Monday, February 28, 2011

just another manic Monday

Monday is our town day. We try to combine all our errands and get them out of the way at one time. This saves both time and money, theoretically. I’m not so sure about that one.

The trip generally includes the feedstore for sheep and/or chicken feed. The bank (to make the deposit to PAY for said feed) and Wal-Mart for groceries and some “people feed”, and Lowes, another farm store or two, and possibly the office supply store, another grocery store, the list goes on ad infinitum. When things start getting out of hand, we call them “mushroom trips”, as things seem to mushroom out of control.

Today, before we set off on what was supposed to be an abbreviated trip, I got a text from B. My all-time favorite cleaner was on clearance sale at her place of employment, and I could get it about half-price. Never one to miss a bargain, I altered the trip plan a little.

Tom had to make a stop at Staples to do some copies for the Market. As Market Manager of the Saturday Market AND chairman of the Market committee, he gets all the fun jobs.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, until we got to the store to pick up my cleaner. It is the beginning of “chick days” at Tractor Supply. You could hear the peeps as we walked in the door. I swear, I saw those wheels turning in Tom’s head BEFORE he said, “hey, let’s go look at the peeps”. B was still unloading the boxes and boxes of chicks and ducklings. Tom got to thinking maybe we could get an extra batch of broilers earlier than we planned, cheaper than we thought, and maybe we could do this TODAY!

Hmmm, neither one of us could remember what we were paying for chicks, so we put the plan on hold and headed home for lunch. We would check the hatchery website. Despite our check of the weather prior to heading into town, it became obvious that we were in for a rain. We were in for rain….RIGHT NOW! Of course the tarp was in the tool box, and the tool box was back at the house. Drat! That chicken feed is packed in PAPER bags. Tom kept telling me to hang on ‘cause he might have to drive like the wind. Of course, that meant we got behind a VERY, VERY slow vehicle on M’brook Road. When they made M’brook Road, they must have followed a sidewinder, because there are almost no straight stretches, and very few passing zones. It was pouring by this time. He finally passed and drove faster. The rain nearly stopped by time we got to our lane. Thankfully, none of the bags were TOO wet. We laid them out all over the barn to dry.

While I was in the barn, I checked on the sheep and gave them a little hay. Uh oh! One of my yearling girls had her birth sack hanging out. That’s a sure sign of imminent delivery. But, please,not now! I NEED LUNCH! She was busy munching hay, so we went off to lunch.

Over lunch, we discussed the rest of the day. We really, really needed to make a run to the dump. The junk piles up quickly around here, and it’s a regular chore to cart it all off to the dump.
Since the rest of the week is supposed to be nice, we decided to chance the rain and tornado watch and get rid of all the stuff, leaving the rest of the week free for farm work. While we were at it, we really ought to get that batch of chicks. We could have chicken for sale by the end of April. The price was right, and it’s not too far out of the way to swing back by the store on the way home from the dump. But that ewe…she was STILL chewing her cud and just “chillin’”. We locked her in a stall slightly away from the noise and confusion in the rest of the barn.

And off we went. We got to the dump with no catastrophes. We got by TSC, and picked up the chicks, a light and some feed. Now, there are 30 broiler chicks living in the shop with Jimmy Dean.
Not exactly WITH him, everyone has their own pen. The rain re-appeared on our way home. (thankfully we made it to the dump in fairly dry conditions). They also lifted the tornado watch. But, we’re getting some amazing rain.

Tomorrow, Tom will clean out the brooder, and eventually we’ll get the peeps out there. The shop is just a stop-gap measure for a couple days. They will actually be "pastured poultry".

When we got back, the sheep was still in her stall, just hanging out, chewing her cud.

After last week’s sheep disaster, we decided to check her out. I “suited up”, checked her out, found nothing amiss, and am hoping that my rooting around in there will start the labor in earnest.
We will have to wait and see on this one.

And, so it goes….you never know what is going to happen next around here. I didn’t get much done on my “to do” list for today. However, we started a broiler project, I got the groceries, AND we got all the trash to the dump. Now, if I can just get these lambs born….

Sunday, February 27, 2011

coveralls ain't sexy

I love country music. It expresses my feelings when I can’t find the right words. It stands for strength and courage and deep family bonds. Faith in God and belief in His word are at its core. It’s hot, it’s loud, and it’s brash…soft, slow and tender. It’s just part of who I am.

My relationship with country music goes back to my childhood. The only radio station we could get when I was small was an AM country station that went off the air at sundown. The radio host was “the TomCat” Reeder up on the Breezy Knoll. When Tom and I married and bought our house in the county, we were up the road from the radio station. Every time you picked up the phone to make a call, you heard country music (if, of course, it was before sundown). Honestly, the radio signal somehow bled over onto the phone line. I believe the station is gone now. Just another faded rural American memory…it may be gone, but not forgotten.

Despite my lifelong love of country music, I have a serious gripe. WHY are country men mentioned in song and you never hear of country women? I mean, Kenny Chesney sings about a woman thinking his tractor is sexy, Trace Atkins croons about how ladies like country boys….and farmer tans….and there are more. Is that fair? Am I being sexist for asking the question?

It occurred to me the other day, that I will never hear a song about me..or my coveralls…and particularly not me IN my coveralls. Nope, never. But, I love my coveralls. They keep me warm; my clothes clean….and on rainy or snowy days…keep my underwear mercifully dry. Oh, dear…I suppose you really didn’t need THAT piece of information. However, after feeding 20 to 50 sheep on a rainy day, one comes to value these things.

I discovered coveralls years ago, and coveralls that fit about 3 or 4 years ago. I didn’t realize that I was short enough to wear kids’ coveralls, but they are SO much better, and don’t drag in the mud (well, not so much). I have pockets for everything: my phone, my Leatherman, my MP3 player, my gloves, a headband,a couple of dog cookies, my rubber exam gloves ….oh, and hey, there’s that pair of pliers I thought were lost!

