Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Farewell, "Cheeto-Butt"!

** I apologize for the title.  Please don't be offended...and read on**

Recently, I had to bid farewell to an old friend of sorts.

We just took a load of old ewes to the stockyard.  In that load was #22, otherwise known as “Gail”…and most appropriately (or inappropriately, depending on your point of view) referred to repeatedly as “Cheeto-Butt”. (yes, there really is an explanation)

While I generally love a trip to the stockyard where you can sense the history in every single board and cobweb, this trip made me more than a little sad. It's the end of an era in a way.

To truly understand this story, I’ll have to go back in time quite a way.

It was a dark and windy (and I mean WINDY) March night back in ’06.  It was very cold and light snow was blowing through the cracks in the barn as Blondie and I watched and waited for one of the ewes to lamb.  It seemed to take forever and my “lambing assistant” and I talked over all sorts of things as we sat there in the dimly lit barn.  We’ve had some good talks down at the barn over the years. Read how the barn is the heart of the

Finally, the lambs made their appearance.  Two little ewe lambs. This was the first time we had bred for pure Suffolk lambs.   The year before we had bought a beautiful showy Suffolk ram and some good commercial ewes. We were finally making the complete switch from the woolly sheep to a meaty breed and this was exciting.  We might even be in the “sheep business”.

The babies were odd looking with their speckled coats and black faces. (the woolly sheep were mostly white)  Their skin seemed too big and they looked like they were wearing floppy pajamas.  Since we were still at the point where the lambs were named as well as numbered, they were appropriately named “Windy” and “Gail”.

As they grew, we began to truly entertain thoughts of increasing our flock…maybe even selling lambs.  We could keep these and use them as breeders…?  “Gail” developed into a nice, big, long lamb.  She had a number of the traits you look for in a ewe.  “Windy”, not so much.

"Gail" April 2006

So “Gail” stayed and joined the breeder flock. She was the first lamb ever bred, born, raised on the farm to become a breeder.  Kinda historic, if you ask me...

The first season we turned her in with the ram, we used an orange marker on the ram.  The ram was “enthusiastic” (to say the least).  Oh, and the weather…it was HOT! Needless to say, that orange marker was well-worn by the time we changed colors a short while later.  The wax of the marker melted down into the wool, leaving a bright orange mark until we sheared early the next Spring.
look closely
the ewes' backs almost match the trees!

In the meantime, Gail delivered her first lamb.  A big, healthy ram lamb.

We were psyched
about big, healthy lambs

That Spring, Blondie had just taken over the shearing duties.  She’d been to VATech and learned the techniques, she’d been to help some friends and learned the realities...and somewhere along the way, she learned that sheep just make you cuss. She was bound and determined to show her new skills. (except for the cussing)  Everything was going so well.

Until “Gail”.

For some reason, “Gail” flipped out. Maybe she was worried about her lamb, maybe she didn't want a haircut, I don't know.  Legs flailing, head thrashing, she and Blondie went to body blows.  It wasn’t pretty.

Blondie took a hoof to the chest that knocked the wind out of her.  Another hoof narrowly missed her face. The struggle was intense and more than a little dangerous.

Trying to keep her cool, Blondie bellowed,

  “STOP IT! You behave!  You old…you old…I am trying hard not to cuss….You old CHEETO-Butt!”

I couldn’t help it.  I fell on the floor laughing. (I know, I know….REAL helpful, Mama)

In the end, Blondie won the round and “cheeto-butt” got properly shorn.  But, the name stuck and even now she seems to recognize the very unflattering name. She eventually got with the program and shearing was never again such a nightmare.

That seems so long ago...

Now, #22-Gail-Cheeto-Butt is an old, broke-down ewe with only half a bag.  It’s time to say good-bye.  And, although she is just an old, broke-down ewe…I’m kinda sad to see her go.  I’ve learned a lot about shepherding in the past 8 years since that cold and windy night in the barn.  (was it only EIGHT years?) In a small flock, each and every animal is invaluable in the learning process as well as the bottom line. During those eight years, we have all done a lot of learning and growing and now I can honestly say I know sheep!

with last year's ewe lamb "Gert"

Old #22 had a good, long run.  She was always one of the first to breed successfully and only needed birthing assistance this last season (yet another indication it was time for her to go). She even raised twins by herself with her half functioning bag. She has more “personality” than most of the others and feels it necessary to lend a helping nose occasionally.

