Aaaaand I’m back.
The holidays kept me busy and I hadn’t written in so long that the longer I waited to update the blog, the more intimidating this first post back became. But, when BOTH kids slept in this morning long enough for me to drink 2 full cups of coffee, I felt like maybe I could finally get back to blogging.
And then both kids woke up crying.
But the computer was already on and I’d already logged in and written (like 4) words and the kids happily settled down with a pile of blocks I dumped on the living room floor. So, here I am.
Oh yeah, I’m here to share the third and final post in my series about life at Winter Farm. And it’s supposed to be funny. (Add that to my list of reasons I haven’t written: the intimidation of writing a funny post. So. Much. Pressure.) Click here if you’d like to revisit Part 1 or here if you’d like to visit Part 2. Oh well, let’s get this started.
You know that phrase “40 acres and a mule” from our nation’s history? Well, our time at Winter Farm could be titled “20 acres and a fool”. We’ve had all kinds of ideas about the life we were going to live out here. And while some of our ideas have worked out, many have not.
The garden has worked out.
The canning has (usually) worked out.
The chickens have worked out.
The sheep, though. The sheep did NOT work out.
This is the story of the sheep.
Books are dangerous. They give you ideas. Books read in January on a farm about what other farmers are doing are especially dangerous. They give you crazy ideas about projects to take on when spring finally arrives and the ground thaws.
It starts innocently. “Hey honey,” you say to your husband over dinner, “I’m reading this book about rotational grazing. It’s really interesting. This guy, Joel Salatin, uses cows and chickens. But cows are kind of big. I bet you could do it with sheep or goats.”
“I really like goat cheese,” your husband says.
“Me, too, ” you say.
A few Google searches later, you learn that goats can be escape artists and are a real handful. You rule them out. You learn that delicious cheeses can be made from sheep’s milk, too. You begin researching heritage breed sheep.
You decide you want a hardy, low maintenance breed that is suited well to surviving on grass and very little supplemental feed. You decide that Icelandic Sheep are the perfect breed for you. You Google local Icelandic sheep farms.
In late January, you drive an hour and a half to an Icelandic Sheep breeder. You want to see these animals in person and decide if they are a good fit for your farm. They are so cute and friendly and the kind woman who raises them sings their praises. The only thing she complains about is lambing season and it’s intensity–up all night in the barn with a laboring ewe and sweet, but fragile newborn lambs.
On the drive home you Google “prolapsed sheep uterus” and after a quick glance at the pictures decide that maybe you should start with rams (male sheep) instead of ewes. You can do lambing and milking and cheese-making later, after you master the rams. Icelandic sheep are known for their exceptional fleece. Two rams would provide a LOT of fleece.
You Google “Icelandic sheep fleece” and note how much people are selling it for. Wow, who knew?! You read that people pay more for processed fleece than for raw fleece. You would obviously need to process the fleece before selling it. You start using words like “roving” and “carding”. You hatch an elaborate plan to process the fleece and sell it at nearby farmer’s markets in the city. You decide that you will design yarn labels to feature a picture of the ACTUAL SHEEP from which a particular skein of yarn was sheared. You will put the ACTUAL SHEEP’S NAME on the label next to his picture. All those farmer’s market-going, animal-loving, city-dwelling knitters will EAT THAT UP. You will get rich.
In March, you Google “Can you haul sheep in dog kennels?” Yes, you can. You borrow 2 dog kennels to haul Apollo and Beto, your two Icelandic rams, to their newly constructed pen in front of the barn. They look happy. They love your farm.
You post pictures of your new “fleece pets” on Facebook.
Your little princess farmer is delighted to have 2 new friends on the farm to visit every day. But since rams can be dangerous with their prominent horns and tendency to, yes, “ram” everything in site, you keep a close eye on her whenever she ventures near her new pets.
Life is better with sheep. You feel like a real farmer now. Time to get going on that wool business that’s going to make you rich. You Google “spinning wheels for sale” and (what luck!) a local estate sale is selling one. You haggle at the estate sale for the spinning wheel and a wool carder as a package deal. You get them for a steal. You post a picture of your new purchase on Facebook.
You enact your rotational grazing plan in the fields. Every morning you hook a rope to the sheep enclosure (a collection of cobbled-together dog runs) and use your truck to drag it to a patch of fresh pasture. You share scenes of your family’s idyllic farm life on Facebook.
The sheep get SO EXCITED for new grass. They literally race one another to the fresh clusters of clover. You are raising happy sheep. You are a good farmer. Look at those happy sheep! They obviously love you.
Your family is a legit farming family now. Your daughter wears overalls and a cowboy hat while helping in the barn. She plays in the dirt and you are OK with it. Dirt is good for kids. If people ask you, you tell them that more kids ought to have the chance to grow up on farms. They have better childhoods. They have fewer allergies. Their parents have way better pictures to post on Facebook.
You do NOT post pictures of your little princess farmer crying later that evening in her dirty overalls while you and your husband wrestle the sheep into a new pen. You post this picture instead.
