The good, the bad, and the funny (Part 3)

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.

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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.

rose in pen

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.

rose in dirt

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.


Finding Winter Farm

The first time we saw the land that is now Winter Farm, we were newly married and living in Des Moines. At the time, my husband spent the occasional Saturday playing baseball with an historic 1880’s team and each year they travelled to Missouri to play against another team at Watkins Mill State Park and Historic Site. We decided to make the trip with the team and afterwards, to visit my parents who lived in nearby Kansas City.


My husband readies for a pitch in the same field from which we first saw Winter Farm.

The trip went well and though I can’t remember who won the game that year, I do remember admiring the view of the surrounding countryside with my husband. The shady field where they played sits atop a hill, and from there, rolling green hills of woods and pastures and horse farms stretched to the horizon. Though we didn’t know it yet, the future Winter Farm lay nestled in those hills.

After the game, we returned to our tiny 2 bedroom apartment in the heart of Des Moines. Our building was crammed between another apartment complex and a small shopping center with a dry-cleaner, grocery store, coffee shop, and Chinese restaurant. We had everything we needed within walking distance, but we still dreamed of owning our own place and of having more space.

We were reading lots of history and philosophy at the time and longed for what we perceived were simpler times. At a used bookstore we found a copy of Back to Basics, which is essentially a Readers’ Digest guide to homesteading. We studied illustrations of how to build barns and fences and fire-heated hot tubs (no joke). We tried out recipes for canning homemade jams and jellies and pickles. And we read directions about composting and companion planting. The fruits of self-sufficiency called to us in our little city apartment and we dreamed of a place in the country where we could practice all that building and canning and hot tub sitting.


The book that inspired many of our farming dreams.

A few years later, after both accepting jobs in the Kansas City area, the land now known as Winter Farm came up for sale. It was during the economic crisis of 2009 and the sellers had just drastically lowered the price. We knew that it was close to the site of that baseball game years before and, recalling the beauty of the area, decided to visit the house along with 2 others.

The first property we saw with our realtor was a tiny house that sat on 10 acres. It also sat at the top of our price range. The land was well-fenced but it lacked any sort of character and the house, though recently remodeled, felt cramped and awkward. There was no barn, only a very small pond, and the detached garage looked as if it might blow over during the next storm. In addition, it shared a driveway with the neighbors, who had broken-down cars and trash littering their yard. One of their dogs barked ferociously at us as we left the house.

The second property was an old farmhouse on a quiet 8 acres and it was the most affordable of the homes we would visit that day. The house was surrounded by beautiful old oak and maple trees. From the outside, it was a cute blue farmhouse. On the inside, however, it was dated and dark. The floor plan was haphazard and revealed the slapdash efforts of some long-ago family who added a room each time a baby was born. It was clear that it would require major remodeling. We liked the land though and considered that we might have to put in more work than we’d planned to make our dream home a reality.

Finally, we arrived at the third property. As we drove up the long driveway, we admired the faded red barn (with which you are already familiar if you’ve read this post) and a pear tree heavy with fruit. The house, however, was not necessarily attractive to us from the outside. It was a 1960s raised ranch and lacked the farmhouse charm of the previous two homes.


The view from the kitchen when we first moved in. It looked a little ragged but we thought it was the most beautiful place we’d ever seen. We’ve since cleaned up the weeds and taken down the crumbling fences and, of course, painted the barn.

However, after a quick tour we were pleased to find that its uninspiring exterior betrayed a warm and inviting interior. A combination of real hardwood floors, a bright and cheery window seat, and a family room with wall to wall built-in bookshelves convinced us that this house, though not what we’d been picturing, would do just fine.


Putting Christmas lights on the house during that first year on the farm.

We headed outside to explore the 20 acres around the house. The front half of the property sloped gently to a small creek where tall trees blocked the view of the road and separated it from the recently hayed pastures. The back half of the property, starting just behind the barn, dropped towards a secluded lower field surrounded by trees on three sides. Another creek crossed the back corner of the property and a large pond sat on a terrace between the barn and the field. We could see fish swimming underneath the clear water.


The view of the pond 5 years ago.