She’s an ugly old ewe, but she sure makes beautiful lambs. I’ve got a couple of her daughters and even her granddaughter in our breeder flock. We've learned a lot about flock genetics over the years, and it shows.

daughter  "Girlfriend" as a lamb

grown-up "Girlfriend" with lamb

We’ll have to wait and see if the good genetics carry on.  There is no reason to think they won't...we just have to wait for hard evidence in the form of more lambs.
granddaughter "Gladys"

I just hope the younger generations behave themselves…or Blondie will have to come up with new unflattering names.

So, farewell “old Cheeto-Butt”, thanks for all the good times (and good lambs).

I sure learned a lot from that old sheep!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

You Call That LOCAL?

Isn't this pretty?
Last week, on my regular reconnaissance mission…I mean grocery shopping rounds…I noticed this gorgeous display of veggies.  
On closer inspection, I saw this…



It really says Canada.  In the LOCAL produce section. 

Now, excuse me if I seem to be slightly dense, but doesn’t LOCAL mean “pertaining to the neighborhood/community”?  …and isn’t Canada like 300+ miles from my little town here in the Shenandoah Valley?

…and that’s local?


I think not!

LOCAL is hot right now.  Real hot.  And, as producers selling our goods well, LOCAL-ly…we benefit greatly from the hotness. 

But, just what is LOCAL? There is no standardized definition of the word.  No certification process which one goes through (as with USDA Organic).  Anybody can say anything is local. Which I guess it is/was somewhere. Essentially, in many cases it’s a meaningless marketing phrase.  …and as a producer selling truly locally produced farm products, I just have to say, “that burns my biscuits…just a little!”

If consumers truly wish to shop local, to support the farmers and local entrepreneurs…they really need to do their shopping directly with the producers. 

grocery store idea of LOCAL
Supermarkets, grocery stores and yes, even some farm markets/stands are not selling food from here in the community. A lot of the produce sold here in the Valley (as local) is from places far, far away.  LOCAL gets stretched to the limits and it has become generally accepted that local is anything within 400 miles. 400 miles! (the Farm Act of 2008 set this as the standard for government programs...and no, I don't know why they picked that distance) Which means, that despite the fact that those peppers were grown in another country, it is acceptable to call them “local”. And, yes, I am calling foul on that one.

Personally, when it goes beyond the county lines, or at least the confines of our Valley, I’m thinking Nope, not local. …and that’s okay.

In order to keep the unique and regional qualities of our culture and cuisine, we shouldn’t ever try to be all things to all people.  Each region should be distinctive and different. Each and every locality should focus on their own special characteristics. The complete homogenization of American culture/food/society will lead to a bland and boring mediocrity.

Maybe it’s time to define LOCAL in some concrete terms. That's what the Staunton/Augusta Farmers' Market did years ago.

The folks who sell at our local Farmers’ Market are required to bring products created/grown within 50 miles of Staunton and the vendor must be directly involved with the production. This is strictly enforced and has caused some debate and discussion over the years. But, the steering committee felt it necessary to give the word some real definition and the consumers’ peace of mind.

Personally, I like knowing that those peppers I put in the relish this week came from a farm in Mt. Solon (less than ½ hour drive from Staunton).  Being able to talk to the actual grower, asking questions and getting advice, is invaluable to me as a consumer. 
Beautiful bell peppers
from Ulmer's Mountain View Farm
If you are committed to LOCAL food, then you must make some concessions in your diet and quite possibly your lifestyle.

That means NO strawberries in January, or asparagus in August.  It means that you may have to go out of your way to get that LOCAL meat or get up early to snag the sweet corn at the Market.  It also means that you have to understand that truly LOCAL coffee, citrus and bananas (among other things) are never going to happen here in the Valley. You must understand that climate pays a huge role in the varieties of foods grown locally and some items are only available for very limited seasons.

I would never begin to suggest that LOCAL is the only way to eat. I like the wide and eclectic variety offered by our global food community.  But, if you see yourself as a LOCAVORE…please be sure you are truly buying LOCAL and supporting your friends and neighbors in the farming community.

As one of those folks, I thank you for your support!

