29 April 2009

The value of good shoes

This morning, I got in the truck and headed off to work.

About fifteen minutes down the highway, the truck sputtered and stopped.

The truck would not start again.

The truck was smoking and sizzling.

I looked for my cell phone.

I could not locate my cell phone.

I sipped my coffee.

I looked for my cell phone again.

I sighed.

I picked up my things and climbed out of the truck.

I walked.

I kept walking.

I realized that "about fifteen minutes down the highway" is a lot further than it sounds.

A truck with straw bales on the back drove by.

I remembered that straw bales were being delivered to our house this morning.

I waved.

The truck stopped.

I got a ride the rest of the way home.

I have decided that my father was right when he said "always wear good walking shoes, because you just never know."

19 April 2009

Sheep, for elementary students

Friday, The Boy and I volunteered to help the Alberta Lamb Producers show groups of elementary school students what the sheep industry is. There is a large exhibition with booths from the 'big producers' - canola, beef, dairy, poultry, pork - and room for some additional demonstrations as well - we were 'little critters', and the 'eat locally and think about your food miles' people from the Alberta Government had a really neat inflatable globe right in the center of everything and showed kids the difference between the honey you get from, say, Tofield, and the honey you get from Australia. Buying local makes sense!

My job was to convey to the kids a three point message: meet the farmer (so you can see who raises your food), explain what sheep need from us, and explain what products we receive from sheep.

Here's the blurb I ended up with (given about every fifteen minutes all day!):

Hello Grade Fives! (or whatever grade they are)
*You have to imagine me standing in a pen of about five sheep, emphatically gesturing and shouting to be heard over the general din.

I live on a farm about an hour west of Edmonton where we have about 15 sheep. The lady over there, who you'll go see in a bit, has over ONE HUNDRED sheep - and all their babies! And this boy lives with me 'cause he's my kid, and he actually does most of the chores at our house so he's a shepherd too - anybody who takes care of sheep is a shepherd!

I am here today to tell you that A HAPPY SHEEP IS A TASTY SHEEP! Did you know that? It's true! What do you think a sheep needs to be happy? (Lift up some hay) ... kids usually shout 'hay' or 'grass' ... yes, they need hay to eat, hay is just dried grass and they will eat it when there's no fresh stuff around, but in the summertime they like to go out and eat the fresh grass - so they are the lawnmowers! No mowing the grass, they do it for you! What else do sheep need? (point to the water bucket) "Water!" yup, they need fresh water and what else? Grain ... yes, some sheep eat grain, not all of them but some do. Some kids also mention pellets, and I usually pointed out the table where they could see the different kinds of feed sheep can eat. (Hold up the bucket of mineral). What's this? (usually nobody guesses) ... what do you put on your french-fries, besides ketchup? Salt! Right, sheep need salt and special minerals, it's like taking their vitamins every day.

Okay, now when it's time for the sheep to go to bed at night, do we need to tuck them into a nice warm bed and cover them up with a blanket? NO! Because sheep wear their blankets all the time! They have nice thick coats of wool (point to the unshorn sheep - or the plastic model of an unshorn sheep, late on Friday afternoon!). They can be outside all winter and be just fine wearing their nice big coats. But if we don't give them a haircut in the springtime, that'd be like sending you out to the playground in your snowsuit in July! Would you like that? No way, and neither do the sheep. They really need their wool taken off so they are not roasting all summer.

So we give the sheep food and water and haircuts, and in return they give us wool (The Boy would walk along the rail with a sample of wool, wearing fingerless gloves made from our wool) ... wool is a wonderfully useful renewable resource. Have you talked about renewable resources yet in class? (expanded on this for the older kids, sometimes mentioning that sheep can use marginal land that wouldn't be able to support grain or even cattle, so it's a good use of land that couldn't be used otherwise.) Some resources, like oil, aren't renewable - when it's gone, it's gone - but there's a new crop of wool every spring and the sheep are really happy for us to take it. Does it hurt to give them a haircut? Not really .. sometimes they get a little nick but it's just like a shaving cut and it doesn't sting for long (we had one return from the shearing demo with an obvious cut so had to mention this). What can we use wool for? We can make mittens (hold up my fingerless-gloved hands), or hats and scarves, blankets, sleeping bags, you can even insulate your house with wool, that's a good environmentally sound choice and much nicer than the itchy pink stuff! Over on the other side we have a place where you can see some more things you can do with wool. (The cowboy hat was a big hit, most had no idea felt was wool.) So using wool is a good choice, it's not wasteful - there's lots of it and there'll be lots more!

What else do sheep give us? A happy sheep is a TASTY sheep right? So they give us meat. Who eats lamb meat at their house? (We had at least one in every group!) It's pretty good, eh? Not a whole lot different than cow - if you eat cow, you'd probably also eat lamb. (And to the occasional objection "but they're cute!" my reply is "so are baby cows, but I bet you eat at McDonald's, eh?") (And to the very occasional comment about slaughter, I mentioned that it's actually against the law to hurt them at the end, it has to be quick and not hurt, and so we honour the sheep by taking good care of them through their lives, and then by being grateful for the life they share with us at the table.)

