Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Girls Want to be With the Girls

This year's breeding groups are now a thing of the past.

Taking advantage of a lull in the wintery weather, Dan and I moved our three little ramboys into their "bachelor pad" and grouped all our placid, heavy-bellied ewes close to the barn.

If they were all fully grown, we would have to reintroduce the rams in a small stall with old tires or other obstructions on the floor so the couldn't build up enough force to clobber each other to death. As it was, we judged the three boys not much of a threat to each other. In no time, they were all buds again. And today, they celebrated their re-found hoodlum hood by breaking out of the ram pen and eating all the chicken feed in the coop! I chased them back in fairly easily and so far, they've shown no ill effects. In fact, they look quite satisfied with themselves.

The reintroduced ewes, on the other hand, hardly gave each other a second glance. Not even Copper, queen matriarch of our sheepy world, seemed to have much energy for squabbling.

We are expecting our first lambs towards the end of April. This is quite late owing to the time it took to build the shep shed back in November.

While the ewes are occupied with their daily treat of forage extender pellets mixed with grain, I've taken to reaching under those big bellies to check for udders (The ewes are not so keen about my feeling them up, but they'll put up with anything for a little grain.) Nothing yet, but they are looking quite wide, these girls.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Riding in Cars with Sheep 2

Spring! Spring! It appears the season has finally gotten serious here in the Northeast. We still have a few feet of snow, but it is melting fast, and we're starting get an inkling of the tremendous MUD SEASON to come.

To celebrate a new year of sheepy adventures, and just because I thought it might be fun, here is another story about "Riding in Cars with Sheep".

Last fall I went to pick up Harry, our black mouflan ram lamb, on the way home from work. Harry was at West Elm Farm in Pembroke, MA, just a long hop skip and a jump from Seaport Campus. On the way out to fetch him, I drove through Weymouth, our old neck of the woods, encountering strip malls, traffic and about a hundred "drive thru" whatevers. I reminded myself how lucky I was to have moved to beautiful, traffic and mall free Colrain. All those choices are numbing once you get used to a more manageable, less cluttered lifestyle.

Harry was easy to catch and fellow shepherd, Patrick Roll, and I put him into the minivan no problem. Now, Dan and I had learned from experience. Seeing as how sheep had this tendency to wedge themselves under the steering wheel when given a chance, we had outfitted the van with a makeshift barricade. (Okay, so what if the barricade was fashioned out of the rails from an old toddlerbed.... we take this recycle, reuse stuff seriously on Maggie's Farm.) The toddler bed effectively barred any forward incursions.

Anyway, I was reasonably sure Harry would stay put. Patrick invited me in to sign papers and we chatted a while. Have I mentioned how wonderful it is for a new shepherd to "talk sheep" when offered the chance? Patrick and I talked about mineral supplements and breeding cycles, composting with pigs, and useful sheep books. I was happy as a clam when I headed back out to the van.

It didn't take long for me to see that something was amiss. The van was parked down at the West Elm barn and as I walked toward it, I noticed the back left window seemed a little.... odd. Really odd.... Um broken.

Evidently, Harry had decided that as the steering wheel well was unavailable, he'd just bust on through the window instead. He'd somehow detached part of the window so that it flapped free of the van like a broken wing. Oddly enough, he didn't make a break for it or smash the glass. When I got close enough to fully gauge the damage, he stood glaring at me from the back as if to say "And what are YOU going to do about it?"
Patrick and I rigged the window shut with some twine and I headed out. Now, the window continued to flap a little and I fully expected that Harry would bust out onto the highway somewhere along the way. I kept a close watch on him through the bars of the toddler bed. It didn't make for an easy trip.

About halfway home, I stopped for some coffee at Dunkin Donuts. Yes, Dunkin' is lousy, but it has a drive thru, and I couldn't risk leaving Harry alone again. I handed over my stainless steel "Go cup" (I never leave home without it-- really) and while I was waiting for my fill-up, and perhaps because Harry was so balefully quiet, I had an almost irresistable urge to shout "I have a sheep in this van! That's right, a sheep!" This was Suburbia after all, and I wanted to just, um shake things up a little.

Well, I resisted the urge, and Harry and I made it home with no further drama.

We found out later that the window would cost something like $800 to fix. Harry had become a VERY expensive sheep indeed! Our solution, of course, was to rig the window the best we could and forgo the expense. Aside from the days when driving snow piles up on the booster seats inside, it's workin' okay for us.

And Dan built a nifty "Sheep crate" that should eliminate any future problems. (Well, there is a somewhat funny story about the sheep crate too. But it'll have to wait. )

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Camera Returneth

Our prodigal camera came back in the mail. Canon fixed whatever it was that caused the "lense error" and all before the first lambs have dropped! Yay!

Unfortunately, we've got some sort of nasty flu circulating, and I'm not going to be out taking any pictures for a few days. The girls are beginning to look a little wide though. Guess all the worry and rearranging of ewes and rams was unnecessary after all.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Riding in Cars with Sheep

I dream of pick up trucks, big broad ones with caps and extra cabs and four wheel drive. The kind of farm vehicles that could haul a whole months of hay in one load and then turn around and plow the driveway. Big, macho, heavy-duty trucks. In my dreams, of course, these trucks are diesel and already outfitted to run on used vegetable oil. Hey, a girl can dream….

The deeper into farming we get, the more urgent our need for a farm truck grows. Our family minivan can only do so much. We (read: Dan) take the seats out and haul hay in it just about once a week. We take our garbage and recyclables down to the Colrain Dump in it. We load it up with feed and fleece and whatever else and sometimes… sometimes we transport sheep in it.

As you might imagine, there are quite a few funny sheep stories about the van. In fact, each and every “transport trip ”has yielded at least ONE worthy story. I thought I’d send one of these stories out into the blogosphere today.

The first delivery was fun. Stewart (And yes, I did try to talk Micah out of leaving Stewart with the unfortunate nickname “Stew”) went off to Tweed Valley Farm in Vermont in the back of our last minivan, a tacked-together Mercury villager. Stewart was not happy about leaving his mom, Daisy, and he let us know it by bleating sorrowfully the WHOLE THREE HOURS we were enroute. We stopped at a gas station midway and attracted the attention of quite a few local folks. This being Vermont, no one was particularly amazed or impressed. People put their foreheads against out tinted back windows and asked “What d’ya got in there?” We’d answer, and get that knowing yankee nod. Seems everybody in Vermont has transported SOME sort of livestock in some unorthodox and interesting way.

Well, Stewart was unloaded without much ado and we said goodbye, picked up Pattur, a cute little moorit ram, and were on our way.

Our next stop was the beautiful Woolambia farm. Fellow shepherds Neil and. Maureen Dwyer invited us in for a cup of coffee. I took a look at Pattur. Backed up against the rear of the van, he seemed to be sizing me up as well. “You think he’ll be okay in here?”

“Oh, sure.” Dan said, with characteristic blind optimism. “What could happen?”

Well, we had a great chat with Neil and Maureen. Shepherds, in my experience, are terrific people, and Dan and I always learn so much when we get a chance to sit back and “talk sheep”. When we finally roused ourselves to check on Pattur, we found he’d breached the barrier separating the human section of the van and the sheep (or cargo) section. He’d also wedged himself quite nicely beneath the seating wheel.

Did I mention the pouring rain? No? Well, it was cats and dogs all day, a cold pounding variety. Besides the damp sheep smell and several tufts of moorit fleece, Pattur left us a few um, “presents” squashed into the damp minivan carpet. Oh, and it was NOT easy getting him out and around to the back either. As we learned that day: Wedged sheep do not pull (or push).

Once, Pattur was returned to his proper place, we quickly picked up beautiful badgerfaced Leela and headed for home. As it was raining torrents, we couldn’t air out the van much and we drove along gloomily, our silence punctuated by plaintive bleats from the lambs in back. We were wet and bedraggled and accosted by “sheep perfume”.

I’d had visions of a quick “dinner date” in Bennington. After all, the kids were with their cousins, and we never—I mean NEVER— get any “couple time” to speak of. Pattur put the kibosh on any dinner plans. Sheep were not meant for minivans. For all we knew, he’d figure out how to drive the damn thing if we gave him enough time. (We were lucky he hadn’t nudged the Mercury into gear and gone on a short and ugly joyride through the hilly and picturesque Woolambia pastures.) We returned home, put our new sheep in their quarantine pen, picked up the kids and went to bed.

Oh yes, I do dream of trucks….

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Lifestyle Change for Dummies

I’ve mentioned how we relocated ourselves out of the cold impersonal clutches of suburbia to beautiful, rural Colrain, Mass have I? Well, what I haven’t mentioned was the cost of that move, the tougher less rosy aspects. If you are considering a drastic change in lifestyle, these tougher less rosy parts might be the elephant in your room. You might look at all the beautiful photos of gardens and livestock and wooded hills and think, “Um, how?” Since our move, many folks have confessed their own lifestyle change aspirations. Most of them also hint at "The Elephant": the dream is impossible, impractical and utterly not-happenin' for them. Well, if you want to drastically change your lifestyle, you can do it. Might want to get to know the elephant a little, though.

You know what they say about elephants: they can only be fully appreciated from a safe distance (There's old saw about the three blind men and the elephant, for instance) So…. from a comfortable distance, I thought I might present you with the Maggie’s Farm version of a lifestyle change guide for dummies. (And just to be clear: WE are the "dummies" in question here.)

Dan and I began planning our move with quite a few assumptions. Primary among these was that living in the country would be cheaper than in the city. We imagined that once we were out in the fresh air our lifestyle would pare down, the excesses and extras falling away. All those free eggs, garden vegetables, home-canned goods and the utter lack of shopping opportunity would combine to make living in the country its own sort of savings plan. We had no actual savings plan. (Here’s where you go tsk tsk. It’s okay, we deserve it.) In actuality, living in the country has wreaked a little havoc on our finances. What we save in staying home and growing our own food is gobbled up in increased gas prices, increased food prices (For some reason, food is actually MORE expensive out here where it's grown!), and animal feed. Also, whenever we happen to be “in town” we feel compelled to pick up some essential or other, which morphs into picking up many additional NONessentials, because town is FAR; we can’t just walk to the corner store. So, number one in the idiot’s guide is….

1) Map out your costs and expenditures as realistically as you can. Figure in things you might be taking for granted in the ‘burbs, such as cheap internet service and lower gas prices. Oh, and once you move, don’t buy into the feast or famine mentality. A little scarcity isn’t so bad. In other words, don’t buy all sorts of crap when you go to the supermarket just because you won’t have the opportunity to return any time soon. You don’t really need that week old Valentine’s candy. I promise.

We began our relocation at the height of the real estate boom. Lucky us, our exceedingly modest home within 10 miles of Boston was worth a tidy sum. Flip side was that a rural property—all the rural properties we looked at in New Hampshire, Vermont and Western Mass-- were worth a tidy sum as well! The plan had been to buy a farm that was priced considerably lower than our suburban house. Well…. We didn’t like those houses (Owing to the crazy market they were the properties that required major repairs or had major flaws we couldn’t accept). We shuffled along from one unhappy house to another, our “price range” creeping ever so slightly towards our upper limits.

When we visited the property that’s become Maggie’s Farm, we fell in love. Hard. It was, of course, at our “upper limit”. Now, Dan is a sunny sort of guy. He has an incomprehensible belief that the universe will provide and that things work out fine in the 99.9 times out of ten and good things happen to good people and all that. Sometimes, he is so persuasively optimistic I fall right into line with this stuff... And so, we made an offer. It was accepted. We were thrilled! Thrilled until the offer on our own house fell through, and then the next one after that and the next one after that. We carried both houses for five months. Fun, fun!

Of course, I wouldn’t change a thing. I am rooted here at Maggie’s. Cannot think of anywhere else I’d rather be (Except maybe, every once in a while, on a mountain top in Wyoming…) But, were I a smarter, savvier sort of relocater, I’d have bought one of those fixer-uppers and suffered through many years of cold winters and shifting foundations while easily paying down my mortgage and working on the flaws. Number two in our dummies' guide is:

2) Don’t fall in love! (At least not with a property, an idea, on the other hand, is just fine.) Look at your future farm with a cold, hard eye. Consider how the property fits into your overall vision and needs. What sort of carbon footprint? What sort of expenses? Here's a chance to change your patterns of energy consumption. Solar costs a lot in initial outlay, wood stoves mean you must have time to spend felling and chopping and carting, electric heat is sooo expensive and in our case, powered by a nuclear plant(!) etc. Make sure you are as clear-eyed about all this stuff as possible. Trust me, you’ll be happy you did. And all those winters in a half-finished house… hey, they’ll make for great stories later.

And work? In an ideal world, you would relocate with enough of a nest egg to live job-free (Don’t expect to make money off your farm, at least not for a long old while.) Alright, who can really do this? In lieu of the phantom nest egg, you may want to look at the job options in your intended town. In many rural areas, jobs are few and far between. And rural salaries are not on the same scale as urban and suburban ones. This works just fine for folks who have lived in on the same family property for generations, but will it work for you of the higher than expected mortgage? Maybe not. You may be able to telecommute…. if you’re not stuck with dial-up internet services. (Many rural areas have only dial-up.) I’ve made my peace with my looong commute. But I can’t imagine that this solution would work for everybody. So…

3) Look at your employment options with the same cold, hard eye. Figure out your job situation ahead of time.

This guide may sound more like a series of gripes. I don’t mean it to be. Rural life is rich and "real" and , for lack of a better word, awesome. One of the most awesome aspects is the way people are interconnected. Everybody DOES know everybody. You see the same folks at the Harvest Fair, the school, the post office and library. In the suburbs, you might live twenty years in the same neighborhood and barely know a soul past hello and good morning. In the country, villages really do raise children. You will get to know people, lots of people: teachers, neighbors, friends, the folks you argue with at town meeting, the folks who’ll help chase down your errant livestock or come over to pick up your preschooler when you’re stuck in the driveway and he's about to miss his class Valentines' day party. These folks are a big part of what makes rural life so much more satisfying than suburban life. Dan and I wanted to move to a reasonably progressive place with some diversity and not so distant opportunities for our kids to experience the good stuff larger places can provide: Music, art, cultchah (as they say in Boston), etc. Colrain suits us just fine. But community is a very personal thing.

4) Check out the community you are considering very carefully. Go to community events, fairs, schools, libraries. Check out the local papers and the flyers hanging in the convenience store windows.

5) Lastly, have fun! We had such a great time exploring houses and towns in the rural Northeast. We met a bunch of wonderful folks and have some pretty great memories. Dummies or not, we don’t for a minute regret our move. The choice has not been the financial boon we envisioned. We commute godawfuldistances. But the good so outweighs the less-than-good.

Well! Now that that's out of my system I realize I haven't written about perhaps the most important aspect of lifestyle change: the DREAM and its persistence. If you bring a sort of intentionality to the dream, if you know what your priorities are going in and remain clear eyed-through the process, you will be able look that elephant in the eye-- come to grips with all those cold clear not-so-rosy facts-- and see the dawning of a very beautiful thing.

Whatever and wherever you choose, I wish you a happy journey.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Hide and Sleek

It appeared in a box on the doorstep courtesy of UPS. It is huge, shaggy and gray, softer than expected, heavier than expected. It is our first hide, from our first ram and our first slaughter.

I wasn't sure how I'd feel about hides hanging around in the house. When we first started thinking about sheep, I had this vague idea that it'd be great to have the hides, we could drape them on the couch or use them on the floor by the fireplace. But then, when we got to know the sheep and named them, keeping the hides seemed a bit um, gruesome.

I couldn't imagine I'd want to lie on one or step on it or touch it at all. I wondered how I'd feel when it came back from Bucks County Furs. But I kept an open mind. If we'd committed to slaughtering a sheep, I didn't want to waste any part of the animal. That seemed far worse an act than enjoying the pelt. And many shepherd sell pelts. I wanted to get a sense of the quality we could expect and whether selling future pelts would be an option for us.

