Monday, January 30, 2012

Overnight Delivery

In all the years we’ve been shepherds, during all those middle-of-the-night trips to the barn, we have never had to deliver lambs in the middle of the night. I did all those nocturnal checks just to keep from feeling like….maybe I should have done more.

Most of the time, the lambs are born in the early morning or at least in the light of day. I can only remember one time where we were lambing out a ewe at midnight. (and that project had started earlier in the evening) I just figured we’d keep checking…and finding nothing.

Until now.

Last night, on my final check before bedtime, it was obvious that one of the ewes was in labor. I decided to take the cautious approach and give her a little more time. When I went back an hour later, there was a nice ram lamb up and looking for a meal. YES!

It was then obvious that two other ewes were in labor. No sleeping tonight! I backed off and waited to see what would happen. One was in hard labor and appeared to need a little help. As I checked out the situation, suddenly the lamb was born. Wow! Another big one! I got her up and nursing and put the pair in a jug pen.

Now, I was going to need a third pen, so I began to make some arrangements in the barn. This caused all the other sheep to flip out and it got to be somewhat of a madhouse. A little treat of hay settled everyone down nicely.

The third ewe was beginning to moan and cry and wander around the barn in an anxious manner. Oh Bother! That is my cue for becoming the vet. Despite my best efforts, she was having none of my interventive care. I looked at my clock, 1:15…hate to do it, but, guess I better wake the Boss.

When he came into the barn, he was startled at the turn of events. Neither of us had expected to see one lamb in the middle of the night, let alone multiple lambs.

He held onto the ewe as I began my exam. Thankfully, everything was in the right place…unlike the other day. The lamb was quite large and the ewe is rather small, so it took more than a little effort to get it born. However, she was born, she was healthy, and mama-sheep took over. Since the lamb was quite large, I didn’t even think about the fact there might be twins. I was tired and forgot "the rule". The general rule is…if you gotta go in…make sure you get them all out! We jugged them as well and headed back to bed. I checked the clock again. Just past 2am...not too bad.

Imagine my surprise when I went back after about an hour to check on everyone and found ANOTHER lamb! Yes, skinny, little Freak (one of the barn’s many characters...she's the "sheep that flew"...) had TWINS! She’s got two little ewe lambs, bleating around, looking for food, seeming quite healthy.

How’s that for overnight delivery?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Are You An Educated Consumer?

There is a clothing outlet chain that uses the slogan “an educated consumer is our best customer!” Seems there’s a lot of truth in that slogan. But, are YOU educated?

In the food industry, the agriculture industry, just about everywhere…you hear the “buzz” words.

Organic, Sustainable, Natural, Bio-dynamic, Green, Home-grown, Home-farm….the list goes on and on. Do YOU know what they mean? Do you care? Do you know where your food comes from? Do you care?

Many folks shop Farmers’ Markets because they like the freshness, the quality, the “connected-ness” of the Market. The whole “local” thing creates more confusion. Some people think that CSA’s, Farmers’ Markets and on-line buying clubs are all the same. Others think that everything at a Market “must” be organic, or better than the store, and surely no one would “spray” their crops. Do customers KNOW what they mean when they ask “do you spray?” Is it the very act of spraying with which they take issue? Or do they think that the only way “bad stuff” gets applied is through a sprayer nozzle?

When you make the choice to eat or drink something…ANYTHING, you should have educated yourself as to the pros and cons of that particular item and do a little research. Only then are you making an informed decision.

I grew up eating food from the “farm”. We raised most of our own food when I was a child. Dad had cows, pigs, chickens and rabbits that we butchered and ate. Mom always had a huge garden and we canned and froze a great deal. Later, as we got older, the animals became a memory and the garden reduced in size. But, the knowledge of WHERE food originates is deeply ingrained in my very being. Tom and I raised our girls in a similar manner. For a period of time, we only bought flour and some grain products from the store… everything else was home-grown. Meat, vegetables, eggs and dairy products were all produced here on the hill.

Both of my granddaddies grew up as farm boys on the Eastern Shore. Tom’s uncle remembers the milk cow that his mother had when Tom’s dad and his siblings were small children in the Amherst area of VA. Tom’s mother recalled summers spent at her cousin’s home…eating fresh food and drinking cream. She told stories of her own mother wringing the neck of the Sunday chicken. My grandparents lived in “the city”, but I distinctly remember the butter and egg man making deliveries. My grandmother would shop at farm markets far more often than the grocery. It seems that our family has always had some recollection on the “old ways”, even when we found ourselves living in town. It is almost beyond my comprehension when someone reveals that they have NO idea about food production.

