I am really, really bad on the "Net -- just saw that we got a nice mention on the Weebly community, along with some other farms: https://www.weebly.com/inspiration/farms-tap-into-weebly
I don't mean to be biblical here. Just that it feels so good to have a day of doing nothing. Nothing. Wow!
Yesterday I drove up to Bellows Falls, VT to pick up the pork from our last group of pigs. Jim couldn't go, because he was going to be Santa at their church fair. He, of course, kept quiet about it -- doesn't fit with his tough 'n taciturn farmer image, but he sure has the beard to make a great Santa. He is too kind to say "no", so he probably got roped in, and hoped that at least he would keep it quiet. Unfortunately, his wife Nancy ratted him out. I'm so happy!
Yesterday a busy day -- up to Vermont, then down to my place to unpack our CSA and farm store pork into the freezers, and finally down to Northampton to deliver a bulk pork order to a very nice young man.
I get to goof off over the next few days, go to the gym, drink tea, and putter around the house. (When you are a Virgo, puttering makes the heart sing!) It will be a wonderful Holiday season for us here, and we all wish you even better.
Last time, I wrote about walking on miracles – the soil bacteria, insects and plants that work together to sustain life. We really have to get right down to the soil surface to get to know some of them; some we may never see. But we owe them our lives. Animals are the more visible half of this miraculous web, so this post is dedicated to the miracles that we walk with. Here are some of them.
Matilda the Magnificent was part of my original flock of Icelandic sheep, and convinced that she ought to be boss. Me a green shepherd and a ewe that would put rams in their place could have been a bad combo, and almost was: The turning point was the day when I put the halter on Tillie to train her to walk with me. Well, she took off. Holding the halter with everything I had, I went face down into the dirt and got dragged until Her Highness stopped, shook hear magnificent head, looking really put off, and said “OK (snort!) I guess you are boss”.
After that, Tillie and I had a great relationship. We used to play chase in the winter pasture along the paths I shoveled in the snow. Once in a while she would follow as I opened a path and lightly butt me in the butt, meaning “Shovel faster”.
When I decided to raise lambs seasonally for meat, Tillie went back to her farm of birth. When she hopped off the truck there, her daughter Daisy, who had not seen Matilda for 2 years, came running and they kissed each other. That does not happen between sheep that do not know each other!
As we humans turned to go into the house, Matilda let out the longest “b-a-a-a” I ever heard. The younger son of the farmer looked at me said “She is saying her final goodbye to you”. He was right. II yelled back “Farewell Matildaaaaa.” I remember that moment as a bitter-sweet memory of this extraordinary animal.
Jenny was a hen. After her 2-year career I gave her to a homestead that was looking for older hens still in their egg-laying years. That was, what, maybe 6 years ago. I hope Jen is still around. She used to sing to herself all day – chirp, chirp, chirrup-ing quite musically, so I named her Jenny after the opera singer Jenny Lind. Jenny never “baak-d”.
Jenny also had a habit of returning to the coop just a little late at sunset. One morning, I found Jenny roosting on my winter wood stack by the house, scared and cold. She had missed curfew the night before when the chicken door closed, and I had not noticed she was missing. But she knew that near the house was safest, so Jenny did the best she could that night. I said “Jenny, what are you doing here?! C’mon, let’s return you to your family.” She let me pick her up with no fuss, and I put her in with the rest of her flock.
Some weeks later, I started down the path to the coop to close their door for the night. Down came Jenny from the hill in the back, “baak”ing loudly for the first time and half running, half flying. Clearly she was yelling “I’m coming! I’m coming! I’m coming!”
I grow to love these animals, and I marvel at what they do to sustain life on this panet:
Ruminants (sheep, goat, cattle) on pasture eat the grasses that pulled carbon out of the atmosphere as their leaves formed. Ruminants then deposit the carbon-containing dung and urine on the soil.
Hens break up and spread the dung, helping soil bacteria and insects further break it down into soil nutrients.
Different species of ruminants eat different varieties of forages, so when they are grazed together ("multi-species grazing"), they eat all of the varieties of greens that are growing on the soil, and they pull out as much carbon from the atmosphere as possible.
This way, the miracles we walk on, and the miracles we walk with undo some of the harm we humans have done. When we eat the meat from pastured animals, we also do our part with our wallets and the quality of our dung thing (a'hem!)