My coveralls keep my clothes clean (well, clean-er, it's a relative term). They are covered with all kinds of animal fluids, mud, and antiseptic spray, a little bit of blue-coat, maybe some wormer, and occasionally some dog food. I fit right in with the barn inhabitants!

As a matter of fact, I was in the barn the other night, just kinda hangin’ out. I love to watch the interactions of all the animals. As a shepherd, this is important work….the checking for health and well-being. Besides, it’s fun. While I was standing there, lambs began to come closer and closer. I waited to see what would happen. They got close enough to sniff me. I waited. They sniffed some more and began chewing on my coveralls. Then, they bunted me….just like they would their mothers in order to get something to eat.

Hmmm, maybe I know why country women (at least this country woman) never make it into song….

Maybe I seriously need to wash the coveralls!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Please don't call us a "farm"!

To get the full effect of this comment, you must do little “air-quotes” around the word FARM. No, wait…don’t do that!! That is just the thing I am writing about!

The dictionary defines a farm as “an area of land where crops are grown or animals are reared for commercial purposes, together with appropriate buildings.” Okay, so that makes us a FARM. No mention is made regarding size of the land, amount of money made, or number of animals housed.

Now, I admit, we’re not big, we don’t have impressive numbers of animals or the latest and greatest in equipment, but we are a FARM! (NO quotes) The little air-quotes somehow detract from our viability; make us sound like we’re not the real deal…that perhaps we’re just playing at this venture.

I will have to confess…I am a “sissy farmer” in some folks’ eyes. That one really bothers me sometimes. Yes, I sometimes cry when something dies, I name some of the animals, and I take all of this “to heart” far more than I “should”. Maybe Tom didn’t grow up farming the land with his daddy. And, no, we don’t make our own hay and grow our own grains, or grow enough to sell truckloads wholesale. Nor, might I add, do we want to (wholesale....Tom would LOVE to make hay AND run a combine). But, I will gladly stand up to prove that we are farmers, too. I can handle vet problems with the best of them, we know how to produce a number of different crops quite well and there is no job Tom hasn’t at least attempted. Our venture here generally runs “in the black”. We raised our kids with our earnings from this little piece of earth. The success stories speak for themselves.

The “big boys” in agriculture tend to look down on the little guys. I don’t think they do it intentionally, but they do it just the same. There are farmers who think you are really a farmer when you do all your work from the seat of your tractor. Field size is dictated by just how much diesel that tank can hold. I am here to tell you that a LOT of farming is done on your knees. Yes, that could be praying, but even more weeding, planting and harvesting is done down at ground level. In some ways, the small farmers work harder than the “big boys” because there is no equipment made for the small-scale operation and much of the work has to be done by hand.

Our small size puts us in the “hobby” or “niche” farm category. (Yes, I intentionally used those quotes) The niche and hobby farms are looked at with distain by a lot of folks. They are too small to be taken seriously, too profitable to ignore. Many folks use them to occupy their time following successful careers elsewhere. That’s not our story.

Years ago, when we applied for land use relief for our real estate taxes, the county wanted to know, “but, what do you DO?” Selling vegetables at the farmers’ market baffled the representative I spoke with. Once they saw our earnings for the season, their questions were put to rest. The only question then was….”the Farmers’ Market?” That was back in the day before Farmers' Markets were springing up everywhere, before it was cool to be green and/or organic.

Whether you grow 10,000 acres of soybeans or a couple acres of diverse vegetables for sale, you ARE a farm. As for being a hobby, a hobby is done strictly for fun….this is not always fun. ..although, it IS generally profitable. Nope, we’re not hobby farmers! We have yet to find the perfect niche, so I guess that doesn’t apply either. An enigma, that is what we are.

I don’t really think it matters how BIG the farm is, or possibly even how one practices farming, that matters. Agriculture is the heart and soul of this country. We’ve all got to eat, have clothing, and be sheltered. FARMS provide all those products. Just FARMS… quotes.

Don't even get me started on "farm-ette"!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Workin' the sheep

Tom and I spent President’s day working the sheep. (Holidays don’t mean a whole lot around here…as the animals can’t read a calendar, and would probably eat one if we had one in the barn!)

We make a pretty good team, and now that it’s just the two of us, that’s a real good thing. Tom handles them….I keep records, administer shots and meds, and “band” the boys. In the past, the sheep were the one venture around here that could make Tom cuss out loud. It was a matter of management. I recently heard an animal behaviorist say “You need to think like the animal you’re working.” Humph! Sheep are notoriously stupid….why does it take SO much thinking to get them to do what you want? Maybe that was the problem…maybe we were thinking TOO hard.

Over the years, we have amassed some equipment to make this job easier. After completing the job this time, it looks like another equipment purchase is in our future. Yippee! Some women want pearls and pretty things….I get excited over livestock scales and handling facilities. It takes all kinds, I reckon. Several years ago, Tom bought the livestock scale without telling me. I had wanted one for quite some time. It makes tracking weight gains and figuring out dosage amounts so much easier than our old “tape-measure method”. The UPS man was somewhat taken aback when I met him at the gate and proceeded to cheer when I figured out what he had delivered.

Working the sheep involves a number of steps. In hopes of furthering understanding of our operation, here’s a quick run-down on working the sheep.

As I have said before, the thing sheep do best is die. Knowing that and the ways to prevent it are crucial in being a shepherd. When we first started this venture, we figured it couldn’t be too hard. I mean, folks have been shepherding since before the Flood. Right? True, but the world is a mite different now, and farming practices have to take those changes into consideration. Please don’t go all “animal rights” on me, or decide that ALL pharmaceuticals are evil before hearing all the facts. Yes, our sheep get some medications…and yes, we dock tails and castrate the ram lambs. From my perspective, these are positive management decisions that ensure we have a crop to “harvest”.

