Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I am a list maker…a goal oriented person. Tom is not, he’s flexible and easygoing.

I would like to plan the next 50 years, work the plan, and then make another list. Tom takes life as it comes.

Back in December, we planned the gardens for the 2011 season. Despite his easygoing nature, Tom realizes the value of a good plan. We usually take a day, get out the seed catalogs, the last year’s records, and make seed orders and site plans. It provides a real sense of accomplishment when we are finished.

In December, it seemed feasible to plant out the 500 brassicas (that's broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage) by the end of March. I started them back in February, and they grew beautifully. We got them ready for planting out by taking them out of the greenhouse and putting them in the farm trailer.
From there we would take them to the field. That night the temperatures dipped to the mid-TWENTIES! Yikes!! Thankfully, we had thought to put frost blanket over them, and the damage was minimal. The forecast was not favorable for planting, so we put them in the hoophouse. By providing protection from the wind and torrential downpours, we effectively saved them all. They are still there, well over a week past our planned planting.

As of right now, there are 200# of potatoes and well over 3,000 onion plants sitting in the shop.
The plan for the potatoes was to plant them out on this past Tuesday. Who knew that we would wake to snow covered ground? It wasn’t just the cold, but now the dampness plays a factor, too. We had planned on planting the onions the first of April, but the ground is far too saturated and cold.

Oh, then I got an email this morning that the asparagus and strawberry plants will be here early next week. We are expecting the delivery of shallotshipment any day now.

But, the weather rules. We did not count on snow, abnormally low temperatures AND rain, every day for nearly a week!

Back when Tom was at the power company, they would make plans for the day along with a notation: STC. Subject To Change. The weather ruled there, too. Water and electricity do NOT mix. “Subject to Change” is the story of my life now.

While I feverishly revise my lists, erasing, crossing out and starting over, I hear Tom chuckling, “STC....STC!” I really must learn to roll with it. Because, everything is


Monday, March 28, 2011

Experience....or just Old?

It occurred to me the other day that between us, we have over 100 years of life experience. At first I thought that sounded rather impressive, then I realized…it just made us sound OLD!

Truthfully, we have just over 80 years of actually growing things between us. Tom tried gardening even when he was a country guy trapped in suburbia. I don’t think he realized he was even in suburbia, back then there were still cows in downtown Fairfax. (honest!)

It wasn’t until he moved to Warrenton that he really began to garden, although the “Brussels Sprout Incident of 1982” could have ended that. He really doesn’t like to talk about it. It was a horrible experience, and could have ended his gardening career.

Tom and his sister rented this little farmhouse just outside of town. It was a cute little homestead carved out of the woods back behind a cattle farm. There was room for a garden, and Tom decided to plant some Brussels sprouts, along with some other things. He really likes Brussels sprouts. Seems cows do, too! Just about the time the sprouts were ready, the cows broke through the fence and ate the plants. ALL the plants! Thankfully, that didn’t turn Tom against gardening….or cows!

Although, it must have been “déjà vu all over again” for him when, years later, our own cow got out in the night and mowed down 150 broccoli plants. It was not fun to attempt to explain to the vet who came out to treat her massive stomachache. He asked what she ate to get into such a state…you should have seen his face when we told him! The vet office had probably wondered about us prior to this event. There is no doubt in my mind that he went back to the office and put a big WEIRD on our file!

I have been planting seeds since I was about 3 years old.
My mother used to get us a “jumble pack” for a penny when she got her garden seeds. The “jumble pack” was essentially the floor sweepings from the seed company. You never knew what would be in the packet. I remember sorting out the seeds and trying to discover what they were prior to planting. I learned a lot from my mother’s one cent investment. When our girls were small, I wanted to re-create the experience. Imagine my shock when I found the jumble pack was then 25cents!

Tom and I have almost always had a garden. When we were first married, and living in a townhouse, our neighbor gave us this gorgeous tomato she grew in her backyard. That was one of the first indications that we just couldn’t bear living in town. We both knew we wanted space for a garden again. I saved some seeds from that tomato and we couldn’t wait to move and have room for our own garden.

The first garden seems SO funny now. It was very tiny, edged with cedar logs from the property. It produced quite well, despite the ongoing battle with the rabbits for the bounty.

Throughout the past 27 years, we have had a variety of gardens and garden styles. The one constant….the garden is always getting bigger! Presently we utilize a bed system, in order to control erosion on our incredibly hilly terrain.
We do have two large garden plots where we grow things needing a lot of room: corn, potatoes, winter squash, sweet potatoes, and the like.

