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Reports from the Farm

Pinwheel Farm, where I'm "going around in circles," is a constant source of amusement, amazement, learning, inspiration, and WORK. This blog is to share all that with my family and friends, since I can't possibly find the time to correspond with each of y

Updated: 2018-03-06T11:25:15.936-05:00


Welcome, City Shepherds! P.S.


Last but not least, before getting an animal that needs shearing to be healthy and comfortable (angora goat or wool sheep), be sure you have a plan for having it sheared. You COULD do it yourself, but it is truly a challenge with a squirming animal (and the smaller they are the wigglier they are, it seems). It is horrible to nick your own animal by accident, and all too easy.

I will be making plans for City Shepherds to bring their sheep to the farm on our regularly scheduled Sheep Shearing Day Open House. They will be kept separate from my flock, and biosecurity measures will apply, but it will make life soooooo much easier for new shepherds. Our shearer can also give lessons at shearing day.

Welcome, City Shepherds!


The City of Lawrence just passed regulations allowing small ruminants (pygmy goats and sheep) to be kept within city limits! This is exciting news for livestock lovers with large lots! But there's a down side. Goats and sheep are cute, but they ARE livestock, not pets. They aren't just dogs that eat hay.  Here are some words of wisdom from a livestock pro: First things first! Before you decide to get any kind of livestock, esp. sheep and goats, you need to have the following things really nailed down, not just "we'll figure it out when we get there".1. Carcass disposal. Even if it's years in the future, you need to plan this BEFORE it happens, because you won't be in any shape to make decisions or track down options when it does. A rabbit or chicken isn't a big deal (chicken bones go in the trash all the time), but a goat or sheep in the garbage can in the middle of the summer is probably a bad, bad idea. Alternatives that work in the country probably won't work on a city lot.2. Manure management. Everything poops (yes, dogs do, too). With livestock, this is a good thing IF you have a system set up before the manure starts rolling in.3. Transportation. Don't just have the seller deliver your new livestock. If you don't have access to safe, humane transportation for it, don't bring it home. You may need to transport it to the vet in an emergency. Veterinary "farm calls" are an extra $100 or more on top of the cost of exam or treatment.4. Veterinarian. Most Lawrence vets want nothing to do with small ruminants. Hopefully this will soon change, but unless it does, plan on taking your livestock to Eudora Animal Hospital, Pleasant Valley in Tonganoxie, or Baldwin. Many medications, esp. for sheep,  legally require a vet's oversight, even if you administer the medication to the animal yourself. That means establishing a relationship with an appropriate vet BEFORE there is a crisis.5. First aid kit. Treatment tools, thermometer, basic treatments, bandages, wound treatments, etc. Figure this out with your vet. When crisis hits, you can handle it much better if you have the items you need at hand. Your vet, or an experienced livestock handler, can talk you through a lot on the phone.6. Willingness to administer injections. Those vets are a long way away if your animal needs daily or twice-daily injections to treat an illness or injury. Also see #3.7. Good fences, gates with good latches, animal shelters, AND animal-proof storage for hay, grain, etc. BEFORE the animal arrives. These need to be stronger than you can even imagine, because these animals like to rub (sheep) and climb (goats). Facilities must also include a small gated pen that can be used to catch and restrain the animal. They can run faster than you...even when they are almost dead.8. Proper, humane restraints designed for sheep and goats. A collar and lead rope, at least. Also preferably a gambrel restrainer or cuff, for emergency restraint. 9. Feed suppliers. More than one source for the kind of feed you need, in case your usual supplier is out. Sometimes "out" means "until the next hay crop". There will inevitably be times when you can't just feed grass.10. Back-up chore people. You generally can't take livestock for boarding, so you'll have to have someone come to your house while you are on vacation. Or out of town for work or funeral. Or when your entire family has the flu and can't crawl out to the sheep shed through a blizzard.11. A lawn mower. Because there are kinds of grass your goat or sheep won't touch with a 10 foot pole.12. Insemination. If you want to breed your sheep or goat so you can have babies and milk, be sure you have a deal with a stud owner in the country where you can take your gal for a honeymoon, or learn about AI for goats. Sheep pretty much have to be naturally bred. Bear in mind that many of us keep closed flocks, do not want other people's animals on our farm, and do not "loan out" our rams. Promiscuity can spread disease, right? 13. Backup source of colostrum and milk if you are breeding sheep or [...]

Still Here


Yes, Pinwheel Farm, the sheep, Sookie, the chickens, and the whole rest of the Community of Life are still here. Facebook has been a powerful distraction, as has simply survival. Send a friend request to "Natalya Pinwheel Lowther" and like "Pinwheel Farm" if you want to keep up to date with farm events and products available.It was also actually still here at the farm this morning...and quiet...unusual these past few years. Not just a stillness of wind and an absence of people coming and going at the farm, but also a blessed absence of the "new normal" background noise of diesel engines idling, large trucks sounding their horns, and earth-moving equipment alarms constantly chiming as they roar around pulverizing soil and trees at the neighbor's place.The past several years have been a frustrating ongoing effort to get the county to enforce applicable codes...doubly frustrating, because of my own long history of being subjected to non-existant codes and falsified complaints. The recently intensified flurry of earthmoving and construction next door seems to be, finally, some progress towards compliance with codes and away from the junkyard it had become. (Quadruply frustrating, because I'm poised to begin working with the FOURTH Zoning and Codes administrator since the situation next door began to escalate, and since this is an interim Administrator, there is a fifth in my not-so-distant future.)Anyhow.I took advantage of the perfect day--peaceful, still, quiet, overcast, pleasant fall temperature--to sort out sheep for breeding groups. This will give us lambs just before and during sheep shearing* in the spring...a bit earlier than usual, hoping to clear the calendar later in March and April for more timely intensive spring planting. (*Third Saturday in March every year...Open Farm Day...Like Pinwheel Farm on FB for information as the date nears.)It was great having a constant stream of WWOOFers here from June until a couple weeks ago. We were able to "work sheep" (run them through the handling system** and record weights) every week or two, something that hasn't happened in a couple years due to lack of volunteers. One of the lasting benefits now that everyone is gone is that the sheep are well trained to the chute, so I can easily work them solo. Which I did this morning...more than once. (**You can click over to Pinwheel Farm's album on Facebook to see photos and notes on the handling system.)Just so all you non-livestock-farmers can appreciate what goes into your lamb chops and mittens, and so you wanna-be-livestock-farmers can have a glimpse of what you're getting yourselves into, here's the morning's drill:1. Realize that the older ram, Wesley, has jumped the electric fence out on pasture to get closer to the ewes.2. Ewes loafing in the barnyard decide to explore the loading ramp, and push open the gate at the top (gate at the bottom was left unlatched and open, and top gate left closed but unlatched, when I loaded market lambs last Wed. Note to self...don't do that!) while I'm doing chicken chores. Suddenly they are all in the garden. (Must have been a lovely waterfall of fat wooly sheep cascading off the upper end of the ramp...I'll have to stage that sometime and take a video.)3. Round up ewes with novice working dog (sometimes helpful, sometimes unhelpful, always eager) and get them into an unused paddock near the garden.4. Let them graze there long enough that their tummies are full and they are willing to leave.5. Run them up to the barn and into the crowding pen for the chute.6. Start weighing sheep in the chute.7. Realize that the list of which ewe goes with which ram is still in the house. Hope sheep stay in chute while running to house for list. (They do.)8. Mentally run through the whole Rubick's Cube puzzle of how to organize the sorting and moving so that the groups can be joined as needed and moved to the right places on the farm without mixing. (Another sort pen would be really handy, sometimes.)9. Sort out Wesley's ewes into the side ho[...]

