Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sheep Shearing Redux, updated

Yesterday morning I finally sheared our sheep. I don't imagine you've ever priced them out, but shearers are quite expensive little machines. So I was hoping to be able to borrow one from a friend who picked up some shearing equipment at an auction. This, of course, meant waiting for them to finish shearing and coordinating pick up, etc. Once I got the go-ahead to borrow them, too, I wanted to order my own set of blades so that I wasn't dulling their blades on my sheep. All of which is a long-winded explanation of why I was so late shearing them.

Here's a photo of some fluffy sheep in January:

The shearing went pretty well, all things considered, and I was really glad to have Jim's help wrangling them out of the stall. The day before, I'd moved the sheep into the paddock closest to the barnyard and set up a chute to the barn using electric netting. With the kids' and Jim's help, I was able to get the sheep into the barn that evening, which not only made them easier to catch for shearing, but also kept them dry—you can't shear wet sheep. While I had them immobilized, I also trimmed their hooves, all of which looked pretty good, and checked their eyelids for anemia.

Here are the not-so-fluffy sheep in April:

I did a pretty nice job on the two black sheep, but the lighter sheep is pretty choppy. The fact that she has horns made the job particularly difficult. Her fleece came out beautifully though:

Just look at all the beautiful color variation:

The smallest sheep, who also happens to have been a bottle baby, was the easiest to sheer. She was very cooperative, letting me get some really nice blows and clean her up nicely. She's the one with the white nose looking at you in the photo above. Her black fleece was absolutely luxuriant:

Jules was out watching, and she climbed into the loft to take some photos of the actual shearing process for the last sheep—Candace, our largest sheep. Candace is the only one who will let me pet her, but I have a sneaky suspicion that has changed since yesterday. *Nope: she was happy to let me love her up, and happy to have the fleece off!

Candace was anything but cooperative. She bucked and kicked and fought the entire shearing. Here I am starting out on the brisket, hoping she's settling into the process:

And here she is about a minute later. Notice the hog panel that is now just inches from her feet as she's fussed and fought herself several feet forward:

She looks good, but her fleece came off piecemeal, as I sheared her any way I could, much of which meant having her on her side with Jim holding her firmly. The neck blows were awful to do because she refused to stay still. Definitely not text book New Zealand method!

Thankfully I didn't nick her at all. The first sheep was the only one I nicked, and unfortunately, I got her a couple of times, though none of them bled. Their wool was so incredibly matted that it would not open up and fall away, making it really tricky to shear. Once I figured out how to work with the wool, however, I got significantly better. I'm thinking that I'll need to shear them twice a year so that the wool's not so difficult to get through.

Here's a photo of Candace from today:

And here's one of poor Esther and her chunky haircut:

Some of you asked what we plan to do with the wool. The girls are really looking forward to processing the wool ourselves, so I'm busy researching just how to do that. We'll need to pick up some carders, and after that, we're hoping to learn felting. I'm not a knitter, so I don't think spinning is in my future. I've learned to knit, but it's just too hard on my wrists to make it worth doing, but I think felting would be a whole lot of fun. The girls are really looking forward to learning and creating. As luck would have it, next weekend is the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, so we're hoping to pick up some cool tools and tips while we're there.

Navajo-Churro wool is unique in its dual wool layer: it has an outer protective coating that is coarse and a finer inner coat that is quite soft, but not nearly as long. Here's a really great website that shows some of the natural fiber colors and the beautiful rugs it makes. Notice that she raises N-C's, shears them herself, spins their wool, and then weaves it. Wow!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

She's sooooo pretty! *sigh*

The kids and I went to look at a jersey cow today, and I really, really like her! As you can see, she's listening intently to what we're doing, unsure why we're there and she's separate from all her cohorts.

This is Lavish. She's 60 days in milk, as a first freshener. She was also AI-ed today, and they're willing to keep her through another cycle to try to be sure it took. Not necessarily fantastic timing for a calf, but still pretty great to not have to worry about having her bred for another year. She had no calving problems, and they still have her calf, whom their daughter will be showing this year for 4-H cloverbuds.

She's halter trained and milking machine trained—has never been hand milked since she comes from a dairy with about 300+ head. Until today, that is.