Within the first forty-eight hours of our lambs’ lives, they are checked over thoroughly, given a shot of Bo-Se (a selenium supplement…our area is extremely deficient) ear-tagged, and have their tail banded. Lambs are born with long tails. Remember, Mary’s little lambs’ “wagging their tails behind them”? The long tails catch excrement and get filthy. Then, fly-strike becomes a problem. Fly-strike is awful. The flies lay their eggs in the filth, the eggs hatch, and the larvae grow there, eating into the animal’s flesh. UGH! It makes sense to remove the source of the grotesque problem. It is a simple process, using a strong rubber band. The tail withers and falls away. One management problem solved.

If you're wondering why we's an identification method. While I may be able to pick out "that cute lamb with the big round eyes", they all look the same to Tom. So, they all get numbers. We record these and can keep track of which ewe had which lambs, how they are growing and so forth.

At two days, the lambs and ewes are turned out in the barn with all the other sheep. When the lambs are about one month old, we come back and vet again.

This time, we run all the sheep over the scales, castrate the boys; give all the lambs a shot of CDT (Clostridia and Tetanus vaccine) and a dose of anti-helmintic (de-wormer) to the ewes and lambs. Yes, yes, I’ll explain the meds…

When we first began shepherding, I was totally opposed to any type of medication. Trained as an herbalist, I really felt that allopathic medicine had some big flaws. I still feel that way about certain areas of medicine. But, keeping the animals parasite free is essential to raising healthy animals.

Early in our shepherding days, we lost a great number of lambs to parasitic issues. One of the very saddest episodes ever occurring on the farm was the death of “George” the Cotswold lamb who succumbed to parasites due to a lack of management on the part of the shepherd. I will never forget that year and how horrible it was to watch him die because we didn’t know enough to keep up with the de-worming schedule. We lost some other lambs that year as well; “George” was just special. The “all-natural” methods just didn’t prove effective. So, a couple times a year, we de-worm the sheep. We do not use antihelmintics without thought or caution, and only when necessary.

Many folks are concerned with the use of antibiotics, steroids, hormones, and other things that sound frightening and unnecessary being used in the production of food. I share that concern. I think there should be complete transparency in food production. But, there also needs to be some education of the public. Some of those terms that the layman doesn’t understand are simply vitamins or naturally occurring substances that aid in good health. Just for the record…We do NOT use hormones, steroids, or other growth enhancing products.

We use antibiotics only when absolutely necessary. If a sheep is sick, it must be cared for quickly or it will die. Antibiotics are generally only used in the case of pneumonia. That doesn’t happen too often. Whenever drugs are used, there is a pre-determined withdrawal time, assuring that only the sheep gets medicated, not the consumer.

The CDT shot prevents tetanus (as well as a couple of other clostridrial illnesses). Tetanus is a horrible disease. Any dark, dirty wound can harbor it…and it does KILL. My family lost a member long ago due to tetanus. Death is prolonged and painful. Remember sheep live in a barn, or outside where there is animal excrement. One shot of a vaccine will protect them throughout the year. This does not carry through to the consumer.

We castrate the ram lambs for two reasons. The first is a management issue. If we leave them all intact, they will become aggressive and fight with one another….and us. There is also the possibility of unwanted, unplanned pregnancies. Reproduction is another area where we need to have control. The other reason we castrate is to assure that all the meat tastes the same. There is some discussion as to whether the testosterone affects the meat. I really don’t know, nor do I wish to experiment. From personal experience, it definitely does in pork!

So, that’s what workin’ the sheep entails.

Oh, I forgot to mention….we end up smelling like sheep for the rest of the day, too!

January Nights

Wow, we're well on our way to MARCH! (I meant to post this long before now)

January '11 was some of the coldest weather in recent memory. We missed out on the snow this year and just got the brutal cold. This coincided with our attempt at earlier lambing dates. Murphy's law got us once again. The cold, coupled with the number of "first-time mamas" in the sheep shed meant I did a LOT of checking on the sheep.

Winter nights here are absolutely amazing. The sky is so full of bright, beautiful stars. The moon can light up the landscape so that a flashlight is almost unneccessary. I try to remember to take the time to reflect and appreciate the beauty and wonder, although the cold can make for a real quick reflective time. Despite a lifelong fear of the dark, sometimes I rather enjoy my midnight forays to the barn.

As delivery times got closer, I found myself trekking to the barn more and more often. Every two hours allows for very little sleep, and it was a great relief when that last ewe "popped" her babies.

But, before that happened, I realized that I felt very much like "Fred the Baker" from the early '80's. Remember Fred the Baker? Here he is, for your enjoyment. If you want to know what I get like during lambing season....just picture me (instead of Fred) and have me say "I checked the sheep"!

On a positive note, all that checking paid off. The lambs are looking GREAT!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I Love M'brook!

Our farm is located right outside the tiny town of Middlebrook, VA. Once a thriving community that boasted no fewer than 9 grocery stores, it is simply a "poke and plum town" now. (that's ….poke your head out the window and you're plum out of town!) The railroad took a different path, the main traffic route didn't go anywhere near town, and the "metropolis" of Middlebrook became a distant memory.

Imagine "Mayberry" with a rural flavor. It used to be that the post office and the hardware store were side by side. When they would leave the door between open, you'd end up greeting half of the town if you went to get a package. When we first moved here, there was a discussion between the post mistress present and the postmaster past as to what number we should be. Since we were the first new house in fifteen years, we caused quite a stir. The conversation went something like, “you think 131….no, I think it should be 132….yeah, because the next house is….” Then we were asked if that was okay with us. I had no idea this was how you got an address! (unfortunately the 9-1-1 system changed all that)

If you happen to be driving a pick-up, you can count on at least a few waves as you cruise down Middlebrook Road. Nowadays, the waves are fewer, as the number of “new folks” has increased. I recognize vehicles long before I can see the driver! Occasionally, it becomes apparent that all the "old-timers" know you, know what you're doing, and more than likely have an opinion on it. That realization is a little unsettling at first, but oddly comforting over time. The crops we had one summer in the hoophouse were apparently the topic of many post office/hardware store discussions. But,these ARE folks who care. We have experienced their warm concern firsthand. These people are the BEST!

