Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sneetches: The rest of the story

Way back in late summer, I wrote about the “Sneetch sisters”, those two identical New Hampshire hens whose paths diverged so violently. I thought I'd catch up you on that story...

The Plain Belly Sneetch, bitten by our neighbor’s dog and nursed back to health with the kind of newbie over-the-top care that involved tweezers, maggots and a whole heck of a lot of hydrogen peroxide, died a few months later. She was a fighter, that Plain Belly Sneetch, and so in the end I was out there handfeeding her antibiotic soaked bread and keeping her rooster-free in her own little sneetch corral. But she had an internal complication (Likely due to the dog bite) and she died all the same. It felt like a real failure on my part. I second-guessed the whole episode. Would if I choose to treat an old hen again… given that mostly I prolonged the inevitable for a few months, and my good stewardship only led to much more suffering in the end? (Yes, I KNOW this is a chicken we’re talking about here, but still…) I’m not sure I would. I guess we’ll have to wait for the next little catastrophe to see. Likely, I will though, spoon feeding injured or ailing chickens just seems to be my way. Because, there's hope. there is always hope (at least until there isn't...)

Here’s the happier part of the update:

The star-belly sneetch, the one with the adorable new chick, is just fine thank you. We named the chick “Stella” (in going with the star belly theme) and as Stella grew, her parentage became delightfully obvious, from the wisps of feathers on her toes to her prodigious girth. Without doubt, her “biological mother” was none other than Fancy Feather, a mellow light brahma hen and my oldest daughter’s all-time favorite chicken! It also became obvious that “Stella” was a rooster. But what a rooster! “Stellar” (as he is now called) is gigantic—half cuckoo marans and half brahma—and, so far, he is as mellow as Sunday morning. Hopefully he’ll stay that way, even in the face of our veteran rooster’s displays of dominance and the inevitable onslaught of his own testosterone. And so, the sneech story ends in the way almost anyone could have predicted: Random bad luck bred more bad luck and random good luck, well, it produced one fine (if slightly Baby Huey-esque) rooster!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Chainsaw Jockey!

Another day clearing the patch of woods that will be our future new pasture. We'd been meaning to get back to the pasture project for months, literally, months. Although it was fun last time out, when Dan and my brother in law, Mike, did the clearing and I mostly reigned in the kids took pictures and carried brush, this episode started with a sigh and a heap of reluctance.
No. I did not want to use the chainsaw. Thank you. No, really. I'm fine-- just fine-- with the pruning shears. I can haul the trees you cut, honey. I don't want any part of no mechanical, loud scary saw-your-arm-off type tool. No chainsaw for me! No, really, no thank you.....

Well, sometime halfway through the afternoon, I decided I'd swallow my pride (about making so much of a fuss) and my fear (because that chainsaw is one meanscary tool!) and give it a try. It was a smallish chainsaw, I reasoned, an electical one. And there were a heck of a lot of saplings too big for my pruning shears and too small for Dan's full-blown macho gasoline powered thingamabob.
Now, my family of origin had very rigid, though unstated rules about the work of men and women: Women worked long hard, ambitious hours outside the home. Men, not so hard. Women were opinionated, inveterate planners and askers, suggesters and list makers. Men, not so much. But if there was a light bulb to screw in or a battery to replace or anything else involving a tool, women went weak and floundery. Tools were the purview of men. It was just the way things were. What can I say? Dan's family had a much more egalitarian "can do" streak. His mother, even now, crawls under the house to fix the plumbing with the same understated competence with which she attacks a ripped pair of jeans.
I am determined that my girls will not grow to wait for the menfolk to come along and put in a battery for them They will have the full complement of skills. And what kind of example would I set if I feared a silly little chainsaw?
"Okay," I said. "Show me how." He did. And you know what? For a reformed suburbanite who never set foot beside a powertool until a few years ago and even now, holds my breath when Dan goes off to bring down the trees we convert to winter warmth and double check on him every few hours just in case he loses a toe out there, I did all right! In fact, I really had fun with that thing! It's quite a great feeling to fell a tree, albeit a small one.

I was one macho farmer today! (At least in my own mind.)

Between the two of us, Dan and I cleared quite a few small trees. The blank patch beside the pasture is growing and in the spring, with any luck, it will be a nice brushy delicious thicket and then later, once the sheep clear the brush and we smooth it down with the harrow, it will me an even nicer new pasture.