She not only let me milk her, but also each of the kids, one of them multiple times since he couldn't leave her alone. (rolling eyes and shaking head at my over-zealous boy who also somehow managed to shimmy under the electric fence while we were there without getting shocked) All the kids really liked her and want to bring her home. So does their mama.

Look at that face, shmutzy nose and all:

UPDATE: 4/24/08

Okay, I'm obsessing a bit. I know... shocker to those who know me. But anyway, I took the plunge and sent in the deposit today, so pending a negative Johnes test, Lavish will be coming home to live with us at the end of May. Yikes, now I have to get ready!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

All Work and No Play...

We've been busy, busy, busy around here, and we've gotten so much done.

Over the past week we've been building the beehives so we can have them all set up by the time our nucs arrive in mid-May. "Nuc" is short for nucleus, and it's one way to order bees. It's called a nucleus because it is basically a small, working hive that will create the nucleus of the colony. Nucs are more expensive than packaged bees because they're already established mini-hives—the queen has already been accepted and begun laying eggs, giving a jump start to the colony. I have 2 coming.

I ordered my hives from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm in N.C. and I opted to go with the standard deep 10 frame hive, though I'd seriously considering going with a medium hive because of the weight involved. A hive body full of brood and honey can weigh as much as 100 lbs., so I was hesitant to go with something I might not be able to handle by myself. (Yes, this was a rare moment of trying to spare Jim from being dragged into yet another one of my projects, but as you can see, that was merely a fleeting thought.) Our hives are mostly finished, and I'm hoping to stain them today with a water-based stain. Once finished, I'll set them up out in our hedgerow between the market garden and the berry garden.

Speaking of which, this past week the kids and I transplanted around 350 strawberry plants from the kitchen garden out to the berry garden along with about 50 raspberries. Last year I transplanted around 100 raspberries, most of which got crushed in the drought since we don't have irrigation up there. 15 or so survived, and this year I plan to use woven polymulch to help retain moisture and reduce weed pressure, hopefully given these plants a fighting chance.

The kids are amazing workers, especially Julia, who's happy to spend hours out working with me or Jim. I'm consistently amazed that they're so eager to help as often as they are—they truly enjoy being outside and working because it's their choice. They can work as much or as little as they want, and sometimes they do as much playing as working, but they just like being out with us. When they're really working on the farm, they do get paid, and they all earned quite a bit of money with the transplanting. We never had an allowance for inside work, so it was a bit weird for me to consider how we could integrate them into the farm finances, but I wanted for them to have a chance to earn money when they wanted to. So far, the system has worked out beautifully because it still has free-choice at its foundation, along with the premise that the work is, ultimately, the parent's responsibility, so there's no guilt or pressure—just opportunity.

I also managed to get 50 lbs. of red nordland seed potatoes cut up for planting. We've been letting them chit, or eye out, in the garage for the past week, and the nordlands were ready to go in. The banana fingerlings are just about ready as well, but our yukon golds still need more time. This will work out well because it will allow us to get an early crop and a later crop, making for better storage. I can't wait to have our own potatoes again, especially after last year's poor performance with the drought. I will never be without potatoes again if there's anything to be done about it! There is just no comparison—as with so many things—between home grown potatoes and store bought.

Yesterday, I got 50 trees planted, and Jim and Jules got all those seed potatoes in the ground, which I'm sure he'll post about soon. I planted 25 tulip poplars, a native Eastern poplar that is fast growing and super for wildlife and bees. I planted two groves of 11 poplars on the western border of our pastures to provide afternoon shade for our animals. The remaining 3 I planted in front of where I plan to locate the bee hives to eventually provide some afternoon shade for them as well. Our land has very little shade and nearly all of it is along the eastern boundary, meaning morning shade, leaving the animals exposed to the harshest rays of the day. I'm hoping to rectify that a bit with these poplars.

I also planted 25 hybrid willows down in a low, seasonally boggy spot of our barnyard. My plan is to use this both for shade and coppicing for use around the farm and firewood. Willow is great for everything from baskets to trellis to fencing to furniture, not to mention the fact that it's also fast growing and an excellent pollen source for bees. Next spring I may add some black locust to the hedgerow as well, though it can be poisonous to livestock, so I'll need to think carefully about placement. We have some wild cherry out there now, which is also poisonous, so I'll probably try to work it into those areas. At any rate, I'm just babbling now, so I'll sign off and just enjoy all the rain we're getting that's watering in all our hard work.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Garden Napoleon

We managed to knock several things off our to do list this weekend, including the plowing of two new garden areas, which means we'll finally be able to get the potatoes and the oats in the ground. Jim finished the last of the perimeter fencing last weekend, freeing him to plow, and luckily the weather cooperated.