I realize that a lot of our customers have NO idea how one goes about raising food…of ANY kind. In many cases, they really don’t care. That’s okay. But, when you want to take charge of your life and your eating….YOU must become informed….and EDUCATED.

The very basics of food production are these…In order to have food… there must be sun and earth, plants and rain (or some source of water), at the very minimum. In order for there to be an abundance of food, there must be farmers who know how to combine the sun and earth and water and plants to grow crops, either vegetable or protein.

There are many types of farming, and personally, I think that they probably all have a place in our world society. The very subject of farming practices can be amazingly divisive, and that is not my intent. Simply know that there are many ways to produce a similar product. It is YOUR responsibility, as the consumer, to understand the basics of the practices so that YOU can decide which fits YOUR priorities.

When shopping the Farmers’ Market, or any other source, ASK QUESTIONS. When asking questions, know what answers you are looking for. There are innumerable sources on-line where you can find information to educate yourself. Talk to the farmers, this is their livelihood…they have educated themselves in order to make this lifestyle work. They should be more than willing to answer your questions.

Here are just a couple of things to consider:

*Sprays are not intrinsically bad. Educate yourself as to what sprays YOU wish to avoid. To ask a grower…have you sprayed this with anything that will kill ME? … is not an appropriate question!

*Organic doesn’t mean it’s straight from the Garden of Eden. The rules for Organic certification are arbitrary and expensive to enforce.

*Sustainable is a “buzz word” that allows for a lot of latitude in the translation.

*In order to rid a crop of pests…pesticides are often used. Pesticides are always lethal. There are ORGANIC and NATURAL pesticides. Organic pesticides kill bugs just as dead as conventional ones. They also must be applied very often. Often the compound used is identical; it is just the delivery system that is different.

*Pesticides are indeed sometimes the only option. Bugs don’t read and follow “no trespassing” signs.

*Conventional farmers are not the “bad guys”. Just because a producer is not organic, do not assume that they pour on the hormones, antibiotics, killer drugs and lethal sprays.

Ultimately, the decision is up to YOU. But, for your own sake, please educate yourself.

The life you save may be your own!

Friday, January 27, 2012

My Whole Life is Hay

Hey, hey, I'm out here balin' hay.
And all my friends are cruisin' 'round town.
Checkin' out the pretty girls
Hey! And what do they say
They say hey, hey,
Park that Deere, come out and play,
Kick that tire, wipe my perspire
Cause my whole life is hay.

-blake shelton

The other day when the Boss and I were hauling hay, I had a recollection of a time I accompanied Dad to one of the big farms on the other side of the county to get hay. The bales were left in the field by the baler, and he picked them up and loaded them in the pick-up. I was quite small at the time, and of absolutely no help, but the memory of the bales and the green grass in the sunshine is one that has lingered. There were other children there, and I remember running with them around the bales through the huge field of green. That, perhaps, was a moment that shaped my future endeavors.

I’ve always loved hay. The hayfields rippling in the late spring and early summer prior to harvest are a thing of beauty. Every different type of grass renders a different type of hay, each filling a different nutritional need …and it smells SO good!

As I have said before, making good hay is an art form. Haymakers are skillful farmers that I truly admire. Having had milkcows for a long, long time, I came to recognize and appreciate good hay. There are few things more appealing to me than a good-looking load of hay. I have been known to stare longingly after a load of hay only to realize that perhaps I should say, “Oh…sorry, farm dude…just admirin’ your HAY!”

Recently, I realized that my appreciation for hay is nothin’ compared to some of the girls in the barn. They will break out of the barn,
reach through the gate,
stand on the wall,
and try ever so hard to pirouette in order to reach the sun-dried delicacy
Even the tiny lambs get in on the act.

Sheep give new meaning to...


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Just One of 'em Days

I will spare you pictures of today’s happenings…the mental images will be disturbing enough.

Birthdays are supposed to be all about you…aren’t they? Happy, somewhat self-centered, carefree days, right?

Well, on a farm…it ain’t never about YOU…never. That is just one of the things that makes farming hard. Forget the actual hard work, the life and death struggle, the weather worries and economic concerns. You can’t take a day off (sick or vacay), completely forget about everything, and put your feet up. Nope, you’re a farmer…buck up, kiddo! …and, get back to work.

Today is my birthday, not a momentous one, so no worries…I wasn’t looking for a whole lot of exciting celebration. All the kids are all coming for supper over the weekend, and I’m not even doing all of the cooking. I am really looking forward to that. But, you’d think I could catch a bit of a break today…the actual day, wouldn’t you?