So next weekend, put a chainsaw in my hand and turn me loose!
And yes, this these are the goofiest pictures ever. But they're the only ones we got.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dear Old Hens

Our hens are getting up there. One “human year” must equal something like twenty to a chicken, and in bird years, our hens are octogenarians! This winter, they quit laying entirely. For the first time in years, I bought a dozen eggs yesterday, knowing the “free range” advertised on the package is nothing like the glorious ramblings our lucky flock takes for granted.

Perhaps they’ll start up laying again in spring, with longer hours of daylight, but perhaps not. If we were more pragmatic farmers, we’d “put them in the freezer” (Now THERE’s a euphemism for ya!) and make that fabulous home-made chicken soup that is Dan’s very best dinner contribution. (That’s saying a lot, as his shepherd’s pie, banana bread, and beef stew are also pretty awesome.)

But these are dear old hens, raised during our first country spring, in a homemade brooder in the basement. We dug worms for them and delighted in the peeping-mad chick scrimmage when we dropped the squiggly treasures among them. We introduced them to the great big outdoors in gentle stages. We named them Fancy Feather and Chicklee, Stripes and Brave Sara, Puff and Rangy and Sandy and Madeline…. And so they remain, to live out their golden years on Maggie’s Farm, a gaggle of seriously old biddies, free ranging through their retirement years. I’ve prepared the kids for their eventual demise, given the “Now you know the hens are very old for chickens and they’ve had good lives and pretty soon…” speech. But even so, it will be hard to see them flapping bravely into that good night.

If they can hang on through winter, these old girls will have one more summer of scratching and dust bathing and poking around the yard. I’ll admit it: we’re softies, serious softies. But, perhaps after 3 ½ years of delicious, bright yellow eggs, it’s the least we can do for them.

Also, we are ordering a new batch of chicks! As we did four years ago, each family member will pick a few wacky varieties and a brand new, colorful little flock, peeping llike mad, will appear at the post office, (The post office is NOT quite so fond of this...) and set up shop in the basement brooder.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Grumpy Monkey

This entry is a little off the farming topic. It's kid-related. So bear with me if you will....

My children, wonderful as they are, are seriously into moping. Something doesn't work out as they'd like and they hang around, just in sight of a grown-up, with a long, long face and an Eeyore attitude. When this happens, Dan and I try to ignore the moping best we can, so I can't figure out what they're getting out of it.
But they sure do it. A lot.

Anna and Joe shared a "double mope" recently and, at my wits end, I hit on a way to change up a little. I turned it into a game: Anna had the "Grumpy Monkey" on her head. If she tagged me, the monkey would jump to me and I would have the Grumpy Monkey. It took a while for her to get into the spirit. But when she did, and tagged me, I sunk down in my best mopey imitation. Joe and Anna though this was pretty funny and before long, we were walking along, passing the grumpy monkey from one to another. Eventually, we passed it on to an unfortunate maple tree and called it quits. xnay on the umpygray.

Maybe next time the Grumpy Monkey visits, we'll have a handy new vocabulary and a little game to banish it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Taking Care

Winter is back. It came on the heels of a smallish snowstorm a few days ago, and we are now squarely in the teens, degree-wise. Crunchy snow, significant ice chunks in each and every water bucket, double gloves. The works. We got it.

I am usually kind of cranky about snow and cold. It takes a lot (ten hungry sheep, for instance) to get me into my coat and snow pants and goofy moon boots and trudging down to the barn. I’ll admit it: I’m a bit of a baby in the winter, a whiner even. Comes from being raised in sunny Florida, I guess.

But here’s the thing: It is such a terrific feeling, after stumbling around in the heavy snow and ice, hauling those sloshy cold buckets and armloads of hay out to the pens, to just stand quietly and watch the sheep around the feeder.

Hard to explain the whys of this. Perhaps it has to do with “taking care”, a simple and rarely touted pleasure. Sometimes—often!—taking care feels like a burden. It feels like the only thing I ever manage to do. It feels both awfully overwelming and small. Kids, chickens, cars, house, dogs, sheep, barn, etc etc. I TAKE CARE all the time. But standing along the chilly fence-line watching my sheep munch down, I can appreciate all that care a little more. These moments are simpler, more tangible. And sometimes, when I’m not cranky, overstretched, and grumpy, I can connect this simplest of tasks with all the other tasks that eat up so much time and energy, so many of hours I imagine myself doing something more grand and dramatic and forward-thinking. And it feels just fine, even good, to have so very, very much to care for.