Jim was able to rig a plow borrowed from a neighbor to fit the tractor, letting him create the beginnings of two new gardens for me. We're doubling the size of the market garden this year, and we had the pigs doing much of the clearing work for us all last year. They removed all the turf and plowed a bit for us, but still the new ground is pretty compacted and really needed a good, deep turning over. I'm hoping to move away from till and plow as the gardens improve, but for the near future, anyway, we're just not there yet in the lower gardens. The kitchen garden has been showing dramatic improvements with the compost, however, so I'm hopeful.

We have good soil—silty loam—with pretty good nutrient levels though with quite a bit of shale. (That unplowed portion is home to a couple rows of carrots.) I'm due for soil tests again in the spring, so I'll have a better sense of what these new gardens will do by then. My previous soil tests in these areas were for the pasture as a whole because I hadn't gone all Napoleon yet. Now that I've taken over more and more land, I'll need to redo the soil tests. I'll be doing compost testing as well this year, which should give me a better idea of what's going on with my soil and where it needs amendments, as I continue to figure out how best to work land and animals and plants together. This is our largest garden at about 1/3 of an acre; it's the main market garden and will be comprised mostly of row crops, corn, and potatoes. The kitchen garden is only about 50' x 50' or less than 1/16 of an acre, and it will be used nearly exclusively as a winter garden and summer greens garden with shadecloth over the hoops.

I've added another garden this year as a test plot for grains: hulless oats, quinoa, and amaranth. This is where the pigs were penned in the barnyard this past winter and will likely be a permanent rotation with them. I'm hoping to eek in a cover crop of beets after the grains and before moving the pigs in for the winter, which will provide some self-harvested food for them. This particular soil is quite compacted because of overuse and under-improvement. It's basically been the sacrifice area for our own animals and the horses that lived here for about 20 years before we bought the place and was covered mostly with plantain, medic, and other beneficial weeds, but unfortunately to the exclusion of grasses. This area is roughly 60' x 100' or about 1/8 of an acre. We also have a berry garden, which expands yearly with transplants but is still pretty small, and we'll be adding a medicinal garden in the front yard as well. All in all, I still have under an acre in production.

Jim still needs to disc, and once he's done that, my plan is to put the chickens on the plot for a few days to help with pest control. Of course, this is easier said than done, and I'm sure Jim will be shaking his head upon reading of these plans. The chickens, geese, and Maya and her piglets are all that's left in the barnyard, and we'll be moving them out into pasture rotation within the next month as soon as we work out the rest of the paddock fencing. With the plowing of the grain plot, the piggies got some fresh barnyard, which we'll overseed with a pasture mix in the next couple of weeks, hoping to get in on some last spring rains and begin to improve the condition of the pasture for winter grazing. The chickens and geese should go out very soon. With the piggies, the plan is that Maya will be moved out first, to begin the weaning process and to give us space to cull a couple of the boar piglets for roasting before moving the remaining feeder pigs into a separate paddock.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Early Spring Harvest

I've been so spoiled this year in terms of four-season harvesting, and (God's forgive the hubris) I hope to be even more spoiled next year since I'll be able to plant the tunnels so much earlier. This past year we had tomatoes in the kitchen garden into October, and though I started several lettuces and cold crops in seed trays, I still didn't get them in soon enough. That means that I spent much of this winter epitomizing the impatient gardener, waiting for the seedlings to grow into something while they spent most of the winter hunkered down and near-dormant waiting for some sunshine. Still, we managed to enjoy lots of really delicious mixed baby green harvests throughout even the darkest days of winter. Those frozen green beans I put up at the end of summer have gone nearly untouched because as good as they are fresh, they're not nearly as good frozen and just don't cut it next to real, fresh produce. Truly, I've been so amazed at how easy it is to eat seasonally when one is used to that fresh-out-of-the-garden taste. It's just not worth eating the other stuff!

