acid to produce clean wool. 

Coating sheep is not easy. The sheep don’t help at all. They don’t remember what size they wear from year to year (Dave and I don’t seem to remember either). They don’t like to put their heads in the neck hole and they fight us when we put their hind legs through the leg holes. As often as not, we look at a sheep after she’s coated and decide that the coat is too big or too small. We undress her and begin again. We’ve never had a sheep learn to dress herself, so Dave and I keep at it year after year.

Haidi, our German Shepherd, was embarrassed to be wearing clothes. The sheep don’t show embarrassment. Once they realize that they can’t rub their coats off on the barn door or a gate, they relax and, hopefully, enjoy their new windbreakers.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Inside the magic honey house

My grandsons love the Magic School Bus books. One of their favorites is The Magic School Bus inside a Beehive by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen. The boys have watched Dave inspect the hive and of course tasted our honey, but have never seen what happens to the honey after the bees cap the little comb cells once they are filled with honey. This post is for Kieran and Jasper.
Boys all dressed up and ready to harvest honey...
Friend Steve and Grandpa Dave working in the honey house (really, we don't have a honey house, we just work in our house). The beehive boxes are stacked in the dining room. We put newspaper down to keep floors and tables from getting too sticky.
Each box of a bee hive has nine or ten frames in it, all filled with honey. We use a hot knife to slice the wax caps off the honey comb so the honey can run out.
Each frame of honeycomb has its own space in the extractor. When we have 12 frames in the machine we turn it on. The frames spin round and round for five to ten minutes. Honey flies out of the comb, hits the wall of the extractor and drains to the bottom of the machine.

When the extractor has spun all the honey out of the frames, three people lift the extractor onto the counter and then drain the honey out of the bottom.

We have to strain the honey because their are pieces of wax (the cappings) floating in it. It is so beautiful falling into the strainer that we just have to taste it at this stage. This year the honey was really sticky so Kanita helped push it through the strainers.
When all the honey is extracted from the honeycomb and strained, we bottle it to save for the rest of the year. Grandpa uses our honey when he makes bread and granola. Grandma uses it on toast and pancakes. And of course, we always have some for our grandsons.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Northcroft Sweater

                                                                                    photo by Katy Olson

I can follow a pattern and knit a sweater. I can alter a pattern from straight needles to circular needles, but I can't create a pattern that fits the human body well. However, my young friend Cedar Walters is a genius at pattern design. She doesn't like sewing seams at the end of a knitting project so she has figured out how to create beautiful fitted sweaters with a minimum of finish work.

In exchange for five skeins of Northcroft yarn and my endless gratitude, Cedar designed the Northcroft Sweater, a beautifully simple pattern that knits rapidly, fits well, looks extraordinary and uses the five colors of yarn that my sheep naturally produce - frost white, silver gray, charcoal, chai and coffee. And as an added bonus, the sweater needs no finishing work.

Other knitters rapidly picked up the pattern. One used it with her own handspun yarn. Another dyed the Northcroft yarns in a single dye bath to get a wonderful gradation of a single color. A third  knitter loved the mock cable design and fit of the pattern and is knitting the sweater in a single color of Northcroft yarn.

Cedar blogs at You can also get the Northcroft Sweater pattern, and the Northcroft yarns, or a Northcroft Sweater kit at the Northcroft Store on this blog. If you're driving through Pelican Rapids, MN, the Mercantile on Main is the only physical store that has an exclusive right to sell our yarns and Cedar's patterns.

The Northcroft Sweater illustrates the skill of a talented designer and beauty of our natural yarns. It also shows me that all those cold nights in the barn during lambing, the hot sweaty days baling hay and the work we put into having beautiful, clean fleeces, have really paid off.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Solar power

Last fall, Lake Region Electric, our local energy cooperative, offered an opportunity for members to buy shares of photovoltaic collectors that would be located onsite at the Cooperative offices. This was a perfect opportunity for people without good solar access to invest in solar power. I was intrigued.
Dave and I started figuring out how much more solar power we would need to be completely  powered by the sun and the wind. We had several sites on our farm with good solar access. We decided that with the incentives available to us as individuals, it made more sense for us to invest in our own solar photovoltaic system and leave the Lake Region system investments for people who didn't have a good site for solar power.