Not much is left in Middlebrook anymore. We have a post office, a doctor's office, a garage, and a library "station" (the library is open very limited hours), the Russian Orthodox Church, the Volunteer Fire Department and the ball field. That's it!

On summer Wednesday and Thursday nights, there are softball games. These can get quite "interesting". We can see the lights and hear the voices. But, come 10 o’clock, everybody is heading home.

There are chickens, cows, goats and pigs within the town limits. Some of these critters have added to the "character" of M'brook on more than one occasion. Oh, there was also a black bear at the ball field once. That story made the rounds for weeks.

The first time I remember going through Middlebrook, I thought…now, this is nice. The large, rolling farms with the Appalachians as a backdrop give us some beautiful views. When we found our little piece of farm land, I thought….now, this is nice…this is HOME!

Despite the fact that we are not natives, our roots here run deep. Our eldest daughter had her wedding and reception at the fire hall/community center.
It was a great place for a wedding. Later, when she and her husband were in a horrible accident, the town residents were the first to respond with cards and contributions. We all felt the love of good neighbors.

Our youngest daughter has ridden a tractor in the annual fireman’s parade. It was the fulfillment of a lifetime dream, riding alongside “her man”.
When they won a prize, it was hand delivered by a member of the fire department. They weren’t sure about the fella, but they all knew who that girl was!

It’s a quiet little place in one of the most beautiful locations on earth. It can feel like you’re a million miles from anywhere, particularly on a cold, clear night. The night sky is simply amazing. On the other hand, it’s only a few minutes from the interstate. So close, that when weather conditions are right, you can hear the big rigs running down the road. We’re not TOO far from town, but not too CLOSE, either.

Somehow, to me…it seems just right. Somehow, to me…it is HOME!

And to borrow a line from Kenny Chesney,

“It’s where I come from….”

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Last night the howling wind woke me. In the few moments I was awake, I realized I smelled “skunk” ….I mean I REALLY smelled SKUNK! For just a second, I thought maybe the door had blown open and we had a visitor. No, no, the doors were closed. I went back to sleep.

This morning, when I went out to the shop to feed the bottle lamb, I smelled “skunk” again. The odor was far less potent, so I brushed aside the thought that maybe the dogs got into a tangle with one of our little striped neighbors. I did wonder why Ellie Mae was not at the door to greet me. But, again, I had things on my mind and went back inside.

It wasn’t until Tom was heading out to do morning chores that I even thought of it again. As he looked out the door prior to opening it, he said, “ya know, I think Jed got hold of a skunk” He opened the door. “OH, YEAH…Jed got hold of a skunk! PHEW-EEE!”

Not only had Jed tangled with the skunk, apparently Ellie had too. She had dirt all over her face, and all around her eyes was caked with dust and hay bits from where she had tried to rub the smell away. They were both rubbing their faces in the hay, on the ground, each other in attempt to escape the stench. The cats’ eyes were watering while they tried to eat with the dogs. Soon, they gave up and went to eat elsewhere. Gross! I can’t think of a worse smell than “pole-cat” (that’s what Papaw calls a skunk)

Now, we were supposed to be heading into town to make our weekly farm product drop, so I REALLY didn’t want to mess with two hundred pounds of stinkin’ dog prior to leaving. Thankfully, the dogs seemed pretty embarrassed by the whole deal and stayed away from us. Tom and I headed in separate directions to complete chores.

Upon entering the barn, which also somehow smelled of skunk, I noticed a ewe off by herself. She didn’t look good at all. A sheep with its head down and back hunched is generally a sick sheep. When I checked her, I saw signs of imminent labor. …Hmmm… not good, she shouldn’t lamb for at least another week. I went and got feed for the others, who were all most vehemently voicing their disapproval of my delay. She walked outside, so I figured she might just be going to have a slow delivery. When I showed her food, she was completely disinterested. That’s when I began to sense that something was very wrong. My girls laugh at me, saying I turn into a “Jewish grandmother” when anything/anyone around here won’t eat. (“…eat, eat, it will make you feel better!") But, in all actuality appetite is a very good indicator of health.

By this time, the ewe had decided to lie down behind the barn. I couldn’t leave her there to labor, the wind was ferocious and that would be detrimental for any newborn lamb’s survival. She allowed me to catch her and put her in the barn. That was yet another bad sign. Knowing I couldn’t vet her alone, I headed to the house to get Tom and his muscles for assistance. We talked over possible scenarios, and headed back to the barn.

**what follows may be too graphic for some**

I went in with the ewe to do an internal exam. Yep, that means exactly what it sounds like it means. I put on my big orange OB glove, a rubber glove over that, applied some antiseptic lubricant…and put my hand “in there”. Okay, say it EEEWWWW! That is the only way to find out what was going on in there. I thought she seemed kinda smelly. Hmmmm, no feet heading out…something is definitely wrong. Lambs are born in a “diving position”….front hooves pointed out, the head and rest of the body follows. When I removed my hand, the stench really hit me….BLECH! The blood and goo sticking to my glove were beyond gross. Something was REALLY, REALLY wrong up in there. But, I had absolutely no idea what it could have be. I began thinking of all the different diseases, disorders and other issues I could think of. That smell could only mean one thing….something was rotting in there. The putrification would release toxins and eventually kill the ewe.

(An aside here, yesterday as I was feeding the sheep, this particular ewe got caught in the fence, flipped over and walked on as the others ran to the feeder. I had been a little worried about her, but she seemed to shake it off and went off to eat. I probably should have checked on her last night, but it slipped my mind, since they were all eating.)

Tom and I exchanged horrified looks. Yuck seems like such a tame word for the thoughts and possibilities we found ourselves considering. I put my hand back in, hoping that it would induce the labor and we could get things straightened out. Nothing happened.

The clock was ticking; we had to leave for town. At this point, there was absolutely nothing we could do for the ewe, so we went and made our deliveries. The ewe remained on the back of my mind the entire time. We discussed it on the way into town AND on the way home. We reached the conclusion that we would (Tom would) “put her out of her misery” when we got home.

When we got home, there were still stinking dogs to contend with …and the relentless wind. A quick check showed the ewe to be no better; as a matter of fact she looked considerably worse. There is an old saying that one thing sheep do well is DIE! Unfortunately, this is absolutely true.

We decided to clean the dogs up some first. Ellie Mae seemed to enjoy getting her face washed and having the wind blow her dry. Jed didn’t enjoy his facial at all. That seemed to work, sort of, and at least they didn’t stink quite so bad. Note to self: buy more Nature’s Miracle skunk odor remover!

Tom and I went to check the ewe again. She was dead. She was just plain, stiffening dead! A cursory examination showed that the labor had indeed begun, but the lamb was mis-presented, and grotesquely swollen. It was obviously dead, too. We discussed the possibility of a necropsy. We decided that the logistics of that undertaking were far too involved for the probability of any conclusive outcome.

My only guess is that yesterday’s accident somehow ruptured something internally and between the bleeding and the toxins released from the dead lamb the ewe never stood a chance. All we were left with was yet another unexplained mess to clean up.

To say it was a STINKIN’ day is a complete understatement! I am hoping that everything will smell better in the morning.

Friday, February 18, 2011

our best crop...EVER!

The 2010 growing season was quite possibly the worst we have ever had. The reasons are numerous, beginning with the fact that it was quite possibly the most stressful (nope, it was DEFINITELY the most stressful) year we have ever had.

The year followed this sequence: the biggest snowfall in years, followed by a cold wet spring, followed by a horrifying accident and subsequent recovery, a long, hot, dry stretch, followed by a wedding. I’m fairly certain there were a few thousand other things in there, too.

So, for the first time ever, we had multiple crop failures. While it was frustrating and costly, you get over it and go on. If anything, you gain some wisdom on what NOT to do in the future. Thomas Edison said he never failed, he just found another way not to do a particular thing.

The failures made me start thinking of the good crops, the success stories. Was it the year we had zucchini ‘til nearly Thanksgiving? Or the year we DID have broccoli ‘til Christmas? Was it the 200 lbs. of cucumbers out of the hoophouse from a single planting of twelve or so plants? Perhaps last year’s lambs? Broilers? Eggs?

No, our best crop had to be our kids!

Now, that they are grown and married and on their own, I can look back with complete fondness to the “old days”. I don’t have to remember the 7 times I had to paddle someone in ONE day. I can choose to forget the tens of thousands of times I had to say the SAME thing, hoping that they “got it” (only to have them hear someone else say the same thing once and they remembered forever) I don’t have to remember the eye-rolling, the tears, the raised voices and the frustration. Forgotten are the times my authority was challenged, and the times I questioned my own sanity and intelligence.

I can choose to remember all the times we worked SO well as a family unit. The fun day trips, the outrageously silly supper conversations, and the numerous weird and wonderful things we did together…all make for some priceless memories.

There have been countless times when I have been amazed at their insight, their care and concern. Despite the fact that I was supposed to be the teacher, our girls have taught me a lot!

We look at them now proudly and with a little bit of awe on occasion….and say “wow! I had a part in that!” They constantly amaze us. We have two beautiful, confident, strong and competent daughters…they are amazing young women, who have some pretty good fellas, too.

Now, that crop was a success!Love y'all!
Keep being awesome!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

a death in the community

Yesterday, Augusta County lost another farmer.

As two farmers were preparing for spring plowing,in what can only be described as a tragic accident, the tractor rolled and crushed one of them. The story is especially sad, in that the father was on the tractor and the daughter was killed.

While we don't personally know the folks involved, the name is one that we recognize, the location one with which we are familiar. Our hearts go out to them.

Often, it is forgotten that farming can be dangerous. The very machinery that we count on to make our living can take that life from us in a single moment of inattention or through some minute malfunction. I personally know folks missing digits and portions of limbs due to accidents on the farm.

So, today, I find myself feeling a little odd, and praying for a family I do not know...enduring a loss I hope to never face. This is a hard (and at times brutal) life; all farmers could use a few extra prayers.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

In Hopes of Preventing Scurvy

Ever notice how green stuff sells in the winter? Think about it, there’s some need deep inside us for the greens of summer. Houseplants sell better in the winter. Perhaps it’s the hopes of bringing on that early spring that Puxatawney Phil predicts.

But, how about salads and the dark leafy greens…ever found yourself daydreaming about a salad when there is snow on the ground? I don’t know if there is some innate desire for the taste of greens, or somehow our bodies realize that without those vitamins, we really are in danger of developing scurvy.

Back in our “other life” (most of our current ventures have their roots there); I read an article called “Salads in the Snow”. I still have the article somewhere (sorry, Betsy…you know how hard it is for me to throw things away!) I don’t really remember the article. It was the pictures that grabbed my attention. Written by Barbara Damarosh, and containing pictures of her husband, Elliot Coleman, it showed their hoophouses, and crops actually growing…despite the surrounding snow cover. Oh, the best part of their success…they live and farm in MAINE! Mmmmm, fresh food in the winter…mmm, I could definitely get into that! Those little wheels in my head began turning.

Life was in a different place at the time. I stapled the article together, put it away, and thought about those greens with a little envy from time to time. As fate, destiny, God’s perfect plan, call it what you will, would have it, we moved to the Valley, began a new life, and I found the article again.

When we first moved here, we began to eat more seasonally. If we hadn’t put it up over the summer, we didn’t have it in the winter. (for the most part) We no longer bought fresh produce in the winter that was trucked in from half a world away. This wasn’t always because we were so convicted about the source of our food, or keeping the environment green, we were just broke!

Winter has to be the hardest time of the year. It’s dark and cold, and there’s nothing to do. (Oh, yes there is….but, that’s another story) The recurring canned green beans and our diet’s dependence on root crops and other long keeping food did nothing to remedy that. That craving for fresh greens threatened to overwhelm. Maybe we could eat grass….weeds…? One year, Tom made a desperate trip to Whole Foods in search of salad greens and a tomato! It didn’t live up to his expectations, at all! But, it did start those little wheels again.

For a number of winters, the hoophouse provided winter shelter for several hundred laying hens. When spring came, we would put the chickens out on pasture and plant broccoli in the hoophouse. By the time the broccoli crop was harvested, it was getting hot…too hot to fully utilize the hoophouse for growing crops. Or so we thought. We tried corn, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers. All grew with limited success, although they did make for some great neighborhood discussions!

We were growing some stuff in coldframes at the time, again with limited success. Tom built the coldframes out of some oak boards from the lumber yard. No way were those things going anywhere! The tops were another story. As mentioned before, the wind here is a force to be reckoned with. Countless designs, numerous rebuilds, but we were never quite happy with the end result. To get real crop growth, we needed to address air circulation. The coldframes eliminated Tom’s need for greens that threatened to overwhelm him every year. He no longer envied the cows those first green tendrils in the early spring. But, the design wasn’t the most efficient way to get the winter greens we felt we needed.

An aside here, the coldframes protected the crops in the winter time….once the neighbor’s horses escaped in the middle of the night, came over and started chomping around. The coldframe had a big horse noseprint in it, but the lettuce inside escaped unscathed!

As time went on, it became evident that the hoophouses would be far more profitable if used for growing greens year round, if we could only figure out how…. Hey, wait…didn’t I read an article somewhere…?

Now there are two hoophouses that should be full of growing green stuff year round. I admit, the plans and dreams often surpass reality. We haven’t realized the full potential of the hoophouses yet. Maybe next year…

So, far…no scurvy this year…and our customers are happily consuming all the arugula and spinach we can grow.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Views, Views, Views

It occurred to me today that “views, views, views” must be code for WIND, WIND, WIND. As I sit here, I can hear the greenhouse plastic flapping against the back of the house, the vent creaking with the blustering breeze.

Perched here high on our hill, the wind swirls almost constantly. It is at its worst in the winter, bringing with it biting cold and the occasional snow flurry. The summer winds feel like a blast from a furnace, threatening to bake everything in the garden. When the weather forecast calls for breezy conditions, we better batten down the hatches!

Living with the wind, you learn to be more observant. The gates must be latched, or they blow open. Yes, there HAVE been cows in the backyard before! The trashcan lids must be placed tightly on the cans, or who knows where they might end up. Doors on the hoophouses….CLOSED…or else…

More than 10 years ago, on a VERY windy (even by our standards) day, I happened to look out the upstairs window and see the side of the hoophouse waving at me. I looked again, unable to believe what I was seeing. Sure enough, one whole side was actually blowing up and down with the wind. It looked like a giant flag. I know I screamed. (yes, I do a LOT of screaming)

We assembled the troops, gathered some tools and headed out for a “quick” repair job. Tom’s “half-hour” repair jobs are a running joke around here. His “half hours” are measured in NFL time, I’m sure. (you know, where 2 minutes can last nearly FOREVER)

At the time, we had some young chickens housed in the hoophouse. As I recall, we were raising them for someone else and that caused endless worry. Betsy and Amanda were quite young, and Amanda was very tiny. The two girls went scurrying out into the windy day.

Amanda’s first thought was to rescue those chickens. She could run like the wind itself at the time, so she got to the hoophouse first. When the rest of us arrived, she had both arms full of chickens. I’ll get the chickens, she assured. Not a clue what she was going to do with them, but she had caught them never the less. Tom had her put the chickens down and told her we would focus on the repair job.

Everyone pitched in to hold down the side. As Tom worked putting the screws back in the boards and the boards back on the sides, we realized that Amanda was beginning to be blown off the ground. With every big puff of wind, up in the air she would go. We exchanged startled glances. Nope, can’t have the girls help….they might blow away. Safety is always number one with Tom. With much complaining, they headed back to the house. I’m fairly certain they thought they were missing all the “fun”.

We finally got the side re-attached, and headed back inside ourselves…vowing to CLOSE the doors whenever the wind came up in the future.

Years ago, a friend said “you learned a lot on that one, Tom” referring to a project gone awry. Over the years, we’ve “LEARNED A LOT” on a great number of things. So, you guessed it… those doors are CLOSED!

(this photo was taken on a CALM day)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sheep Surfing

The other day, Tom was reading me an article about a new “thrill” for teenagers…car surfing. Sounded like another stupid way to get really hurt to me. Then I got to thinking…well, I’ve been sheep surfing before…

Okay, this one needs some serious explanation.

When it’s muddy, and the sheep are hungry, they become a force to be reckoned with. Imagine if you will… twenty, hungry, 200lb (that’s each) balls of Velcro…that can gallop. It doesn’t matter to them that they were given feed a mere 7 hours ago, to their minds they are STARVING!

I used to go out among them with the bucket, attempting to get the feed into the feeder between the bobbing heads of the near omnivorous beings. I hesitated to stand too still for fear of being knocked over, trampled and eaten alive. When it was muddy or icy, this became an amazingly dangerous activity. On more than one occasion, I found myself caught between the "Velcro balls", my feet no longer touching the ground, being swept along as the sheep jockeyed for position at the feeder. It was an eerie feeling. It felt like skateboarding with no board…and absolutely NO control. But, the worst part was actually the amount of feed that ended up on the ground, wasted.

This year, we decided to do something new. The feeders are in a separate area. A gate at each end allows access. I go in, behind the closed gate, and pour out the feed in relative peace. The ewes have to wait (albeit impatiently) until I am ready for them to come in. This system seemed the solution I had been dreaming of. No more wasted feed! YES!

All went well until a slippery day. When I pushed open the gate, I lost my footing. The ewes ran in, sweeping me off my feet entirely. Thankfully, I was still holding the gate, so I didn’t go down in the mud. For several seconds, I “rode the wave”…yep, right up on the backs of all those sheep going to the feeder. Hey, I know how Garth Brooks felt when they used to pass him through the audience. Yeah, that was kinda cool! (sorta...momentarily) It also made my shoulder hurt like….well, it really hurt! Matter of fact, a month or so later and it STILL hurts! But, who else can say they have been sheep surfing?

The number of unintentional “adventures” I’ve had around here are multitude. Guess I’ll have to look back into the dim and dusty past to come up with a few examples of “fun” you can’t have anywhere but a farm! Maybe I should get Tom to tell his tales of “mutton bustin”….

Saturday, February 12, 2011

phone calls to the farm

Yesterday the phone rang as we were doing the supper dishes, and I hesitated to answer it. Honestly, ever since the accident, my heart stops momentarily every time the phone rings. But, I answered it just the same.

Fully expecting one of the girls, or some sales guy from India, I was surprised to hear the neighbor's raspy voice on the other end. Seems his dogs had alerted him to some other strange dogs in the neighborhood and he wanted to give me a heads up. He thought perhaps they were some strange Rottweilers. Since we have sheep, and chickens, the neighbors make it their duty to apprise us of threats. I truly appreciate this fact. I could barely hear him for the ruckus his dogs were causing in the background. We exchanged a few more comments and hung up. Our dogs were up at the gate, bouncing around, barking at something as well, so I kept an eye out for the "rogue" dogs.

That got me thinkin' about all the phone calls we get around here to give us a "heads up" about the weird and random.

We've had phone calls about lost dogs, escaped calves, rabid foxes, a missing parrot, stray kittens and loose pigs, and even a bear....but,the best one, oh the absolute best one.. was a call from an elderly neighbor alerting me to the fact that a THREE-legged SKUNK was heading this direction! I have NO idea what I was supposed to do with that knowledge, but she thought perhaps it might have been "one of the children's pets". That one about reduced me to tears of hilarity. We have gotten miles of usage out of that line over the years.

So, next time the phone rings, rather than expect the worst....I guess I should try to remember the hilarious. 'Cause you just never know what might be headin' this direction!

Friday, February 11, 2011

a man outstanding in his field

In an effort to get to know us better, this one is dedicated to Tom.

Years ago, in our "other life", I found myself talking to Tom's boss. Tom was a career substation electrician for "the" power company. His boss said that if electricians could walk on water....Tom would be the one. To his mind Tom was the best there was!

When we left our "other life" behind, Tom applied that same talent level to the homestead. There's probably nothing he can't build or fix. Every building around here is a direct result of his handiwork. He's also in charge of the constant upkeep and repair. ...and he's the best there is!

Tom is the steady one. The one who does NOT fly off the handle, cry or scream. (yeah, that would be ME) His stability is what keeps things sorta sane around here. His support is what makes a LOT of this possible.

For ten years, he encouraged me in my milk-cow endeavors. That meant mid-night calls to the vet, tons and tons of feed, trips here and there looking at cows, and LOTS of worry and money. He even bought me a cow once! The only reason he ever suggested getting rid of them was he didn't like how very upset the bad times made ME. When we finally got rid of the cows, he didn't exult that he had been right all along, he missed them along with me.

We've finally gotten to the point where this feels more like a partnership. He encourages me to try some of the endless ideas that I have for new ventures. Some succeed...some fail, but his support doesn't waver.

He likes to say he's the braun of the operation, to my brains. To that I say....Lord help us! But, it makes for a pretty good team.

So, here's to Tom!
It wouldn't be possible without you, Boss.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The ongoing "Chicken Saga"

Every year there is a issue that just won't go away...just won't get resolved. This year that issue happens to be the CHICKENS.

We raise chickens for eggs: brown, free-range, farm-fresh eggs. Simple, huh? Not this year.

Our chickens have this cute, mobile barn for housing that Tom built a number of years ago. Built-in nest boxes and food brought right to their door, what more could chickens want? Apparently, more....much more.

When the daylight begins to fade in the fall of the year, so does egg production. That is normal. What was not normal was how very far the production fell off. hmmm, maybe they were cold. We had been having a very, very cold winter.

After days of cleaning, re-arranging, re-furbishing and re-building, the hens moved into the barn. This was great! A big window, nice chips on the floor, and brand-new nest box unit....what more could chickens want?

Then they didn't want to eat the feed...we changed feed and feeders. That seemed to help, a bit.

But, wait....that new nest box? They would rather lay their eggs on the floor in the corner, thank you very much. This made it much easier for them to EAT the eggs, too. We put crates in the corners to discourage them from using the corners....and they laid eggs on TOP of the crates. sigh

Still not much improvement in egg production. Wait, what's that? Are these hens molting? No, maybe they have mites. Oh, bother. We donned our work clothes and masks and sprayed the entire bunch with a natural miticide. Whew, now THAT was fun! Maybe we got it. mmm, yeah production improved. The vet once told me that positive response to treatment was evidence of a correct diagnosis. I suppose we solved that problem.

Now, back to that nestbox of the great things about this unit is the fact that the eggs roll away from the hen and collect in this little cup for easy pick-up. I will pause here to remind you to think where an egg comes from....yep, it's important for cleanliness that the egg roll AWAY! Cool concept, great design...until the chickens decided that the TOP of the nest box unit was a GREAT place to sleep. Then, the egg cups began collecting the very thing (the chicken poop) that we were trying to keep the eggs from in the first place! No problem....Tom would rig up something so they couldn't sit on top...that seemed simple enough.

He strung a wire from end to end of the nest box unit to discourage roosting. They sat ON the wire! He tried a piece of wavy poly-carb...they apparently found it just as comfy. He put up a rolling pipe....they sat on that! He wrapped the rolling pipe with barb-wire...they roosted there, too! oooh, this is getting annoying. We made an "emergency trip to Lowe's". After installing carpet tack strip, (you know the kind with all the little nails?)he was certain he had solved the problem. When I heard laughter from the henhouse during morning chores, I knew...back to the "drawing board". The next thing he tried was a piece of straight metal with a sharp edge. Of course, they sat on THAT, too! I'm not sure what the next idea will be.

All of this in pursuit of clean eggs...and all this diabolical behavior from animals with brains the size of a walnut (and I am being generous). I would hate to admit that we've been out-witted by a chicken, but this situation has definitely required more brainpower than warranted by increased egg production. Oh,'s given us something new to talk about!

Friday, February 4, 2011

"you've got to see the baaaaaaby"

I suppose I should apologize to Jerry Seinfield for using one of his show lines for today's title, but it is just too perfect for this story. Right now, when anyone visits...we say "you've got to see the baaaaaaaby!" A silly comment that always makes our grown children laugh (and roll their eyes)

Lambing season of 2011 is nearly behind us. There is always something new to get through, something new to learn. Fact is, with all this "learning", I still feel pretty stupid and helpless a lot of the time.

This year's season happened to coincide with some of the coldest weather in recent history. Nope, take that back....coldest weather in about 25 years! But, that's the topic for another entry. Since the newborns can't take the cold, I was checking for babies about every two hours. (Yes, even in the night!)

We lost a couple lambs, and I hate that. But, generally, once they're on the ground, we don't have a lot of problems. The ewes are good mothers and our set-up is well-planned. So, I was being overly diligent in the checking.

On one of my midnight runs, I noticed some odd movements in one of the jug pens. A word of explanation, a "jug" is a small pen where the mother and newborns are put for some bonding time. Sheep are VERY stupid and a lot of times will "misplace" their babies and the babies aren't strong enough to look for their mother and her life-giving milk. We generally leave them in these small pens for 2 days. The ewe gets special treatment (alfalfa hay and grain, along with fresh water...sometimes we even give her molasses) This gives us a chance to check the babies for any health issues as well.

The "odd movements" required some attention. Oh NO (alright, that is NOT what I said) the "odd movements" were one baby had been stepped on (I guess, that's the only logical explanation) and his leg was broken. Oh, his leg was REALLY broken. It was swinging around as he tried desperately to maintain his balance and get something to eat from his mom. His mother must have thought he was some type of creepy alien, because she was freaking out, trying to get away from him. Okay, it's one thirty in the morning, I have a newborn lamb with a broken "femur"...what do I do? I probably should have put him down, but he was so determined, so feisty. I racked my sleep-deprived brain for splint ideas, and headed back to the house. The only thing I could find (that I could cut with my Leatherman) were some wooden skewers I had in the kitchen for a cooking experiment. I grabbed those and headed out to the vet cabinet. I knew I had some tape....why can't I be more organized? Okay, got the splints, got the tape, found some scissors...back to the barn.

I got the leg set relatively well. You try setting something the size of a chicken bone, in the cold, in the dark, in the middle of the night with a very unhappy ewe looking over your shoulder. Definitely NOT one of my better moments. I put the lamb back in the pen. "Mother" took one look and BLAM....It was bad enough when his leg was swinging in the breeze, now he really looked like an alien! And, he smelled weird, too! BLAM! She knocked him over again. When I reached in the break things up...BLAM she got me too. Oh, this was going extremely well.

At that point, I realized that he would never make it through the night in the pen. I really didn't know if he would anyway. So, I made sure all the others were fine, tucked him in my coat and headed to the house. I figured at least we could be warm while I figured out what to do.

Surely, he must be in pain. Surely, he was hungry. He kept nibbling on my face as I headed to the house. I fixed him a bottle, and dang if he didn't eat it! Usually lambs have to be "taught" to use a bottle. I didn't know exactly what should be done about the pain his leg must be causing him. Our vet supplies include a good pain medicine, but the dose is 1cc for 100 lbs. This guy was about 8 pounds, do I get a tiny drop in the syringe? I finally decided on an amount, administered it, and put him on a towel in front the woodstove. At the time, he wasn't moving around too much. I figured my "helping" had probably killed him, soI laid down on the couch, hoping to fall back to sleep. I would have to explain my midnight foray to Tom in the morning. I figured the lamb would just be another "casualty", but I knew I had done all I could.

Prior to my next barn check, an insistent, small voice going "BAAAAAA!" woke me. He was standing up, looking around for something to eat! I gave him something to eat and laid him back down. When I came back from my barn check, there he was...he had flopped himself across the livingroom, and was moving toward me, again looking for food! I gave him a little more and found a box to contain him. Back to sleep for a bit.

When Tom got up for the day, a lamb voice from the livingroom greeted him. A quick telling of the tale answered his somewhat sleepy "HUH?" His first response was that I should have put the lamb down, he must be in pain, he'd never be right, and that I really didn't need this....that I would get too "attached". Oh, ooops....he must have looked at my face. THAT had already happened! Don't get me wrong, I wasn't looking for a pet. I just wanted to beat death...just once. These animals represent our living, I seriously hate to lose one. Okay, he said....I'll set up the hospital pen, we'll get milk replacer in town later.

In the light of day, the crudity of my first aid became apparent. We found a paint paddle, cut it to length and re-set the leg using vet wrap. The little bone was almost crushed. I could feel splinters of bone under the skin. There was a moment when I nearly gagged, and couldn't go on. This injury was similar...all too familiar...back in April our eldest daughter was nearly killed by a reckless driver. One of her many injuries was a shattered femur. It had not occurred to me that was what that looked like prior to surgery. The flood of memories overwhelmed momentarily. But, she's a survivor...and apparently, so was this lamb. That thought gave me a little more motivation to succeed.

That was almost three weeks ago. He is growing quite well. I see no signs of infection. We changed the bandage yesterday, and I could feel the healing bone underneath the skin. Yehaw! My "james herriot" moment paid off. Looks like he'll make it. Betsy suggested we call him "Jimmy Dean", because despite any "attachment" he remains a farm animal with one purpose in become food. But, it is a life well lived.

If you happen by, you will get the tour of Jimmy Dean in his little hospital pen. His insistent little voice seems to say, "you've got to FEED the baaaaaaaaby!"