Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Slogging South

Here in Western Mass, we've had more snow than you can shake a stick at. More snow in two weeks time than in the whole of last winter, or at least it seems that way. And so, like any self respecting fair-weather shepherds, we are heading south for a few days!
Really, its hard to quit all this sludging, shoveling and general sheepkeeping, but our annual trip is a family tradition. We drive to Florida to visit family come hell or high water. We let the chips fall where they may. And let me tell you, the chips ALWAYS DO fall where they may. Each year is a whole new adventure! Once, all five on us got the stomach flu in the Carolinas. (In a nicely ironic touch, we were sick in the hokey "South of the Border" amusement stop.) Another time, we got the plain old flu-flu... bad. 104 degree-blow-airconditioning-on-that-child-and-sponge-her-with-icewater-from-the-cooler bad. And one year, our old minivan broke down on the side of the road just south of Jacksonville the day before Christmas.
And the chips also fall back on the farm: The floor of the chicken coop fell out our first trip away. (Our wonderful farm sitters managed to put it back together before any predators struck) and, in the biggest tragedy we've encountered, Diego our beautiful moorit mouflon ram lamb died. (We got the call Christmas morning, on that one) So.... maybe we're due for a nice, calm, healthy visit. Whatever the case, I won't be posting for a little bit.

To get myself in the Florida spirit, I thought I'd share some recent snowy pictures. (Otherwise I might never leave this place.)
Here is our picnic table BEFORE the last big snowstorm:

And here it is AFTER:

The ewes pay no mind to the weather (They pay no mind to the wether for that matter :) and venture out in rain, sleet and snow

Kids and canines too

Happy Holidays Everybody!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fools Rush In

Today was one of those (many) days in which I wish I was a a more seasoned shepherd, or at least a shepherd with a little more time, farm gear and common sense. A shepherd with a clue.

It all started reasonably enough. Here in New England, we are expecting a big storm-- oodles of snow they say, just oodles!-- and this on top of the foot already down! Sheesh. Dan and I figured we better take advantage of the lull in the weather. He went to the dump (one of those small-town necessities that I find actually really like and appreciate. (I'll have to explain that one sometime, eh?) and then he "snowblew" (Now THAT is one awesome new verb!) the driveway. This on top of my Friday morning 4 AM shoveling and his Thursday night shoveling. Like I said: we got A LOT of snow this week.) Then he made several runs down the hill to buy hay. All we have to cart hay bales is a minivan, so this process involves removing all the seats in the minivan, sliding down the snowy hills to the hay farm, loading up, barely skidding back up the hills to Maggie's Farm, dropping all the hay bales in the driveway (As attempting the steep driveway down to the barn is utterly foolhardy), putting three bales at a time on the kids' sled (As the ATV is in the shop) and sliding them down the hill until done, and then heading back down to the hay farm for more, etc etc. While all this fun was going on, I thought I'd take the kids into town to stock up on a few groceries (in case we get snowed in longer than Sunday and also because we've been HOME TOGETHER, mostly inside, for the last 5 or so days and I needed-- really NEEDED-- to get OUT!) The plan was for Dan and I to meet up around evening chores and figure out the best way to secure the sheep for the storm and batten down whatever hatches needed battening.

Well, The kids and I took longer than expected and a friend stopped by and, long story slightly shorter, Dan and I ended up down at the barn around 8 PM (kid bedtime, in our household) puzzling over our latest shepherding conundrum. You know that old puzzle about a farmer trying to get across a river with a bag of grain, chicken and fox, but he can only take two items at a time? Well, we felt just like that guy. We didn't want to leave Franklin (See "Don't Need a Wether, Man") and James with only a semi-three sided shelter for the upcoming blizzard (The picture above is of Franklin and James, before the last 3 snow/ice falls). But we knew from past experience, that little James, our smallest ram lamb, would get clobbered if we opened the door into the barn and allowed James, Franklin, Charlie Bucket and Daisy to freely mingle. Also, although we were pretty sure Daisy had already been bred, we weren't sure how Franklin and Charlie would get along. Also, there was no chance in hell we'd catch Franklin in the dark with a foot of snow on the ground. As I said, he's one wiley, wiley dude.