Different crops, different locations, different approaches…it is a study in logistics, climate and plant culture. There is always something new to learn.

Growing for winter sales in unheated hoophouses is our current challenge. Through trial and error, reading books and articles on the subject, and a lot of work, we are becoming more efficient and effective at this new type of growing. We just put season number two of winter sales behind us. We’ve learned a lot from all our gardening adventures throughout the years.

So, despite the fact it makes us sound old…we DO have 80+years of growing experience! …and we are STILL learning!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Spring in the Valley

Last week, we had one day when the temperature flirted with the 80* mark. It was amazing!

This morning, we woke up to snow. It was amazing! (thankfully, the actual snowfall fell far short of the original predictions)

Such is life in the Shenandoah Valley in March….sometimes even in APRIL! I saw online that someone called our weather “bi-polar” this morning. While it may not be socially acceptable, it is an accurate description. Spring weather is unpredictable, contradictory, unsettling and downright frustrating at times.

Some folks don’t understand my dislike of the “white stuff”.
Oh, I admit, it’s pretty. It also provides moisture and the nitrogen uptake necessary for growing things. But, it makes the rest of farm life just a little bit harder.

This time of year, the sheep have had a taste of that wonderful, tender, young, green grass. When forced to spend the day eating hay in the barn, they protest. They protest loudly! Two of the ewes attempted to start a picket line at the gate that leads out back. They paraded for a while, and then hunger got the better of them.

I went on a tour of the hoophouses, as the Market opens in SIX short days. At first, a quick peek in the door was a little disheartening With the very low temperatures predicted, we covered all the new plantings. When I opened the doors, the houses were quite dark, as snow covered the tops. The beds were all shrouded in their frost blankets. …and it was COLD! This did not bring forth a feeling of confidence for the upcoming Market..

But, then, I pulled back some of the covers and looked at the plants below. YEEHAW! Look at that lettuce! There’s lettuce, kale, green onions, claytonia, and a couple other things. I’m feeling better and better.

Spring IS here….you just have to know where to look!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Baby UG

Ever made a mistake that you just couldn’t escape? A momentary lapse in judgment can haunt one for a LONG time.

That is the case with Baby UG.

Last fall, it seemed like a good idea to turn the yearling ewes in with the ram. I mean, they were big, beautiful girls, they seemed ready….the ram was more than willing to take on the task. They all got bred right away. Everything seemed to work just right.

Until delivery time.

Out of the four yearling ewes, we got just one live lamb. Baby UG.

First one of the yearlings got trampled by the rest of the flock. She and any unborn lambs died. (I already chronicled this one)

The next yearling went into labor that just STOPPED. In an attempt to save her, we went in after the babies. We lost the lambs, but did save the ewe. (Chronicled this one, too)

While we were waiting, and waiting and waiting for the last two ewes to lamb, we got very low on hay. As in, we had about 3 bales left…low on hay. We set off to Fort Defiance to get hay from some fellow market vendors. Getting hay always includes a cup of coffee and a little solving of the world’s problems, so we were gone for a while.

Upon arriving at home, I could hear sheep screams from the barn as I got out to unlock the gate. When we got to the barn, Mother-to-be was screaming bloody-murder. Just screaming. When I finally got her to turn so I could check things out, everything looked in order. She was still screaming. I assisted the birth of a relatively good-sized lamb, and figured she would “get with the program” and mother-on with it. Nope, still screaming. Well, she tried to mother-on, but then she’d stop and scream. Her behavior was indicative of labor, so I figured there must be “someone else” up in the birth canal. Hmm, felt around…no, one baby…that’s all. BUMMER! We jugged them and went off to lunch.

After lunch, she was STILL screaming. Now, I don’t mean baaing loudly…I mean SCREAMING! It was nerve wracking! ….and LOUD! We did another internal exam in case I missed it the first time. No, there was just the one baby. He seemed fine, less than stellar, but fine. On closer examination, he proved to be quite possibly the ugliest lamb I have ever seen. It’s partly because he is a newborn and tiny in comparison to the “big boys” down there. (the big boys are pushing 90 pounds at just about 3 months old)

“Mother UG” screamed for four hours after Baby UG’s arrival. She then got down to the business of being a sheep. That business would be eating, caring for baby, eating, eating…..