Soap Making

Well we had our fourth “snow day” of the season day before yesterday, and by 2 o’clock, we were all a little squirrelly. (Kids alternating between couch bouncing, coloring and fussing with each other, while I grumped around trying to organize and straighten the growing mess and Dan attempted to work from home.) The time seemed right for something new. And soap making, turns out, was the perfect something.

I’d been meaning to give this craft a try; After all, I love perusing the handmade soaps at the fair, and the soap isle at the co-op is a favorite haunt (Though, usually those cool, organic varieties are out of our price range). The stronger and stranger a soap is, the more I like it. And I also like the idea of providing our family soaps reasonably priced soaps without all those questionable additives.

So, thought I, lets give this thing a try. As I’ve mentioned before, exactitude isn’t in my nature. I’m a let’s “try it and see, looks about right” kind of crafter/baker/shepherd, etc. With me, soap making is a small leap of faith.

Way back in September/October. I made a small batch of what amounted to “easy-bake” soap from a base bought at a box store on my way home. It was easy. Really easy. The kids enjoyed pouring it into molds and embedding a few of their toys. And we did use the resulting bars. But they were, basically, made of the same stuff as any old store bought variety. Not terrific.

This snow day, we were ready for a more challenging playing field… I decided to try “rebatching” or taking a homemade, raw, base, shredding it, mixing it with milk, essential oils, and other healthy stuff, and then pouring it into molds. The kids helped, of course. First, we looked at all the ingredients I’d gathered: a bunch of oils and kitchen staples that I thought might be useful if and when I got it together and tried this rebatching thing. Then we made a list of possible soap varieties and settled on two. (Well, we were supposed to settle on two but Anna and Micah had a major disagreement over whether we should make "Chai" or "Coffee" soap. A game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” failed to end the dispute, and so Dan served as tie-breaker. Chai it was.)

The raw soap base we used was handmade from another farm. It was an already-lovely goats milk/shea butter blend. We made a tea tree variety and the aforementioned Chai (vanilla, cardamom, cinnamon, and allspice) and then, with the time and base left over, we made Anna’s choice anyway: a “Mocha Soaka” with coffee grinds and raw cocoa. (I’ve heard this type of soap is great at removing strong smells like garlic. And as garlic is the main ingredient in about everything I cook, it’ll be putting to the test.)

The soap will take at least a few days to set. So now we wait.

I’m not sure I’m up for the “real” soapmaking process, the one involving lye and seemingly painstaking measurements. But on a snowy, cooped-in afternoon, rebatching rocks!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Walk in the Woods

We’ve had a terrific January Thaw, thank you. It’s been delightfully melty here in Western Mass: sunny, 40 degrees a good chunk of the time. Hardly like winter at all.
Appears we’re headed back to "seasonal weather" tonight—a nice new blizzard to remind us we’ve got a looong, cold way to go before spring.

We thought it prudent to enjoy a little time outside, doing nothing remotely useful. So we went on a all-family walk in the woods. It took a while to get the kids into the idea. I'm embarrassed to say, they like to spend their winters hanging around inside, drawing and reading and playing intricate games involving dolls and stuffed animals and a lot of overturned furniture, but we forced ‘em out just the same. Turns out, they had a great time. In fact, THEY could walk right on top of the crunchy snow without falling through. It was a little more physically exhilarating for Dan and me.
But, what a beautiful day!

Sheep Smarts

People say sheep are stupid. Atrociously, blankly, stupid. I’ve heard it said “they go around looking for ways to die” and also that they are “pasture maggots”. And though I can’t speak for all those sheep out there, I can say with certainty that OUR sheep are NOT stupid.

They know exactly what they need to know. They manage just fine thank you, problem solving their way out of gaps in our fencing and then problem solving their way back in again. They manage to stay safe and fed. And, most interestingly, they have their own not-always-so-peaceable little community, replete with squabbles and longstanding friendships.

For example, matriarch Copper will always let her daughter, Daisy, squeeze in beside her at the grain bucket, though she’d batter any other ewe who dared think about it. And Daisy is three years old. If Copper was as stupid as the hype, she’d barely recognize her grown and long ago weaned offspring and she certainly wouldn’t favor her. Funny, but when the little ewe lamb arrived with Copper way back when, our oldest, Micah, named her “Princess Daisy”. And Daisy, the grown ewe, is certainly a bit of a princess, allied to her powerful mama, she just trip-traps along as heedless (and privileged) as the littlest billy goat gruff.

