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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The good, the bad, and the funny (Part 1)

In my last post, I mentioned that life on Winter Farm is a combination of Thoreau’s Walden and the t.v. show Green Acres. It’s true. Life here is a mix of the good, the bad, and the funny. So, welcome to Part 1 (the Good) of this 3 part post.


Here at Winter Farm we live a charmed life, no doubt. There are heritage breed chickens pecking around our freshly painted red barn. Does it get any better than that?!

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Why, yes, it does get better. The sunrises over our fields and pond are spectacular, no matter the season.

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And, not to rub it in, but the veggies and herbs in our garden are fun to plant…

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…and harvest.

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…and eat.

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…and save for later.

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We feel so fortunate to have found this place and our lives here are beautiful and fun and productive. Since moving in 5 years ago, we have lots of successes to record. Here are a few that have made living in the country one of the best decisions of our lives.

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Chickens

We first bought chicks during our third spring on Winter Farm. I still remember the day they laid our first egg. It was like a tiny miracle nestled there in the straw (and it WAS tiny… the first eggs hens lay are sometimes only a third the size of a normal egg). I think we scrambled it up and shared it as a family.

These days, we have 20 chickens and we get anywhere from 8-12 eggs a day. We eat a LOT of eggs around here–poached or scrambled for breakfast and baked into quiches and burritos for dinner. There’s always a bowl of hard-boiled eggs in the fridge for snacks and my husband sells and delivers the excess eggs to his coworkers.

In addition to giving us eggs, chickens are great little entertainers. They preen and prance and jump around, clucking and squawking at one another and at us. When we throw them an apple core, they bicker over it like siblings. When we work in the garden, they scurry around underfoot chasing bugs and fallen cherry tomatoes. And each evening, after I collect eggs, they join me in an impromptu parade like the one in the video below.

So, yeah, we love our chickens. They are probably our favorite part of living on a farm.

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Canning

When we moved in that first fall, we were thrilled to find the pear tree full of fruit. Eager to begin our self-sufficient life, we picked them and after eating our fill, decided to can the rest.

About 14 hours of washing, peeling, coring, and canning later, we had these 6 jars.

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Six puny quarts from what had seemed a mountain of fruit! But we were still excited, and we shared our precious first harvest with family during the holidays.

Since those first 6 jars, I’ve canned hundreds more. We’ve enjoyed sliced pears and puréed pears and pear syrup. We’ve shared salsas and pickles and pasta sauce. We’ve given gifts of carrot cake preserves and blackberry jam, apple butter and jalapeño jelly. Our basement shelves have held our own green beans and venison stew meat, pickled peppers and pickled eggs. Most of it has been delicious and it has been a consistent thrill since moving to the country to eat food that we’ve grown or foraged or hunted ourselves.

I still marvel at the magic of every jar. Food that just hours before was growing in my late July garden is, by the magic of chemistry, transformed into a wonderful treasure for a snowy January night. What a fun piece of magic to perform every growing season!

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Space

Last winter, in a fit of pregnancy-induced panic (obviously on my part) about the time and work that farm life required, we considered selling the farm and moving back to town. We went to a few open houses and, after about 5 minutes of staring out of windows to see nothing but houses and cars and other people’s windows, we returned home with grateful hearts and a new appreciation of the space that Winter Farm affords us.

When I look out my kitchen window, I see this.

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For me, that view is important and it’s salve to my soul when I get overwhelmed by the kids or by housework or by obligations. In the flurry and rush of modern life (and even living in the country, there’s plenty of that), I am fortunate to have space around me to breath and center myself and rest. And all this space is not only good for me. It’s good for my kids.

They can catch crawdads in our creeks and fish in our ponds, pick wildflowers in our fields and wild persimmons in our woods. They can gather eggs from the chickens and vegetables from the garden, watch deer from the kitchen and wild turkeys from the barn. They can walk outside without worrying about what they’re wearing or if someone will see them when they haven’t yet brushed their hair for the day. As babies, they can run naked in the back yard. And as teenagers, they can wander off for time alone to watch the stars and gather their thoughts. They can do all these things without ever leaving home or spending money.

I really believe that these open, beautiful spaces that we call Winter Farm will help to make me a calmer, more peaceful person, and I hope they will help my children to grow into independent, adventurous adults with peaceful minds and kind hearts.