So, thought we, let's just see what happens if we put them all together. What harm could THAT be? Well, it was a jungle out there. The new group milled about excitedly for a few seconds. Charlie and James (half-brothers and old chums) seemed to be alright, but Franklin, as we'd suspected, went ballistic, banging everybody around. I don't think he realizes he can't, um, that he has no, um. Well, you know. Experienced shepherds, out in the barn at their kids' bedtime starting at a fractious little flock of sheep that somehow had to share a shelter through the humongoid blizzard bearing down on them might know just what to do but we didn't. We had no clue. Dan was of the "Oh, they'll work it out just fine. Let's leave them be" persuasion and I was of the "They're going to kill each other! We must do something at once!" persuasion. We hemmed and hawed and wondered if maybe one of our handy dandy sheep books might provide some guidance (Right!) Oh, and also, rookie Icelandic sheepdog, Luka, went a little nutso herself watching the sheep conk heads and Maggie, an old veteran (at least when it comes to the inaction of her humans), pounced on Luka whenever she got too forward. Which made the whole thing just that much wilder. (Sheepdogs just HAVE to control things. If left to their own devices, Maggie and Luka could probably have gotten the mess untangled all by themselves.)
Finally, Dan and I decided that we ought to do something, at least about James, who was obviously the weakest, and most vulnerable, link. Unlike Franklin, he was easy to catch. Dan just reached into the mess-o-milling-sheep and yanked him out. Then he carried James to the empty stall in the barn. So, now James is alone but safe (We reasoned that "alone" however miserable for a sheep was better than injured or dead) Then, we mulled over Franklin and Charlie Bucket for a while. Franklin is bigger, and he seems to turn into the sheep equivalent of "The Incredible Hulk" when in the vicinity of a juicy ewe, but there was really no way to get him out of the group without a few hours worth of sliding around in the snow and even then, it was not likely. So we had to leave them to work it out on their own.

But that's not all: We checked on James before we went back to the house. He looked a little forlorn, and so I gave him some extra hay and a handful of grain. Now, let me preface this by saying, James has never in his life had a handful of grain all to himself and grain is the sheep equivalent of candy here on Maggie's Farm, and so little James in scarfing his grain pellets, managed to choke himself but good. He was bucking and staggering around in his stall and drooling gobs of grain and spit out of his nostrils, and I was sure he was going to drop dead right there. Dan was already out the door and halfway up the hill by then. I called him back and we stared at the poor little guy who was now standing very still, breathing in shallow little pulls and dripping green-brown slime out of more than a few orifaces. "We have to do something!" I said. "I remember hearing about this. What was it Ally did when this happened to her? We have to do something!"

Dan said. "Oh, he'll be alright. He's breathing." See a pattern here?
If we were more experienced shepherds, if we could remember the details... something about a tube, a temperature... maybe we wouldn't stand there in the barn (twice in one night!) trying to buy a clue. Thankfully, James solved this one for himself, burping up a big glob of slime, sneezing and then going back to his happy pile of grain all fine and dandy. (That's sheep for ya.)

Dan and I trudged up the hill. We opened the door. It was just too quiet in the house. Where were the children? Micah was reading her Calvin and Hobbes comic book, Anna called from the bathroom, and there was little Joe, hiding behind a chair. "It's so peaceful in here!" I said. (Really, the hiding behind the chair thing should have tipped me off) In reply Joe said. "I'm sorry, Mama." That's when I noticed the spilled soup all over the floor, two bowls of it. No biggie. But it could have been worse, much worse.

This is one of the toughest things about newbie shepherding (and newbie mothering) there is never a perfect solution. There are solutions sure, but all of them involve sacrifices and risks. I go down to the barn and hope I've taught the kids well enough to manage for a few minutes. I leave the sheep to their own devices (too much perhaps?) and hope they'll muddle through. Maybe a few years from now, Dan and I will cease to be surprised by all these complications. Somebody chokes on some grain and we'll be right there with the sheep (or human) heimlich. A wether forgets he's a wether and we'll just... we'll just... Well. We'll know what to do by then, won't we?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wintery mix!

The last 3 days have gifted us with two incidents of what is euphemistically called "icing". And, oh boy is it fun! I slide down the hill to feed the sheep (Literally: slide, hugging up on tree limbs and fenceposts along the way to slow myself) and I knock around like a hockey puck while loaded with hay and water and whatnot. The sheep don't seem troubled by the think layer of ice coating their backs and the trees are (so far) dealing. But my commute has been tough. Monday was a complete wash and Wednesday involved Dan and I digging the car out of the snow after it skidded off the driveway in the early AM hours.

Sometimes, I fear I am not cut out for this life-- all the chopping and carrying and skidding, knocking ice out of waterbuckets the catching, detangling, dequilling and midwifing recalcitrant sheep. But then, later, I feel so envigorated.

Even now, as watch the snow having a field day outside my window, I feel strangely content. I know, we'll handle it somehow. The kids and sheep , chickens, dogs and Dan (Who is Canadian and unimpressed by New England weather) will be just fine. And we'll laugh about it too, perhaps not today, or while digging out at 4AM tomorrow, but, someday...

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Coming Soon to a Barn Near You:

Dan and I finally got all the sheep into their breeding groups last week. It took quite a lot in the way of shoring up fences and jerry-rigging shelters, hay feeders and whatnot. Everybody is squared away and showing that ol' interest: the rams curling their lips and tapping the ewes ever so gently with their forelegs, the ewes wagging their tails and peeing so fetchingly. Ahhhh, sheep love!

We've learned a lot in our first two years of shepherding (At least we like to think so) and I'd like to think this will be our break-out year for breeding and lambing. We'll see... Farming has a way of humbling such lofty dreams!