We contacted several solar power companies and All Energy Solar responded immediately, answering all our questions and some that we hadn't thought to ask. They designed a system for us, contacted Lake Region Electric Cooperative to make sure that the connection would be compatible with their system.

This summer, in just under a week, two young men installed 32 solar panels down by our bee hives at the end of the orchard. The panels glisten in the sun, reflecting the blues of the sky. They connect to a cable that carries the electricity to our power pole. When the sun shines on the panels, the solar cells make electricity which we use in the house. If the cells produce more than we need, Lake Region Electric buys the surplus from us.When the sun doesn't shine, we depend on our wind generator or buy electricity from Lake Region Electric.

Our investment in the photovoltaic panels is well over $20,000, but with tax credits and depreciation, they should pay for themselves in 8 years, a much better return than any of our other investments and they will help slow global warming too.

 Dave has figured that each year our wind generator produces 16 kwhr of power and prevents the emission of about ten tons of carbon dioxide. Our solar water heater heats about 2/3 of our hot water and as long as I wash clothes and fleeces when the sun shines, it also reduces our carbon pollution by  12%. Our prairies sequester another 33 tons of carbon. If we heat our home with sustainably harvested wood, we avoid another ten tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

We aren't carbon neutral yet, but with the help of our photovoltaic system and the sun
we are a bit closer.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Letting go

I always have such god intentions before our fall fiber days. This fall I planned to design a new yarn, have kits to sell featuring the yarn I designed last winter, side the greenhouse, start and finish the rain garden that will control the runoff from our south roof, clean the refrigerator, wash the floors and vacuum, clean up the gardens and dye some yarn.

Fiber day this year is this coming Saturday, September 27, four short days away. Last Saturday was the breaking point in my attempt to be prepared; if I didn't get it done by then, it probably wouldn't get done. I swept and washed the floors, dyed 8 colors of wool, harvested the garden, and set my yarn and roving out to sell. Then I watched as Newton the dog walked across the tile floors with big, dirty, doggy feet. By the end of the day, I realized that I wouldn't get the gardens cleaned for fall. I wouldn't wash the wool to dye for a new yarn, I wouldn't do anything on the rain garden or the greenhouse and I certainly wouldn't clean the refrigerator before September 27.

I was over whelmed. This was the fourth fiber day with an unsided greenhouse and bare dirt where the rain garden was supposed to be. I couldn't start on the rain garden until the siding was done. In the last six months, I'd skirted four fleeces and sold three. I still had twenty-four fleeces to skirt and wash and dye for that new yarn. I hadn't found time to create a Northcroft Sweater  or Northcroft Sox kit. In fact, I couldn't even find the yarn I had designed for the sox.

My brain circled around and around all day Sunday berating me for not accomplishing my goals. Although the sun was shining, my day was gray. Monday, Dave and I vaccinated thirty ewes and ten lambs. The we put Winthrop the ram into his marking harness and turned him in with the ewes;  the beginning of our next sheep year. I finished dyeing the last color of yarn needed for fiber day. There was still so much to do.

Then I remembered the important things about fiber day have nothing to do with the cleanliness of my house (or fridge), the state of my garden and yard, or unwashed fleeces. Fiber day is important because people come together to talk, share projects, and use their hands and brains to create.

Saturday, at 4 PM, my sheep year will end when the last car drives away (oh yeah, and we was h the dishes, put away the dyes, yarns and chairs, and sweep and wash the floor). Then Dave and I will put the canoe on top of the car and leave for a week in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The chores I had set for myself will be postponed indefinitely. After all, they aren't necessary like vaccinating sheep, playing with grandchildren or going canoeing. I just need to remember what's really important and let go of the rest.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

How to paint a sheep

                                                                                        photo by Peter Jarvis

What happens when you mix a bunch of little kids, several spray bottles of Kool-Aid, and a flock of sheep? The story is told by Jasper, age three...

"Step 2)

Before you catch your lamb you need to prepare your paint.

Unsweetened Kool-Aid™ works really well  for painting lambs (except grape and lemonade).

Black cherry paints maroon, lemon lime comes out green and raspberry is blue. Those are the best flavors to use. I’m not sure why raspberry is blue, but it’s a very nice blue. Orange is orange and cherry and strawberry make light pink.

Mix ten packages of the same color of Kool Aid™  in two cups of water. Pour it into a hand sprayer.

Hang the spray bottle on the fence so it will be ready when you need it.

Be careful not to spray a grownup by accident. They don’t think it’s funny."

How to Paint a Sheep is the first in the Little Lamb Library, a series of picture books written by Joan Jarvis Ellison (that's me). For a step by step guide on how to paint a sheep, buy a copy of the book for the kids in your life at the Northcroft store on this blog or at the Mercantile on Main in Pelican Rapids, MN.  With this book, as Jasper says, "... seven easy steps. Next time you get invited to a sheep painting party, you'll know what to do. In fact, if you live in the country, you could even get your own sheep to paint."


Sunday, September 14, 2014

What does a farm mean?

I just overheard an older gentleman talking in a coffee shop. He said "a farm years ago used to be a lot more labor intensive."

I know that the big mega farms are highly mechanized but we aren't. For me, a farm means a lot of hard work. It means herding and controlling sheep. It means lifting 1500 fifty pound bales of hay at least once a year. It means shoveling manure, shoveling grain, and shoveling snow.

For Dave, the farm means the challenge of repairing old machinery, parts frozen in place by time, grease and dirt. It means building metal parts from scratch using his welder, a forge, a leg vice, and a three pound hammer.

Our daughter, Amber, was asked "What's the dirtiest job you've ever done?" Her answer? "Shoveling sheep manure in the rain." Amazingly, one of her ultra urban friends said "That's not a job, that's growing up on a farm." He also agreed with her.

For our grandsons who all live in big cities, a farm means being able to run as fr as they can, to climb fences, to explore the woods for treasure, and to paint lambs.

To Stevie Ray, a friend who as a young man worked summers for us while he was in college, a farm means a source of funny stories for his jobs as a comedian and a business consultant. His memories of the farm include digging a drain field, catching our youngest eating black nightshade berries and treating her with ipecac then holding her while she vomits. His last article for The Business Journals is about alpaca dentistry  and stems from recent experiences on our farm.

There aren't very many Old MacDonald farms anymore, but for most people, especially the ones who don't live on farms, a farm means "a cheep cheep here, and a moo moo there, here a quack, there a meow, everywhere a baa baa."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Customer service

                                                                                 photos by Gautam Dantas
We're installing a solar photovoltaic system on our farm. The two man crew from All Energy Solar spent four days here. Their major tool was a skidder with a bucket for landscaping the area,  an auger attachment for digging the 24" diameter holes for footings, and a trenching attachment to dig the  trench for the electric wires. Our grandsons, Kieran, Jasper and Simon were entranced. They liked the clay that was uncovered, the holes, and the trenches. They were even more impressed with the concrete pump and the concrete mixer.

The crew kept us up to date on what was happening so the boys could watch. We planned our day around the concrete delivery. They even brought us a monarch caterpillar they found while grading the field around the collector array. But their most amazing act of kindness happened the day we were gone. The men noticed that two of our does and their four kids had escaped from the pasture. The guys found the hole in the fence, rounded up the goats and encouraged them back through the hole. Then, they fixed the hole!

It's too bad that all companies don't have the same customer service instincts as All Energy Solar.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

If one boy can

Dave's Grandpa Greene used to say "one boy can do half a man's work, but two boys, working together can only do a quarter of a man's work."