What surprised me is how much I love the thing! It is cozy and pliant and nice to lie on. Since we don't have any "home decor" to speak of, it doesn't clash. The dogs don't chew it (Expected this might be a problem) or try to herd it. It is something entirely seperate. Not "Gus" much at all.

In a way, this hide completes our own shepherding journey, from newbies naming our first four sheep to seasoned shepherds who've experienced all aspects of our chosen vocation, from lambing to slaughter to the creation of food and farm products.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Tales of Lambing Horror 2

Last year, our second as shepherds, we hemmed and hawed about breeding the yearlings. There are pluses and minuses to breeding "one-winter" ewes. On the plus side are lambs (When you feed $4 bales of hay to your livestock all winter you'd like a little something in return... like, um, their firstborn!) and also bred one-winter ewes tend to have big healthy twins their second year out. On the minus side are the increased risk of complications and fine-line nutrition adjusted for growth of mother without promoting an enormous fetus.

Anyway, after the requisite hemming and hawing we decided to go ahead and breed 'em (we had 3) and what could happen? Well, we put them into their breeding groups. All was well and good. Then Andy, our wonderful shearer, came and we got to see just how small and vulnerable the girls looked under their massive, shaggy coats. We got cold, cold feet.

One-winters ewes are supposed to come into heat later than mature ewes. So we thought we might have a chance to make things right. After much slipping, chasing and dragging and hauling, we managed to get the three teenagers out of the breeding pens. (You'll notice that every sheep story includes the lines... after much slipping, chasing, dragging and hauling .....?)

But for Snazzy Pants, our little black and white spotted ewe, smallest of the three One-winters, it was too late. This soon became painfully apparent. By March, Snazzy looked a little wider than her sisters. A little wider became hugely wider became... uh oh!

Now, we had read about lambing and all the complications that might arise from one-winter breeding. Prime among these was the lamb being too big to birth easily. Snazzy was small, her belly, huge. We waited and worried all the way into spring. What else was there to do?

Of course, Snazzy went into labor when I was home alone with the kids. I had that feeling.. the something's going to happen with the sheep today feeling... (The way this feeling has developed in 2 short years, I'll soon be able to read tea leaves, taro cards and the predict the weather better than the Farmer's Almanac!) Sure enough, Snazzy was in labor. Smack-dab in the middle of the pasture. Her two yearling buddies were pressing in close trying to figure out what was up. I moved the other ewes into a different section of pasture and sat in the shadow of a maple tree to keep an eye. (Interestingly, the kids did not want to have any part of this lambing. They had been around for Copper's two and I guess that was all they could take of placenta's and blood and anxious waiting.)

Well, the ewe lamb came out fine. Too fine. She was tiny. I mean 3 pounds worth of teeny tiny cuteness, a little black mini sheep, but game enough to try to stand immediately. Snazzy was a little freaked out, a little clueless. She stood at a distance and watched the little thing struggle around in the dirt. I went over and wiped the lamb to dry it, and as soon as I did this, Snazzy's instinct seemed to kick in and she came over to smell and then lick the little one. Things seemed okay. The lamb stood and staggered towards its mother, but Snazzy stepped back, kept stepping back. She was in the middle of the pasture and of course I couldn't catch her (No slipping, chasing, dragging possible alone). Also I didn't know if I should intervene. Wouldn't nature take it's course?

It didn't. The staggering and backing away continued. And continued. And continued....

Every shepherd is faced with a dilemma like this. Do you jump right in and do something? Do you trust in the wisdom of the animal? (After all, perhaps Snazzy knew something about the situation/lamb that I didn't) Do you call for help?

I went for option number 3. I called Dan at work. "Everything will be fine." Was his distant response. "Don't worry." (Have I mentioned that this is Dan's response to pretty much everything?) I called a local shepherd that I had heard of but never met. She wasn't home. I called a local dairy farmer. She didn't know anything about sheep. I called a friend who had once had some 4H lambs. She came right out. Now we had a clear case of the legally blind leading the totally blind. We were able to catch Snazzy (With much slipping and sliding, dragging, etc.) and bring her and the lamb into the barn.