Our first year, we were utter newbies with two ewes (Copper and Daisy) a ram and a wether. The plan was to separate Daisy, as she was still a "ewe lamb" and we'd read that there could be all kinds of complications. We'd planned on wether, Franklin, hanging out with her throughout the breeding season. Sure. No problem, right? Well, November came, and we didn't have our separate living arrangements arranged and Gus, being the big ramly ram that he was, took the matter out of our hands. Contrary to popular wisdom, Daisy had no difficulty lambing at all. In fact she did it out in the pasture mid-April and just got up and went on with things like a pro. (If only I'd started out mothering half as competently. My first few days were more like this: "Do I really have to leave the hospital and go home now? What will I do with this child? Who will take care of me?") Anyway, that first year, Daisy did alright, and Copper had a lovely set of twins as well. We felt like such successful shepherd that year. What pros! We were sure we could do any farming thing. Lambs? Hey, no problemo!

Well, the next year was quite a reckoning. We had 6 ewes and figured on up to 12 lambs. "Quite a crop," we told our friends and neighbors. "We'll be 'Lamb Central' come spring!" Hah! Ya see, there were some issues that year. First our new ram, Diego, died while we were on vacation. We think it happened when he and Franklin were sparring (As I've mentioned in "Don't Need a Wether, Man", Franklin isn't keen on breeding activity going on under his watch.) and, little did we know, none of the ewes in with Diego ended up being bred. Gus' group had issues of its own. Louise, our super flighty ewe, miscarried at the very top of lambing season. I was home alone (of course!) trying to squeeze in my farm chores while readying the kids for school when I discovered her halfway through the miserable process. I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, it was not a positive experience, and I spent all day re-learning and revisiting pregnant ewe care. I called Barb Webb, an amazing resource, and wrote to the Homesteaders discussion group and generally, wrung my hands. Copper had a single ram that year. Then Snazzy had a tiny (I mean TINY!) lamb that seemed, to my inexperienced eyes, like the most vulnerable creature on Earth. Of course, I was home alone for that as well, and fretted over whether the teeny thing was getting any milk and whether Snazzy, an inexperienced and obviously perplexed new mom, would develop a clue. But it worked out okay somehow. Lastly, Daisy, who had lambed with ease as a yearling, ended up with complications. Dan was home with me for that one (Thank God!) and I'll have to write that whole story down one of these days. It is pretty amusing (in retrospect) Suffice it to say: not fun. Not fun at all. Little James did survive however. And all's well that end's well. right? All together, Dan and I got a good dose of "just about everything that can go wrong" that lambing season and our confidence was shaken. Who said lambing was a piece of cake anyway?

So now, with two years under our belts, we are hopeful and eager for a nice crop of lambs. Five of our ewes will be first time moms and two are old pros. We are upping the selenium in our minerals this year and adding kelp. We are making those ewes WALK to their hay rather than delivering it closeby. We are hoping all the things we learned in the last two seasons have prepared us for whatever will happen in this one.

And so, with hopes a flyin' and oodles of drum rolls, I present our three fine breeding groups:

In group one, the polled group, we have mellow Bombadil, our black gray ram lamb with an amazing fleece and interesting black gray coloring. Bombadil is long bodied and broad and we like him lots. Lots.

Bombadil is hanging with Maya, she of the fine, cinnamon/rusty fleece and subtle mouflon patterning...
and Louise, queen of "structure", also long-bodied and broad, (though a bit of a basket case personalitywise). and Acorn and Penny (big broad ewes with Jager and AI bloodlines) Also, Acorn has the sweetest temperment ever!

In group two, we have Harry, a black mouflon ram lamb with great fleece and meaty build. Harry's horns are not terrific (too small and close) and we may not keep him very long, but we'd like to add his genetics to our flock. He has AI blood (Kostur) and the longbodied build we are breeding for.

Harry's hangin' with Copper our veteran ewe, and the most sensible sheep ever. Copper is white, but "white" doesn't really describe the beautiful oatmeal tint of her fleece. All her lambs have been fast growing and well built.

and Leela, a badgerfaced moorit ewe with one of the nicest, most terrific fleeces we've seen. It is highly crimpy and that warm oatmeal color.

And lastly, we are trying our hand at linebreeding. We have Charlie Bucket, a calm, beautiful, fast growing and super parasite resistant ram lamb

with Daisy, Copper's daughter, also with a nice broad build and a terrific personality (as sheep go)

So there you have it folks. With any luck, we'll have 7-14 lambs-- in a sheepy rainbow of colors and patterns-- come spring.