…and I still don’t think produce from CANADA should be considered LOCAL. (just sayin')

Monday, July 28, 2014

Secret Agent

I suppose it’s time to make a confession.

I am a spy…a secret agent…gathering information from the “competition” on a regular basis.

While I will never claim to be as dashing as 007 and lack all of his amazing gadgetry, I can honestly say I am not as bumbling as Maxwell Smart.  (I hope)
I REALLY hope I don't look like this!

I suppose this all needs a little explanation.

One of the ways that we decide how to price our products is to research local prices.  This means I go to the grocery, pen in hand and take notes.  Recently, I went “high-tech” and started taking pictures and notes with my phone.  This adds to the whole secret agent persona. You should have seen the look I got from the lady at Food Lion!

I’ve done these price checks for years. 

I started when we were baking and I needed to know the cost of the materials in order to calculate the price of the finished loaves of bread. I often chose ingredients based on the lowest price point. But, I also needed to know what consumers expected to pay for bread.  That is how we were able to make the decision to end the baking business and focus on vegetables.  The price of flour tripled in the course of a week. (!)  At the time, we were buying at least 500# of flour a month…so it was a sizeable investment. …and we really couldn’t triple our own prices…  Although the price has dropped considerably since, once our focus shifted, we decided to stay with vegetable production. So, now I check vegetable prices. But, I digress…

T.Leighton Womack Photography Image

There is a misconception among some shoppers that Farmers’ Markets are exclusive and expensive. Many think that only “yuppies” shop the Market, and that the grocery stores MUST be a better deal.  When someone made a statement of this type to the Boss, only to have him counter the comment with…”well, you’re wrong there…we do price-checks all the time and KNOW that we are competitive”, the original speaker seemed more than a little astounded.  Of course, I don’t think the commenter had ever done any grocery shopping…he probably never set foot in a grocery store, but that’s probably not fair of me to say. (and I am digressing yet again…sorry)

T.Leighton Womack Photography Image

We would be short-sighted and just a little foolish not to be informed as to the prices charged by others in our line of business and/or what the public is willing to pay. While we do not generally concern ourselves with the prices that other vendors charge at the Market, (that one may be worth a blog post of its own) the public’s perception of the Market as a whole is a great concern. So, I do my little reconnaissance missions and know what is available AND what price is acceptable. I also make notes of the quality of the produce and the seasonal availability.
Sometimes the produce is nice...

There are a lot of things to consider when shopping for produce. Every week, there is at least one produce price that is set very low in hopes of luring shoppers into the store. These loss leader items are often funded by much higher prices elsewhere in the store.  Low price should not always be the deciding factor.  Shoppers should consider the freshness, quality and seasonality of the purchase.  Often, the produce has travelled long distances…sometimes coming from foreign countries.

Sometimes, it's NOT!

This corn is only 10cents an ear...but who would buy it?

...and these potatoes are green

While there are special little signs in some grocery stores, informing the shopper how to pick THE BEST produce, often the produce itself doesn’t measure up in any way.  I have seen absolutely awful looking vegetables in every single store in town. I’ve also found real good deals in unexpected places. Yes, I check prices in all the stores…not just the “high end” groceries or “organic” venues. I can also tell you that many of the stores get their produce from the exact same outlets, despite a wide disparity in price and perceived values. You can learn a lot in the grocery store!
Making deliveries around town

I must ask...
who else would pick produce?
Auto mechanics?

My little trips to the grocery assure us (and our customers) that our produce and other farm products are superior in quality to that available at the store. And, for the record, this does NOT necessarily mean more expensive. Quality assurance, price checks, and a little subterfuge add some fun and excitement to my grocery adventures. Did you read this one?

Just don’t blow my cover!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Walkabout 7-27

You know…it’s a good thing that I take photos all week so I can do our little Sunday Walkabout.   