The following day, the last yearling began to labor. FINALLY! But, something was wrong. Oh, WHY did we decide to breed the yearlings? This time the lamb was HUGE. I mean HUGE! In addition to the size, it was mis-presented. I got the presentation mess straightened out, but the size…. I worked, Tom worked…the ewe….well, she finally gave out and went down. It was hard! I got the front feet and head out, but couldn’t get the rest out. Tom and I switched places, and he got the lamb out on the ground. She was gigantic! Oh, my….she was actually alive! She didn’t have “much zip” though. The ewe was totally traumatized, but would survive. We worked with the lamb, only to find that her front leg was somewhat deformed. Probably from being so BIG, the foot was curled under. We weighed her….16.5 POUNDS! Lambs are usually about 8 to 10 pounds. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much of a sucking reflex, so her survival was in doubt from the beginning. The following morning she did indeed die. BUMMER!

But, Baby UG was still chugging along. His mother had lessened her screaming….somewhat. We tagged UG and let the two of them out. It was time to clean up from lambing, and move on to the next season on the farm.

“Mother UG” went mental. She began screaming again. This was getting SO old!

Baby UG seemed to understand how to be a sheep. He followed her along, checking out the big, big world on the way. He managed to stay out of the way of the big boys, and got up in the hay feeder to sleep while the others were outside. When Mother couldn’t find him, she would scream. When she did find him, she would scream. AAAAH!

He was so tiny; he got stuck behind the barn door.
As sheep are notoriously stupid, neither one of them could figure out where he was, nor how to get him out. Then we had a thunderstorm, he curled up next to the stocktank (outside) and waited out the storm. His mother nearly lost her voice with worry. The next thunderstorm, he got left outside and was soaking wet and shivery. This time, I locked him and his mother in a stall with a heat lamp. I just couldn’t take him getting “lost” anymore!

Now, finally, they seem to have adjusted to barn life. FINALLY!

But, every time I see Baby UG, I think …..

Don’t breed the yearling ewes!

Out of the four yearlings….we got Baby UG. That’s it. Very disappointing! We will take the two yearlings without lambs to the stockyard soon. At least the prices for cull ewes are running pretty high right now, so it won’t be a total loss. Baby UG should grow out well. As a single, his gain rate should be excellent.

But, he will be in the last group to go to the processor’s. He will be around ‘til November. So, we will be reminded of our bad decision until then. And, to that, all I can say is….

Oh, UG!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Taters and Onions

Today we FINALLY went and picked up the seed potatoes. This demanded a road-trip of sorts, so we arranged to have lunch with A and T as well. It almost became one of those logistical nightmares that I find myself in the middle of far too often. I have yet to figure out WHY that happens…

We could get potatoes in Staunton, or even Waynesboro, but if we got to Harrisonburg, we can usually get the “pretty red ones”. We had been getting them from Wetsel’s, but a couple of years ago, they didn’t have any when we needed them, so we started going somewhere else.

This year, we found that “the pretty red ones” weren’t to be had, and we went into a mild panic.

An aside here, I don’t know if it is Irish DNA far back in my heritage, or what, but I just GOT to have TATERS! I like planting them, but love digging them. There is nothing better to my mind than seeing those hoppers full of potatoes…just waiting for me in the cooler. There is nothing quite as versatile as a potato. Nothing says comfort food like potatoes! YUM!

We got some other red ones. I mean, a potato is a potato….right? nah, not really! Oh,” the pretty red ones” are ….well, just SO pretty! Then we got to thinking…maybe Wetsel’s would have some. A quick check in the phone book, a relatively simple phonecall and hooray, they have them! Oh, rats…return the other ones….run across town….wait and wait and wait for them to get them from the warehouse...ACK, it’s time to meet the kids for lunch!

We raced across town AGAIN (without the potatoes) did the lunch thing with the kids. It was enjoyable, and really nice to see them during the week. Then, we went BACK to the warehouse and picked up the potatoes. WHY can’t we ever do anything the easy way?

We also bought a 35 pound bag of onion sets. I have found that planting onion sets makes for real nice green onions and it is much easier than starting from seed. The man at the store gave us a ten percent discount for taking the whole bag. Yeehaw! Now, I better get all these in the ground. (Last year, I bought 100 lbs…and some are STILL waiting to be planted…..BLECH! Compost pile, here they come.)

We’re trying something slightly new this year. We’re going to plant Russets, too. Mmmm, baking potatoes! Along with the Yukon Golds, “the pretty red ones”, and Kennebecs, we should be able to fill every potato need for our Market customers and ourselves.

So, we’re set. We’ll plant a bunch of taters on Monday (Lord willing). Some will wait till later, as they seem to sprout better after it gets just slightly warm. Half have been stored in the cooler, awaiting planting in July. We have found that July planted potatoes last far better for winter sales. It also gives us NEW potatoes twice a year.