The Boss got me a whole bunch of goodies for birthday presents. We usually don’t make much of a to-do, so I was so touched at all the things he thought to get me. He’s something…really something! Love ya, Boss!

I knew the day wouldn’t go like I would have liked, we had a meeting to go to that I really wasn’t looking forward to (a story for another time). But, we would get to see our good friends, and make a sales delivery, so it wouldn’t be a total loss.

The good friends…proving what really good friends they are…took us out to lunch for my birthday. We talked and laughed and vented prior to going our separate ways. (Friends, You guys may never know how very special you are.)

When we got home, one of the ewes was in labor. I’ve been waiting for her to deliver for two days now, so this was a good thing. Well, so I thought. She was bleating, making this stressed sound that I know far too well is not a good sign. Labor is usually a short, intense episode, resulting in healthy, vigorous lambs. Signs of distress are…well, distressing. Her water bags were hanging out, but nothing was “happening”. This was an indication that intervention was necessary. As the self-appointed “vet on call”…action was up to me.

After getting the Boss and my vet box, I put on my OB gloves to assess the situation. One foot, two feet…there should be a nose…NO nose. The PG version of my comment was “oh crap!” I pushed in further…(you do realize that I had my hand in a sheep’s butt?...just wanted to make sure.) All the way in, still no head. She began to push down on my arm. OW! I pushed in further, she moaned. I was “in” up to my armpit. The labor contractions began again, I moaned. She struggled, The Boss moaned. Yeah, this was going great. (not) I located the head. It was turned completely backward from where it should be…the neck twisted in such a way that the head was pointing up instead of down...but the movements indicated the lamb was indeed alive. But, it was HUGE. My guess would be 16 to 18 pounds. (that’s a very large lamb) As she contracted again, struggling to expel the lamb, I believe the neck was broken. From that point on, I didn’t feel movement from the lamb. But, we had to get it out. She was bleeding heavily and fell to the ground. In order to continue working, I laid down on the ground (my arm still in the sheep) becoming covering in hay, blood and excrement. (yeah, I smell great…and my clothes…well, use your imagination) The Boss continued to handle the struggling ewe that was in incredible pain. He managed to keep her down so I could work on her, and keep her from kicking me in the face. (no small feat) The physical exertion of this task defies description. Muscle cramps in my hands and extreme pressure on my arm only added the difficulty of the task. After over an hour of unsuccessful struggle, we looked at each other over the weakening ewe, knowing that the decision was already made. It was time. This old girl was at the end of the line. The Boss went to the house for the pistol…

I tell you this story not to horrify you, not to make us out to be bad people and failures as farmers. I tell you this story so you will understand the life and death struggle we (and other farmers) face on a daily basis and yet, we keep going somehow. This is a hard life. We continue on because the successes outweigh the failures, the good surpasses the bad, and we know that certainly another day will be better than today has been.

Then, we had to dispose of 250 pounds of dead sheep. An unexpected trip to the landfill followed. Yeah, we have to do something with dead animals. Most times it is easy enough to dig a grave on the farm. Large animals pose a completely different problem. This birthday is getting better and better (not). Okay, bad thing out of the way…deep breath…onto chores. Things just gotta get better!

On my way to the barn, it occurred to me that I really needed to “do the tails” from the most recent lambs. Another educational point…we band the lambs’ tails in order to dock them. This means that the sheep all have very short tails in order to prevent issues like fly-strike that result from the constant contact of a feces-laden tail. After a few days, the tail becomes swollen and we remove it. This doesn’t usually cause the lamb any discomfort (the band has cut off blood and nerve supply).

Unfortunately, since today was just “one of ‘em days”…the tail removal was problematic. #1 tail was removed, no problem. When #2 tail was removed, blood went everywhere. ..and I mean, everywhere! Keep in mind what I had done earlier in the day…more blood was NOT what I wanted to see. For the second time in less than 5 hours, I found myself saying that word I REALLY try NOT to say.

The blood wasn’t stopping. I grabbed paper towels. More blood. I used the antiseptic spray I always use. More blood. More paper towels. I ran to the shop for iodine. More blood. Blood-stop powder didn’t seem to faze it. I was beginning to get just a little woozy. More paper towels. More blood-stop powder. Was it finally slowing down? I hoped so.

In a fit of frustration, I went to the house and told the Boss. He was involved in another task and told me it would be okay. However, when he finished and ventured to the barn, he was slightly taken aback at all the bloody papertowels in the barn trashcan.