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Isn’t our life just so good?

Yeah, it is, but don’t get too annoyed by my Pollyanna point of view. Life on Winter Farm is not all sunrises and chicken parades and cute kids.

Check back for Part 2 (the Bad) in this series about our life here at Winter Farm. We’ve certainly had our fair share of foibles and failures in between all the beautiful pictures and I’m just as eager to share those with you as I am the lovely bits.

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!”.

“What!?”

“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!”

Hmmm…

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

“OK.”

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.

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For late October, it was a warm morning.

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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.

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“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.

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

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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.

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

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

“Eggs,” she answered.

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Winter Farm (Finally) Writes

“The secret of it all, is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment–to put things down without deliberation–without worrying about their style–without waiting for a fit time or place.” – Walt Whitman 

Finally, I have stopped waiting. The perfect story, the perfect timing, the perfect writing desk or journal or blog theme or pen… they don’t exist. The trick, according to Whitman, is to just write and so, I am.

I hope Winter Farm Writes will help me exercise my story-telling muscles again. I imagine the posts as rough sketches in which I can write about anything or about nothing, about the profound or the mundane, just so long as I keep writing.

Get ready. Get set. Get writing.


 Chickens in the mist

Hidden Eggs

After a quick debate in my mind about the dangers of opening the front door, I carefully turned the handle and ever so slowly eased myself onto the front porch, careful not to let a single sound destroy the miracle of 2 small children napping simultaneously in their beds. Waking them would result in curses under my breath and in tired, needy children. Feeling rather tired and needy myself, I was hoping to make it out to the barn to let our chickens out of their coop before the heavy rains that had fallen all morning returned.

 

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A little time outside always helped me shake my mid-afternoon slump in energy and mood and as I walked the wet, grassy path to our barn, I could feel the clouds lift from my mind. After the morning’s downpour, the ground outside the coop door sounded like a sponge underneath my feet. Hearing my waterlogged approach, the chickens crowded around the door while I unscrewed the bolt that keeps them safe each night from raccoons and bobcats, coyotes and stray dogs.

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If you’ve never watched a chicken released from its coop onto fresh grass, you are missing out. They run and skip and dive in every direction, fanning out over the pasture in pursuit of fleeing crickets and startled moths.

Discovering the pile of windfall pears I’d dumped nearby, one chicken started clucking and cooing approvingly, immediately attracting the attention of her sisters. They came running, each one greedily pecking at pieces of bruised fruit and at one another in her excitement for the sweet treat. They looked just like a pack of kids scrambling for candy under a broken piñata. Eventually, the dominant hens assert their claim over the pile and the others spread out in search of other options.

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Our chickens have not been laying well lately. We recently rearranged their coop and moved their nesting boxes which, we assume, had unsettled them a bit. Chickens are easily flustered. Whatever the cause, we were barely getting enough eggs for our 2 paying customers, both coworkers of my husband. It had gotten so bad, that we no longer had enough eggs for ourselves and I had, with great frustration, broken down and bought a dozen eggs from the store. Buying eggs when we have 20 perfectly good laying hens in the barn felt a bit ridiculous, not to mention expensive.

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I decided to look around the barn again in case I had missed some hidden stash of eggs previously. Afterall, free range chickens are notorious for building nests in odd places. Right away, I spotted a cache of 5 eggs in a dark corner of the coop, covered almost completely in leaves and straw. Encouraged by my find, I started searching other dark and hard-to-reach places in our small barn. Three eggs lay hidden between the barn wall and a pile of old lumber. Four eggs were buried deep in a pile of hay behind the plow. And finally, two more were nestled in the dust below the garden tools. Fourteen eggs in all.

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Returning to the house as the clouds started to gather again, I slipped quietly back inside the front door and, holding my breath, listened for the sound of one or both children awake from their naps. Sweet, sweet silence greeted me.

I put the eggs in the refrigerator and made a pot of coffee, my second for the day, to give me a quick lift before heading into the afternoon’s activities: laundry, putting away toys from the morning’s chaos, and then more laundry. But tonight, dinner would not be the troubling question mark it often is. Tonight, we would have eggs.

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