(And if you want more specific information about any of these wonderful Icelandics, feel free to visit the business end of the enterprise ant

Thursday, December 6, 2007


I've mentioned I commute have I?
The topic isn't exactly sheep or farm related, but commuting is a big part of my life-- a big CHUNK of my life for the last few years. I feel guilty about it: How can I even TALK about sustainability when I drive over 100 miles to get to work (Yup, really. Over a hundred miles.) To reduce my gas guzzling, I've pared down from a ridiculous Nissan Pathfinder to a Subaru Wagon to the teeny Toyota that I now enjoy. (We considered the Prius or some other hybrid, but, as virtually all my miles are highway miles, the Prius, would not make any difference in total mileage.) And 600 some miles, however you slice 'em, is a heck of a lot. So yep. There is the guilt (slightly off-set by all the ecofriendly things we do here on Maggie's farm)

There is also the TIME: Two hours minimum. Time for our cool local radio, the Writer's Almanac, Boston NPR, then, when that grows tiresome, wonderful books on tape. Our local library is my friend. (Check out the "running Booklist" down the right side of this page to see what we're reading)

Last, but certainly not least, there's the horrendously early wake up time. I get up at 4AM and am out the door by 4:45. Yup. Really. (All those who knew me in high school just can't believe this) And here's the really weird part: I LIKE it. I really, really like to wake up early. I step off my porch and take a minute to look at the full sky of stars overhead. the air is crisp and new, even in summer. And it is so quiet.... at least until our current rooster, Batmandu, hears me walking around and decides that sun or not, it must be morning after all and starts crowing down in the coop. You know you are up early when you WAKE UP your rooster! There are always deer on the road, and often, other critters I've seen foxes, coyotes and skunk, tiny deermice that skitter across our dirt road in the headlights. I've seen many, many screech owls. By the time I hit Boston, the sun is just rising. I zoom down Route 2 and catch the whole sparkly city laid out before me with the deep orange sunrise behind it.

I can't say I mind commuting. I like driving. Actually, I went through a phase (in my twenties: the ideal age for all phases, near as I can tell) when I wanted to go to trucking school and drive a semi. The fact that I can't seem to "get" stick shift didn't phase me. Time has worn that old dream away. Though I still long to pack up and take the family on a year-long, hands-on road trip. Dan is, um, shall we say "not too crazy" for that idea. And neither are the sheep, dogs, chickens, or guineas. (However, Lovey the rat says "Okay, by me.")

This was the view from my driveway on Wednesday morning, at the start of a long (but rewarding) workday. If I stayed home on the farm full-time, I know I'd go stircrazy as all get-out. (That, and the financial house of cards that is always threatening to come crashing down around our ears, WOULD come crashing down around our ears.) I love my work and my farm. I could say the distance between them is the price to be paid for having it both ways. Or that I have one foot on the platform, the other foot on the train, Or, as my Grandmother used to say, "You only got one little tush; ya can't be in two places at one time", Or that I am certifiably insane. And every one of these would be true. (Except, maybe, the part about the little tush.)

Anyway, for now, I'll take to the road.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Don't Need a Wether, Man

This is Franklin, our leadersheep wether.

When our original little flock of four first set hoof on the good dirt of Maggie's Farm, Franklin was indispensible. He kept Gus, our big ramly ram, company when we separated the pregnant ewes. He and Gus got along famously, no squabbling at all. And Franklin, being an Icelandic leadersheep, kept a watch over things. He led the flock to green pasture and shelter and also through any little gap or weakness in the fencing. (He also led them back home again.) He noticed anything unusual and kept an eye. (He was especially troubled by one of my goofy, octopus-like winter hats. Couldn't take his eyes off that thing.)

For a sheep, Franklin is capital S smart.

But, times change and Franklin is now quite dispensible. We have three rams who can keep each other company very well thank you, and Franklin has decided that, though he is wethered (i.e. castrated), he will not tolerate any breeding going on around him. As he is bigger (and wilier) than any of our ram lambs, he is no longer welcome in any of our breeding groups.

Dan and I discovered this intolerance yesterday after we spent about an hour and half chasing down, dragging and otherwise "separating" the sheep into their respective breeding groups. We sat back, feeling that exhausted sense of accomplishment that farmers know well, watching our new breeding groups um, "becoming acquainted". There was trouble in the smallest group. Franklin couldn't bear the sight of Charlie Bucket and Daisy, um, you know. He actually knocked Charlie down mid, um, you know.

So in we swooped, the dynamic and hapless farming duo, and we separated Franklin from the group. Well, actually, Franklin separated himself, knocking through the halfbuilt stall that SOMEONE had left open for him.

Actually, the whole thing went down this way:

Dan"One of us has to climb in there and get Franklin."

Me: "Okay, how about you do that honey."
Dan climbs in, leaving the stall door just slightly open. Franklin, being exceptionally intelligent (as I've previously noted, but happened to forget in the actual moment) , comes bounding through the opening and sizes up the situation, his back to the wall, while the rest of the flock hangs out peacefully.

Me: "^%$#!!! You let him out!"

Dan: "Well, catch him! Don't let him pass you!"

Me, standing in the half-built (see Rampage) gate between the devilish Franklin and the great wide world: "Are you kidding? How do you expect me to do that?"

Before we can take this rare spat any further, Franklin proves my point by propelling himself past me with the force of a freight train. He knocks over the gate and slams my hand pretty good in the process. (I held it out in front of him in a futile grab for one of those prominent and attractive horns of his.)

A grumpy half hour of "chase" the sheep rattle the grain bucket, "Here, Franklin. Here, boy!" ensued. Oh, the farming life! (All this as our first real winter storm erupted overhead-- Of course!)