We were able to hold Snazzy still so that the lamb could... Wait a minute! here was another problem: Snazzy had not "bagged up"; her udder was nonexistent as far as I could tell. She had not yet cleared the afterbirth and so the hormones that create a visible udder had not done their work.... yet. (I now know to give pregnant ewes extra doses of Selenium to condition them to expel the placenta easily. But back then, I thought the sheep mineral mix would be good enough.)

What now? My friend, who had raised "bottle babies" thought I should give the lamb some milk replacer. It had been about 3 hours by now and the little thing HAD to eat! It was still gamely trying to get something out of Snazzy, who at least let it try now. But she seemed to have nothing there, not even a hint of udder.

I mixed up some artificial colostrum and gave it to the little thing. I did this reluctantly, images of driving the two hours to work with the lamb bleating for milk in the back seat, waking at all hours of the night to feed yet another "baby", the tip-toe of hooves on our already-scarred wood floor. I did not want-- COULDN'T-- raise a bottle baby. Snazzy had to come through.

We were in an anxious holding pattern for a while, but after about 5 hours and many episodes in which I held Snazzy still while the little lamb tried her best to get Snazzy's Oxitocyn flowing, we had milk! Phew!

And the little ewe lamb, Olive, turned out to be an incredibly hardy and charming creature! She lives on Three Dog Farm now.

This isn't really a "tale of lambing horror" so much as a tale of minor everyday shepherding "stuff". There is no "by the book" as far as I can tell. But we learn from each new wrinkle. And there is nothing quite like the frantic, happy wag of nursing lamb's tail! Nothing at all.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Green or Greenbacks?

Boy has the media caught the "green" thing. Suddenly there are features and NPR stories and supermarket labels sporting green, green, green. Go green for lent. Go green at home. Go green at work. Now, call me a cynic, but has anything other than the talk changed? Are folks re-examining their lifestyles on a grand scale, or is "green" the "Pet Rock" of the 21st century?

Let me back up a little... Here on Maggie's Farm, we try to live as simply and, to use a word you will shortly grow very sick of, as greenly as we can. We moved out here to change our way of interacting with our planet and our community. We are now intimate with a specific and beautiful place. We preserve and grow our own food as much as we can manage. And yes, we recycle over 3/4ths of our cast-off stuff. What isn't destined for the paper, plastic or cardboard bins at the town dump, goes to the chickens (food scraps) the compost pile (stuff the chickens won't eat), the dogs (Mainly chicken goes to the dogs) and the Salvation Army. Our trash consists of unrecycleable food wrappers and broken bits of toys and flotsam swept up off the floor. We buy from resale shops and yard sales. We use wood heat (with a catalytic converter on the wood stove). We try to eat locally.... sort of.... because... and here's the rub: Many of the things touted to reduce one's "carbon footprint" are things that we simply can't afford to do!

Solar electricity? Nope! There is no way in hell we can afford the initial outlay. Ditto with hybrid vehicles. Ditto solely locally grown or socially-conscious foods. And making everything from scratch, as appealing as it is, takes TIME, time we spend earning enough to eke out our humble living. Which brings me to the Ol' Big Toe in our carbon footprint: Gasoline. As you may know, Dan and I commute crazy distances in order to live where we do. We made that choice and we surely live in it. But we are not unusual in this, many people are struggling to make ends meet, forced to choose between the affordable and the environmental, between greenbacks and "green".

Perhaps --In the same sort of irony that makes minimally-processed foods with a few healthy ingredients more expensive than those with a bevy of unhealthy ones-- it seems people with more money or more time, are the ones who can afford to make the real green difference in their lives.

I know there are many small, inexpensive things to do and that many "green" things actually save money (Turning off sleeping appliances, for example). And there are a lot of wonderful folks staying true to their ideals and living a simple, humble, truly green life. I admire those who manage it. I aspire to be one of them. (Damn carbon footprint commute!) But other than the dedicated few, I don't see much a changin'....

But what do you think: Is "green" available only to the upper or middle classes? Is it more media than immediate? ....Or am I just grousing after a Monday's long commute?