Finally, after what seemed like countless paper towels, a quarter can of blood-stop, bunches of iodine and lots of frantic prayer, the bleeding slowed. Then, it stopped. …and thankfully, the lamb was not dead. No, she was happily nursing her mama last time I checked.

At some point prior to supper, I lost it in a weepy fit of frustration. I hate when this reaction is the only way to deal with things. My present troubles pale in comparison to some of my friends’ situations. Where is that tough girl/woman I know I am? I reckon the physical stress, the lack of sleep and the emotional rollercoaster all took a toll. A few dozen tissues and I’m back on track.

I better be. It will be time to check the sheep again at 10pm, 2am, 6am, and so on. There is picking to do for winter sales, the actual sales, and the continual day to day stuff of the farm. This is hard, this is tough, and this is what WE do. This is who I am.

Tomorrow, if nothing else, will be different. The struggles I had today will either pale in comparison to some new and different issue, or they will be forgotten in the wonder that is a beautiful day on the farm.

It’s just been one of them days…

I May Have Created a Frankenstein

It seemed like a good idea to tame the barn kitties. Tamer kitties would be easier to handle, that would be a good thing, right?

To this end, I bought some little cat cookies and we began to give little treats on the backporch. This was working quite well.

That is…until the cats became addicted to the cookies.

Now, it is virtually impossible to walk out the backdoor without cats all over the place looking for a handout. The dogs try to get in on the act, but that’s another story…

This reached a climax of sorts yesterday. When I walked in the backdoor, the Boss was hurrying into the laundryroom with a concerned look on his face. He had been working in the office and heard an odd noise. When he looked up, Squeekie was wandering around IN THE HOUSE. An attempt to put her out only led to her hiding under our bed.
We spent the next 10 minutes trying to coax her, prod her, and poke her out from under the bed. When we finally succeeded in getting her back outside, we figured that the days of overly anxious cats on the back porch would be over since she had probably been traumatized.

Not so fast!

At 5 o’clock this morning, when I went to check the sheep…

Here is what I saw as I opened the backdoor….


We are under siege by hungry cats addicted to cat cookies!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Winter Farmer's Market

A quick Google search yielded no less than 4.5 MILLION entries when I typed in today’s title. WOW! Of course, I realize that this is because it searched for every entry for every single word. But, still…WOW!

Winter Farmers’ Markets are becoming quite trendy. Folks are realizing that the fresh, local food that is so abundant in summer is greatly missed in the winter. There are farmers with farm products available all year and there are customers who are more than willing to buy those farm products. There are all sorts of models for selling in the winter. It should be evident, but for the record the offerings of any “winter market” are far, far different from those of the regular growing season.

Once again, we find ourselves on the “cutting edge”… being pioneers and trend-setters without even trying. This is more than a little amusing. Anyone who knows us, knows that TRENDY is one thing we AIN’T!

While our plan isn’t a Farmers’ Market per se, we have found a way to get our farm products to customers during the winter.

“Back in the day” wintertime was dark and bleak. Not only weather-wise, but our cash-flow ended with the last day of the Market. Any winter expenditures were carefully monitored. We saved like crazy during the summer in order to keep this place operational during the winter. The expenses incurred in February and March to get our Market venture going again were an enormous leap of faith.

Lest you get the idea that we sat around all winter wringing our hands in hopes of making it to spring, we were indeed creative in our ventures. We sold some eggs, did a little custom baking, the Boss had a few odd jobs. We made soap, started plants, and created items for early season sales at the Market. But, it wasn’t until we realized that there was indeed a way to market our goods in the “off season” that positive cashflow became a year-round option. …and Winter-time shortened considerably.

The Staunton/Augusta Farmers Market is a true open air market. That means there are no buildings to shelter the vendors as there are in many other market locations around the country. This is great in the summertime; it adds to the character of the Market. The different color tents and canopies, the variety of display techniques and the myriad of farm products provide a sense of vibrancy and vitality. Along with music, the atmosphere is eclectic and fun.

But, when the cold winds of November blow, the atmosphere changes dramatically. By the last market the weekend prior to Thanksgiving, customers and vendors are all happy to head to warmer venues. I want to note that most successful Winter Markets have some sort of shelter and many move the entire operation inside. This is not a possibility for the Staunton Market, so it has been necessary to devise other plans. As if to drive this point home, October of 2011 saw measurable snowfall at the Market…an historic event that no one wishes to repeat!