Well, before long, Franklin decided enough was enough and trotted back into the pasture all on his own, and Dan and I were immediately chummy again.

Also, we decided then and there that Franklin is free to go now. That is: He is for sale. So, if you need a wether to keep your ram or ewe company, or think it'd be nice to have a watchful and wily leadersheep in your flock, or have a yen for beautiful, naturally colored fleece. Or whatever else. Please contact us at Maggie's farm ( or here on this blog. We'll make ya an offer you can't refuse.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Last Gasp for Apples

The apples are pretty much done for the year. A week or two of on-and-off below freezing made sure of that. It was a tough year for apples altogether. The Empire Macs were small, really small, and several of our Jonagold trees took the year off entirely. The Mutsu muscled through though, as usual. And as usual, they were the hardiest in withstanding the cold. Above, we have a little poetic license along with a fine batch of mitsu apples bathing in our sink, awaiting the juicer. We canned about five big jars of juice and that was that. The unprocessed apples on the porch, the ones we meant to turn into pies and applesauce and whathaveyou: toast. Frostbitten toast.

We don't sell our apples, as we have an agreement with a local orchard: They care for the apples all year and, aside from the reasonable number of trees we request, they collect and sell them at their farm store. Someday maybe we'll have the equipment and time to make a go with the apples, and to grow them organically, but for now, they are a hobby at best, the source of a multitude of yellowjackets at worst. This year, we gave a ton of our apples away to friends and family and also invited the kids' classes to come out for a day of applepicking, but we didn't ever get serious with our own harvest. We were SO busy, occupied with unexpected events of every stripe, AND the ATV (used for trucking carts of apples) is broken indefintely AND all Dan's scant spare time has been tied up in building the sheep shed forever (See "Any Day Now") AND, antlike, we've been trucking loads of (very expensive) hay up the hill in the minivan whenever we have a chance. This year's apples just got lost in the shuffle.

Next year we'll do better, we'll be more organized, perfect our cold storage room down in the barn, can applesauce and applebutter, make and freeze dozens of pies. Right? um, right.

Here's to facing next year with high hopes, anyway...

Any Day Now…

It’s cold. Real cold. But beautiful in that gray, old leafstrewn, chunks of ice in the water buckets kinda way. Farm chores are a lot more taxing in this weather. Wet gloves stick to metal gates, water spilled on one’s pant legs freezes into a nice hard sheet of ice before you make it back to the house, you get to knock the ice out of the buckets a few times a day and listen to the sad baaas of sheep as you head back up the hill. All this and more. Once we have a few feet of snow on the hill, chores can be downright treacherous.
We’re expecting a snowstorm tonight. The bare trees look almost dingy, and sky is that heavy, heavy gray. You want to yell “Get it over with, already!”At least, once the snow starts, we can cuddle up beside the woodstove and not go anywhere or do much of anything without the accompanying guilt. What else is there to do? (Aside from cooking, cleaning and kidcare that is...) Also, snow is pretty, especially when viewed from a window.)

Dan’s been working on our new sheep shed. We have two beautiful, cozy barns, but we have three beautiful breeding groups this year. So SOMEBODY—in this case veteran ewe, Copper, ram lamb, Harry, and the lovely, badgerfaced Leela—will be out in the cold unless we get the durn thing built. And the sooner the better, as Charlie has been tailing around after his little half-brother James with an unmistakable posture of ramly intention. Here they are in a less testosterone infused moment:

While Dan was out pounding nails in the 15 degree weather, I strolled by to take a few photos of the status quo. (In my defense, the exactitude required by building doesn’t fit with my “looks good enough/let’s just try it and see” sensibilities. Dan and I have worked out an equitable division of labor that does not require me to mess up--- er, build—many of the farm construction projects.)

It's going to come sooner or later. So, I say (halfheartedly) let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Frosty the Frog

Speaking of Thanksgiving, one little froggie has an extra thanks to give to my oldest daughter, Micah, this holiday. While puttering around outside yesterday, she dicovered him slow-motion swimming under a sheet of ice in our tiny goldfish pond. Usually, frogs burrow down in the mud and muck this time of year and wait out the spring, but this little unfortunate chose a "pond" without mud or muck. By the time he figured out that he couldn't burrow into the thick black rubber of the bottom, it was 20 some degrees and he'd been iced over.

Every spring, we find the bodies of one or two frogs, who have met exactly this fate. So finding a living, albeit half frozen and brown as mud frog in the fish pond was a nicer surprise. Micah broke the ice ceiling and rescued "Frosty". We weren't sure he'd survive the real and actual frog pond at the edge of the woods, so we brought him inside and gave hime a suite at the "eft motel", otherwise known as our big mucky living room terrarium. He settled in nicely, "defrosting" as Micah put it, enough to turn a healthy froggy green around the edges.

So, here he is: Frosty the frog, another little life under our care.


I Love Thanksgiving.
It is one of those rare holidays that makes complete and perfect sense to me, a deep breath, a pause in which to appreciate a little.