Oh, I’m glad you asked.  I just realized that I would never remember all the stuff that happens around here in the course of a week without photos! (a lot of it never makes it to the walkabout, but at least I know it happened)

This week was hot…and dry.  Oh, wait.  It’s July.  That’s not news.  But, it was/it is…and I was seriously beginning to feel like I was melting and dehydrating at the same time.  (is that even possible?) After a while, the heat and lack of rain begin to wear on me.  It’s pretty easy to get discouraged this time of year…but, quite honestly to quote Sweet Brown “ain’t nobody got time for THAT!”  So, we just keep plugging away.

this haywagon has seen better days
but the hay is nice

After I got back from the town run, the Boss and I hauled the last load from the hay guy. The barn is full to capacity and we will have to feed out some hay in order to use one bay for the creep pen for the lambs during the wintertime.  When you’re all sweaty and hay covered while you stack hay, it’s really hard to imagine that in just a few short months, the cold weather and snow and ice will be making a comeback. This year, I know we’re ready!
the barn is FULL!

corn pollen

It’s that time of year when everyone is talking about corn. While the field corn around the community is looking pretty good, we only grow sweet corn, and a very small patch of that.  Every year we say we’re only going to put in enough for us…and every year…we plant enough to sell, too.  Corn is always a hot item at the Farmers’ Market. Our corn hasn’t really gotten the proper attention this year (there are some major weeds) but it was looking pretty good.  Yes, I am speaking in the past tense.  You know that rain I wanted SO bad?  Well, we got some, finally.  It came down in buckets along with some gusty winds.  …and you know what happened.  Yep, flat corn.  The Boss worked on righting some of it, but, we’re not sure if it will remain standing (there are more storms in the forecast). But, we shall see.  I am not exaggerating when I say it’s always somethin’!
flattened corn

the first potato sprout
In other garden news, the fall potatoes began sprouting this week.  We were both relieved to see those little leaves begin to push through the dry, hard earth.  We hadn’t had any rain since planting, and irrigation isn’t a real option in that particular spot, so the rain was an incredibly welcome sight (despite the slightly flattened corn).  The rain also prompted the last planting of beans to sprout as well. Yes, more beans…  I should be picking beans until the first frost!
green beans sprouting

planting brassicas in lower garden
We spent some time planting some more brassica plants this week, too.  This time we planted about 700 broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower plants for fall picking.  There are a few more starts that we could plant, but we’ll have to figure out a space for them. I’m not sure when or if that is happening. We got the planting done before the rain, so it looks like most of the plants are transitioning well.
cabbage transplant for upper garden

Since the hoophouses were beginning to look like jungles, the Boss took his weeding tools and buckets and cleared them out in anticipation of fall planting.  
the "after" shot

I found a beautiful surprise in the greenhouse...
This lily smells divine!
I would like to say that I was entirely organized and had all the new plants ready to go…but…no, I am not and no, they aren’t. 
flats and flats of potential seedlings
it might not look like much now...
So, I spent some time playing in the dirt in the greenhouse and got about half of the seeds started for the fall/winter hoophouse crops.  Look, the arugula has already sprouted!

Thursday morning started with a slight surprise.  I had been thinking that Waylon had been acting rather skittish and I wondered why.  Imagine my shock when I found a big, fat ‘possum bathing in his water tub! I can’t stand ‘possums.  They’re like big, hairy, slimy rats…with sharp teeth…they carry disease and they will eat eggs and kill young chickens. There is no place for ‘possums on the hill and the Boss promptly disposed of this one.  But, I think that Waylon is still rather bothered that his paddock (and water tub) were invaded in such a way.
you have to look for the 'possum in the left corner
Doesn't Waylon look disgusted?

This week’s Market paled in comparison to last week’s record-setting day, but it was still a good day.  

The much-needed rain will make for a great abundance of produce next week, as I know that the newest planting of green beans will be ready, along with more tomatoes and broccoli!
bean blossoms

green tomatoes

late season broccoli

okra blossoms and baby okra

tiny yellow zucchini
Here's a view of some of the gardens in full production.

upper garden 7-25
…and that brings us to the end of another week on the hill.

Hope you had a great week and a

Happy Sunday!

Thanks for stopping by…come visit us again real soon!

the view from my Friday "office"

P.S. I hope you don't mind me sharing this, too.   I've spent a lot of time thinking/praying for one of my farming friends from cyberworld who has spent a great deal of time at the hospital with very, very sick children this week.  I know just how scary it is to know that your child has to be life-flighted to the hospital...ICU is frightening, too...and then the bills!  Jodi and her husband faced this with TWO of their children in the course of a week.  Her story can be found here.  Read this. If you can help or pray or whatever, please do!