My husband and I stood on the hill next to the barn that day and decided to make an offer on the house. It was the perfect place for us to start our life in the country and we held hands and said it prayer that it would be ours.

Two kids, 23 chickens, and 5 growing seasons later, we’ve learned a lot about the “simple” life we envisioned for ourselves here. Most days, our life here on Winter Farm resembles something between Thoreau’s Walden and the T.V. show Green Acres. In my next post I’ll share some of the triumphs and trials we’ve faced since moving to the country.

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Learning how to drive our hand-me-down tractor to tackle the weeds that were choking the farm that first year.

Nightmare on Winter Farm

Our little princess farmer awoke crying and screaming this morning. She was distraught as tears streamed down her face, wetting her tangled hair. I struggled to understand what she was saying through the sobs.

She must have had a nightmare, her first nightmare. Stupid Halloween with all its witches and scary pumpkins and ghosts at every store and every house. We’d driven by a yard last week with bloody skeletons and zombies made to look like they were crawling out of graves in the grass. I hadn’t thought she’d seen it, but maybe she had.

I sat on the bed and lay her chubby, raspberry-blowing baby brother next to her on the pillow. He rolled towards her sobs and began pulling on her hair (clearly out of concern). I scooped her up and asked her what was wrong.

She took a few deep breaths and looked up at me. Then with desperate, terrified eyes she cried, “Ma took my chickens!”.


“Ma took my chickens,” she insisted and buried her face in my arms.

“Ma” is my mother. You know, the one who slaved over the beautiful Frozen cake for my little princess’s birthday. Who knows how my daughter’s subconcious had mixed and mashed chickens and a loving grandma and poultry theft into an early morning nightmare, but it had.

Not having ever had a nightmare before, she thought the dream was real, a memory from an actual event. I tried to comfort her, explaining that the chicken thievery had not actually ocurred.

“It’s just something that happened in your head, honey.”

“No, mommy, it happened in the barn!”


“Let’s go out to the barn right now and you’ll see, your chickens are just fine.”


I picked up her brother from the bed and went to her dresser for some clothes she could wear outside. As I pulled a pair of jeans and a T-shirt from the drawer, I heard the front door open. She had pulled her rubber ladybug boots over her footed Christmas pajamas and was halfway down the front walk towards the barn by the time I caught up with her.

So, before coffee or bathroom breaks or getting dressed, we headed out to the barn.


For late October, it was a warm morning.


As she stretched to open a latch on the gate, her much-loved and supposedly stolen chickens scampered out of the coop to greet her.


“See!,” I told her, “your chickens are just fine.”

Relieved, she set about her chores cheerfully. She fed them and after finding 2 eggs on the coop floor instead of in the nesting boxes, she lectured our largest Buff Orpington on proper egg-laying practice.


And then, eggs in hand, headed back outside to chat with the other ladies.


She picked them little pink flowers to eat and the hens were good sports as she chased them around trying to feed them her finds.


And then we headed back towards the house, chickens racing us through the grass.


“What do you want for breakfast?” I asked her.

“Eggs,” she answered.


Good morning

I awoke this morning at 4 a.m. and lay in bed wide awake. I was frustrated. I knew I was going to be tired later if I didn’t fall back asleep. My sister and nephews were coming to visit mid-morning and I still needed to get the house in order before they arrived. To add to my sour mood, my computer refused to hold a charge and the replacement charger had not yet arrived, holding up my efforts to update the blog.

Grumbling to myself, I got up. I made coffee and saw my husband off to work. Even though I needed to get going with the housework, the kids were still sleeping and I didn’t dare attempt to put away the dishes or vacuum while they slept. A clean house was not worth two tired and crabby kids.

On the way into the kitchen for an apple and my second cup of coffee, I glanced out the back window and saw this.


I grabbed my phone (which functions as my camera), tugged on my “barn boots” and quietly crept outside. It was chilly and I pulled my sweater tight around me.

Despite the chilly air, the October sky was on fire. The dewy grass and purple clover in the barnlot glowed, backlit by the rising sun.


The colors were spectacular.


The frustration of the morning and my worries for the day disappeared beneath the unblemished surface of the pond.


I soaked up the silence and the calm. I found beauty everywhere I looked.