Last week we called a young friend who wanted to help with baling. We asked him to bring a couple of boys. He showed up with four friends. They all came in the same car and all were eager to earn some money, so we hired them all, but we kept thinking 'if two boys working together do a quarter of a man's work, what happens with five boys working together?'

The first thing we teach them is how to move the bales from the wagon onto the bale elevator. If they lay the bale on straight, it travels up the elevator and into the hay mow without falling off or getting hung up in the narrow doorway to the mow.  Some years more bales end up on the ground than in the mow. Next  we teach them how to stack the bales in the mow. The bottom bales lay on their sides so the twines don't rot, all running north and south. The next layer, stacked on their bottoms, run east and west and the next layer north and south continuing in that pattern until the barn is full. It seems like such a simple pattern, but if one person starts to stack the bales wrong, everyone who follows him carries on the mistake. It wouldn't be so bad, but a stack ten bales high and two bales wide can be very unstable if it has no cross ties to connect it to the rest of the pile. Some years, we've spent as much time rearranging the hay as stacking it.

This year, with these boys, after a few reminders, the barn is in perfect shape. we had a freshman, several sophomores and eleventh graders and a new graduate. They paid attention and learned the patterns. They worked together, solved problems together and chattered the entire time in Somali. They watched Dave and I keep working when we got hot and tired and they did the same. They watched us throw bales and took pride in learning the technique. At the end of our week of work, Dave and I baled a wagon-load on our own while they filled the barn on their own; they were 100% successful.

Baling hay was a real pleasure this year, because of our crew of five boys.  Even if one boy can only do half a man's (or woman's) work, these five boys can do the job.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Make hay while the sun shines

(a preview of my first adult fiction book, Tangled Web a novel, due out in September)
 I watched the world go by, standing at the back of the hay wagon, or at least our corner of the world. It was an amazing day! Summer blue sky stretched on into infinity. A cooling breeze brushed past my face and touched the leaves of the quaking aspen at the edge of the field. They fluttered and twirled, whispering on their flexible stems. As we rolled past the pasture fences, the sheep raised their heads to watch us. Stupid was grazing right along the woven wire grid of the fence line, tempting fate.

The alfalfa plants that had escaped the path of the mower were blooming, colors shading from light lavender, all the way through the purples to dark, midnight blue. Yellow sulfur butterflies floated from flower to flower. The scent of the alfalfa flowers carried by the breeze was sweet, and somehow, green.

I smiled at Mindy as she dragged a bale from the baler chute at the front of the wagon to me at the back. "Doesn't the air smell great?" I asked. She took a deep breath and sneezed. "Stand back here by me,” I added, “so you can smell the air before it picks up all those little bits of hay."

Mindy staggered a bit as the tractor pulled us over a rock in the field. "Mom, I think you have strange ideas about haying."

"What do you mean?"

"Well," Mindy explained. "I think it's fun when cool guys come to help us."

"You mean like Arlene's son, Gavin, or Mick and Tony?"

"Yeah. They're fun to work with. But I don't get all excited about the smell of the air or the flowers at the edge of the field.” We bumped over another rock and staggered to regain our balance. I grabbed at Mindy’s shoulder to steady her.

"Mom, look!" Mindy pointed over my shoulder, suddenly excited. "A deer!" A tiny fawn sprinted toward the brush at the edge of the field. His long legs wobbled. He stopped, looked back at us and then took off again, vanishing under the draping leaves of a willow.

"Wow, that's the first time I've seen a fawn in the hay field," I said, awed.

"It was sleeping in a windrow," Mindy interrupted. "I didn't see anything, and then suddenly it jumped to its feet right in front of us and raced off, just before the baler picked up the hay it was lying in."

"It was exactly the same color as the hay in the windrows," I said.  "If we hadn't had rain on this hay it would still be green and the fawn wouldn't have been able to hide there. Neat."

Mindy and I looked at each other and smiled. Then she turned to grab the next bale.