We always do Thanksgiving here, at home. With family coming by to share this special time. We have a few traditions too: 1) I always cook. Too, too much food. And usually, there is some strange adventurous dish that takes up a lot of time and doesn't quite work. Last year it was Boston Brown Bread boiled in cans. Let me tell you, this dish was only memorable its humor. 2) We use the quiet time before the meal to draw or write "Thankful pictures". We share these before we get down to turkey. 3)Usually, the kids involve everyone in some sort of game. It was "Snap" this year. Last year "Uno Attack".
Mostly, we just enjoy each others' company, take that deep, deep breath, and remember that whatever the challenges (and there are always, always challenges) we have so very much to be thankful for.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Maggie of "Maggie's Farm"

This is Maggie, our farm namesake.
It's HER fault (And our good fortune) that we are here at all.

It's a rainy, rainy day here. Not much is doing, so I guess I'll share the story of Maggie's Farm-- the relatively quick version anyway.

You see, before the three kids, Dan or anything of true importance :) there was Maggie, the intense little Border Collie puppy. Maggie, a bundle of nerves, full speed in whatever direction she was headed. She began "working" the very day I brought her home to my Boston apartment, fetching a tennis ball within minutes of arriving. Fortunately, I had a lot more time on my hands back then. I'd take her for an hour long romp in the park before work, bring her to work with me, take her for a two hour long walk after work.

And did she care to play the way a lab or golden retriever (or just about any self-respecting dog) might? Nooooooo! It was always work. Work, work, work for her. Playing was for sissies. Frolicking was for pups with less dignity and purpose. She only had eyes for tennis balls, sticks, anything that could be fetched. This was serious business! Also, she would circle around the other (foolishly playing) dogs in an effort to keep them in line.

"Type A" doesn't begin to cover it. This pup would need something serious to do! We took puppy kindergarten, then "Canine Good Citizen", beginning agility. And we might have gone on with all that. (I might also have gone CRAZY trying to meet Maggie's needs and still have some sort of life of my own.)

But then I met Dan and very quickly, we were "serious". I also got a teaching assistantship at the University of Colorado. So the three of us packed up and headed out west. Things went swimmingly. But again, there was Maggie, cooped up in our Longmont apartment while Dan wrote his dissertation and I went to class and taught class and graded papers and wrote poems. Our walls were soon covered in tennis ball shaped spots, evidence of Maggie's incredible persistence. (She'd stand beside us as we worked, nudging her tennis ball at our feet until we finally-- finally!-- gave in tossed the thing.) If we hid the tennis balls, she'd bring something else, ANYTHING else, a piece of couch fluff, a twig, a pencil. Walks around town or in the park didn't cut it. She needed to work!

So, out of consideration-- and desperation!-- we poured our minescule disposable income into sheepherding lessons. There really was no other choice. It was clearly what Maggie needed to DO and also we were sort of fascinated by the idea. Of course, Maggie took to sheep right away. And, the really surprising thing is that we did too. We loved those Saturday lessons. We pestered our teacher, Susan, with all sorts of questions... not about herding so much as haying and shepherding and starting out, and we eased a step down the road.

But then, we got pregnant and moved back to the east coast and into an upstairs apartment and put it all on hold. It remained on hold through three babies and a house (also in the suburbs) and busy jobs and the whole, usual, trajectory. During this time, Maggie made do with her backyard and tennis balls, lot of tennis balls.

Things were good, okay, just fine and dandy. But we didn't want to live that life. We longed for our kids to experience a different sort of childhood, a more "connected" childhood. This became clear when we went for a walk in the Blue Hills and scared up a deer. The kids were absolutely terrified of this alien creature. Would it hurt them? Why wasn't it inside some sort of enclosure like the animals at the zoo or petting farm?That may have been he last straw for me, that and the hours sitting in traffic and drinking Dunkin Donuts coffee out of a styrofoam cup. Also, there wasn't any sort of "community" in our community. We were a nuclear family, isolated in all sorts of ways and from all sorts of things-- family, community, nature, food. And we didn't want to continue that way.

We remembered the old dream we'd had in Colorado and also there was Maggie, still waiting patiently for the life for which she was born. We began to research the possibility of a move-- real estate, sheep breeds, chickens. We (Well, I) dove into all this stuff head first. This is the general way we operate around here-- head first and heedless. We try things out and suffer or revel in the consequences.

Long story short: Here we are on Maggie's Farm. We don't look back, can't imagine any other life. There were glitches along the way, MANY glitches. There are many glitches now. But the, that's the way of the world, ain't it?

And Maggie? She moves the sheep, sort of (They are big, tough, Icelandic sheep after all) and always and forever she keeps an eye on them. She circles around, helps with feeding and hoof trimming and every other kind of farm activity. With the same intensity she had as a pup.

So word of caution for all you prospective pet owners out there: Watch out! If you take on some cute little working dog, you might end up in the same boat, head over heels for a whole new lifestyle, one that looks good on your pet. (Guess this is about as polar opposite as you can get from the whole "dogs as fashion accessories" thing.)