This was our dinner harvest the other evening. The first tender asparagus shoots, d'Avignon radishes, and purly chives, along with a medley of lettuce greens—red and green salad bowl, speckled bibb, and black seeded simpson—which are growing like crazy now that the sunshine is back, rewarding all my forced patience over the winter twofold. The lettuces look absolutely gorgeous, and the spinach is coming in beautifully. Unfortunately, the recent warm weather is continuing to cause bolting in the high tunnel despite the fact that we got the plastic down last weekend. The brand new tatsoi seedlings and some radishes are already sending up flower shoots. (pouty face here) The arugula, turnips and sorrel are all wanting to flower, as is the michihli and kohlrabi. I keep pinching them out, but it's a losing battle, and I'll probably pull the turnips this weekend to make room for another sowing of something.

The dark-days challenge is officially over, but that doesn't mean that I'll stop regaling folks with fine dining photos. I just like food way too much not to share it! And let's face it, a love of food is the reason we do what we do here at the farm; it informs every decision, every seed, every shovel. So... onto the menu: this evening we enjoyed a delicious zero mile salad topped with a balsamic vinaigrette, bleu cheese, and pasta, along with steamed, tender asparagus that was the sweetest, juiciest asparagus I've ever tasted, and our favorite standby—ciabatta bread. What my plate doesn't show is my husband's carnivorous last minute addition of a flank steak from local grass-fed beef. My motto may be "don't forget the cheese," but his is most definitely "don't forget the meat!"

Saturday, April 12, 2008

An Offense Punishable by the Gods

Hubris, that is.

"Sheer Brilliance" the Aftermath:

Top heavy, plastic-covered carts don't do well in the wind. *sigh* Yup, Jim suggested this might happen as well, and I forgot to try to stabilize it with bricks on the bottom shelf. The winds weren't even that strong, so I'm not sure in retrospect if bricks would even have been enough. I'm considering trying to anchor it to the truck with bungees somehow because it's still a really good idea....

With a few major flaws.

Right now, I have the plastic spread out in my garage waiting for me to sift through for the seeds. These are all tomatoes and pepper plants, with a few eggplants tossed in. Yes, it'll be one hell of a mixed up mess, but it seems a sin to just throw away that many seeds. Not to mention losing at least one more week as I wait for new seeds to arrive in the mail. Argghhhh!

C'mon Jenny, does this kill ya or what?

Sheer Brilliance, Take Two:

I was able to save maybe 75% of the seed I'd guesstimate. The peppers were easy—big and white—so I probably got most of those. The tomatoes were harder, and anything darkish or gray was nearly impossible to find. We'll see what we shall see. We bungeed the cart to a large, stationary object. It shouldn't tip anymore, but the downside is that I can't track the sun quite as well from this anchored position. The wind is whipping as I type, though, so I'm thinking it's a small trade-off.

Updated update: We moved the cart out into the driveway and bungeed it to the truck. Sunshine problem taken care of. We had crazy winds today, and it held up just fine. I was close by.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Farm Happenings

We've been cool and rainy, making it hard to motivate myself to get outside and work. Still, we've managed to keep up with a fair bit of farm work.

Jenny and her daughter were out visiting over the weekend, and while we ate and drank a lot, we apparently didn't get enough work done for Jenny's taste. I kept assuring her that we got all the necessary stuff done, but she said I didn't work her hard enough. (Note to self: next time she comes, work her like a dog and maybe she'll stay warm.) We were able to take the plastic down from the high tunnel, which went really well. We'll leave the hoops up to support shade cloth this summer, hopefully enabling us to grow lettuce through the season.

Everything inside the tunnel is growing beautifully, but the plastic was making the days much too warm for the cool season crops inside, causing many to bolt too soon. Although our last frost date isn't until early May, these crops should do fine, and the cool, overcast days have enabled them to acclimate to life outside the plastic quite well. We're supposed to get rain tomorrow, so I'll hold off a bit on watering in case. That's another advantage to removing the plastic, as it will hopefully help prevent salt build-up in the soil from constant irrigation and no rainfall to flush the soil.