Market Research


About 8 years ago, I started an experiment at my Farmer's Market booth. When I settled on my current popular salad green/herb display--"mix 'n' match, $10/lb., as little or as much as you want, take what you like and leave the rest"--I soon realized that often folks just wanted a few herbs, which didn't even register on the scale. So I started the "$1.00 for a small bag, whatever herbs you want to put in it."It's been very popular, and enlightening as well. People love not having to buy more than they will use, and being able to get just the fresh herbs they need for the recipe du jour. They love not being forced to waste food. Often they are happier with one fragrant sprig than they would be with a larger package, because they don't want to waste.There are also always a few who make their pesto (because this usually happens during basil season) in the small bag, cramming in the tender herbs until the juices run. I don't weigh the bags, but I'm sure I've seen $3 worth (by weight) of herbs in a $1 bag.And then there are the "regulars" who put twice their usual amount of herbs in the bag, and give me $2, even though they are still only getting a few snippets of this and that. Even though I still smile and say, "That'll be $1." They know what it's worth to them. It's twice their usual.From time to time, someone new to my booth comments on my little experiment. "Don't people take advantage of that?" No, not really. For every pesto-maker, there are many sprig-takers. It all averages out...and overall, I make more money on the herbs this way that if I sold them by weight or by pre-measured bunches.It's a good deal for everyone...people get what they want, they essentially choose their price, they take only what they can use, and I don't have to pre-weigh/pre-bag/label/etc.***Green onions are another long-time experiment. It used to be, there just wasn't much demand for them. I bunched them in rubber bands like the store, and then took them home and took off the rubber bands to throw them in the compost (before Just Food). Eventually I got frustrated with the wasted effort and just laid them on the table in loose bunches. Figuring out how big to make bunches of anything can be a pain in the neck when the items vary in size both within the day's offering and from week to week. Every bunch required at least some small mental activity to decide what was in that particular bunch.One day I didn't separate them into bunches. "You get to pick your own bunch," I told the customers. "How big is a bunch?"they asked. "You know how big a bunch of green onions in the store," I replied. "No, I don't." "Yes, you do" I would laugh and smile. And timidly, they would start picking up onions, looking at me for cues after the first few. "How many is in a bunch?" they would ask, hoping I would relent and spare them the responsibility. "It depends on what size they are. You might want all big ones, all small ones or some of each." I would smile and repeat myself. "You know how big a bunch of green onions is." And by golly, they would almost always pick out exactly a bunch of green onions.This was, in part, about getting customers involved in the process of vegetables, the post-harvest handling that for conventional grocery-store veggies is often done by migrant workers living and working in grueling conditions. It was also about building self-confidence, about showing people they know something that they didn't think they knew.Sometimes people needed a little more guidance. "It's enough that you feel like you're getting a good deal, and not so much that you feel like you're cheating me," I would tell the still-skeptical.There are, of course, outliers in the range of green-onion-purchasers. These fall into a couple categories. One is people who don't normally shop who have been sent to Farmer's Market with lists. It's pretty easy to tell from the deer-in-the-headlights look that they truly do not know how big a bunch of green onions is. They aren't even quite [...]

Herding Progress


Herding training has been on the back burner with my efforts to keep up with harvesting and planting. Lambing interfered, as well, because the ewes were fierce and I didn't want Sookie to be badly scared or, worse, injured by a protective mama. Also, I haven't had the sheep out on the pasture much this year, for various reasons.But nevertheless, we've been in the pens and lanes with the sheep from time to time, and Sookie definitely wants to work them. But how? They have learned, over the past few years, to basically ignore dogs, or to stomp them. The bottom line has been, neither the sheep nor the dog knew what was expected of them, and I couldn't figure out how to get past that. It seemed like if one or the other would do their part of the dance that is working sheep with a dog, the other would follow the lead and I could coach.But what we had going on was pretty much just pandemonium.On the few occasions when we needed to get the sheep to do something, it basically amounted to me stomping and waving and yelling at sheep, while Sookie ran around, breaking through the middle of the flock, circling endlessly, ignoring my "lie down" commands, etc. I would try to direct her while also yelling at the sheep, and we would all end up frustrated and confused. Yet if I left her out of the pen and tried to move the sheep myself (which Toss taught me to do quite efficiently), she would run around like crazy and yelp and carry on, creating a distraction.Eventually, I've figured out the following:--Sookie is very "loose-eyed" for a Border Collie--whether by nature or by nurture (not seeing sheep until she was 3) I don't know. She works standing up, close in to the flock, and without a lot of direct eye contact. Although she is learning to keep her eyes on the sheep more, she still looks back at me a lot. I need to accept this as her natural working style, and stop expecting her to act like Toss.--Sookie is incredibly gutsy, and will squeeze between the sheep and a fence or shed in very tight places without showing fear. She also doesn't take it personally when a ewe charges her...she'll get scared and run for a little way, but then she wants to go right back in as soon as she realizes the ewe has refocused.--Sookie is a master of the "fake grip". She likes to get in close and pretend to bite the sheep in the face or rump. Over time, she is gaining more response from the flock because she is hounding them like a giant horsefly buzzing in their face. This seems to be a sense of annoyance on the part of the sheep, more than fear.--I need to figure out ways to clearly distinguish between the commands I'm giving to the sheep (our familiar "Come, sheep" call that the sheep have learned to associate with fresh pasture) and the commands I'm giving the dog ("Sookie, Come").The other day we easily sent most of the flock out to pasture, but a few remained in the green calf shed. This shed has 3 small stalls with narrow openings onto the lane. There was one yearling in each of the outer stalls, and a young ewe with lamb in the middle stall.The single yearlings both fell for Sookie's "suction" method of getting sheep out of the stalls. She runs past the doors repeatedly, glancing in. After a few passes, the sheep inside get so nervous that they want to run out into the open. Eventually, she runs past and as soon as she passes, the sheep pops out of the shed right behind her and follows her for a few moments. Apparently for a sheep, it feels safer to have her moving away from them than towards them. She doesn't try to "get" them in any way once they are out, unless I direct her to.The ewe and lamb were a different story. When mild "suction" across the front of the shed didn't work, Sookie intensified her effort by running in and out, back and forth between the now-empty stalls on each side of the central stall. Even that didn't work. So she went into their stall after them, running in circles between them and the walls in the tiny (6' x 4[...]

Sookie's Triumph: Staying Home


One reason Sookie needed a new home (and thus came to live with me) was her wanderlust. She would get bored, escape from fenced yards, and roam the 'hood solo.At first, she was always on a leash here, learning to stay near me. Gradually I got tired of being tethered to the dog, and she got more used to staying around me, and the leash fell into disuse. Once in awhile, she would force her way through a gate and wander off, or I would forget and leave a gate open, but not too often, and she would come when I gave her special call. Not sure how I figured it out; it's sort of like a very loud bird-call version of her name, something that a peacock might utter. I'm sure the neighbors dislike it, but it gets her attention from a long distance even when there are trains, cars, helicopters, wind, etc. making noise.Then Matt--who was great buddies with her--left the farm in early May. Since then she has been very bad about slipping away from the farm. I think she is looking for him...or maybe even hearing/smelling him somewhere in the neighborhood, since he has friends who live nearby.If I notice she is missing from the farm (and I try to call her to me every little bit, to keep her on her toes and focused on me), I start calling and walking towards the driveway. Sometimes Maggie, the dog across the street, alerts me with her "tattle-tale" bark.It can take a few minutes to get there from the farm. Sometimes she is already there by the time I get there, panting hard from her romp. More often, she comes bolting down 5th Street towards me, or is in a neighbor's yard. I worry about her getting hit by a car, so as soon as she is within earshot of regular commands and in a safe place, I order "lie down", and she does. She'll stay until  I get there, though she knows what's coming: The Transport of Shame. I pick her up and carry her home.No "bad dog", no scolding, just a stern silence and I pick her up and carry her. No evening stroll with Mom as a reward for bad behavior! She doesn't struggle, but neither one of us enjoys it very much. (I'm glad she does not weigh more than 35 lbs.).Yesterday, she slipped away, and as I walked through the woodlot to the house, I heard her barking (unusual--she is a very quiet dog) up along the street. When I got to the driveway, she came right to me, and I saw a woman with a big dog on a leash walking down 5th Street away from the house. I realized that Sookie must have interrupted their walk by going up to them and barking at the dog.I decided to chase them down and apologize for my dog being at large, and her bad behavior. So I told her to "lie down" and "stay there" in the driveway, and jogged about half a block to overtake the woman and her dog.The woman was very nice about it. She said that Sookie had met them near the farm driveway, and run along our side of the street while the woman and dog were on the other side. As soon as Sookie got to our house, THEN she started barking--she knew exactly which space was hers to "defend"! We stood and talked for awhile. I kept glancing back at Sookie. She stayed right where I'd left her for quite awhile. When she stood up, I "downed" her again, and she stayed right there. The woman was amazed at her obedience.I feel like it was a real triumph for Sookie's training in several ways. First, that she clearly demonstrated that she knew her proper space, and didn't try to claim the neighborhood as hers! Second, that she hadn't actually gone up to the dog on the leash, but had stayed on her side of the street. She can be a real b---- with strange dogs at first, and it would be bad if she did that without me around, with a dog on a leash. Third, that she stayed put for so long in her own yard while I talked to and petted a strange dog a half block away!Now if we can transfer that "down-stay" to when we are working sheep![...]

Paperwork Season


Winter is supposed to be a season of rest for the farmer, right? Just sitting by the fire spinning, or reading, or what-not?Actually, this winter has really brought home to me the real winter occupation of this farmer, at least: Paperwork.A farmer wears many hats: amateur veterinarian, geneticist, entomologist, marketing specialist, carpenter, electrician, plumber, mechanic, etc. And also: bookkeeper, lawyer, regulatory policy analyst, real estate developer, community planner, etc.An awful lot of these involve paperwork. A lot of this paperwork happens in the winter, for three reasons: first, that's when we need to do crop-related planning for the coming vegetable production season; second, it's the only time I'm likely to have time to fill out paperwork; and third, everyone in farm-related businesses realizes this is the best time to get farmers to actually fill out paperwork.And attend meetings. Trainings. Workshops. Seminars. Conferences. Etc. Each of which supplies the farmer with yet more paper, more paperwork, and copious notes.This winter's calendar included: Great Plains Vegetable Growers Conference (in St. Joseph, MO; we went 2 of 3 days); Wholesale Marketing Workshop (KCKS); Kaw Drainage District meetings; Grow Lawrence Annual Meeting; Food Policy Council meetings; Kaw Valley Seed Fair; Downtown Lawrence Farmers Market Annual Meeting; WIC Vendor Program Meeting. And more to come. This is only the ones we actually attended; there have been all kinds of farm shows, seminars, webinars, and workshops that we were just too busy to attend.A few events still loom ahead--including one of the funnest, the annual scale certification party at Pendleton's Country Market where the farmers get to stand around and visit and eat donuts while waiting for our scales to be inspected and--glory hallelujah!--someone ELSE fills out the paperwork, in return for us writing checks!Forms to fill out, fees to send in (farmers markets, WIC, etc.). Renewals (meat wholesaler, live plant dealer). Memberships (Grow Lawrence). Checking to be sure we aren't planning anything new for the year that will require yet another registration/certification/training/fee. Checking to be sure no regulations have changed that will require yet another registration/certification/training/fee.Then there's the paperwork we make up for others to fill out, like surveys and sign-up forms for our CSAs. We'll be doing two CSAs at day care centers this year, as well as one that will bring people to the farm to pick up their weekly bags of produce.Garden planning. Seed orders. Bed maps. Rotations. Succession plantings.That's the routine stuff, some of it stuff we've been doing every year for more than 15 years.Then there's the big stuff. This year the big stuff has been mostly related to the new Douglas County Agritourism regulations, approved at last (after 3 years' work) on January 2, 2013. Many of our dreams for the farm have been hogtied for years--more than a decade in some cases--because County regulations just didn't accommodate the notion that people could, would, and should want to do things on farms like hike, picnic, buy farm-related products, etc. Picture those dreams as a string of racehorses fidgeting in the starting gate for 10 years, and now the gates have finally opened. They're off and running....But wait! No! First there must be paperwork! And everyone has been so busy trying to get the regulation passed that no one has had time to design the forms to implement the regulation! County staff bent over backwards to get the forms done so we could submit our application in time for them to have a meeting to review our application and then another meeting with me to give us their approval...leaving maybe like 4 waking hours to prepare all of our promotional materials to hand out at the Seed Fair the next day. I was literally proofreading the County's draft forms a page at a time as the adm[...]

First Try at Herding!


Coby went home last night, and things are a bit quiet around here. Sookie initially reverted to some old behaviors, like constantly pawing me while I'm working at the computer. So, I reverted to the old response: stand up and walk away. It didn't take very many times for her to get the message.She unwittingly gave herself a good lesson on manners with guests this morning. A friend with a darling, sweet old chihuahua, Chalupa, visited us this morning. Sookie decided the visiting dog could not come in the living room, and Chalupa decided to play her "age card"..."I'm an old lady and I can go in the living room if I want to". Sookie flew into a tizzy at Chalupa, using some pretty nasty dog language...but in doing so, she accidentally knocked into a big empty popcorn tin that was sitting nearby with the lid partly on. The lid flew off with a clatter, the can made a huge crash, the sky fell, Sookie decided that her crate was plenty 'nuff territory to defend, and beat a hasty retreat before the rest of Armageddon happened. We humans just sat back and watched karma step in and handle the situation better than we could ever have done. Natural consequences are the best training device! After that, she was polite to the little dog.This afternoon, Sookie had her first actual off-leash try at the sheep! We'd ventured into the sheep pen earlier, on-leash, but Sookie's whole attention was on sheep poop. So I decided that a better environment would be to let the sheep out on pasture where the sheep poop would be further apart and the sheep would be moving a lot. Instead of going in through the pen, we walked from the pasture to the pen, then let the sheep out. The sheep were overjoyed!I mostly just watched, assessing her behavior with the sheep while being ready to intervene if a sheep decided to stand her down. At this stage, an attack by a big sheep could sour her to herding for a long time.One of the runts was lagging behind, and I was pleased to see that Sookie was reluctant to pass it in order to keep up with the rest of the flock as they joyfully ran out to the pasture. Some dogs aren't careful to stay out of the middle of a group, and then things go really wonky as sheep move away from the dog in all directions. Sookie's reluctance to pass by the laggard kept the whole flock moving as a unit.Once we were all out in the wide open space of the pasture, I waved at Sookie to go out around the flock, and she did...a very nice outrun at an adequate distance away from the greedily grazing sheep to keep the sheep calm, but still keeping a light contact with them, watching them all the time. She wasn't sure what to do when she got out there, though, and since the sheep aren't dog broke (trained to come to the handler when they see a dog), they didn't help us out. So at that point she shifted her attention back to me: "Mom......????? Now what?????"I went to her and encouraged the sheep to move away from her, but by then she'd glued her attention back to me. So we went back around the sheep a bit to my starting point, and I waved her off around them in the other direction. Out she went again on a nice outrun, good as gold...just still not sure what to do when she got out there.I don't want to call her to walk up on them until I know they won't stomp at her when I can't protect her. I don't want them to bully her and make her afraid to work. I'll be trying to find someone nearby with a good herding dog to come "dog break" the sheep, before we can make too much progress. But it was a good start.She did sort of accidentally get the sheep moving again, by her presence; they decided to all run back to the sheep pen. Again, she was reluctant to pass the slow lamb, and looked like a pro "wearing" back and forth behind it, trying to get it to go faster. It didn't (spoiled bottle baby). So the flock got to the pen and "bounced" at the gate (even though it[...]

More Balls, More Fun


It has been good having Coby, the big Golden Retriever/Poodle mix, staying with us for a couple weeks. After the initial fuss over social status and territory in the house, he and Sookie have become good companions. They get along well at home, and have a great time romping together on the farm.It's especially valuable to Sookie's training. Nothing like a big lumbering random distraction to hone her attention to me... and he keeps me from accidentally falling into routines I'm not aware of.Sookie is very sensitive to routines. At first, we always went straight out to the "romping grounds" when we went to the farm morning and evening. Recently, we've had a few issues with her trying to INSIST that we go there first, before doing chores...and refusing to walk out to the pasture until after the romping grounds. Well, I need to be the one who gives orders, and sometimes we have to put work before play on the farm!I'm letting both dogs off the leash as soon as the farm gate is closed behind us now. Then I stop Sookie with a "Lie Down" or a "Wait" at each gate or intersection. Trying to keep her  guessing...where will I go next? Sometimes I try to fake her out, or start one way then change my mind. She is learning to pay attention to me, learning that I'm unpredictable but something fun usually happens if she sticks with me.At the romping grounds, we have two tennis balls now. And Coby. It's getting really exciting!We've been working a lot on finding lost balls. When I can see them, and she's searching, I use the sheep-finding commands: "Look Back" (if it's behind her) and "Here Here" (if it's between me and her). Slowly she is learning to turn and search farther away on command. This is a challenge for her, because she wants to work close to me, watching me. Turning away from me is hard for her, but very necessary when working sheep. When in doubt, she starts going into orbit around me, looking at my feet. Not productive!Continual random drilling on "Lie Down" has had good results, and she'll drop just about anywhere most of the time, regardless of what Coby is doing. Sometimes he is tripping over her, but she ignores him if I'm giving a command. This is vital before we start sheep long as she doesn't ignore the sheep in the same manner!As a variation from our usual throw/fetch with the tennis ball, I've been working with two balls at once. This is extra challenging because once in awhile Coby will leave his stick and come grab a ball. We let him, and instantly re-direct to the other ball.I'm especially impressed with the impulse control we've gotten on "Lie Down" "Stay" with a new game. I put her down near me, then throw one ball one direction, the other ball the other direction. She will actually stay in place when two balls are being thrown AND Coby is leaping after them right next to her! This is a pretty incredible feat of self-restraint and obedience!Then what joy the command of "That one!" brings as I direct her which one to go get first! Off she tears, grabs it, brings it back, drops it in my hand, waits to see whether I will throw it again or tell her to go find the other one. Sometimes that depends on whether Coby is going after the other one.Today, I introduced a new concept: "Drop it in the bucket", instead of "Drop it in my hands". She is trying so hard to understand! She is very intent, but puzzled. I hold the bucket in front of me, cup a hand inside it for her to drop the ball into. It just about blows her mind! Now and then she gives a sharp little bark of frustration at not understanding, and we switch to some other game for a little while to let her unwind. But even when she is frustrated, I can tell she loves the challenge of learning new things. She WANTS to understand and do what I ask of her.By the end of this evening's romp, she was beginning to actually get the ball into t[...]

Double Trouble--But Worth It


Not one but TWO escapes from the farm today by the quicksilver canine.First, she slipped through a sheep pen gate as I struggled to maneuver a load of logs through it, and found a hole in the "fence" between the woodlot and the neighbor's in the blink of an eye. We were right on her tail and retrieved her from the mobile home park down the block within minutes. She had been confined to the vacant sheep pen where we were working, so we had taken her leash off so she wouldn't tangle on the brush we were moving.Renewing our caution, I kept her on the leash when we were working in the garden, but didn't tie her. She obeys much better when she's dragging the leash, and I can step on it to get her attention if she's ignoring me. She's been respecting the electronet fence across the back yard, even without it being energized, stopping until I lift it and say "come under". But apparently she slipped under it, and we had left both the woodlot and driveway gates unlatched. Before we realized she was gone, a stranger rounded the corner of the barn, calling out to us, "Hey, is this your dog? She was at __ & ___ [5 blocks away]." She seemed totally unabashed...she had made a new friend. "Nice dog," he says.Rolling my eyes. Restraining my temper. Recalling the most memorable lesson from the AKC Puppy Kindergarten class: If you leave the puppy in the living room, and it chews up the couch, roll up a news paper and hit your self over the head with it, saying sternly, "Don't leave the puppy with the couch! Don't leave the puppy with the couch!" Right. And don't take your eye off the Border Collie for an instant. Ever.But there were many high points, too. This morning, we reviewed yesterday's progress and added one more command: "Leave it." With her in a "Down" "Stay", I would place the tennis ball a couple feet away from her and say "Leave it." She was pretty good at waiting until I said "Pick it up" and "Drop it in my hand." Later in the wood lot, when I was moving chunks of firewood, I asked her to pick up the small ones and put them on the woodpile. She actually seemed to understand...and even left them on the woodpile.***Later, we decided to merge the two groups of sheep and see what would happen. It's that time at the end of breeding when we try to reintegrate all the little breeding groups into one or two larger groups, to minimize chores. With 3 official breeding rams this season, as well as a couple intact male market lambs, it can be tricky. Rams will often try to kill each other.Tuesday, we put the two younger breeding rams (White Crow, 9 months, and Patchface, a year and 9 months) together with the market lambs (i.e., two smaller ram lambs plus some ewe lambs). There was some pushing and ramming between Crow and Patchface, but they seemed to settle down pretty quickly. We ran all the mature ewes into the pen with Braithe, our senior ram.My goal is to start Sookie working with the market lambs, since they're smaller and much less assertive than the big ewes and rams. I thought maybe we could work them with Patchface and Crow in the group, but Patchface seemed pretty assertive towards the dog. So...could we actually get Braithe, Patchface, and Crow--500+ lbs. of testosterone-infused muscle--to peacefully coexist in the same pen?I took Sookie into the Green Barn Pen on the long leash, and drove the young rams and market lambs into the barn with her in tow. She seemed confused, and distracted by all that tempting manure, but she showed some interest in the sheep as well. At one point, one of the rams broke away from the flock and ted back behind me. I called out "Look!" and she actually did! We went after him (and the other one that followed him) and got them back without the rest of the group turning back, too. Then, to the cry of "Put 'em in the barn!" Sookie and I were able to [...]

Triple Triumph


This training of Sookie is a slow unfolding--significant progress each day, but it's only visible if I look really closely. The reminders applies to all of my life, especially to all my relationship: be in the moment, pay attention, expect perfection, look for the successes and not the failures.She still runs away and doesn't seem to hear me, if she has slipped out of the house yard fence without the leash, or if she is intent on tracking some enticing smell on the way to the romping ground. I need to bite my tongue rather than fruitlessly call again and again. If she doesn't want to give me her attention, when she is off-leash, there is no way I can get it. I can only trust that in time, she will be so completely interested in what I will ask of her next that she will always have a bit of her attention on me, ready for the next adventure. That, and eventually the smells of the farm may seem less compellingly exotic to her city-raised nose.I was distracted and aloof at the romping ground this morning. We actually didn't get there until this afternoon, because of a thought-provoking meeting this morning followed by various follow-up calls and emails. I had taken my pruning shears, and let her play on her own while I cut out wild grape vines that are a potential tripping hazard. We tossed the ball a little bit, with her dancing and throwing her head around and rapidly mouthing the ball every time she brought it. She was coming right to me and letting me take it from her mouth, but it was a lot of dodging and grabbing to get it, and my leather gloves saved my hands from a lot of little bruises from accidentally colliding with her teeth and jaws.***This evening we went out again at dusk. When I let her off the leash, she went out looking for the ball, round and round the Hugelkulture piles, but couldn't find it. It's hard to see in the clumpy grass in the twilight. I wandered around looking, too. When I found it, I called her to me, and she eventually came. I pointed at the ball with my outstretched arm and pointing finger, saying "Look!" She would look deep into my eyes, tongue hanging out, trying to discern what I wanted. "Look!" I would point again. Her gaze on my face was unwavering, 100% Border Collie intensity.We've done this before, many times, when I'm trying to show her a lost ball that I found. I usually start 5 or 6 feet from the ball, then gradually get closer until my finger is nearly touching the ball, repeating the command while looking at the ball myself. I lock eyes with her and then deliberately shift my line of sight to the ball, hoping she'll follow. I have never gotten her to pay attention to my hand, unless to paw at it and examine it.But this evening, when I got within a couple feet of the ball, she shifted her gaze to my hand, and instantly pounced on the ball. Success! We did it a couple more times through the evening, and I could tell she had finally begun to grasp the concept of looking where I was pointed/looking, instead of at my face.This seems trivial, but in working sheep it's critical. If she's sent out to gather the flock, and can't find them, I might need to direct her towards them by pointing them out and saying "look!", if verbal left/right commands aren't working to direct her towards them. And if she leaves one behind when gathering the flock, I'll need to tell her to "Look back" so she can return for the straggler.That seems like a small difference in commands--"Look" and "Look back". Someone who has struggled to convey the simple concept of "sit" to a mere ordinary dog might wonder whether a dog could tell the difference between the two. Well, my old Toss not only knew these very similar-sounding commands, she understood "here" (i.e., come here) and "here here!" (pay attention to something else over this way) a[...]

Dog Tired


Every day is full and busy, more than ever, with Sookie in the picture.We go to the "romping pen" every morning and evening for a 15-30 minute session that is play/exercise mixed with training. Additional training happens on the way there and back, and really whenever she's with me and whatever we do. It is mentally exhausting for me, after awhile, even though it's very rewarding for both of us.She is an amazingly intelligent dog and a quick learner. I joked to Dad last night that after all these years, I would have to learn calculus. "Whatever for?" he asked. "Because I'm going to run out of things to teach this dog in a few years, and I may have to teach her calculus."When I met Sookie, she and her owner and his other BC, Lucy, were playing with a tennis ball. The rules were: A. throws the ball. If Lucy catches it, it's Lucy's ball to dance around with and dare everyone else to try to get. If Sookie catches it, it's Lucy's ball to...and Sookie would tag after, run circles around Lucy, etc. A common dynamic between an older dog and a younger dog.In solo play, this amounted to Sookie playing keep-away with me. Eventually she would bring the ball somewhere near me, and I would manage to snag it out from under her nose at some point to throw it again...or pick it up while she was distracted with the Hugelkulture pile.When she had the ball, she would lie down "on command" at a distance IF she were already stopped and just standing there, and was ready to lie down. But when she was running, there was no stopping her. Ever. She would eventually honor a "come here" command, and then lie down (on command) at my feet with much ado.This was fun for both of us, to a point, but it all added up to a lot of exercise for me, trying to get the ball back to throw it to exercise her. And it wasn't a very good foundation for her eventual work with sheep. Before she can go in with the sheep, she needs to lie down instantly on command, no matter where she is. And she needs to "come" when called. Without these two basics, I would have no control at all with her off-leash in with the sheep.So. This is how smart this dog is: Sunday morning I got tired of the "keep-away" game. I had figured out that she would "come"and "bring the ball" much better if I were squatting down, so I did that. I wouldn't throw the ball unless she would let me get it without me moving from my squatting position. I did a lot of reaching! By the end of the session, she had figured out to bring me the ball and leave it on the ground near me. If it was too far, I would fruitlessly reach, and she would eventually pick it up and put it closer to me.Sunday afternoon, she clearly remembered this new rule: if she wants the ball thrown, she has to bring the ball to me. After squatting a few times, I stood up, and she had to bring the ball where I could reach it from standing up. Again, lots of reaching! But she figured that out, and was "coming" pretty reliably even when I was standing.Monday morning, I made her "hand" me the ball without me reaching down to the ground. She was doing great by the end of the session...though an on-looker would see something like the blur of a hummingbird at a feeder, as she dances back and forth around my legs darting her muzzle with the ball between my hands, mostly too fast for me to grab the ball. When I do manage to get my hands on the ball, she releases it to me instantly...much better than Toss ever did. I would have to activate pressure points on Toss's jaws to get her to release a ball, until she learned that the hand coming under her chin meant "drop". She never honored the word.This evening, we started working on getting her to drop the ball into my hands. Didn't quite get there, but we were both tired from working sheep and having a lot of[...]

Drink Your Dried Fruit


Life is not all about dogs, although sometimes the dog seems to think so. Sometimes it is about warming up and refueling after a long romp/training session on a cool winter morning. And that, of course, means a hot cup of tea...and a little something.

I love dried fruit, but it's so easy to eat a lot. And with the amazing home-dried locally grown fruit that Mom makes for the whole extended family, there is a limited supply. And dried fruit stuck to your teeth is not a whole lot healthier than candy stuck to them.

On my Canadian adventure, I was given a gift of uniquely Canadian tea. It was composed of dried Saskatoon berries, dried blueberries, etc.: all real chunks of fruit. You put a couple teaspoons in a pot, poured on boiling water, stuck it under a cozy for awhile, and presto! Canada summer in a cup! Add a little cream, and it was like ice cream only warm!

Lately I realized I could do the same thing with Mom's dried fruit. I still use a tea bag, but then select a few pieces of complementary flavored dried fruit, and put the big chunks in before pouring the water. When I get to the bottom of the cup of fruity tea, the fruit chunks are delightfully soft and warm to scoop up with the spoon. I get the most enjoyment possible out of a few pieces, and nothing stuck to my teeth.

My winter tea corner now occupies the whole end of the kitchen table, double decker: electric tea kettle, mugs, boxes and bags of tea, tea strainers, homegrown honey (not needed with bit of homegrown stevia or a slice of dried pear) and jars of Mom's dried fruit. Also a jar of candied ginger, because one of Mom's favorite "teas" is just a slice of candied ginger in a cup of hot water. Refreshing and warming.

In the refrigerator, there are more tea fixin's: jars of jam...many flavors, but especially strawberry. Somewhere when I was a child we read about "Russian tea"--plain black tea with a spoonful of strawberry jam mixed in. Also cream or half-and-half.

My current favorite combo is dried home-grown figs in a cup of peach-flavored herbal tea, with a little half-and-half. Hopefully next year we will get a supply of frozen sheep milk/sheep cream laid by, for even more luxurious homegrown winter tea.

Basic Training


Meeting Patchface, Penny and Jenny.Totally airborne! This great shot was just random chance...there are more photos of just the grass, because she was out of the frame before  the camera and I could respond!Sookie's toybox...the Hugelkulture pile and waste wool composting area. I remembered the camera this morning when we went out for our morning romp/field training session in the East Margin Pen. She is a much easier dog to photograph than any of my other Border Collies, who were/are all camera shy. She's a bit of a ham, but mostly she's like this whether the camera is on her or not.She continues to amaze me with her ability to learn. The gate/door thing (wait/come through) is coming along nicely, and we're already doing some off-leash work with it at the front door. I try hard to be totally random about it--sometimes I step through and close the door in her face, sometimes I send her through before I go through, all different variations so she learns to listen for the command and not for a particular gesture, time, or routine.She is a very "footy" dog, with several related habits that I'm trying to change. One is that she is constantly trying to check out the dishes in the kitchen sink, the crumbs on the dining table, etc.--putting her feet up and of course the head follows, with that slim nose reaching out as far as possible. Another is that when I am working at the computer, she frequently paws at me, puts her feet on the chair next to me, etc. She also puts her feet up on the door sometimes when we're approaching it, and sometimes puts her feet up or paws at me when she comes to me.Most of these behaviors are relatively inconsequential now. But any day--I hope!--we will have wet weather again, and then those sweet spotted paws will be muddy/manurey. It won't be so cute then!I don't like animals around my food, so cats AND dogs are not allowed on my tables or counters. Discouraging the habit of cleaning up the dishes after me is a challenge, because she usually does it when I'm not in the room. Sometimes I hear tell-tale sounds, and can rush in and reproach her. She clearly knows she isn't supposed to do this! But mostly, I need make sure there isn't a food reward for her searching. The butter dish and crackers that I like to keep on the table during chili season are now in a heavy covered casserole dish, I clear the dishes and food off the table as soon as I get up, and brush off the crumbs. So it looks like once again a dog will teach me to become a better housekeeper! Toss taught me to make my bed...because when the Border Collie comes in from the sheep pens on a muddy day, the bed best be all made up if you want to sleep in clean sheets. A huge part of training a Border Collie is training oneself. That is one reason I've waited so long after Toss's death...wanting to be sure I was ready to retrain myself.The relentless pawing at me while I'm at the computer has really bugged me, so much that last night I finally put her in her crate so that I could get anything done. It's important that I do this BEFORE I'm irritated with her, so she doesn't associate the crate with punishment. But I really don't want to have to lock her up to work; I like petting her head (at my initiative, not at her demand) while I'm waiting for the stupid little spinning beach ball on my Mac. What to do?I had an insight today: I'm rewarding her with attention (what she wants, because the computer is getting it) by brushing away her paws each time she puts them up. It becomes a game, like the "Slap Hands" game Dad used to play with us when we were kids. So today, I've disciplined myself to instantly get up and go do something else--even just walk in a circle around the room--while stud[...]

A Good First Day


Today I took Sookie around the main parts of the farm, just getting familiar with her, and letting her learn her way around the farm a bit. I kept her on a long lead, so that she couldn't get into (too much) trouble. That way I wouldn't have to correct her very much, we could put off some unhappy lessons like the electric fences, and we could just focus on bonding and trust building, along with me assessing her current level of training, inclinations, style, etc., and introducing a few basic commands.Sookie is very much a "nose dog". Toss was not...she could be 3 inches from a hidden ball and not find it, and she rarely tracked things with her nose. If she couldn't see it, it didn't exist. I noticed Sookie's nosiness as soon as we headed towards my car, after her previous owner had driven away leaving the two of us in the fenced dog park.  As soon as I let her out the gate (on leash, of course!), she made a bee-line to my car. Sort of. Her nose was to the pavement the whole time--she was barely looking at the car. I realized instantly that she was following the scent of her blanket that A.M. had carried over and placed in my back seat, with one corner dragging the ground. I opened the door as she approached it, and she literally followed her nose up and into the back seat without a pause!This morning we spent some time out in the East Margin Pen, where there is plenty of room to run, and dog-proof fences that aren't electric. I took the tennis ball with us, but even when I unclipped her lead, she wasn't very interested. Too much to smell!Our farm waste disposal area is in that pen, and she took special delight in a composting pile of old wool. Why didn't I think to take my camera? The look on her face was priceless when she came up for air after burrowing in the loose pile, festooned with dreadlocks of various natural colors.Penny, Jenny and Patchface came up to stand at the fence and meet her, curious. The ewes stomped a bit, and Sookie barked at them and ran back and forth, but those new smells in the grass were far more enticing. Still, she came back to watch and bark at the sheep several times.This off-leash time, in addition to all the on-leash time we spent before and after, gave me a chance to evaluate some of her previous training, and get some ideas for her training program for the next little while. She'll lie down instantly on command at a distance if she's stopped already, and she'll instantly come on command (at a dead run!), but she won't stop running and lie down if I call her and then tell her to lie down. Turning her "lie down" into a full "stop" is an essential foundation for her future herding training.A big challenge has been going through doors and gates. In a normal home, it's not a big deal if the dog bolts out as soon as the door is opened, like a racehorse out of a starting gate. But on the farm, I need her to let me make the decision about whether, and when, she is coming through a gate. For safety reasons, this is something I try to teach all "my" dogs, even those that are just guests for a few days: "wait" until I say "come through". This is a very valuable habit because it means the handler's voice, not the physical gate, is the barrier. I can open a gate and get something through it (a sheep, a bucket, a garden cart, etc.), without having the dog in the way, and end up with the dog on whichever side I want. It's also important for the safety of the dog, because some of our gates are springy and can startle a dog by suddenly "biting" them. This can lead to even worse bolting, as the dog becomes afraid of being attacked by the gate, and therefore bolts through as quickly as possible to try to reduce the risk. Of [...]

A New Beginning with A New Partner


For many years, I've shunned any type of match-making service, even the few well-intentioned friends who've offered solutions to my choice to "travel solo" for the past few years. Pre-internet, no matter how lonely I was, I never even looked at the "Personal" ads, let alone wrote one. Especially not across state lines. If I was going to find a perfect partner, destiny/God/random chance was going to have to dump them in my lap; I wasn't going to go looking very hard. Too busy.The internet and cell phones vastly increased the ease of long-distance communication, opening up myriad new possibilities for meeting people close and far. But I watched so many friends struggle with the also vastly increased possibilities for disaster, and quickly decided that's not for me.It's not that I'm not willing to take risks and try new things; I just look to farming, not relationships, for my gambling fun. Some rewards are worth taking risks for. Some risks are just too horrible to think about. Some odds are just not that good. Farming, yes; blind dates, no way.If there's anything life has taught me, it's that every year brings big changes that affect me and others, often in very different ways. Friendships, even partnerships, can melt away like winter snow yielding to a warm March wind. The person I meet one day is not the same person I know a year later. Impermanence has characterized my relationships, whether cohabiting or long distance. Year after year of losses to death, career changes, relationship changes. Year after year of people coming and going at the farm (let alone in my personal life) left me deeply weary, tired of beginning each farming season with a whole new cast of characters.Measuring myself now against the yardstick of my past, I've become fairly cynical about relationships in general. I have become more social, yet more solo, as the years go by. I often forget to long for the enduring symbiotic relationship with someone else that I used to think mandatory for my happiness.So it was quite improbable that one day in early October I would be sitting at my computer and have the name of a rather obscure match-making service come to mind. Even more improbable that I would look it up and go to the web site. But I did. God only knew why.A profile immediately caught my eye. The next step, of course, was to write my own profile and send it in for consideration as a possible match. At least a sort of a change of pace from filling out job applications. Into the wee hours of the  morning, I typed away, answering the questionnaire, providing references, so many details to think about, so much soul searching.I sat back in mild shock when I realized that I had pressed "send". Commitment...if not to a particular relationship, at least to the idea that I could consider another relationship. Ack! What was I thinking? God only knew!The same night, others far away were busy at their screens. Within a few days, I received word that the face that had caught my eye initially had caught someone else's first. I was surprised to feel a little pang of disappointment. I hadn't been hoping for anything, remember?But the day I sent in my profile for approval, someone else far away sent one in, also. The person processing the profiles decided to skip the formalities, and put us in touch with one another directly. There ensued a flurry of emails: questions, answers, stories, photos. Fear and hope, doubt and elation swirled inside me. Whatever had I been thinking to start down this road? It was definitely a slippery slope...and a long one: from Lawrence, KS to Springfield, MO.Photos. Not for decades have I envisioned myself teaming up with a red[...]

Why Not Sell and Go?


I'm going through and finishing off some half-finished blog entries from the past couple years. This was written in 2010.

This essay belongs to both blogs, The Rainbow Covering and Reports from the Farm. My life belongs to both worlds, the natural world of the farm, and the spiritual world of my Christian journey. But wait--the farm is God's creation; that's spiritual...and my Christian journey is so deeply fed and supported by the practical day-in, day-out work of the farm. The "two" worlds are inseparable.

Today, for the umpteenth time, someone suggested "the solution" to "my problem".

"The problem", as usual, being that I am a) very land-poor at the moment and b) even more time-poor...a) in spite of and b) because of the fact that I am farming as well as working a full-time job off-farm, which is obviously too much for one person.

"The solution" usually begins with the person asking, "Look, I know it's none of my business, but how much equity do you have in this place? You're never going to win this [insert current regulatory/local politics struggle]; why don't you just sell the whole thing and buy a place in [insert name of more rural county that doesn't have such restrictive zoning regulations], and then you can live a nice, sane, peaceful life for a change?"

I really do try to keep an open mind. When folks make this suggestion, I don't necessarily try to rationalize my decision to stay and keep struggling to them (after all, it's my decision and my life; if they don't "get it" now they probably never will). But I do try to honestly, once again, put all the issues, assets, and liabilities on the table and give them a good looking-over.

Today it was one of my Old German Baptist acquaintances that suggested this, and for some reason that gave me some new insights.

He had offered to drop by and share his construction wisdom on the proposed remodeling project at 501 North St., the farm's "little brown house". We spent the better part of an hour going over the plans and fleshing out some of the details, but I could tell he was thinking grave thoughts about the whole thing.

"Why not just keep the big house, and sell this? Or better yet, sell the whole thing and move to Franklin County." My first response was to tell him what really special soil we have here...I often quip "I'd move to ____, but I just can't figure out how to take my soil and groundwater with me." Then I told him about my rock-solid understanding that God put me here to serve him in a way like Noah--building the farm as an ark for a multitude of species, safe from the pesticide-poisoned world out there.

The mention of Franklin county brought an odd sense of dissonance as I pondered his words. Mostly folks recommend I sell out and move to Leavenworth County, just north of the farm. Then I realized: he was suggesting his community, not mine. Many of the Old German Baptists live in Franklin County, south of Douglas county.

And that lead me to reflect on an increasingly real consideration for sticking it out and staying here: Here is where my people are.

Here is where my people are. And that is my greatest treasure.

Sustainable Farming in a Warm Winter


This post was written in early winter, 2012, and only now finished.Good article on an important topic:, sustained cold weather helps kill grasshopper eggs in the soil, as well as other types of insect eggs. But there are many countervailing forces at work; humidity encourages a killing fungus among grasshoppers, so a bumper crop of nymphs in the spring may fizzle in a hot, humid June before doing much damage. Likewise, we could constantly till the soil during a mild winter like this, to expose as many grasshopper eggs as possible to the killing cold of a sharp winter night, even if the days are mild. But that would dry out the soil, and expose it to erosion by the wind, and disturb the beneficial creatures sleeping beneath the surface, like the salamander we found a couple years ago and didn't kill because we weren't using a power tiller.My choice to avoid even "certified organic" tampering with "God and Mother Nature" is based on the premise that if we grow a wide variety of stuff, some things will do well in any given year, even if some fail. I believe that true "sustainability" is found not in heroic measures to save a particular planting of a particular crop, but rather to use the least possible effort/inputs to raise the most we can of something, anything, everything. With the diversity of livestock and veggies, sheep eat weeds (if that's all we grow) and chickens eat grasshoppers (more profit there), so even total crop failure produces something. "Least effort" means avoiding many conventional and organic practices: irrigation (unless we need wet soil to harvest carrots, for example), raised beds, double digging, biodynamic compost, pest control, fancy packaging, etc.--basically, anything that takes extra human or industrial energy. It means putting seeds or plants in the ground so that they grow naturally, and harvesting and marketing with a minimum of cosmetic "fuss" (trimming, bunching, and pre-packaging). We do rinse the dirt off our veggies, because we want to keep our dirt on the farm, and not transmit weed seeds off-farm. We also rinse veggies to remove "field heat" and slow the metabolism so that things store better. We also tend to be sparing about "forcing the season" for most crops, despite our selective use of row covers and the high tunnel. Forced plants are not healthy, happy plants. Tomatoes planted outside from seed bear nearly as early as those started early in a greenhouse, grown too long in the pot, and set out in soil colder than they like. There is usually little return for extraordinary effort to keep tomato plants from freezing in the fall...the quality of fruit is declining rapidly as the day length shortens, and it's better to just pick all the green fruit and ripen indoors or make green tomato pickles. The plants we cover are ones that like the cold, and the covers keep the tips from frost-biting so that quality is better. We also cover crops for practical handling reasons, like keeping the silver maple and elm seeds and autumn leaves from ending up in your salad without tedious hand-sorting as we harvest.Doing less work for each crop means we can do more work on other things...and a mild winter also gives us time to catch up on things we usually struggle to squeeze in during the growing season. We are glad for a mild winter this year, for having time to lay down wood chips on muddy paths, to begin clearing and mulching long-fallowed garden beds that will be put back in cultivation this year, to sort and repair tools and generally get ready for the coming season. T[...]

Mabel and the Hog--a Slaughterhouse Experience


Time is flying so quickly! There have been so many wonderful things going on, so many huge things going on, so many intense and uncertain things going on, that it is hard to stop long enough to write them down.What happened today was so amazing that it demands my full attention, documented by recording the experience in this post.It was a pretty routine take-cull-ewes-to-the-processing-plant day. We got everything ready last night, loaded them at Oh-Dark-Thirty (a.k.a. 5 a.m.), remembered to check the gas gage and take appropriate action, and chugged down the road to Bowsers Meat Processing.There was a short wait while they did the two hogs in line before us, starting the morning off at a leisurely pace. As we whiled away the time on the back loading dock, another batch of hogs came in. The folks wandered over to talk to us after they unloaded--unexpected until we realized they are fellow Farmer's Market vendors. We rarely see one another except across the lot or on the way to the port-a-potty on Saturday mornings, so it was nice to exchange a few words.When we went back inside, they were skinning our first ewe. That left Mabel alone in the kill pen, but the market vendor's hogs were in the pen right beside her. She was a little anxious about being the only sheep (just as she is at home if  she is separated from the flock for some reason), and "bahhed" a couple half-hearted protests. We spoke soothingly to her from across the room, while focusing mostly on the   skinning operation with the other ewe. Seeing the carcasses is important to us, because only without the skin can we really fully understand the body condition of our animals...wool hides a lot of fat and/or bones.I glanced over at Mabel, and saw that she had turned to face the hogs. In fact, she had stuck her head through the bars of the kill pen, into the hog pen. Then I saw the hog! He moved over and touched noses with her. I expected her to pull away, because hogs can be pretty predatory with non-hog animals that they perceive as "food", and sheep are pretty wary about ANY new animal, even if it's just a sheep they don't know yet (or a friend that's just been sheared).But she didn't pull away. Not even when the hog began exploring her face. She held perfectly still, not panicked or afraid, while the hog's wiggly snout moved over her cheek from nose to ear. I was poised to shout an alarm if the hog bit her. I've skinned out hog heads, years ago when I worked for Bowser. They have very sharp omnivores' teeth. In my imagination, the hog suddenly turned into a bloodthirsty monster and ripped poor Mabel's face off. Not so far-fetched when you consider that by this time I'd seen most of Mabel's right ear disappear temporarily into the hog's mouth, only to be released when the hog suddenly became interested in her eye. It  worked its mouth around her eye, then moved back to the ear. The only thing that kept me from screaming was the fact that Mabel had not tried to back off or stop the hog's overtures in any way.By this time, my co-farmer, BH, had moved to my side. "He's calming her down," he observed. He has an almost uncanny understanding of herd animals sometimes, a real gift. I realized how quiet she had become, after her initial complaints about being flock-less. I watched the hog with a more open mind. Maybe he wasn't sizing up a meal, after all.I realized that Mabel was relaxed. She was perfectly free to withdraw her head from between the bars and move a long way from the hogs. But she didn't. She stood perfectly still, eyes soft and not scared, and let the hog'[...]

Signs of Summer


[ I have not written here for over a year. Farming solo AND renovating AND working full-time off the farm has taken their toll on a lot of things. I think I'm back now.]

Back in late February or early March, I stepped outside one day, and Nature shrieked at me: IT's THE MIDDLE OF APRIL!!!!" Something in the robins' song; some smell in the air; the first mosquito seeking my arm; a hundred little clues added up to only one possible conclusion: Spring was in full tilt, at least a month early.

Before that moment, we had been chugging along at the farm feeling very content with the work we were doing, cleaning up several year's worth of neglect. This year, finally, I have enough help and good help at that (another post). In fact, it seemed like we were ahead of the calendar with both training and action. But in that moment, I realized that we were suddenly a month behind.

In the past few days, I've seen dragonflies flying, fireflies hatching from their nymphs to light up the night, hot weather plants breaking dormancy. All the spring perennials have bloomed, and we're starting to see irises and soon peonies around town. All the fruit frees bloomed during March, when usually the trees are still bare and some late pruning can be done. The garter snakes have been active for weeks; scarcely a day goes by without seeing one in the garden or pasture. The praying mantis egg cases I'd intended to sell at Farmer's Market (still 2 weeks away) are time I'll store them in the fridge. Some growers are harvesting asparagus already, weeks early. Morels, that May delight, are thronging in the woods.

Off the farm, I've seen pond turtles sunning, bullfrogs in the slough, herons fishing along the banks. One diligent farmer has his soybeans in, standing several inches tall now.

It's wrong. It's scary. What will summer be, if March is in the high 80s? Alternatively, if we get the least frost now, the magnitude of devastation will be unimaginable and will last for years.

The losses caused by this unseasonable weather are already mounting. Spring greens are our mainstay at Farmer's Market from April to early June. It's too hot to plant them, plus we're busy putting in hot weather crops now in case summer brings even hotter temperatures and drought. So we're missing an entire growing season this spring. The greens we have are growing too fast for us to harvest, even if we could market them.

Traditions are at risk. If peonies normally are the "Memorial Day flower", how barren the graves will be two months from now! My usual birthday treats, roses and asparagus, will have come and gone. Etc.

Keeping a record of this unusual season is a good reason for me to start blogging here again.

One Small Step for Pinwheel, and Mankind, and the Planet


About 11 years ago, we enrolled 2.3 acres of our approximately 12-acre farm in the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) as a Riparian Buffer Strip. Setting aside some adjacent odd corners that weren't eligible for the program gave us a total of about 2.5 A (20% of the farm!) that is "set aside". We receive a modest annual lease payment for maintaining this land by keeping it free of noxious weeds and cedar trees, and by mostly just leaving it alone. We are not even supposed to walk in the same place all the time, but the deer don't know that, and we tend to follow their trails on the rare occasions we traipse around out there. We do sometimes mow a path along the slope that isn't in the CRP proper.In aerial views (try Google Earth for 1480 N. 1700 Rd., Lawrence, KS 66044), you see a shaggy-looking diagonal band on the west of the pasture, and along the north. It is 150 feet wide: 50 feet we planted to trees that would look beautiful, while providing food for wildlife, and eventually for us, and 100 feet we planted to native Kansas tallgrass prairie grasses and forbs (wildflowers) that would provide excellent habitat for wild creatures of all kinds, while slowing any run-off (and erosion) from our farm into the Maple Grove Tributary to the west, and the unnamed drainage channel to the north. This land was eligible for the CRP program because it had been in row crops--corn and soybeans--when we bought it. On a certain sloping area, in a 100' diameter circle, not even weeds would grow, and the corn would get maybe a foot or two tall, producing nothing. The ruts between rows of corn were as deep as the plants were tall. Old-timers tell us that the 1951 flood left a "sand boil" there--like a sinkhole, but filled with pure sand. Indeed, the soil there is nearly pure sand. No wonder nothing grows.Not even the trees we planted took hold there, but a few species of the tallgrass mix we planted made themselves right at home. Amidst the little prairie of 10' tall Big Bluestem and Indian Grass, there is a circular amphitheatre of Little Bluestem and Sideoats Grama, spanning both the 50' "tree" band and the 100' "grass" band. In another part of the area seeded to grasses--near the south end, the highest ground--the taller grasses have done well, but thousands of elm trees have sprouted into an impenetrable woods.On the low north end, many different tree species that we didn't plant have found their way to the farm by wind and birds: ash, sycamore, ornamental pear, mulberry and cottonwood. The pears are lovely in the spring, provide flowers for bees, and produce lots of tiny, inedible fruit that the birds love in late winter.Our planted trees and shrubs include wild plum, redbud, buffalo currant, burr oak, walnut, and pecan. Periodically, the Farm Service Agency or Conservation Service folks have come out for an inspection. We always have a nice hike, and they have approved what they saw. Our "management plan", as far as I knew, was "natural succession", which means that instead of trying to keep it the same for ever and ever, we would let nature take its course and "evolve" into whatever the land wanted its ecosystem to be (minus noxious weeds).This year heralded a change: satellite imaging good enough that they could sit in the office and "walk around" the farm. I received a satellite photo in the mail with angry red circles: trees in the area that was supposed to be grass. But I thought we were doing "natural succession"????"No, you are not, not in the grassland, only in the tree band," I [...]

Drowsy Winter, Beginning Spring


Winter turns me more nocturnal than usual, and this winter especially since I've put so many late nights in working on the house project. Nary an end in sight there, though much progress has been made...I've resigned to not being "done" before the farming season starts, and continuing to plug along at it while doing all the usual farm stuff as well.

No idea how that will "work". It's not like I have enough time as it is, without lambs and planting and harvesting and Farmer's Market...but I trust that I will figure it out as I go along.

Today, though, I've realized that I'm beginning to feel "spring", and that means more energy, more interest in poking around in the dirt, more enthusiasm for getting out there and doing stuff. A dim remembrance grows in the back of my brain...oh, that's why I've been so ineffective and slow at getting stuff done this winter. I've been in the cold-induced stupor of the goldfish at the bottom of the stock tanks: alive, and essentially thriving, but in suspended animation.

So, in a few minutes this morning before work, I pulled enough weeds in the high tunnel to direct seed some broccoli and cauliflower transplants, and weeded out a few of the many volunteer Upland Cress and arugula plants. Pesto, anyone? The garlic and regular chives are sprouting, ditto the chard. Lots of Ruby Streaks mustard greens, too.

Chard is amazing! The plants in the high tunnel are now 1 1/2 years old...we harvested for 2 seasons last year, and looks like at least one more season this year. Who knows how long they'll keep going? And all this with no irrigation, inside the high tunnel! There are some new plants, too, germinated by the 1/2 inch of rain last fall when we took the high tunnel cover off for a week.

Outside, there is kale and mustard and other greens under row covers. The sorrel is sprouting up, and there are fresh green leaves hugging the ground under the dead branches of lemon balm.

As I wander, investigating, taking a census of the survivors, I nibble little bits of this and that. The leaves are thick and dense and bursting with flavor, nothing at all like the vegetables in their usual main-season form. I suspect the tiny handful I browsed today had more nutrients than a couple bags of grocery store salad put together. I want to do some research on that, to document that really, even small bits of really intensely healthy plants can make a significant contribution to a balanced diet.

So much to study, experiment, learn and do! Full of ideas this year, as always. Track soil temperatures and learn what the parameters are for various weeds, so I can better use them as indicators. Effects of rain and high tunnel on soil temperatures. How to make the high tunnel cover easier to take off and put on (alone). How to capture and re-direct and store the rainwater that runs off the barn and high tunnel so I can grow more in the high tunnel without
irrigating. How to replicate and manage the micro-climate effect of the barrels of water at the back of the high tunnel.

I visited Mom and Dad in Manhattan, KS, recently: like looking in a mirror! They are dreaming and plotting and planning as well, along the lines of integrated tilapia/vegetable production in their high tunnel. So many possibilities!

Planning Season, Revisited


This time last year I was busily putting together our Conditional Use Permit submittal. As long-time readers may don't recall because I never told you. Last year's efforts to be able to legally camp on our farm were brought to a stunned halt by heated opposition from a small but vocal group of neighbors. After that, I was simply too exhausted and too emotionally raw to write about the Public Hearings. And, without any housing options for volunteers after the new tenants moved into the farmhouse in May, I was simply way too busy farming solo to write about what had happened.At the Public Hearings in April and May, we were utterly blind-sided by neighborhood opposition. We--lifetime outdoor livers that we are--were astounded to learn that some people consider anyone who sleeps in a tent or camper to be lawless, filthy, rabble-rousing hoodlums, undesirable in our nice suburban neighborhood..probably pedophiles, in fact. Really. The public record contains comments alleging that if the same people who were house guests under my roof were to take the tents out of their car trunks and set them up on the pasture at night and sleep there, they too would become vagabonds. Really. Canvas (or ripstop nylon, in this modern age of high-tech camping) apparently has that effect on people. My neighbors vouch for this. Who knew?Very politely summarized minutes of the proceedings are at (pages 3-13) and (pages 37-42).Maybe that gives you a little window into why (aside from a busy farm season and full-time job and nursing my beloved dying partner of 12 years (see "Losing Toss")) I didn't write much last summer and fall. Just...speechless.Now it's 2011. A new year. A new farming season. New hordes of eager farm volunteers contacting me from all over the country seeking internships. And in late January I picked up the phone and asked my long-suffering planner to put the CUP back on the Planning Commission agenda on March 30, 2011.I'm better prepared this time. I know what's coming...I think.Most of my effort this time can be directed toward educating people about the project and gathering support, instead of the exhaustive policy and writing work of last year. I'm planning a community meeting--hopefully early March--to try to discuss the issues with concerned parties in a more informal setting than the public hearing. We'll have open houses at the farm for interested parties to actually see the farm from the inside, rather than the rather shaggy street view. I'll blog more, email more, etc. We'll actually get the farm web site up this year so we can make materials readily available online.Over the intervening year, I have attempted other avenues towards legally being able to camp at the farm. Increasingly detailed study of the regulations have proved very, very interesting. Logical inconsistencies: Camping is allegedly illegal because it is not an explicitly permitted use in the zoning regulations. But, hunting is allegedly legal, and the regulations are just as silent about hunting as they are about camping. I guess it's easier to threaten to fine someone napping in a camper, than someone holding a deer rifle? It can't be that sanitation isn't a concern for me, they are out there for hours on end, and not a portapotty in sight.The demand for opportunities to volunteer on the farm has been amazing. Betw[...]

Thinking Towards Spring


Despite the weekly snows that keep never quite melt out on the farm, I can tell that spring is coming. The birds have it in their voices. I can see the cottonwood and silver maple buds swelling on the branches. I read it in the lines of wild geese at sunset, silhouetted against the sky.

I see it heralded in the mail, as well: seed catalogues, dairy and sheep supply catalogues, poultry catalogues.

I hear bits of talk among friends of seed starting, garden planning, CSA marketing. People ask, "Now, when does Farmer's Market start up again?" At Pinwheel, we start planting as soon as snow is off the ground, hopefully in early March. Looking out across white lawns and fields, it seems impossible. But each afternoon brings unexpected melting, even if the thermometer still reads below freezing.

I get a call from one of my fellow shepherds, confirming my flock size so she can make arrangements with the shearer. Sheep Shearing Day is set for March 19--only a little more than a month away! People I meet in the grocery store ask about it more and more. I get emails from people offering to come help.

Shearing heralds lambing: The beginning of April should bring lambs on the ground, as well as Farmer's Market Opening Day. People start enquiring about helping with lambing, volunteering in the garden, interning for the season.

The Planting Season is preceded by the Planning Season. To-do lists, lists of seeds to order, garden plans, talking with potential volunteers, planning, planning, planning.

Calling the sheep


I'm figuring out how to include sound recordings in the blogs and on facebook. There may be a more graceful way, but at least I've figured out how to include a link to the host site for the recording. Any unattributed vocals or instrumental work on the blogs will be me.

"Come, Sheep" was written during my sabbatical travels, and is based on my working "sheep call" at the farm.