Taters and Onions….ain’t nothin’ better!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Countdown to the Market

Every year, sometime in March, an alarm starts going off in my brain. At first, it is just an underlying sense of urgency. By mid to late March, it’s a full blown RED-ALERT complete with sirens and lights!

What causes this alert?

The Farmers’ Market starts the first weekend in April. It is engrained in my very being. I know what kind of preparation the Market demands, and what kind of pace the season requires, and I begin to panic. It never reaches a full-blown panic attack, but I do end up having some sleepless nights and frantic days.

Thankfully, we no longer have to go out and buy a half ton of flour, sugar, butter, honey, yeast, and on and on, to bake bread. No, our plans have been made, the seeds started, the supplies appropriated…we are just doing the final prep work prior to Opening day.

The freezers are all organized and de-frosted: waiting for the vegetables, fruits and meats to fill them. The gardens await tilling. (the weather is again a factor) The broiler chicks and lambs are both growing well. The hoophouses will be completely full of new crops by the end of this week. Tomorrow we head out to purchase the seed potatoes and onion sets. The main crop of onion plants should be delivered next week. (as should the asparagus and strawberry plants) The cooler is cleaned and ready for use. The trailer will be cleaned out this week, the bags re-stocked, and the moneybox replenished. Tom and I will take a little time to check out the signage and our sales sheets and make any last minute adjustments.

Then, we will wait. Because, despite all my panic and all my planning, we are truly dependent upon time to make this venture work. Those plants take a certain number of days to mature….no matter how much I wish for them to HURRY!

So, Tom will continue to wish that I could see that “everything will EVENTUALLY get done”….and I will continue to mildly panic.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Doing the Farmers' Market

There are those out there that question the viability of farmers' markets; those that would question our commitment to our own market. It is to these folks that the following is written.

Allow me, if you will, to share our story…then, you will see that the Market means the world (quite literally) to us. We truly understand that in order for us to thrive, the Market as a whole must be a thriving, vibrant entity. Please re-read that sentence. The MARKET as a WHOLE must be a thriving, vibrant entity to benefit ALL the vendors!

We came to the Valley in late 1996. It was our plan to live and farm in the north end of the county with family. When this plan came abruptly to an end in early ’97, we were devastated, and had absolutely NO idea what to do, nor where to do it. You have not known desperation until you have ridden around the county looking for a home in the one vehicle you have left with your 6 and 8 year old children in the backseat, and no one has a clue what is going on. Our “time in the wilderness” was mercifully brief, and we found ourselves the owners of an empty piece of land in Middlebrook. Once the house was started, we looked for various ways to survive. The old adage “you can’t go home again” is oh, so very true. We had to make it here…and we had to do it quickly!

Friends suggested the Market. We had grown our own produce and even some proteins for years. We were fairly adept at putting food by, and I’m not a bad baker if I do say so myself. So, early in 1998, Tom attended the Market meeting, secured a spot, and we began planning to become “market vendors”. We had absolutely NO idea what we were getting into.

Our first week was opening day 1998. We made a whopping $66.50. But, we sold out! Tom was excited. His gregarious nature had found its niche. He asked me then “can you just bake ‘till the vegetables come in?” April comes early to the Shenandoah Valley, and far colder than our home further north. So, I began to bake….more and more and more. For ten years, I baked all day, every Friday, often starting on Thursday…sometimes as many as 100 loaves of bread EACH week. Yes, it can be done in a kitchen oven, with a fairly small mixer. It’s called desperation and determination!

From the first time we did the Market, we looked for ways to do it better. We made a checklist of what we needed for supplies. We found a cheap scale to weigh vegetables. We contacted the Virginia Dept. of Ag to find out WHAT else we might need to do. Tom is great at organization and the girls pitched in as well. In some ways, it was a great family adventure. In others, it was just a lot of VERY HARD work!

Over the years, we have evolved a great deal. Once, it was just Tom doing the Market. I stayed home with the girls and cleaned up from baking and took care of the animals. When B got older, she became Tom’s Market helper. She learned how to make change, keep the stand stocked, and settle out at the end of the day. Later, A realized she was missing out on the “fun” and went along as well. The Market served as an incredible learning opportunity for both of them. It is there that they developed some of the skills they use in their present occupations.

As they got older, found other interests and occupations, I became the Market helper. Now, it’s just Tom and me, working together on the farm AND at the Market. I have learned a lot at the Market as well. The personal touch of direct marketing does not come easy to us shy introverts. (yes, that would be me!)