Several years ago, one of our “customer-friends” who owns a downtown business, made the suggestion that we set up in their establishment and offer our products for sale. Hmmmm… Did I mention they have a coffeeshop? Definitely, mmmmm…

We had kicked the idea of winter sales around for a long time, but the location had been an issue. In the winter, eggs piled up without many customers. The positive cashflow would really be nice. If we planned well, we could offer all sorts of things for sale. But, we wondered if we would have any takers. After an informal “market survey”, we sat down and did a little logistical brain-storming. We came up with a workable plan, a database was developed; we were ready to go.

When I hit the “send” button on our first farm email, back in the winter of ’08, it was with a lot of trepidation. What if no one answered? What if they didn’t want anything? What if…? To top off my worries, we were hit with a tremendous snow that very first weekend.

However, I shouldn’t have worried. They answered, they ordered, they say they love us. Ah, job satisfaction!

This is our fourth year of offering our farm products in the winter time. We have yet to have a week without lots of answers to our emails and requests for our products. Many times we have sold out of a particular item within hours of sending the email.

Every year our winter venture has grown. We outgrew the warm vestibule of the downtown business and had to say good-bye to Blue Mountain Coffee. We moved our pick-up point to the cold parking lot that could accommodate our truck and trailer. Despite the change, the customers continue to come. It amazes us how many are willing to stand in the cold on a Saturday morning waiting to pick up their orders.

Each week, I write an email, adding a few pics of the week, a few snippets of farm news and note all the things we have to sell. Sometimes the winter weather keeps us from selling fresh greens, but most weeks we have something straight from the hoophouses for sale. Green stuff in January, February and March is a treat for everyone! I don’t think we can ever grow too much. We offer eggs and lamb, frozen vegetables, fruits and jam. There are onions and potatoes offered from cold storage in the reefer. Sometimes, the amounts we are able to offer even surprise us!

Since everything is pre-ordered, the customers don’t have to wonder if we’ll be there and what we might have. We don’t have to stand out in the winter weather, hoping for a sale. Our system seems to work well for all involved.

Every season offers a chance for improvement and opportunities for growth. The challenges change with the weather. We have already determined we need to add a few crops for next winter’s sales. We have folks who are waiting to join our email list.

So, the growing and the selling(along with the seeding, planting and picking…and endless weeding) have become a profitable year-round venture.

While we may never be “trendy” in most aspects of our lives, we’re right in there with our own "Winter farmer's market"!

Monday, January 23, 2012

I Like Big Butts

As farmers, growers, producers of food, we look at things from a different perspective than the rest of the world. We may seem like misfits at times, but our different point of view is a good thing!

We don’t see cutesy animals romping and frolicking over the farm. We see a source of food and income. Because our livelihood depends on it, we MUST be good caretakers. Healthy animals and healthy land are the basis for our business and our way of life.

Animal and plant crops provide the stuff that keeps the humans of the world fed and clothed. These crops must be cared for, and cared for well, in order for everything and everyone to thrive. It is an important task that farmers take most seriously.

There are those who would question the care and concern on the part of the farmer. This is not fair if the questioner has no actual knowledge of farming. The movies have done nothing to further understanding of agriculture. “Babe” and “Charlotte’s Web” are entertaining, but painted farmers in a very undesirable manner. I will even suggest that some of the so-called documentary movies regarding food production are in fact slanted and biased. Practices that to the un-initiated look cruel or unnecessary are part of the routine care that the farmer knows will produce a superior product. Without some sort of human intervention, there would not be a product to go to the market. The world would be a very hungry place if it weren’t for farmers, their knowledge, commitment and hard work.

Yes, baby animals are cute and cuddly. But, they do not stay that way. They do not make good pets. They do not, I repeat… DO NOT rank up there with human beings! They are intended to be food and they should be well treated until such a time as they are destined for the plate. That indeed is the practice here on the hill.

When we look at the young animals on the farm, it is to assess health and vigor, although we enjoy the pastoral scene and the bucolic antics. We get a sense the carcass quality beneath the wool (or feathers when we look at broilers) and know that we are doing a good management job. The big butts on the lambs indicate superior muscling and a desirable carcass. Big muscles equal more meat. And ultimately more meat equals more money.

**Just for the record, making money is NOT a reason to go into farming. **

One of the reasons we raise meat animals is that we enjoy good, clean, wholesome meat. I realize I just offended a lot of vegetarians. For that, I apologize…but please hear me out. Those who choose not to eat meat do so for a variety of reasons. …and that’s okay. But, I would suggest that anyone who becomes vegetarian in order to prevent cruelty to animals check out the facts. The facts. Most farmers aren’t abusive or hateful. Most farmers are not notoriously cruel to their animals; they cannot afford to be. To re-iterate…their livelihood depends upon it! As for those who would say the animals are treated as commodities…yes, they are. But, commodities have value and are treated accordingly.