Other sheep have similar alliances. Although they are unrelated, Acorn and Penny have what could be termed a long-standing “friendship”. It is rare to find one of them without the other. Acorn, friendly and forward, eases the watchful Penny from one place to another. And Penny, in return, has Acorn’s back.

And when Maya's "buddy", Snazzy, had her first lamb, Maya could not be kept away. She crawled under a fence to see the strange, wiggly, wet thing up close. And, even after being shooed and shut away, kept finding her way back through to gawk.

Puzzling conflicts sometimes arise out there in the pasture. Last month, there was a weeklong disagreement between our two moorit polled ewes, one that involved much butting and jockeying for position around the feeder. They’re over it now, whatever “it” was.

Now, sheep are alien in many respects. Simple things can freak them out: I once wore a different hat down to the barn and they scattered at the sight of it. And they will bolt through a tiny opening rather than risk being left alone (flockless?) They are highly visual; amazingly, they barely recognize each other after in the minutes after shearing. And often, when it comes to treating, clipping, vaccinating, etc., they would prefer to do things the hard way.

But stupid? Not really. There’s a lot more going on in those wooly little heads than you’d expect.

At any rate, I consider it a privilege to get to know another species so intimately. One of the wonderful surprises of farming/shepherding is sharing time with so different a form of life, connecting in a rare way with a (now) rare creature. When I lived in the suburbs, I had no idea that the lives of a sheep could contain such small but interesting dramas. The same could be said for the chickens, who also have their own kind of “intelligence”, their own inner worlds. (Maybe these worlds are limited to scratch and lay, peck and pecking order, but it they are much more full than you’d expect.)

And yes, I know I risk being anthropomorphic when I speak of sheep “friendships” or the “inner worlds” of chickens, but life is a lot more mysterious than we give it credit for. Why not?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Magic by the Skein

Yesterday, I picked up Joe and two of his buddies at preschool and returned to find three boxes of long awaited yarn-- fresh from the fiber mill-- on the porch! Dan and had I sent off these fleeces quite some time ago and so, for a moment or two, it was Christmas in January around here.

Such a joy to see the way the flock's subtle colors translate into beautiful, unique yarn and roving! Delving into each new bag, I'd murmur "Oh, it's Maya's, or Copper's or Leela's. Oooh, Wow!" The three four-year-olds just shrugged and wandered off to build a "parking lot" in the snow off the front porch steps. But for me, that moment held more than a little magic. Like our cherished lambs, these skeins embody so much labor and love. We muck and repair and clip and nourish; we eke hay money from our impossible budget, and equipment and supplements and vet bills; we debate and discuss and strategize (well, there's not soooo much strategizing...); we suffer heartbreak, or pasture breaches or ramly insults; we leave the kids to entertain themselves more often than we should; we work long hours far from home, and return to find ourselves hip deep in farmyard dramas of every stripe.... And we wouldn't have it any other way. This beautiful fiber embodies all of that. What's more: It will be the foundation for a whole other sort of labor, a sweater or blanket or some other cherished item with a whole new set of stories to tell. "Pretty cool" doesn't even begin to cover it.

I wonder if I will always feel that little bit of magic, even when I'm an old hand, opening up my fiftieth box of fiber. I hope so!

And, if I do say so myself, our sheep make beautiful fiber! It is soft and warm, and the natural color, unique for each ewe and ram, is really amazing.

We are hoping to get the yarn and roving up on the farm website shortly-- and much jazzier photos too. But, for now, here are a few "kitchen table" pictures just because I am so darn proud!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Home again, home again....

Well, aside from a weeklong walkabout by our polled flock and a fence breech by the eager young Charlie Bucket, Maggie's Farm more or less survived our absence. The polled flock sure did have a big sheep party in the forbidden section of the barn though! Hay everywhere! And they ate a hardwon month's worth of bales. So, first day back, Dan was ferrying replacements up our hill in the minivan and then sledding them down to the barn. Such is life without the ATV (majorly broken) and a farm truck. It took us a full day to re-order and organize. But we are, more or less, back in gear.

One casualty of the frigid New Year was our trusty barn water pump. Hopefully, the -6 degree temperatures caused only temporary damage. If the pump is really, really, broken, we are in for a loooonnnnng, heavy winter!

And how was Florida? you ask. Well, it was just like this: