Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Day at the Spa - Farm Style

Once a year, THE GIRLS get a new “do” and a mani-pedi…more accurately, a pedi-pedi, as they have four feet and no hands. Oh, I forgot to mention, I AM talking about the EWES! Shearing day has arrived.

Shearing is a necessary, but difficult job. It’s hot, sticky, smelly and at times, very frustrating. Did I mention it’s HOT? With this in mind, this year I hope we can have a little fun with it. The whole “spa” scenario is somewhat humorous.

Preparation for shearing starts the evening before the big event. The ewes are brought to the barn to keep them out of the weather until clipping starts. Wet wool doesn’t cut well, and if the sheep have been fasting overnight, theoretically, they will not void while being sheared. The latter tends to happen anyway, the first thing a nervous sheep will do is PEE!

The barn becomes a noisy place prior to the actual shearing, as the ewes realize that they are NOT getting any grain, any hay….and that they are indeed stuck in the barn. Things don’t improve until after the clippers are finally shut off and they head out to the green pastures once again. Their inability to see this as a cleansing fast really affects the whole “spa” atmosphere!

Meet the “stylist”.
A went to VA Tech to learn to shear a number of years ago. Tom had been doing the shearing, but she thought it looked fun. She excelled at the class, and enjoyed the camaraderie with the instructors. While spa patrons are pampered and treated well, the advice A got for any uncooperative sheep was “punch that ole girl in the stomach if she don’t behave!”

This advice is rarely heeded, but it does grant a chuckle when things get testy.

I get the job of “manicurist”.
The ewes’ hooves are trimmed and a proprietary mixture is applied to the fresh cut. This will prevent any organism from entering the hoof and causing foot rot. It is also a very pretty shade of RED!

After shearing, there is a great deal of confusion within the flock. I have never been able to figure out if the sheep don’t recognize one another without their wool, or perhaps there’s some jealousy going on about the new “do’s”.

The ewes were all clipped out without incident. Although, I am guessing that A has some real sore muscles this morning. The wool was picked up and bagged, ready to head to the dump. There is no real value to the wool from our type of sheep, so it’s not worth the added work to keep it clean and ship it off to any mill.

Waylon got sheared as well. As a young, growing ram, he will benefit greatly from his lack of wool during the summer. We want him to grow, grow, grow for the next couple of months prior to his first breeding season. He has been separated from the lamb flock and will be spending the summer in the ram paddock. Now that he is shorn, we can see how good his confirmation is.

It’s always nice to have the shearing job done. As the summer weather gets hotter and hotter, it’s good to know that the sheep will be somewhat cool and in good condition when breeding season comes around again.

After about two weeks the sheep look great. That period of time allows for any nicks and scrapes from shearing to heal over, and the wool evens out. The contrast between the green, green grass of June and the white wool of the sheep is one of my favorite views on the farm.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Snails...or Escargot?

Not to be an alarmist, but…

M'brook is being overtaken by snails!

Now, that sounds like a bad sci-fi movie from the early sixties, doesn’t it?

But, really….

Snails are everywhere!

In the grass.

In the tree.

On the house.

On the hydrant at the barn.

In my shoe….okay, I have NO idea how that one happened. But, there it was!

Today, I found a snail condo out back. There were about six snails, just hanging out, doing snail stuff, whatever it is snails do. Yuck!
(couldn’t get all of them to “pose” at once)

I don’t like snails much. They are just slugs with mobile homes, leaving their shiny little trails of “snot” behind them. Ewww!

It is said that some snails carry an organism that can lead to liver flukes in cattle and sheep. I don’t know if all snails carry this, or just certain species. I do know that parasites are a problem in the moist conditions that cause snails to thrive. That is another reason I don’t care for them.

Recently, I read an article that took the Locavore movement to a whole new level. The chef interviewed was using only invasive species of fish to make sushi at his restaurant. He was calling his new cuisine “invasivore”. That got me thinking. Maybe we could capture these snails and sell them….? Then, maybe they wouldn’t seem quite so gross and disgusting if they could become profitable.


Escargot from M’brook, anyone?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Lesson from the Berry Patch

Tom and I were picking strawberries the other afternoon when B stopped by on her way home from work. Being the well trained “farm-kid” that she is, she washed her hands and pitched in with the harvest. I kept hearing some grumbling from her end of the row. Finally, she exclaimed, “This is SO gross!” Not knowing exactly what “this” was, we waited for an explanation. “the spittle bugs….yuck!”

We had noticed a great deal of “spit” among the berries, but that is nothing unusual, and we kept picking. Seems she ended up in a very “spitty” patch. Tom began to tease that it was just bug “poo”, or maybe bug “pee”. This kind of thing was funny when the girls were little. This time he just got a big sigh and eye-roll, and a “you mean you don’t know what it is?”

No, we really didn’t know what it was. I figured it must be some type of egg case….Tom stuck with his “poo” theory, still hoping for a laugh. B looked at us with pity (poor ignorant old folks) and began to enlighten us.

B is a natural-born naturalist. She loves the outdoors and taught herself all sorts of useful information. She is able to identify a great number of creatures with ease. When she was younger, she made a journal of all the various species she had spotted here on the farm. It was most impressive.

Back to the spittle bugs… It seems that the nymphs (baby bugs) are in the spittle. It keeps them warm and moist so they can grow. Apparently, it tastes bad and protects from predation, too. They start out as little white wormy things and then develop into little green bugs. Humph, I didn’t know that!

Not one to take anything for granted, I checked it out for myself. Sure enough, inside the “spit” was a little worm.

I discovered that when the bubbles were bigger, there were little green bugs inside.

Can’t decide if this is very cool….or very gross. I’m going with cool. I love learning new stuff!

So, thanks, B! See, the old folks CAN learn new things!

The bugs don’t really hurt the plants, although they do suck some of the sap. We could spray and get rid of them, but since they don’t do anything but gross some of us out….we’ll leave them be and just remember to…


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Our New Look

After years and years….and YEARS of having the same stuff for the Market, we went a little crazy last week. That’s what happens when we go on a rainy day shopping trip together!

We have been using a VA Grown banner on the back of the vegetable stand for a long time. Not only does it look nice, and let folks know that our stuff is indeed local, it keeps the sun off the vegetables. Since we specialize in lettuce and greens, shade is VERY important! When the sun hits those bags, it begins to “cook” the stuff inside. Not good! Over time our product line has grown, and we were outgrowing our shade.

We had one of the local sign companies make us a personalized banner for the back of the stand. It is longer than the old one, so EVERYTHING is covered. It looks great! Thanks, Signmaster!

A new canopy gave us two feet in each direction and a little more shade. That will be greatly appreciated at the height of summer. Another plus, it’s a lot easier to put up and down. Since I take everything down at the end of the day, I truly appreciate this fact.

Tom was able to expand the display space and STILL keep everything in the shade. Just a note here, those baskets don’t look like much, but they are constantly replenished throughout the Market. We take in excess of 100 bags of lettuce and greens most weeks.

Since we had a new sign and a new canopy, the search for a tablecloth began. (we don’t ever do anything halfway). I found one that looked very nice on the CLEARANCE rack at a local store. So, we’re set.

Everything looked very nice on Saturday, and worked very well. Hmmm, the only thing we haven’t changed is US. Can’t imagine that will happen….our customers might not know who we are.

…but, Tom DID get a new hat!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Evaluating the Ewe Lambs

I think I have looked at a thousand lambs since we became shepherds. Well, that’s probably an exaggeration. I KNOW I’ve looked at the same lambs THOUSANDS of times!

When A was into the lamb showing circuit, I ended up taking a LOT of pictures of lambs. This helped her develop a “presence” for the show ring and learn to show a lamb to its best potential, and in turn, helped me develop an eye as to what to look for in a lamb. One thing about A, she’s a persistent person. She wanted to figure out the secret of the lamb show…and she did! She did very well!

An aside about lamb shows. A lamb show is NOT a beauty pageant, nor, as I overheard a “city dad” tell his kid at the fair, is it a showcase for behavior. No, when looking at a show lamb, the judge is trying to visualize and evaluate the carcass. That is one of the reasons for a close clip. While there are trends in the show world, most judges look for a lamb with a good deal of length, as the majority of the value comes from the rack and loin. Okay, now that I have THAT off my chest…

The other day we had all the lambs in the barn and I thought I would take advantage of that fact to get some pictures of the ewe lambs I want to consider keeping for the 2012 breeding season. (yep, NEXT year….farming is all about the FUTURE!) Since there are only SIX ewe lambs out of the 28 live lambs this year, I don’t have a whole lot to choose from.

Two of them were out of the running from the beginning. One is from a first-time mother. The unspoken rule is you NEVER keep a first lamb. Not quite sure of the reason, but I have never been real impressed with the growth on those type of lambs. This particular ewe lamb’s brother has some “reproductive issues” which cause me concern for her as well. The other lamb is from a ewe with a “spider gene”. While this sounds ominous, it just means that if this ewe is bred to a ram with a similar gene, the babies stand a good chance of deformity. We went through this whole deal once, and it is NOT fun. So, off to the processor’s it is for those two lambs.

That leaves four little girls in the running. We bought #89 Jessie from our “sheep friends”. So, we have five to consider. There is a little more to think about when choosing breeding stock than when judging show lambs.

When considering breeding stock, the family genetics must be reviewed. If a ewe has problems breeding or birthing, more than likely her offspring will also have a problem. Shepherds must keep good records on this type of subject. I did learn that one the hard way, too.

One of the ewe lambs is a triplet. This indicates that her mother is very fertile. The fact that her mother is the largest ewe we have, has consistently bred easily, AND raised those triplets with NO human assistance, immediately puts this “lil miss” in the definitely consider category.

The other ewe lamb that I am almost certain of keeping is of our “Sally” line. All of our breeder ewes have names. A picked out “Sally” years ago. “Sally” has consistently bred and we have two of her daughters. They have also consistently bred and produced nice lambs. This ewe lamb would be the third generation from this line, and I have high hopes for her. She is BIG, she has great confirmation…she is a keeper! And, by the way…her name will be Ginny.

There are other factors when looking at stock. Is she an “easy keeper”? That means does she gain well and then maintain on the ration and pasture before her? Some sheep are not “thrifty” and require a great deal of upkeep and maintenance to thrive. Those are NOT sheep that one would wish to keep.

A ewe needs to have wide hips to aid in easy birthing, as well as an attentive nature. The attentiveness is an indication of her mothering ability. The ewe lamb that seems aware when anything unusual is in the paddock will generally make a good mother. Cuteness and personality do NOT figure into the decision.

I tried taking pictures of all of them. Several did not cooperate, and as of today, I have not had the patience (personally) or the cooperation (from Tom and the lambs) to get adequate photos. That will have to be a project for another day.

At present, I am leaning toward keeping all five. We know that we will have to cull a couple of the ewes next year. We have already sold a few “problem ewes” and one yearling died. Personally, I’d like to have a ewe flock of 20, although Tom is concerned about grass/hay issues. This number would get us close to my goal. We will never be a BIG breeder, but we do have good sheep.

Once the older ewes are bred, we will turn the young ones in the barn with them. At that point, we will be able to make our final decision.

I find that I am already looking forward to this year’s breeding season. …and, quite honestly, I am REALLY looking forward to 2012!

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Dog Cave

This is the “dog cave”. I know, it looks like our side porch/kitchen door to me, too.

To Ellie Mae’s doggy mind, this is the DOG CAVE. It is a wonderful place for daytime naps. Apparently it is cool….she has dug a little bed down in the dirt.
It is dry…the door mat keeps some of the rain off. It is secluded…Jed is too big to get inside and bother her.

This works fine for Ellie Mae. We also know that no one can come in the kitchen door without our being forewarned. Not that anyone ever DOES come in the kitchen door anyway.

The only problem with the dog cave is when WE forget about it. If Tom or I walk up the driveway, lost in thought and not making enough noise, somehow Ellie is disturbed from her “beauty sleep”. When this happens, she catapults out of the dog cave, barking ferociously. Of course, this startles the walker and some type of confrontation ensues. She looks as if she's thinking deep and amazing thoughts. Or, maybe she's just bored and sleepy!

Just another farm idiosyncrasy to keep us on our toes!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Long-lived Spring Delight

To asparagus lovers everywhere, the knowledge of the short season somehow makes the pleasure a little greater. Asparagus season is about eight weeks in the early spring. Nothing can be done to prolong it, so you must enjoy it to the full during that time.

I don’t know who discovered the edibility of asparagus, but I do thank him or her! There is nothing quite like the taste of fresh asparagus. I’m not sure who developed the hybridization of asparagus, but that individual has my gratitude as well. The hybrids produce consistently and quite well.

We have been meaning to expand the asparagus patch for several seasons, and hopefully, this year we will finally get it done. We order “crowns” for early spring delivery. When we get asparagus crowns, they don’t look like much. A bunch of dry strings tied together show about as much promise of a meal, if you ask me.

This year, it was so wet, that we couldn’t get the ground tilled when the crowns arrived. I planted them in pots, hoping that they would gain some growth. The plan was to then plant them in the asparagus patch when the weather broke. Well, they’re still in the hoophouse. They are looking pretty good, so hopefully, they’ll do well when (and if) we ever get them planted where they’re supposed to be.

It is said that a well-tended asparagus patch will produce for 25 years or more. This remains to be seen around here, as the current patch is only in its …..Hmmm, tenth? Eleventh? Twelfth? Season.

Asparagus likes a LOT of fertilization. That’s not a problem around here. We’ve got a lot of four-legged fertilizers. No, the problem is the weeds like the fertilization as well. We end up with SUPERweeds in the asparagus patch. We’re always looking for a new way to beat the weeds…that does NOT include herbicides.

Tom burns the weeds in the spring and applies compost. Unfortunately, this year, the wet spring caused the compost to mat and bend the asparagus. So, I pulled it off. That, in turn, allowed the weeds to grow like crazy. As Charlie Brown would say, “ARGH!”

This year, I think we’re going to try WEEDING later in the season and applying the compost going into the winter. It’s worth a try. I don’t think we’ve tried that set-up yet. I guess we could resort to using the bush-hog. We did that one year and got FALL asparagus. Cool experiment that tasted delicious, but not so good for the plants.

We’ve got another 15, 14, 13(?) years to figure out the “weed-free” asparagus patch.

In the meantime, our customers will get to enjoy the fruits of our labors. During the short season, we pick asparagus stalks daily. After a rain, they seem to appear from nowhere!

Happily, there are some asparagus that for one reason or another aren’t quite up to standard.

That means….SUPPER!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Conflicted Nature of a Farmer/Grower

It is raining….AGAIN!

Before anyone thinks I am complaining, I’m NOT. Having lived through drought years in an agricultural community, I know that it’s almost blasphemous to speak of rain in a negative way. We have all been taught….NEVER COMPLAIN about the rain, because you never know when it will dry up and never rain again. Personally, there is nothing more disheartening than a bunch of old farmers comparing drought stories. It makes me feel as if my very soul is shriveling with the heat and lack of rain.
But, I’ll be honest…the gloom, the mud and mire, the wet sheep….it’s all beginning to get to me.

The abundant spring rains are wonderful. The grass grows nearly overnight. This means the hay crop is maturing. This also means that the rapid growth in the lambs is coming from the ground and sun and no longer the feed trough, thus lowering expenses somewhat.

The garden is growing by leaps and bounds, too. I think if you sat quietly and listened hard, you could hear the broccoli growing. The onions seem bigger every time I go outside. …and hooray, it looks like ALL of the potatoes came up.

But, herein lies the conflict…

The moisture and relative warmth causes a heightened parasitic issue with the lambs. We must be ever vigilant, or they will succumb to parasitic overload. That would mean the great growth rate; the anticipated lamb crop would be lost. That would be a shame.

If the torrential rains continue, it will make it difficult to get the hay crop in. There is a timeframe to making hay.
It must be moist to make it grow, but dry, dry, dry to allow for its harvest. Many farmers worry about how much of their hay gets “washed” in a season. This is not at all their intention. An unexpected rain spells the end for a hay crop that’s been cut and not properly dried.

Then, there are the weeds.
The ever growing menace of the weeds comes creeping in like a bright green mist along the freshly tilled earth. At first it seems innocuous enough. It’s such a bright and vivid shade of green. Then it becomes evident that the weeds are taking over. All the work we have done in the onion patch, the brassica garden, and the potatoes is rapidly giving way to the weeds. It’s too wet to run the tiller, too muddy to hoe, and almost impossible to walk through without tearing up the ground.

So, I start thinking of dry weather and SUNSHINE.

Being forced to “take the day off” is great in theory. I got caught up on a lot of inside stuff. I can actually see the top of my desk again, and I’m on my way to getting all the bookwork updated. And, I didn’t succumb to the nap that was oh, so very tempting!

But, in the back of my mind, I can swear…I can hear those weeds growing! So, now I’m praying for a few dry days. A little breeze to dry things off would even be nice.

Is it that I am contrary? Conflicted? Just can’t make up my mind?

Because after a few days of hot, hot sun and dry wind…and, you guessed it…I’ll be praying for rain again!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Day in the Clouds

We had another half-inch of rain last night. This is in addition to well over a half-inch we received over the weekend. It’s wet, wet, WET!

Since the farm is situated on top of a hill, we are at an altitude of nearly 2,000 feet. This makes for a different type of weather than even the nearby towns of Staunton and Stuarts Draft. Quite often, after a rain, we will have clouds and mist for nearly the entire day, while others are enjoying the sunshine.

The clouds just seem to hover over M’brook sometimes. You can actually see the weather clear as you head toward town and the decline in altitude is evident. It is an interesting phenomenon.

So, today, it’s too wet to work outside, and almost too dark to work in the hoophouses. That means we’ll take the opportunity to do some inside maintenance, catch up on farm paperwork and phonecalls.

….all the while trying NOT to come in close contact with any pillows or blankets.

Today will be a long hard battle with the gloom-induced sleepies.

Better keep the sweet tea flowing and country music blaring!

We still got work to do.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Occupational Hazard

Every week, prior to harvest, I do a quality control test on each bed of lettuce. Our customers can be assured that if I don’t think it’s edible….they won’t have to eat it!

Bitter lettuce is not a pleasant experience. All the salad dressing in the world won’t hide the fact when the lettuce is tough and past its prime. To keep the customers happily consuming our lettuce, we are quite picky about quality.

So, I taste, I evaluate, THEN I pick.

Since we do NOT use chemicals of any type in the hoophouse, I can pick it and eat it…direct from the ground.

There is one down-side to all of this. I have consumed a little more protein that I would like while checking the lettuce crop. I didn’t really think about it until I realized that lettuce shouldn’t have that “smooth” mouth feel….I am certain that I have ingested more than one slug. EWWW! BLECH!

While I can attest to the deliciousness of the lettuce and can assure you that it has been washed once…
I would suggest you wash it again before consumption. Unless, of course, you need a little more protein in your diet…

Any “protein crunchies” or “escargot-type” things you may find in your lettuce are indeed chemical-free, if that makes them any more appetizing.

…and you can be assured that we have at least tried everything we take to the Market.

Bon App├ętit!