In the early days, I didn’t attend the Market often. We only had one vehicle and two young children. It was too much effort to get the whole family down to the Market by 6 o’clock. There were farm chores to do. In order to complete the milking (by hand) and all the chores, I would have to start before 4 am. I was already doing that on Fridays to get all the baking done. No, I wasn't sleeping in on Saturday mornings...I was cleaning up all the mess from the day before!

Once, on one of my rare Market appearances, one of the Market committee members made a comment to me that changed my outlook and quite possibly our life. She and I were talking about how we were sold out before 10 o’clock. I rather wanted to go home…her comment was “well, you shouldn’t be sold out so early….MAKE MORE STUFF!” Rather than be bothered at her, I began thinking….hmmm, if I made more stuff….it would take longer to sell….We’d have more money…hmmm…! Tom and I discussed the conversation repeatedly. I took her words to heart and “made more stuff”. Every week we would take a look at what sold, or didn’t sell, and adjust our products for the following week. We were successful.

Our Marketing skills and products have changed greatly over the years. Where we just sold bread and the occasion vegetable in the early days, now we sell mostly vegetables, NO bread (thank the Lord) and meat and eggs. We are always looking for new things to grow, listening to customers to learn what things are popular and in demand, and tweaking our customer relations. It’s a lot of hard work, not just Saturday morning, but all the time. Even in the dead of winter, we are thinking toward Market season. We grow things year-round. This IS our life.

We have been at the Market for 14 years now. We have missed only a handful of days during that time. We have quite literally been to the Market despite Hell and high water…through thick and thin. The Market was actually under water one weekend following an amazing rainstorm. B and J’s accident this past April was truly of the “hell-ish” nature. We have come to know and love customers and vendors alike.Strong bonds have been formed over the years. I don’t even think of myself as shy anymore.

I remember the days when a new item met with a sneering “…I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that before”, and our prices were considered “far more than Wal-Mart”. It’s taken a lot of personal determination and public education to make the Market the thriving entity it is today. Despite the harsh growing conditions this summer AND the economy; the Market it still making money. Now, 14 years later, I am seriously UNHAPPY if we make 10 times our first day sales! Just sayin’…

I say all that to say this…we owe our livelihood to the Staunton/Augusta Farmers’ Market, and we KNOW it. The Market has been very good to us, and we have become an integral part of the Market. We wouldn’t think of missing a Saturday…not for fear of losing our space, but because that is our only day to make the income that we depend upon for our survival, and we love the Market and its customers.

When Tom became part of the committee and then the Market Manager, it was not for personal gain. (Let me tell you, the pay is seriously NOT worth it!) It was because he so greatly values the Market, that he wants to see it grow and thrive, because our business benefits from it. There are but a few who feel it necessary to commit to the Market in such a way as to assure its survival. The decisions that Tom and the committee make are sometimes difficult, but always with the good of the MARKET as a whole in mind. Keep in mind that "committee" indeed contains the word COMMIT!!

I could have gotten mad at that committee member years ago. We could have given up when various items were not successful, when things didn’t seem to go our way. But, we didn’t. We kept on trying, changing, and learning. It is a matter of determination AND perspective. If you’re looking for opportunity, the Market atmosphere provides it…but, YOU must seize the opportunity. Seize the opportunity; do not attack the very entity that grants it. Don’t look for someone to blame your failures on, look to yourself and improve yourself.

Tom and I both know how important the Market is to us, and we are completely committed to keeping it a thriving entity far into the future. Our lives, quite frankly, depend upon it!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Smells like SPRING to Me!

AHHH! Nothin’ like country air in the Spring! It smells so sweet and fine!

Hehe… this is NOT what you’d be thinking today, my friend.

It is a beautiful day here in the countryside, the grass is greening up, the early spring flowers budding out, the birds are singing….and IT STINKS! Seriously STINKS!

Spring is the time for readying the fields for growth. Nothing finer for promoting growth than poultry litter, and it just so happens that those poultry houses used for broiler production need some cleaning out in anticipation of the new crop of chickens. So, today, the trucks and tractors are working overtime…hauling, spreading and going back for more. I’ve seen them coming and going all afternoon. There is a chance of rain sometime next week, which makes the timing perfect for fertilizer application.

So, despite the fact that it is very odoriferous around here right now, it is one more sign of spring.

Take a good ole deep breath of that fine country air! (you’ll get used to it…. honest)

It was the Best of Times; It was the Worst of Times

With the 2011 lambing season behind us, it is time for review. I do this at the end of every season, sometimes with formal notes, most often just in my head. This year was a year of superlatives.