Plus, when we graze different species of animals in tandem in pasture rotation, they kill each other's parasites, and we can stay away from de-wormers.
This is just a little of the miraculous relationships that tie together the soil, grasses, animals and people.
So how is it that we, the farmers, send these amazing creatures to their deaths? I had no idea, until I started farming, how much honoring the living system would ask of me, and what it meant to not harden against pain. Or how much the joys of living with animals would widen my heart. “Then why don’t you just let them live?” you say? “Wouldn’t they be better off?” They wouldn’t. Maybe that is for the next time.
I check on the animals at the end of the day. It is a quick in-and-out: bringing them a treat, making sure everybody is OK, they have hay and water, and the fences are up. There is always a moment, though, when a breeze blows through my shirt and reminds me to stop and notice the evening settling in, how the colors are changing, and how the quiet is rolling over the bustle of the day.
Here is a dung beetle pushing his treasure along on the pigs’ pasture. The beetle has made a nice round ball of dung – his opus, life’s work. The ball is many times the beetle’s size, and the little guy is working hard. Its labors distribute natural fertilizer and put carbon back into the soil. I imagine the beetle noticing me, the giant, towering above him/her and saying “Ohhh, sh..t!”
Nearby is some dry dung. It is hard and brittle, (yes, I poked it!) and it is not available to the soil if it cannot break down. What is happening, instead, is that the nitrogen in it is evaporating. We need rain.
The other day when I was weed-whacking perimeter line to set up electric fencing in the sheep pasture, I hit a dried-out cow plop, and the weed whacker just blasted it into dust. Too dry to feed the soil, it fed my skin and hair. (Hey L’Oreal!) Sometimes I visit my partner Louie right after sheep chores and he tells me I smell like sheep. I think I had a big, wicked smile after my vaporized dung bath as the thought floated by, “Wai’till he hugs me today!”
Nourishment does not just flow into the soil. It goes the other way as well, completing the circle: Living forages turn sunlight into nutrients and send some of it into the soil through their roots, feeding the invisible communities inside the soil. These communities of microbes and fungi return the favor by producing plant growth hormones. Some make minerals available to the plant, so the growth spurred on by the hormones will be healthy. Clover is great at pulling nitrogen (read: carbon) out of the air and putting it in the soil -- free fertilizer, free application, free climate help! Big gift from a being that is 5 inches tall. We walk on a thousand miracles every day.
And now it is time for me to check on the sheep, who are the next link in this web of miracles. They will “m-b-e-e” when they see me coming with the red treat bucket, and I will “m-b-e-e” back. Our earlier ba-a-ing back and forth did not go anywhere, and they look at me kind of funny when I answer them. (“Who’re you kidding?! You no sheep!”) But I am still working on it. Does ruminating on miracles count?
Recently, Jim and I decided to have the old pine tree on the pigs’ pasture taken down. It is about to come down by itself anyway, and the pine needles make the soil too acid for anything to grow under it. Jim called a tree climber who is a master, but a bit eccentric. His methods are very low-impact. In one sense, that is:
A day into the job, Jim got an irate early-morning call from his neighbor (“There is a naked man at the top of your pine tree and he is chanting to the sun. It is unacceptable!”). Our friend had apparently been overcome by an excess of spiritual joy. Jim was glowing pink with mirth as he told the story.
The boys are growing nicely. Now that spring green-up is here they will move to their pasture hut for the summer, where they can enjoy grasses, clover and the grubs, snakes and such they like to root out. And over at Steady Lane Farm, I will experiment with forage oats in my section of the pasture for lambs; see how it works with the grasses already there.
Spring is a busy, busy time on the farm. Now I am off to carry feed for the chickens and check the fence around the lambs’ paddocks; then the day is done.
Incidentally, I am trying to earn brownie points with both groups and it makes for some funny encounters: Meat chickens are boys, and they simply have to establish who is boss. Things are not going too well with them. But I made some progress with the lambs: This morning I sat where they could see me and pretended to chew my cud. They watched, and when I b-a-a-d at them (I really did!) a few b-a-a-d back. We can build on that.
We had a bear attack. My sheep from previous years are at Wanda's, as I wrote earlier. I have had an uneasy feeling about them for a while now, and in fact, had a dream about Lena, my black sheep. Then I got a frantic call from Wanda, saying "You've got to come and get your sheep today!"