We got the boar and the goats out on pasture this weekend, which went incredibly smoothly. It was great to have a third set of hands moving our boar, Big Boy, and Jenny was unflappable with her professional zoology background—big, unpredictable animals are apparently no big deal. She's a useful person to have around, let me tell you! Of course, the goaties didn't go nearly as smoothly as Big Boy. Oh, they're happy to go out, for sure; it's just that they don't stay put. Our little Nigerian Dwarf doe, Latte, insisted upon jumping the 35" electric net fence, so I put her into the 42" poultry net. She insisted upon jumping again. I spent some time trying to train her to the fence, but the problem is that she already knows she can escape. Now, fyi, the smaller netting kept them contained nearly all of last year, until she got it into her head that she could escape. So, now it's back to the drawing board as we figure out what to do with the goats. Jim's all for selling them, but I figure once we fence in the market garden, we can just let them roam about the pasture. Of course, that cuts into our managed grazing plan, but the best laid plans of mice and men...

We also got all my tomato and pepper seeds planted, and I got my mobile seed greenhouse put together. Sheer brilliance on my part, this will enable me to easily start seeds, moving them in and out of the garage for nighttime protection. The great thing about the cart is that it obviously means I don't have to give up precious tunnel space for seed starting, and I can take advantage of the heatsink that is our driveway. You can see that the cart will fit two 50 pod seed trays per shelf lengthwise, but I can also fit four across the short way with negligible overlap, allowing for a boatload of seed starting! I used some of the more tattered edges of plastic salvaged from one of the winter low tunnels to make the plastic covering, and I simply used clamps to secure it to the bottom of the cart. The wheels lock in place to prevent the cart from rolling down the driveway and into the road, though Jim's taking bets on whether it will go rolling one day anyway. He has no faith.

Over the past couple weeks I've gotten several rows planted down in the market garden. Peas were the first crop to go in and are already popping. After that, I put in broccoli, red and yellow onions, purple bunching onions, radishes, michihli, bok choi, white kohlrabi, beets, turnips, leeks, carrots, and spinach. I'm hoping to get another sowing of peas, radishes, beets, and turnips in tonight as well as parsley, lettuces, celery, colored carrots, and raab.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Dark Days Eat Local Challenge: Weeks 19 & 20

I can tell it's the end of the dark days, not just because the sunlight is returning, but because sundried tomatoes are starting to feature large in my cooking. When one puts up food, there's a sense of rationing at the beginning of winter, trying to be sure that the stores last all the way through. Once the earth starts waking up and plants begin growing, however, summer feels so close you can almost taste it. That's when the abandon begins, as all the carefully tucked away treats come out for tasting.

Roast chicken stuffed with yellow onions, garlic, and sorrel accompanied by sauteed turnip greens with pine nuts, sundried tomatoes and parmesan cheese.

Roast chicken, southern-style turnip greens with salted pork, pasta with sundried tomatoes and feta cheese, and ciabatta bread.

Three cheese pasta with basil, the season's first fresh salad with balsamic vinaigrette, and bleu cheese gougeres.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Signs of Spring!

After about 2 weeks of impatiently scanning the ground, I finally saw it just the other day. The asparagus is here!

Now, you might think I'm excited simply because it's spring or because it's finally asparagus season, and you'd be right, of course. But the important bit of information you'd be missing is that this is our first asparagus season. That's right, this year officially marks the asparagus crowns' 3rd season, which means that we can harvest with abandon this year. Look out asparagus cuz here we come!

The high tunnel has been a huge success this year. So successful in fact that we'll be constructing another one this fall right next to this one, giving over the entire kitchen garden to winter growing. Funny, what started out as a huge garden when we first moved in, now looks to be about the right size for the season most people least associate with fresh foods. Look how amazing that looks!

This high tunnel isn't elegant, but it's simple, relatively inexpensive, easy, and durable. The most expensive part of this project was the plastic. I went with 4 year/ 6 mil greenhouse plastic, which has withstood even our highest winds. For the hoops we used 4' rebar and 10' pvc electrical tubing with the flared ends; the end panels are just 2" x 4"s. We trenched the sides and buried the plastic, using the frozen earth to help hold the plastic in place. (In retrospect, I wonder if this affords some protection from vole penetration, though they certainly could figure out how to tunnel further under.) You can read more about the construction here: Part 1 and Part 2.

Really, this is so simple and affordable that pretty much anyone could have greens year round. Areas with heavy snowfall would need to figure out how to shore up the hoops to avoid collapse. Where we are in Maryland, I simply go out and knock the snow off periodically during a storm. We'll soon be taking the plastic down, but leaving the hoops up to support shade cloth during the high summer season, hopefully enabling us to grow lettuces successfully year round.