It was the BEST breeding percentage – 100%

Great lambing percentage –184% although when you figure in the losses, it drops to 147% (still acceptable, just not great)

Most number of lambs-35

MOST number of lamb losses-7

Most number of live RAM lambs-21

Best looking ewe lambs!

Most number of ewe losses- 1 trampled and died, one in questionable health, three others to be culled

Biggest lamb at 60 days- 75 pounds!

1st newborn broken leg

1st smothered lamb

Most triplets- 2 sets!

1st triplets raised with absolutely no human intervention

Amazing recovery by lamb with broken leg

Biggest lamb ever delivered naturally – 16.5#! (don’t think this one will make it)

Most assisted births in a season

Possibly the most number of nocturnal barn trips

Hardest delivery

“Grossest” death

If you choose to look only at the bad, you would have to wonder WHY on earth we continue. Honestly, we DO ask that sometimes!

If you choose to look only at the good….then, we are doing incredibly well. Those big boys down there are amazing.

So, it becomes a matter of perspective, of balance…

We are raising lamb chops here (and roasts and shanks and sausage, etc) and that crop is looking great! The losses, while tragic and frustrating, go with the territory. You learn what you can, make adjustments to avoid the problems in the future and go on.

There’s an old saying…..”There’s always NEXT year…!”

Monday, March 14, 2011

What Makes the Farm Cool

Last Monday was Homestead Hill Farm’s official “clean the cooler” day. I’ve been thinking of, and dreading this job for weeks. It HAD to be done, and HAD to be done right NOW. But, imagine a refrigerator you can walk inside of (hence, the name “walk-in cooler”) well, it has the ability to grow things far larger and more unsettling than your kitchen fridge…honestly.

Okay, so I didn’t let it get to that point. No, I really didn’t! Although, those “long-keeping” cabbages really didn’t last that LONG! They were really pretty gross, edible…but, gross! But, there was nothing in there that was past recognition, thankfully. And now, it’s all neat and tidy and ready for the 2011 vegetable season to begin. I cannot wait to go get the seed potatoes!

Tom bought the cooler on Ebay about 7 years ago. (Really? Has it been THAT long?) I just love our cooler! It is a fulfillment of a long-time dream. (I told you I’m a different sort)

It makes us look SO good!

Yes, I realize I need to explain that last statement. In order to do so, allow me to go back in time to LBC “life before the cooler”.

When we first started our gardening adventures, we had little, if ANY, equipment to make it easier. We were determined to be “debt-free” and that led to some interesting options and decisions along the way. Since we didn’t have much money to spend, we got by with the bare essentials. We had refrigeration for the eggs, but the vegetables were often stored in the relative coolness of the cellar. This worked fairly well, but was not the best solution. Neither, might I add, was processing vegetables and/or eggs in the small sink in the utility room.

First we found some “cheap” refrigerators. That made storing veggies a little better. However, we were milking cows, yes, plural, at the time, and that makes for a LOT of milk! There were jars and jars of milk. We traded a fair amount of the milk (it is NOT legal to sell raw milk in VA, unless it is to be used as “petfood”) and I skimmed the cream and made pounds of butter. The butter was used in baking for the Market. Between the eggs and the milk, there was not much extra space. So, we prioritized the vegetables for refrigerator storage. This worked, but it was not ideal.

About this time, we invested in a secondhand stainless steel sink. Once it was installed in the shed, and running water was in place, we were on our way to having “packing facilities”. This allowed us to cool the vegetables as they came out of the field, greatly increasing their longevity and good looks for the Market. It also kept much of the mess out of the house. Hooray!

I had long envied the walk-in cooler of some of our acquaintances. Tom thought it was a rather strange object to covet, but he indulged me. Once we had some “extra” money, we took the plunge. He found a great deal on-line, assembled it himself, called in a favor and got a friend to charge the A/C system…and we were in business. A quick trip to Lowes secured shelves for the cooler, and we have never looked back!

Once the vegetables are hydro-cooled and then placed in the cooler, they look gorgeous come Market day! While you can be assured if you eat our produce that it was picked the week you buy it, you can also be assured it will last longer because we have the ability to substantially slow the aging process through refrigeration.

Amazingly, now, Tom is the one who thinks perhaps we need a BIGGER cooler! (or at least more space that is cool) I think that’s funny. He tends to joke about me and my grandiose plans (that don’t generally come to fruition). But, if we had more space….we could cool MORE things.

Hmmmm, those little wheels are turning again….if we could COOL more, we should GROW more and then….SELL more!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Bridge to Nowhere

We’ve got a drainage problem. We’ve got a BIG drainage problem!

Behind the barn has become something like a swamp. No, maybe it’s more like quicksand. Sorta “quick-glop”…yeah, that’s the best description. It’s a squishy, slippery, smelly mess. It’s terrible!

The drainage around the barn has never been the greatest. The barn sits in a little hollow and the run-off from the barn roof has to flow through the back of the barnyard. Ordinarily, this is not too much of a problem. But, we’ve had at least four inches of rain this week. That’s a lot of rain in a short amount of time. In addition, I HAD to clean the stocktank this week, too. The sheep drop lots of hay in as they get a drink of water, and they're notorious for their "backwashing". With 45 sheep inhabitants of the barn, who not only have four hooves each (that’s 180 hooves pounding the ground), but it seems that they also pee incessantly, it is a soaky, soggy mess! ICK! Something had to be done.

**I must tell a funny story on A here. Years ago, she and I were in the barn after a big rain. I told her to watch out for her boots. The mud is not only slippery, but it is sticky as well. Since she was indeed a teenager, she didn’t listen to mama. She was slopping along, when BLOOP! Off went the boot! Down went her sock into the ****…. and she exclaimed the very word that described where her foot had just landed! Her face turned red and her hand went over her mouth. She looked mortified. It was so horribly appropriate that I was paralyzed by laughter and couldn’t begin to help her. I did manage to get a grip on myself BEFORE she put the dirty foot/sock back into the boot. Oh, fun times in the barn! **

(so sorry, sweetie, that one just HAD to be shared!)

The first rain of the week made for a big mess, and the sheep were somewhat hesitant to go out back. I jokingly told Tom we needed a bridge to get them out to the feeders. While he kidded me for the idea, we looked around the barn and found some old oak boards left from the coldframe demolition. (see, there’s a good reason to keep that ”useful looking” junk!) We laid the boards over the swamp. Now, at least I didn’t have to walk through the goo to the feeders.

At first the sheep were a little hesitant.
After watching me walk over it several times, they began to try it. I really think the only reason they paid any attention was that I was carrying the feed bucket. Now, the lambs use it a lot.
They seem to like the sounds of their little hooves on the wood. “Trip, trap, trip, trap!” It reminds me of the childhood story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. (hopefully, we won’t find trolls underneath!)

The ewes are a divided group. There are several who use the bridge and a good number that go around the other way. It’s funny to see how they each have their distinct characteristics.

Now that the rain has finally stopped, the wind is beginning to blow. That is ALWAYS the way around here. But, soon things will dry out and the bridge….well, it will go back to being “useful looking junk” sitting in the barn. …and the bridge to nowhere will be just another memory from the barn.

One of these days, when we have abundant free time and excessive amounts of money, we might even FIX the drainage problem. Nah, we’d have to give up the possibility of more funny barn stories!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

In Search of Signs of Spring

I don’t trust Puxatawney Phil. Don’t trust him at all. First of all, he’s a groundhog. Sorry, animal rights folks, but around here, we really do NOT like groundhogs. They eat the garden relentlessly, and make huge holes in fields in which the animals might injure themselves. We have had groundhogs eat through the phone line out back more than once! There are actually groundhog hunters in our part of the world. Some of them attain some type of hero status with farmers and rural residents alike.

We won’t even get into the fact that Phil is not only a groundhog, but a YANKEE groundhog. Now, now, northern friends…you know me well enough to know I don’t hold it against ya… really!

Since Phil and I are on the outs, I went looking for my own signs of Spring. You can’t find much in the way of “spring-y-ness” here at 2,000 feet in the Shenandoah Valley in early February when Phil does his prediction. It’s very much wishful thinking. While we DO live in the Valley….we’re on the up side, very close to the Allegheny Mountains. We have been known to have a freeze here as late as the last week of May, so Spring is well…just a date on the calendar. We recently had snow and sleet, despite the fact that it is MARCH!(and the calendar says that SPRING starts in 10 days)

I did find some signs of spring, though. I found signs that encourage me greatly. Signs that mean, YES, once again, spring will come and we will plant, things will grow, we will indeed grow and harvest once more!

I found crocus blooming in the backyard.

The grass is getting greener by the day.

The wild onions are growing very well! Wild onions really herald spring to me.

Back when we had cows, they loved the onions….REALLY loved the onions. The infamous jersey cow “Kuh” would go into a new paddock and eat the onions.
Just the onions. You could watch her move through the paddock munching first one onion patch and then another. When she would come into the barn for milking….I KNEW it was Spring! The smell of onion breath about knocked me over! But, she seemed SO HAPPY! The big down-side to the arrival of the spring onions was the long period of “onion milk”. Oh, yeah…the milk smelled! Big time onion milk smell! Ugh!! Note to any home dairy-folks: Do NOT make icecream in early spring. Do NOT attempt to make your children drink Spring milk! And you may want to learn to hold your breath for long periods of time if you milk your cows by hand. Thankfully, we discovered ways around this odoriferous phenomenon. Despite the stinkiness of the cows in early spring, it was another sign that the cycle of the seasons was continuing to roll forward.

I also noted that the little buds on the fruit trees are beginning to swell.

It does not look like there are as many as last year. Tom had to tie the branches up, so the trees would NOT break. Hopefully, if we don’t get a late frost, we’ll have peaches, plums, pears, and apples in late summer.

So, Spring is definitely coming… I can’t tell you if it will be early, or if the Old Farmers’ Almanac will be right and we’ll have two more snows. Nope, my prediction is far less specific. I will only commit to saying….Spring is on its way! And to that, I can only say, “HOORAY!”

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

An Ode to a Ram

(okay, it’s NOT an ode, because poetry is NOT my strong point!)

Every shepherd knows that your ram is half your flock. Sounds like an overstatement, doesn’t it? But, when you think about it, you realize that it is quite accurate.

A good, mature ram can easily breed 50 ewes. That means his genetics affect ALL the lambs. Each ewe generally only has 2 lambs a year. So, in reality, the ram is the most important investment a shepherd can make. Our experience in shepherding has driven this fact home. Of course, we had to learn the hard way. Once, just once, I would like to learn the EASY way!

We have had a number of rams over the years.

We had a Dorset ram when we first started out. He was big and ornery, but a good ram. His biggest fault was his feet. Dorsets are notorious for their hoof overgrowth. He ended up with these “elf feet” that turned up at the ends. Overgrown hooves mean sore feet; sore feet mean he can’t do “his business”. That meant he needed a hoof trim fairly often. Try doing a pedicure on 250+ pounds of ornery….NOT fun. New breed?

Our next ram was a Cotswold.
At that point, we wanted to follow the wool route with our flock. What a disaster! “Stanley” was quite small and apparently not too fertile. The only thing he had going for him was “cute”. Not particularly a good word to describe a stud animal! Okay….switch breeds again. But, wait…maybe we can do wool AND meat. We’ll just have two rams and two separate ewe flocks. (yeah, right)

This time we got “Mac”. He was a big, showy Suffolk.
He was a good-looking ram that had spent his early days in the show ring. He was quite gentle with people, but not with the other sheep.

Apparently, he and “Stanley” got in some sort of tussle, and Tom found “Stanley” dead one morning. Not a good way to start a day!

“Mac” had his own set of fertility issues, so we began looking for another ram.
We have friends who have the best looking flock of sheep I have ever seen. This is where we have gotten a lot of our stock. They had a bunch of ram lambs one year, so A and I went to check them out.

The producer was showing them all off. They were a great looking bunch of lambs. The producer has a line he loves to use. “Yeah, when you’re lookin’ for a lamb, ya wanna look for a big butt and good shoulders. …and…that’s what the wife was lookin’ for when she found ME!” This always gets a laugh….correction, this gets a laugh from the listener and the “oh, husband! eye roll” from the wife.

We found a ram we liked (A claims picking him, but then so does the producer) and took him home.
He was young and wild and A dubbed him “DUDE”. He grew out beautifully. He ended up being about 300 pounds of testosterone. He once took out a fence, just because he was bored. But, what a DUDE!

When we turned him in, he went right to “work”. Five months later, we had our first batch of gorgeous lambs. Just about every lamb he sired has been exceptional. They are healthy and hearty at birth, and grow out quite nicely. Since we were having such good lambs, we really wanted to keep some of the ewe lambs back as breeders. Once you start doing that, you need to think about a new ram. After four seasons with “DUDE”, it was time to look again.

The producer we got him from wanted him back as a trade, so we get first pick of this year’s lambs. I am anxiously awaiting the call to go pick out “DUDE’s” replacement.

I will probably always miss Dude, just a little. He was a great ram. We have some great lambs from him.

Lambs with BIG butts and GOOD Shoulders!

THANKS, DUDE! We’ll miss ya, man!