You also do not post pictures of you cursing at said sheep enclosure every time you have to repair a busted panel connection because, let’s face it, a dog pen is not intended to be dragged around a bumpy field with grass that has grown taller than the hood of your pickup truck.
The sheep get out sometimes through the broken areas and you must wrestle 250 pounds each of clover-fattened happy sheep back into the pen by their horns. For happy sheep, they are very stubborn. While you wrestle them back into the pen, your toddler daughter plays in the cab of the truck, pushing all the buttons on the radio and asking for you to come get her through the cracked windows.
Your husband’s job starts to pick up in intensity. He begins traveling frequently and each trip lasts 2 weeks. During those trips, you are responsible for the care of your very active toddler, the dog, three cats, the garden, a flock of chickens and now, 2 very stubborn sheep.
During one of these trips, there is a freak May snowstorm that dumps over 6 inches of snow on your fields. Previous to the snow, it had rained for several days. The fields are a sloppy, muddy, wet mess. You can not move the sheep enclosure without getting the truck stuck in the field and you realize that if the sheep lay down in their waterlogged, muddy pen, their beautiful fleece (all that valuable fleece!) will be ruined. You pull on your rubber boots and venture out into the field to coax the sheep to their dry pen in the barn.
Three hours later you are soaked to the bone and shivering with cold and frustration. Your clothes are plastered with mud and snow and sweat. The sheep were not interested in following you and your bucket full of oats to the barn. They wanted to run around in the snow and mud. You half dragged, half wrestled each of them (weighing over 250 pounds each) by their horns to the barn. You used every ounce of energy and every cuss word in your vocabulary to get them there. Your tiny daughter watched from the living room window, sometimes laughing at you, sometimes crying for you. You call your husband that night and cry and yell and curse about the insanity of adding to your workload on the farm at the exact same time that your daughter needs more care and attention.
As the grass continues to grow, you can no longer drag your makeshift pen through the fields. So, you move the sheep to pens in front of your barn. You worry that without rotating them, they’ll ruin your pasture and eat the grass down to the dirt and, in the process, become sick from grazing the same patch of land for too long.
It is now June. You haul multiple 5 gallon buckets of water to the barn each day–each of them spiked with organic apple cider vinegar. The vinegar helps combat parasites and also tempts the sheep, now clothed in thick fleece in the unbearable Midwestern summer heat, to drink enough water that they don’t get dehydrated. While you haul these buckets to the barn, you keep your eyes on your tiny daughter on the other side of the fence. She is mad that you won’t let her in the pen with her pets and you have to keep yelling across the field reassuring her that “Mommy will be right back! DON’T CLIMB THROUGH THE GATE!” She plops her frustrated body down on the grass while you rush through chores and hurry back across the field to retrieve her.
You have heated discussions over dinner about whether or not getting sheep was a good decision. You glare at the spinning wheel sitting in your guest room that you have not had a spare second to use since the sheep’s arrival. It no longer sounds like a good idea to sit at a farmer’s market in a hot parking lot with your busy toddler while you try to convince people in flip flops and shorts to buy wool for cozy winter sweaters.
You begin to dream of a sheepless existence. No more hauling buckets. No more watching for signs of parasites. No more worrying that a coyote or stray dog is attacking your sheep while you sleep or go to the grocery store or put your daughter down for a nap.
Your husband begins to agree with you. Your farm just doesn’t have the infrastructure (fences, predator protection, working water line to the barn) that would make raising sheep a less labor-intensive endeavor. You feel like you have failed at farming.
You are regretting all those Facebook pictures and conversations with friends and family about the how fun and interesting it was to raise sheep. You realize in horror that you even tried to convert your book club friends to your sheep-loving cult by recommending the group read a book about 2 city women raising sheep in Minnesota. Oh. My. God.
You call the nice lady who sold you the sheep and ask if she would be interested in taking them back. She understands. “They are a lot of work,” she says. You borrow the dog kennels again and haul the sheep back to her farm. You cry when you say goodbye. You will miss their fluffy, fleecy presence in your fields and all that they represented for you.
While your daughter sleeps in the backseat, you drive back to your farm that, for a short time, feels a little empty without Apollo and Beto. You move the spinning wheel to the basement and vow to sell it on eBay to recoup some of the cost of feed and organic apple cider vinegar and dog pens. You share the news on Facebook that you are no longer in the sheep business. Your friends and family and book club members post nice comments and reassure you that you’ve made the right decision.
Three months later, you find out you are pregnant with your second child. Amidst the morning sickness and fatigue and the nonstop shenanigans of your now 2 year-old daughter, you and your husband breath a sigh of relief that you no longer have to care for 2 sheep on top of everything else.
That Christmas you buy your husband an ornament. It is a little porcelain sheep wearing a sign that says “Fleece Navidad”. For the first time since returning the sheep, you both laugh long and hard at yourselves.
Later that winter in the doldrums of January, your husband mentions that your neighbors had good luck raising a hog the summer before. “A hog would fit in the sheep pen perfectly,” he says.
“It would be nice to have some bacon and ham to eat with our eggs every once in a while,” you say.