Unfortunately, there are bad farmers, mean farmers, and farmers who just don’t care about anything but money. But, there are folks like that in every profession. Those few bad apples shouldn’t spoil the whole bunch!

When you live on the land, by the land…you also live for the land. A good farmer is concerned about those in his care, be they animal or plant crops, and he will do everything he can to assure that health and prosperity abounds on his farm. Care of the land is as important as care of the crops.

One of the local veterinarians has a bumper sticker on his vet truck: “Farmers…the first environmentalists”. While there are those who would look askance at this statement, those who would attempt to demonize all farmers, it must be made perfectly clear that farmers MUST be concerned with the environment…because they know how important it is to their livelihood. A whole lot of thought and care and concern go into being a farmer.

On a personal level, we get a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when we look at the lamb chop crop and see those healthy, robust lambs. That line of lamb butts is the result of a lot of hard work, thought, planning and prayer…and good farming practices. We also know that the result of all the before-mentioned effort… this will be some awesome eating!

Yep….I like big butts!

…and I cannot lie…

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Eat Your WEEDS!

Chickweed was threatening to overtake Hoophouse #2…again. The environmental conditions of that area of the farm must be perfect for chickweed growth. For 15 years, we’ve fought the chickweed…and for 15 years, the chickweed has battled back. This time, we beat that chickweed! We ATE it. I got some perverse sense of justice from that.

By the time January rolls around, the brilliant green of the weed growth is looking pretty good to all of the inhabitants here on the hill. The chickens have learned that when I head into the hoophouse (which is very near their home) with a bucket, goodies are sure to follow. They line up along the fence and wait.

Chickweed is high in a number of nutrients, grows profusely and resembles spinach. So, let’s use it for a meal! I’ve read and studied bunches of books on herbs and foraging, so there is little fear of eating something “bad”. Long story short…I picked it, we ate it; it was very tasty. Although, not so tasty that we would be willing to let it overtake the hoophouse. To market weeds would be a risky proposition at best. So, I will return to filling the buckets for the chickens. This activity keeps the hens happy and producing beautiful, tasty eggs.

The chickweed supper got me to thinking about all the plants we do eat, and how many of them have lowly “weed-like” beginnings. The lettuce that is an essential in salads is actually a descendant of wild lettuce. It has taken years and years of careful breeding and selection to make something that is prickly and bitter into the tender tasty lettuces that we look to for salads throughout the year. While the texture and flavor is much better, the further we get from the weed origin, the more nutrients we lose.

The battle of the weeds includes lambsquarters, too. This weed grows prolifically and tastes very much like spinach. We have eaten this one on numerous occasions. Most times, the chickens get this one, too, as it grows far too quickly to manage any other way. The “weeds” don’t sell well, so the chickens eat them and we cultivate similar domesticated crops.

Although, oddly enough, we actually cultivate DANDELIONS! Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But, dandelions are part of the “French Salad Mix” that sells so well at the Market. The slightly bitter flavor of the dandy adds a bit of spark to a salad. The plant has an astringent action on the body and provides a sometimes much needed tonic, especially in the early spring.

We also cultivate CLAYTONIA. Also known as Miner’s Lettuce, this tender and delicious green was utilized by the miners during the Gold Rush of 1849 to combat the possibility of scurvy during the long, cold winter. When planted in August or September, the delicious green matures in January and keeps producing until the warm weather causes it to bolt or go to seed. Until then, it adds some green to an otherwise dreary season. It tastes so good; it’s hard to remember that it is just a weed, and as such, undesirable to many.

Those weeds that are the first to show forth their green growth in the spring are incredibly nutritious and in most cases, delicious. After the long dirth of green throughout the winter, anything verdant is welcome. I have often said that we could probably sell ANYTHING green in the early spring, if we had the right tag-line. Although, I admit, I haven’t followed through on this idea.

Much of the knowledge of the natural world has been lost as modernity encroaches. The ability to doctor ourselves with the foods we eat has been all but lost in our highly progressive society. While this fact rather saddens me, there are those who continue to promote wild-crafting food and foraging to those who are interested. That’s most encouraging. The subject is fascinating and delicious. There is a lot of nutrition out there…just for the eating.

A quick perusal of the seed catalog shows many of the so-called weeds being cultivated these days for use as salad greens. This always gives me a chuckle and offers the opportunity to say….


Friday, January 20, 2012

Sometimes Life Sucks

While I truly hate that expression…sometimes it is the only expression that fits the situation.

This morning one of those times. While I try to be upbeat and positive when blogging, there are times when things are just not upbeat and positive.

Yesterday was a really good day. At choretime we found a healthy set of twins up and looking for their breakfast. We had a good response to our weekly sales newsletter; we had lunch with friends and got a load of some awesome looking hay. Life was feeling pretty good.

This morning, when I walked in the barn, a bunch of ewes were in the wrong place. No problem, just an annoyance. Sheep that have a propensity for eating catfood are just a nuisance.

But, when I went to the jug to check on mama-sheep, the beautiful healthy ram lamb born yesterday was dead. Nothing seemed amiss. The only ram lamb so far…and he was beautiful. He was just stone-cold dead. I admit, I screamed…and then, I cussed and threw things.

I hate death. I just hate it. Especially when it is unexpected and unexplainable. I feel like I have lost a battle, or I have failed somehow. It calls to mind the episode of M*A*S*H where Hawkeye has a patient die on the table and he keeps pumping and pumping while saying “don’t let the bastard win”. He just couldn’t stop. The other doctors had to step in to get him to realize and accept the situation. In many ways I have identified with Hawkeye’s character. That line almost always runs through my head as I hope against hope that my diagnosis of death is wrong.

Invariably, the cycle of questions swirls through my head. The woulda, coulda, shoulda, what ifs, and whys threaten to overwhelm. Just as invariably, the Boss calmly states, “don’t beat yourself up about this one”. The swirl of questions and the feeling of helplessness reinforce the notion that there is probably more crap between my ears than there is in the barn. It’s frustrating that I have to deal with “baggage” as well as the current situation.

But, the knowledge that life goes on, there are many other things dependent upon my care and effort, cause me to take control of my emotions and mental wranglings and focus on the positive again.

It also doesn’t hurt to crank the tunes and sing along with Montgomery Gentry…
“That’s all right…I’m okay….it ain’t nothin’ but another day!”

From My Window

From the kitchen window, I can easily tell the season of the year. In the winter, I can see out to M’brook road, noting cattle trailers and haywagons going up and down the road. In the early Spring, this becomes a little harder, as the trees start to bud and leaf out along the property line. With the height of summer, I can see very little of the road for the lush green leaves. If I stand “just so” I can see what little traffic there may be. But, in the fall of the year…oh my! The fence line starts to come alive with the changing of the leaves on the poison ivy and Virginia creeper. Slowly, the other leaves begin to change…yellow, orange, red and brown. As they all drift to the ground, my view to M’brook road becomes unobscured once more. At that point, I can see cattle trailers heading to and from the sales, and milk and log trucks hauling their payloads down the road.

With a mostly unobstructed view to the barnyard, I can quickly check on the sheep while I do dishes, perform other kitchen chores.

But, today’s view from the window made me do a double-take.

The dogs, appreciative of the relative calm of the backyard, seized the opportunity for a nap in the warm sunshine. They were side by side in exactly the same position for the longest time.

Synchronized napping…that’s the first time I've seen THAT from my window.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Any place that stores grain has its share of vermin. This is just a fact of farm life. The thrill of the hunt gives the cats and dogs something to do.

Mice are a given. Their numbers are legion, but the actual damage they do in the barn area is relatively minor. Their presence in the greenhouse is another story. A single mouse can destroy an entire planting in a single night. Suffice it to say, I hates meeses to pieces!

Rats, on the other hand, cause a good bit of damage with their tunneling and their chewing. They are seen as grosser, creepier and germier than mice. This is not necessarily true and probably has something to do with the whole bubonic plague thing from the Dark Ages. Still, we don’t want them overtaking the barn or surrounding buildings.

Recently, the rats have become an issue around the brooder house. The spilled feed and the relative safety of the pen allow the rat population to flourish. The Boss has begun trapping them and disposing of them with regularity. However, rats are smart and they began tunneling UNDER the trap to get to the bait. He had to put a stop to that. The baited trap was put on a board. As of today, no trapped rats.

With the dogs and cats of the farm, poisons are not considered. We wouldn’t want to inadvertently sicken, or worse, one of the “home team”, so the slow rat trapping project continues. We will probably never completely eradicate them, but population control is essential. Occasionally, we find a dead rat, left for us as a “gift” by our feline friends. While I realize you should accept gifts graciously…dead rats make me say “EWWW!”

The other morning I came upon a big rat when I entered the barn. Squeakie darted past me and took on the rat. (I realized at this point that it was already dead) She pounced, attacked, and bit. She threw that rat in the air and dragged it around. She seemed quite ferocious. The fact that she is only about 6 pounds and the rat had to weigh a pound made these antics far more impressive. When all was said and done, I disposed of the rat. I am glad Squeakie is on the “home team”, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of her hunting prowess.