The intense colors and feelings of my too-early morning faded away, the sun rose over the trees and the clean, white light of day washed over Winter Farm. I took a deep breath and headed back inside.


My muse

My muse sits in the cloverfield behind our house, exactly at the center, the heart, of our farm. Her weathered, pock-marked skin covers the thick bones of her wide hips. Beneath her there is shelter from the sun and the snow, the wind and the rain. She watches over us, her dark eyes following the comings and goings of Winter Farm through the seasons. She does not speak, but she tells stories in countless portraits I make of her solid, ruddy frame.

Here she is, wrapped in a blanket of snow the first winter we met.


And here she stands with her back turned to gather the warm sun on a cold September morning.

barn with path

And this one, where I caught her dripping with dew in the morning mist.


I am shameless about my obsession with her and I can not stop sharing her pictures. She pulls a story from me every time I see her and though it ought to be my children in their innocence or my husband in his devotion, it is she who makes me want to write. She is my muse. And for the inspiration she has awakened in me, I am determined to care for her and repair where the years have bruised and wounded her tired face. She will stand bright and clean once again. She will be made young by my hands and I will rescue her from ruin.

That’s right, our little barn is my muse and for those of you who know me, you are regularly subjected to picture after picture of its squat, red frame. When my husband and I first looked at this property in our search for a home, we were happy with the house, but we were delighted by the barn. Its red doors with white trim symbolized for us that this was not just an acreage, this was a farm. And if we had a farm, we were farmers. We really liked the idea of being farmers. This was one of the first pictures we took in front of the barn.


Yes, that’s a pitchfork–very American Gothic (and original) of us, I know. Note the plaid shirts and rubber boots. We were officially farmers now, time to dress the part!

We had been married for 4 years at that point and had just returned from an extended stay overseas. We had no children and our dog, Gus, had only been with us for a week or so. We were so excited to own our dream home, so proud of the land and the house and especially of the faded little barn choked by weeds. We saw in that barn all our dreams of owning chickens and growing our own food and raising children.

We still love that barn and though we’ve made lots of improvements on our land and home since moving in five years ago, until now we had yet to help it regain its original charm.

The little paint that remained on the barn was faded to a dull orange and one of its windows was missing. The previous owner’s horses had chewed up or torn off batten boards and where there had once been bright, white paint, there was now only the weathered gray of bare wood. We were sad to see the heart of our farm falling apart.


In its state of severe disrepair, we thought we would have to completely replace the siding. But due to a lack of funds, we decided to just paint it instead. Our reasoning was that a fresh coat of paint would protect the barn’s structure from further deterioration until we could afford to fix it properly.

Well, let me tell you, a couple coats of paint later and a few new batten boards and our barn looks like a new building! Here is a before picture of the north side of the barn with its crumbling windowsills, vines clawing their way up the walls, and paint peeling from its boards.

Barn side view

Take a look at that same side now.


It’s such an improvement. (Don’t mind that paint on the window panes. We ran out of daylight before we finished scraping them clean.) The color we settled on is called “Moroccan Red” and I thought, “What a fun international touch for our little Missouri farm!” But no, put almost any shade of red on a barn and do you know what happens? It looks like plain old Midwestern “Barn Red”. And I’m OK with that. Doesn’t it look great?!


Finally, before wrapping up this session of barn adoration, I want to thank my husband’s parents for traveling more than 4 hours each way for 2 consecutive weekends to help us. My father-in-law toiled away making repairs and painting while my mother-in-law handled the kids inside, allowing me to help out at the barn. They were so generous to give up their time to help us and we can’t thank them enough (though we did try by loading them down with home-canned goods and fresh pears from Winter Farm). Thank goodness for good family!

And now I’m off to design a gift for my muse, a barn quilt! In the meantime, enjoy a few more pictures of our barn restoration project.


Proud of a job well-done.


The early morning paint crew busy priming and patching.

The chickens were a bit annoyed with all the noise in their barn.

The chickens were a bit annoyed with all the noise in their barn.

Farm fashion's finest, yours truly.

Farm fashion’s finest, yours truly.

My father-in-law and his new lady friends.

My father-in-law and his new lady friends.