Friday, August 31, 2007

Puppies, puppies, puppies, puppies

There’s a great segment on NPR’s “This American Life” series about a man who starts a TV channel devoted to puppies: Just videos of puppies playing and sleeping and eating. Puppies 24/7. Well, the puppy kindergarten we just completed with our very own little bundle of fur was like that.

Luka, our aforementioned bundle of fur, is a bit, um, cheeky. She’s an Icelandic Sheepdog, a breed we began encountering after the Icelandic sheep came into our lives. And she came back from a western vacation with us this summer. We are hoping that as she grows, Luka will put her overwhelming self-confidence to good use helping Maggie herd the sheep.
Maggie is a border collie; she instinctively tries to gather and stop the sheep-- or anything else really-- while Luka will (hopefully) follow behind and move the sheep forward. This is what she is supposed to do anyway. We’ll see. So far, the only close up experience she’s had was when we moved our last reluctant ewe, Louise, to a new pasture. The rest of the flock had been relatively easy, but poor terrified Louise had to be chased down and man-handled, I straddled her very wide belly and pushed her forward while Dan pulled her halter. It was slow, miserable going (Though it was only about 40 feet) and somehow, Luka broke free of the porch and children and came running down to help. She yipped with the high-pitched ferocity of a firehouse siren, nipping at wild-eyed Louise from all sides. Dan and I had our hands full, so there was little we could do other than yelling “Quiet! No!”

Not a pretty moment on Maggie’s Farm.

Next week, I begin taking Luka to work with me on Fridays. Last summer, the students really enjoyed her and I really believe there is something to be said for canine therapy. Let’s just hope cheeky, adorable Luka can manage a group of high school boys better than she did poor Louise!

Here, Maggie and Luka enjoy a little sibling rivalry:

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Why Sheep?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Why sheep? This is a question family and friends from more urban places often ask us. And we don't have a one-sentence answer. Before we moved, most of our experiences with farm animals were of the "petting zoo" variety and those fat, stoic critters didn't interest us much at all. So how did it happen that we ended up with a flock of icelandic sheep, a couple dozen chickens and guinea fowl? Well, it all started with Maggie, our border collie. Maggie's ten years old now; she's been with me since before I met Dan, before our three children were born, before I had more than a pick-up truck full of furniture to cart around with me. When she was a puppy, Maggie and I did some agility training. And, as advertised, she was sharp and focused and seriously high-strung. When I met Dan, we all began doing some sheepherding because Maggie seemed to crave activity and she was, after all, a sheepdog. It seemed like a fun use of a few weekend hours. (This was BEFORE the kids. Now, a fun use of a few weekend free hours-- if they ever actually occur-- is a good nap!) Anyway, the lessons fired Maggie up and they also kindled some interest in us. We began to think that maybe, someday, we might have a small flock to work with and a chunk of land....a different sort of life. But then I became pregnant and we moved to the Boston area, and the herding and all it stood for was pretty much forgotten.

Four years later, we had a house in the suburbs, three kids and two full-time jobs. We battled traffic to and from everyday and struggled to pay for preschool and childcare. We didn't know any of our neighbors, we barely had time or energy to socialize with the few folks we did meet, and our kids thought "nature" was the leafy place we'd walk through on our occasional hikes. Something had to give.We started searching for real estate in Southeastern Vermont and Western Massachusetts and lucked into what was then called "Orchard View Farm" in Colrain after about three months of serious looking. We made our break before Micah hit Kindergarten. Sheep were put on the back burner for a while, as we adjusted to our new setting, but as the grass grew long in the pastures, our thoughts returned to the Maggie's old avocation.

We researched many breeds and were faced with a bit of a conundrum: The sheep we were most interested in, the "primitive breeds" such as Shetlands, Jacobs and Icelandics, weren't much good for herding. But by then we were deep into the idea, and so, after a visit to local farms and the Cummington Sheep and Wool Festival, we settled on Icelandic Sheep, and brought home the first four: Gus, Franklin, Copper and Daisy.

So, sheep, yeah. We enjoy the fiber they produce, the colors, their unparalleled a ability to crop the grass around the place, and their interesting personalities. There IS a certain peace to hanging on the porch and watching the ewes and lambs graze. We are developing an exemplary flock based on fiber quality and structure, and learning something new each and every day. People say sheep are stupid. (We've heard this a lot!) But ours must be sheep-geniuses then, because they 've got all they need to know figured out!We have other animals too: Chickens (can't say enough good things about chickens!) and guinea fowl. This summer we added an Icelandic sheepdog puppy to the mix. And there's Maggie, of course. She's ten now and fit as could be. She spends most of her time keeping an eye on "her" flock, and has even tried her paw at herding (with mixed results!)If you've ever dreamed of your own flock, we'd be glad to offer up what we've learned.
posted by P @ 10:06 AM 0 comments

There's clearing and then there's CLEARING


On Sunday, Dan and I (with the ever eager “assistance” of Micah, Anna and Joe) began to clear the patch of forest beside the pasture. This is becoming more and more imperative as, even with the orchard, we just don’t have enough grass to sustain 13 sheep—at least not during this time of year. So, as part of the “long range plan” (This is a bit grand for the “let’s give this a try/seat of the pants” philosophy we seem to live by) we decided to clear the trees along the fence line as part of an eventual extra two acres of pasture. It was a whole family activity—Dan with his chainsaw knocking out the smaller trees, me tugging the branches so the trees would fall the right way and yelling “Watch out!” “Step back!” “Grab the puppy before she gets smooshed!”, the kids all milling around excitedly, poking at the caterpillar nests that used to be high above their heads, and the sheep crowding along the fence line calling for treats. Fun, fun, fun!

And somehow, we got a nice little spot cleared. It will soon fill up with jewelweed, no doubt, which is just fine with us. The kids love snapping the jewelweed pods in fall—they are like little tightly wound springs that go zinging up like confetti from those little celebratory plastic bottles they sell around New Year’s Eve. I also made a weak “Jewelweed tea”, freeze it into ice cubes and plunk it in the bath for the kids’ various skin issues—dryness, bug bites, rashes, etc. Oh, and the sheep enjoy munching jewelweed too. It’s a pretty all around awesome plant.
Anyway, as we were clearing, we thought we might as well toss some of the branches into the pasture for the (always) hungry sheep, a waste minimization strategy. Here’s the thing: I know choke cherry twigs and branches are poisonous to livestock and I THINK I can recognize choke cherry. (Before we brought home our first four sheep, I walked the pasture with an armful of guidebooks and a good friend and tried to determine if we had any definite pasture no no’s. So I have at least vague knowledge of local plants.) But after the kids had enthusiastically tossed in about 50 branches that Dan said he was “pretty sure” was birch, and after the greedy sheep had begun to consume them, I had this moment of panic. What if the branches were choke cherry after all? They did have a strong odor. (I remembered choke cherry had an odor, and though these branches smelled just like birch beer, I didn’t trust my nose at all.) I ran around yanking back the branches. and generally, acting pretty ridiculous. After they were all out, I went up to the house, got my tree identification book, and discovered that okay, Dan was right, the branches were birch. So back in they went. Crazy, eh? Like Maggie, our beloved border collie, I have a tendency to fixate on things—usually negative things—at the strangest moments. So it goes…


Another bit of fall-out from the clearing project, was the possibility of pigs. Yup, pigs! After visiting West Elm Farm last week, and seeing Patrick’s two amazing, compost creating pigs. (He even uses them to churn the old matted straw of the sheep stalls—a super speedy “deep composting” that requires none of the back-breaking, nose-offending mucking out that’s a semi-regular part of our existence.) I thought, hmmm….. why not? Pigs are terrific at clearing land. They say that pigs will root out stumps, churn and fertilize a stretch of land and turn all that inedible stuff into, well, um, meat. So…. maybe. Here’s the thing though: Eating our own “pet” pigs would be quite a stretch for this suburban gone rural family. The kids have no trouble eating the chickens. Well, so far we’ve just eaten one mean rooster. (This is a good blog subject in itself.) and when Maggie went a little crazy during shearing and killed three of our guinea fowl, nobody had any trouble putting them to good use. But I suspect a pig might be different. They are smart, and kind of cute. And there’s also the fact that we barely eat pork as it is—just bacon on rare occasions and a pulled pork sandwich when good barbecue presents itself (Rare in New England). To tell the truth, my former vegetarian self, just can’t stomach pork—especially with what I have seen of the giant Midwest pork enterprises.) So a freezer full of ham and pork chops, well… maybe. If we can manage it, I could certainly supply Seaport with lots of good, healthy food, and we’d have bacon anyway and compost and a ready new pasture for the sheep. If we couldn’t manage it, we’d have two big fat pets we have to feed over the winter. So, we’ll see….. Pigs might be one of those projects that “looks good on paper”.

But I have to say I’m kinda fascinated with some of the heritage breeds, Large Black pigs in particular. Anybody have any experience with swine? Any advice?