My immediate reaction was, "What the ...?!" Then she explained: Steve, her big Merino ram was dead with his throat ripped out; the fencing was bent at several places (and it is pretty heavy-gauge cattle panel fencing); the other two rams she bought from me a couple of years ago were missing. The ewes were all there, terrified but unharmed.
All this probably means, the rams squared off with the bear to protect the flock, and the two that are missing chased it off, but then they got lost themselves in the woods. Wanda is trying to get in touch with a tracker to find them, and track the bear as well. In the meantime, I had to immediately go get the four yearlings that Wanda has been taking care of for me, as part of a trade.
So I found myself driving with four sheep in the back of my Subaru and got their barn ready at my friend Janet's farm, and I brought Dougie, Midnight (a.k.a. Leno the Rascal), Maeve and Thomas to safety. I am worried sick about Lena, Marcia and Blossom, still at Wanda's. I offered to take them to safety until she has predator-proofed her place. Wanda did not want to do that. And there was nothing I could do short of stealing the sheep. I pray for Peanut and Coffee, the two rams that are missing. Send them all blessings for their safety.
Christmas day, and a sunny 50F outside. It is nice to sit in the sun and think about all that happened since I last wrote here.
The dear sheep are gone.
Matilda is in California now. She is at a 280-acre organic ranch on the northern California coast, run by a vet, who fell in love with her. It's not just me who thinks Matilda is the queen. Tillie is already the undisputed monarch there, ruling over the other sheep and the hapless human who still believes she owns Matilda. She'll find out soon enough.
Marsha, Lena and Blossom went to my friend Wanda's place about an hour from me. Matilda's son Peanut from 2014 went along, too. He and auntie Blossom were too close to be separated.
Lena is her own woman. She was not going to go gently into that dark van: Half way up the path, Lena threw herself on the ground ("Dead sheep! I'm a dead sheep! You don't want to bother with a dead sheep now."). Wanda and I just looked at each other, knowing what it is like to get a limp sheep to its feet. ("Get up Lena. We know you're not dead!")
When the little group went off in Wanda's truck I went back to the barn, sat down at the stoop where Marcia used to rest her cheek against mine, and cried. The remaining 4 babies crowded around me. I think we were all feeling a bit lost and needed closeness.
Those babies, now 3 full-grown wethers and a sweet little ewe, are also at Wanda's at this point. Dougie dreams of being a house sheep: He will sit with his head on your lap and go into ovine ecstasy. Dougie is your childhood teddy bear come alive -- you know, the teddy bear that was about your size, and you pretended he was alive even though you kind of knew he wasn't. Well, now he is.
Dougie's twin brother Leno (guess whose son he is!) is a lovable rascal. He loves to use the gate to the barn yard as a ladder so he can greet you at eye level. He has the most sparkling black eyes. If you are very, very lucky Leno will give you a sheepie kiss with his black nose.
Thomas (for Doubting Thomas) and his twin sister Pretty (because she is) look at you from a few yards away, thinking "what are you really up to?" I used to feel obliged to say "nothing! I didn't do anything!" Now Wanda has taken up the echo.
Hard as it was to let them go, it makes more sense for me to raise meat lambs seasonally. I can raise a much larger flock at my colleague and friend Janet's 70-acre farm nearby. But it would be too iffy in the winter to go up there twice a day every day. And then there is the lambing season, when you really need to do barn checks every two hours. So, year-round, full-cycle shepherding is out. The practicalities of farming won.
One new addition to my tiny-mighty farm is pigs. Jim and I dipped our toes into raising pastured Berkshire hogs. So far, so good. More on that later, because pigs have pride: They want their own blog entry.
Just came through lambing season. You think it is exciting? Well, it is also a sleepless four weeks, getting covered in amniotic fluid, delivering babies in the middle of cold nights, and experiencing all the miracle and chaos of birth.
Matilda went first -- thoughtful woman that she is, as well as the most experienced ewe. We had two first-time mothers this season so I appreciated Tilly's "demo" for them. Matilda being super mom had to do triplets of course. And fast. I went to get her bucket of warm water with molasses after the second one, and by the time I came back she had plopped the third lamb and was cleaning him.
The next day Lena went into labor. She was nice and did this during normal business hours. But she was a first-time mother carrying (it turned out) two 9-pounders, so I got my friend Roberta out of her sick bed to help pull the lambs. We also had a few folks visiting that morning. They arrived just as Lena was b-a-a-ing at the top of her lungs, Roberta was yelling "Push! Push!" and I was hollering "You can do it! You can do it!" And we did it. And then we all sat in the muck exhilarated and exhausted. Our guests got more than they wanted to see but nobody was paying any attention to them anyway.
Next came Blossom's preemie. Blossom got butted and went into early labor and the little lambie was born and almost died in between my barn checks every two hours. She was comatose when I found her. I warmed her up and fed her colostrum with a dropper because her little jaws were clenched so tight. That night she slept on my chest, and then she moved into a straw-lined plastic tote on top of an oil-filled radiator. She graduated from there to a play pen in the living room, with barn visits during the day. Now she is a big girl, living in the barn and running around with the other lambs. I am still bottle feeding her, and she loves the times when she gets to sit on my lap and have her head scratched. I remind her that she is not alone. That she has a mommie like everyone else, just that her mommie doesn't live in the barn. Her real mother is kind to her but when the little one came into the house, her smell changed. So Blossom doesn't recognize her as her daughter. But they seem to know they have some kind of bond, because I often see them sitting close to each other.
Marsha's labor was smooth,also during normal business hours -- these girls really listen to me! But I sure was not expecting triplets. Just as I sat down, after the twins came, to have a small celebration that lambing season was done, I looked over and she was pushing out a third hoof and a nose! Two sweet girls and a boy she has.
So, we are done, done, done! Thankfully. And all the little ones will go to good farms -- hopefully!
Yesterday was mucking day -- that's what spring cleaning at DewGreen means.
Hard ice is done for the year, and now is the time to clean out all the composting bedding from the coops and barns. The stuff makes incredible compost for the garden. I sure have quite a pile now!
Last summer Louie grew one row of artichokes in my composted sheep and chicken manure and bedding, and one row in compost he bought. And that was the best compost in the Valley. Poop won, no contest. The way we deep-bed through the winter by adding fresh bedding on top of the soiled layer keeps the animals warm (the old bedding composts underneath, and gives off heat). It also grows food for us.
I have to say, it took a while to get over my sense of "yuckk!" over this method, and I have yet to embrace shit with all my heart and soul. But... if it is a choice between sheep shit and bullshit, I'll take the girls' little black pellets.
Louie's friend Tim came to help with the sheep barn. It is not easy to get the stuff off the floor. While he was doing that, I was scrubbing out the chicken coop.
There I encountered one of the mysteries of life: How do chickens poop on the walls? I mean, I was scrubbing the stuff off the walls at my eye level! I thought the frozen chicken poop cairns they made when the temperatures were at zero degrees were creative, but this? This is one of the mysteries of life.
Last night I fantasized that all the animals were happy to be in their freshly cleaned houses. This morning it felt so great to walk into their homes.
No lambs yet but we are getting close. Lina is developing the "back drop" that signals that the uterus is dropping lower. There was that little bit of dip in her lower back under my hand this morning.
In Minnesota, "ice-off" means people are making bets as to when the last of the ice will be off the lake. Here on the farm, it means I took off the ice cleats off my boots.
Today is spring. Really. Amazing! The chickens are happy to have some ground to scratch in. (In the winter, I sometimes leave the coop door open. The ladies line up right inside the door, craning their necks to look outside, but no treat will induce them to actually step out onto the snow.)
My two old cats ventured outdoors yesterday. Tony went into the sheep barn, so they all had to sniff this new and unfamiliar creature. Poor cat was terrified! Hightailed it back home to his cushion by the wood stove. Lina the sheep was fascinated by him, and I wished they could make friends.
All the ewes are pregnant and starting to look like watermelons about to pop. Matilda - my dear, queenly girl - looks like she is going to do triplets again this year. When I look at her from the front, she looks like a football, viewed from the long side. My lambing kit is ready; panels for the lambing jugs are leaning against the wall in the barn, and - God bless her! - Roberta said, "Call me!" Now we wait.
The dogwoods are in bud, and I am off to prune the dogwood tree on the north side of the house before it covers the walking path through my garden there.
I think of Ram-beaux, and it is bitter-sweet. His children will be here soon.
I'm Ipek, farmer at DewGreen Farm. And these posts are a slice of life at DewGreen.
I call DewGreen a "tiny mighty farm". Tiny because small lets me see that my life touches the sacred every day as I feed the soil, animals and people in this little place that grows good food, offers peace to all who visit, and provides a happy home for me and my animals.
Thank you for joining us.