…ONE down…
...score one for the "home team"!
Go, Squeakie!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Beyond Organic

The first time I ever heard the term “beyond organic” was many years ago…our very own Boss was being sarcastic and facetious (unusual for him) and trying to prove a point. Somehow, over the years, those in “the know” have glommed onto his outspoken phrase. While it is irritating that he doesn’t get the credit, it does at least give credence to the fact that a NEW buzzword is needed.

Organic, biodynamic, sustainable, alternative are used in opposition to conventional. The comments would lead one to believe that conventional is anathema and anything, anything else is better, no matter what. This argument is divisive and derisive and just downright WRONG!

There are 7 billion people on this planet. 7 BILLION! Can you even fathom this number? I can’t. My poor, little mind can’t even imagine a one hundred thousand, let alone a million. BILLIONS?

The amount of food needed to feed all these folks is quite possibly beyond the scope of human comprehension. I want to point out here that despite all the hoo-ha regarding types of food production, there are still starving people in the world. Until everyone is fed and clothed, the arguments over types of production simply serve to alienate the factions when they could be working together. While I am a staunch supporter of local, clean and homegrown food, I do NOT for one minute think that small producers can possibly feed the world. Sorry, alternative ag folks… NO WAY!

There is a place in food production for ALL the various production types….yep, ALL of them. It is up to the consumer to decide which one he or she chooses. If cost is the defining factor, then organics will NEVER be the norm. To use the organic label, one must be certified. To comply with certification, the inputs alone can be three times the price of the same item produced in a conventional manner. As long as cheap food is necessary, then government subsidies will exist and so will $1 burgers at MickieDee’s. There are those who would argue that it works the other way, but I’m not so sure.

The fact of the matter is all of these choices are convictions…not unlike one’s choices or decisions in the realms of spirituality and theology. Just as a human cannot take over the position of the Holy Spirit in the realm of Christianity, no one can force convictions (of any type) on another. Nor, might I add, should they try!

Someone once told us “the whole world is goin’ organic!” We just laughed. More than ten years later, we are seeing the word everywhere. Green, organic and sustainable are BIG selling points. The big box stores are jumping on the “local” bandwagon. Take a step back and look at this phenomenon…the words have been re-defined to fit their current usage. The definition of “organic” from twenty years ago doesn’t apply today, particularly in a global economy. Constant discussions and re-definitions of “local” are commonplace among food producers as they attempt to command more of the market share.

A lot of groups have taken issue with “farmwashing”. This is the term given to the attempt by big box stores and chains to make themselves look connected to their sources…and to the actual production of the items they sell. This may or may not be the case. Further investigation should be warranted.

I will argue to the death for the right of farmers to farm the land. I will even admit to the necessity of some type of feedlots and factory farms in order to produce food on the scale needed to feed 7 billion people. However, any attempt to make these look lovely and picturesque at all times is a disservice to everyone who eats food. Farming has a side that is somewhat gross and possibly horrifying to the un-informed. That is just a fact of life. Education about production should be part of “farm transparency”, not the continued practice of “enhancing” farm image.

Presently, food does still grow on farms, and it takes dedicated farmers to understand and work the land to produce the crops. This doesn’t matter if it’s the 2,400 tons of potatoes harvested daily for McD’s fries, the millions of pounds of chicken harvested in a single day in the state of Virginia,
or the amounts produced by organic, natural growers and market gardeners here in the Valley.

There are crops that may be grown in ways similar to the home garden while on the farm. However, once they leave the farm, the sheer volume necessitates different handling. Personally, I think this is where the difference becomes profound. When we grow lettuce by the bushel and transport it 12 miles to town, it is a far different commodity than lettuce produced by the multiple trailer load and transported 2 or 3 THOUSAND miles prior to its consumption. The same holds true for other crops.

Ultimately, “it’s the choice of the eater”. I once heard some old, local guy call into a local radio talkshow and say just that. He was right.

You make the decision for yourself. Don’t judge others, don’t attempt to dictate that everyone be just like YOU. Just do the best for yourself, your family…and if you’re feeling generous…your community. If everyone did that…we wouldn’t need all the rhetoric.

Organic, sustainable, alternative, call it what you will. They are all just words, vague in definition, random in their usage, all with the hope of commanding a little more of the market share.


Know your farmer,

know his practices,
and make an informed decision.

Rest assured…you will be WAY "beyond organic" at that point!