Anyway, here she is, at ten years old, doing exactly what she loves best:

(And yes, "Maggie's Farm" is also a Dylan song. One we aspire to!)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A fistful of (felting) needles

Well, this is my first attempt at needle felting. And I only stabbed myself twice in making it!

I thought I'd start with something simple, a pattern perhaps, but I kept taking the thing apart and reshaping and reshaping and reshaping and this was what I ended up with. I've heard sculptors "see" the form in the blank of a block of stone. And I'd like to think this strange little fishy showed up in a similar fashion, but really, it just seemed like a cool idea at the time and it, quite literally, stuck.

Now that we are shepherds, I am attempting to teach myself how to work with wool. I've now tried a little spinning, wet felting, needlefelting, dying and even knitting. (My first knitting attempt was unraveled by my lovely children after many frustrating hours, so knitting may be on hold for a little while.)
I like them all. But wet felting is a particular blast! Perfect for hot summer days at home with the kids. We set out buckets of warm soapy water and cold clear water, and the kids ball up bits of felt in pantyhose toes and before long are climbing into the buckets to sit among the bubbles and scrunch them into shape. After we're done, we use the water to mop the floor!
Here're some things we worked on over the summer.

Fun, fun, fun!

Sunday, November 11, 2007


You know that "Waiting for the World to Change" song, the one that seemed to be in every store and on every radio a few months ago, the one that managed to be both hopeful and incredibly, frustratingly, passive at the same time? Well, late fall is like that for me. I know it's coming: bared trees, icy slides down our hill to thump out the chunks in the animals' water buckets, icy slides down our treacherous Smead Hill Road, obsessively hovering over the thermometer and the woodstove. Winter is pretty darn "wintery" around here.

Now, I was raised in the warm, concrete flatlands of Florida, and so it is not entirely my fault that I have never-- never!-- made my peace with New England weather. Yes, the "change of seasons" is wonderous. I love the vibrancy and fullness of early fall and the wet, warm bounty of spring when one might dream-- actually dream-- of finally budding leaves. And summer, summer is lazy and "lamby" and green. But winter? I don't "get" winter. We can all cheer for hot cocoa (my kids certainly do.) and the cozy warmth of the woodstove. Sledding is great. (We have some wonderful hills for it) But all that would be so much better if it lasted no more than a week or two, maybe a month. By the dragging and bitter end of each winter I forget that I have known anything else, I am an expert at "closing off" and "layering" and "minimizing contact" and all those winter things that are no good for a soul.

They say the key is to get outside and make the most of it. So, once again, I'll be out there crunching around in my un-shepherdish, aluminum colored, moon boots and waiting for the world to change.

What about you? Any advice for a secretly (not SO secretly) wimpy ex-Floridian New England newbie shepherd?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Big Step in a Certain Direction

Today was the day.

Dan and I are not quite such newbie shepherds anymore for we have participated in the slaughter and butchering of one of our own sheep.

Duane (Our barber and an expert hunter) was able to make it out today, and he and Dan slaughtered Gus, our ram (see "Rampage!", Eating Something with a Face (and Name)!" and "Halloween Reprieve"). For all the bravado of my past few posts about this, it was harder than I expected, a big step in a certain direction, for sure. I even dreamt about Gus the night before, running off with a timed explosive implanted in his forehead. And I had to keep reminding myself all day that we had good reasons for dispatching the old boy: 1) After 3 years as the flock’s only ram, he had a nasty, dangerous temperament. We couldn’t keep him in his pen or even his high-security stall and we couldn’t put him with the younger rams. He could have seriously hurt them, or us, or even worse, one of the children (our three, neighbors, friends and cousins) who are constantly at play in and around the barn. 2) His massive horns had grown so thick that they were rubbing up against the sides of his face. Eventually, this would lead to pain or death or expensive surgery or routine, impossible to imagine, “sawings”. 3) Because of reasons 1 and 2, he was no longer the best option as a herdsire. Gus had a nice broad build, an exceptional lineage and a beautiful fleece. His lambs grow tremendously and we hope his son, Charlie Bucket, will carry these positive traits into the next generation, without the other two issues. So far, it looks possible. We’ll have to wait and see on the horns, but Charlie B. has a very mild temperament (so far).

Anyway, reason competed with emotion for me today. I stayed in the house, baking with the kids (Yes, actually baking!) while the “menfolk” did the dirty deed. Even so, my mind kept wandering back to the barn. Was it over? Would I hear the shot? Would Gus feel any pain? Etc. etc. Mostly it was the actual moment that bothered me. Having been present at deaths before, I know there is a profound and terribly irrevocable moment when an animal (or person) goes from alive to something quite suddenly “not”. I wasn’t sure I could stomach that moment.

When next I saw Gus, he was not Gus at all, just this lifeless carcass hanging from a tree. All I could come up with to say was “Wow. It’s just so… real”

“Yup,” Duane said “It don’t get much realer than this.”

We learned a lot today—about skinning and salting, meat grinding and bone sawing. It was a long day of work. One I can’t say I enjoyed but one that was necessary and undertaken as humanely as possible. And one that provided half a year's worth of healthy food for my family.

Tonight, we have over 50 pounds of ground meat in our fridge, all of it spiced up with garlic and other yummy things, and a beautiful hide drying in the garage. Conventional wisdom holds that Gus, being three years old and in the beginning stages of “rut” would be virtually inedible. (We had heard “Never eat a ram in any month that has an R in it” and also many mutton and ram horror stories.) But today, I can say “Poppycock!” with assurance. We are quite happy with our spiced, ground meat and what could be better in a shepherd’s pie than a sheep?

I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole thing—not great or triumphant or anything remotely like that-- but strangely, slightly satisfied. I know this very “real” process a bit more intimately now, and it doesn’t frighten me quite as much as it had.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Halloween Reprieve

Well, Gus, our nasty ram, is still with us, still thumping around in his high security stall. We had expected Duane (our barber) to come help us “dispatch” and “process” Gus. (Love those euphemisms!) But a tree fell on part of his house on Sunday. (Thankfully, no one was hurt. It took out the electricity and siding.) And so Gus’ future is on hold once again.

We are hoping to buy an old trailer so that next year, we can truck our rams and ram lambs (and…. perhaps, pigs?) out to our local slaughterhouse proper. But all that’s on hold as we are on a serious budget out here on Maggie’s Farm. Our trusty Toyota minivan has transported sheep, hay and everything else. This method has earned us a broken window, hours of vacuuming, hours of scrubbing, and many great stories, which I’ll have to add another time. A truck is not going to happen this year, so an affordable old stock/horse trailer is on the very top of our wish list.

On a whole other note: It was Halloween yesterday! We have to drive to town to trick or treat. But, as everybody else drives to town, too, town is really happening and fun! The folks of Shelburne Falls went all out with costumes and decorations and lots of scary fun treats! (Thank you, Shelburne Falls!)

Here are a few pictures of the kids in their costumes. Micah has gone from previous years’ princesses and mermaids to “the scariest thing she could think of” which was, as it turned out, the Grim Reaper. Anna, ever the soccerfan, was a soccer ball (though she quickly tired of the giant soccerball head we made out of a piƱata and wore just her painted face instead. And Joe was a knight with a sword (He was all about the sword, I tell ya!)

Happy November everybody!

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Last weekend Dan and I attended the New York Sheep and Wool festival in Rhinebeck New York. We didn't go as vendors or exhibitors, we just went to learn, to see what kinds of possibilities were out there for us (Once we get our act together, anyway!) Oh, and to spend a little time with each other sans kids or animals or other responsibilities. It was, you could say, our yearly "date". I should say that the members of my family who provided childcare-- my sister and cousins-- didn't believe we'd REALLY choose to spend our one day "off" at a sheep show. They thought Rhinebeck was just a clever cover for something juicier and more fun. But nope. We went to a sheep show and it was great!

I was inspired by the amazing felted art work. And I met some amazing artists. (I'm learning to felt through trial and frequent error.) Dan loved the weaving and variety of yarn. We even saw some rare Cashmere Goats with downy soft undercoats (Love to have a few of those sometime). And we spoke to some really wonderful breeders and shepherds.

Fall was in peak form, and it was so nice to be out and on the road. Reminded me of old times, when Dan and I (and Maggie) spent our time roadtripping across the country. On the way back we stopped in Pittsfield, MA for some Indian food. (Dan's favorite and unavailable in Colrain) It was a splendid "date".


Well. Last entry, I said I would eat our animals with some difficulty and soul searching. That won't be the case for Gus, our ram. I will eat Gus gladly, I think. Gladly.

You see, he's getting in his own sort of fall spirit. Which means busting out of his stall while I am home alone with the kids (of course!) and refusing to go back to the barn. Yup, I'm not too proud to admit I was scared. This big horned thing comes walking up out of the dusk-lit orchard, a fine fall mist making the place looking all "The Hound of the Baskervilles". What else could I be? I was out tending chickens with Luka, when we spotted him. He charged, half-heartedly, and I yelled to the kids on the porch to stay inside. He followed me back toward the house then headed back to moon at the ewes. I stayed in after that. (Yup, wimpy) A few frustrating hours later, Dan came home and we (read: HE) managed to get Gus into a high security stall in the barn. Of course, Gus immediately commenced banging the walls in there. I can hear him now: "Thud..... Thud....". Hopefully, he won't break out. I don't care for a repeat of Tuesday, and really, there's nowhere else to put him. (I realize he just wants the ewes but we have other partners planned for them this year, and there's a good chance he'd hurt the ram lambs if we left him in with them. He is too used to being the one-and-only-head-honcho-big-boss-of-everything-ram.)

Duane, our barber, has offered to come help us first timers "dispatch" and, um, "process" Gus. (We've tried finding transport to our local "processor" but the schedules never worked out) So Sunday. Yep. We'll have just a little less testosterone out here on Maggie's farm. We've heard that ram (even Icelandic Ram) is best used for sausage and keilbasa so that's the plan. And I don't think I'll shed too many tears over Gus. At this point, I just want him out of here before somebody gets hurt!