Now there are THREE products we can get from sheep - anyone know what the third one is? (some could guess - although occasionally I got 'lanolin' which was an awesome surprise) Milk! Yes, you can milk a sheep (at which point The Boy often said "yup, I milked that one!" which was true, his ewe lamb was in the pen and we had milked her when her baby was born and wouldn't nurse!). It's a bit harder than milking a cow (some had seen the cow and the milking demo so miming grabbing big cow teats with my whole fist vs using two fingers to milk out a little teeny sheep teat was quickly understood). There are dairy sheep, just like there are dairy cows, and they are bred for milking ... none of these are dairy sheep. There are some traditional cheeses made from sheep's milk, like feta (lots of nods from the teachers there).

So for our sheep to be happy we need to give them good food, clean water, and regular haircuts ... and in return, they give us wool and meat and milk. Now if you go over to the green carpet, we will show you some of the neat things we can do with wool! (over at the green carpet we had a master spinner working with a wheel, and a table with different fibre things out for them to look at ... plus a dressmaker's form with a wool jacket and shawl, and of course, the cowboy hat!)

It was a really long, exhausting day but it was fun. It was really encouraging to see how many people do eat lamb and enjoy it. For the hesitant ones, I usually tell them that it's about as different from beef as turkey is from chicken - you know it's not the same stuff, but it doesn't leap out at you.

And, although I didn't mention this explicitly to the little kids, there were some grownups who came by at the end of the day who knew the actual reason why a happy sheep is a tasty sheep: if you stress an animal, particularly close to slaughter time, the meat doesn't taste as good. Handling our animals gently and treating them kindly, right up until the last moment, is not only the right thing to do - it's the way to get the best product, too. Nice how that works out, eh?

Settling into spring

There is only a patch of snow here and there, and the pasture is starting to turn green. The lambs are getting big, and the new calf (who has been christened Ewan MacDeepFreeze) is soft and shiny and, at the moment, sleeping contentedly in a heap of straw in the barn.

The raised beds have been dug and the encroaching grass burned away or pulled up, and the kamut wheat, the onions, and some peas have been planted.

Yes, it's definitely spring.

15 April 2009

Sasha's calf arrived!

Finally, after a long, long wait, Sasha's calf arrived!

The Boy went out to do afternoon chores and found Sasha pawing the ground and, in his words "looking like a zombie cow". By the time he got back outside with the camera, the calf was on his way to the world and bingo, it was all done! Fortunately The Reluctant Farmer had picked up the kids early and everyone (except me) was home for the big event and everything went smoothly. Sasha didn't want anyone too near her, and bellowed loud objections to everyone ... but by the time I got home, she'd calmed down quite a bit. And, maybe all the time I spent brushing her and talking to her while she was pregnant helped, too, you never know.

So with my shepherd's crook in case I needed self-protection (mother cows can be very irritable), we got Darth out of the way (he's the yearling who's headed for freezer camp this fall) and Sasha and her baby settled into the barn where it is relatively peaceful (I say relatively peaceful because Cherub the Incredible Escaping Sheep is still penned up in there, and she bellows periodically to ensure that we don't overlook her).

Poor Sasha had an absolutely huge udder: it was so full of milk it looked like it must hurt, and her teats were more than double their usual size, poor girl. The calf could barely get a grip on one of the teats to get a drink, but once in the barn, where Sasha felt calmer, he got a good long drink, with cream running down the side of his face and everything.

Sasha seemed much calmer once the calf settled to nurse, so I figured it was the perfect opportunity to ease her poor swollen udder and get a bit of that excess milk for our bottle lambs. I put a rope around Sasha's neck to keep her from turning around and bashing me with her horns in case she disagreed with my brilliant idea, and bravely climbed into the stall with my metal bucket. Sasha just put her head down and ate some hay, had a drink of water, and gave a half hearted swipe or two of her back hoof when I first gripped that swollen teat ... but in no time at all the milk was flowing into the bucket and her udder was returning to a more reasonable and much less engorged appearance.

I got about half a bucket of rich milk while the calf drank his fill, and when he finished, I quit too. Sasha was not bothered by the whole procedure, although once her calf wandered off she insisted on being let loose!

The precious first milk went into bottles for the two bottle lambs who guzzled it down like it was the best thing they'd ever tasted! I'm so glad to have fresh milk for them ... that was the plan all along, but of course, we needed Sasha's cooperation in the matter!

We'll be very careful in taking milk from her at this stage of the game - the calf gets top priority, but it's better to relieve the excess than leave her in discomfort (and risk mastitis). I checked with a very helpful lady who runs a Dexter Dairy in New York and am following her advice about taking care of Sasha and the calf in these early days: we can take a little from Sasha so long as it's not so much as to leave the calf hungry. Shared milking is a great strategy for us!

So we have a lovely purebred Dexter bull calf here ... now he just needs a name!

I hear bellowing outside, so I'd best go check that all is well. I think Darth is trying to figure out why Cherub is in his spot in the barn and he's locked outside.

13 April 2009


I spoke today with our local horticulturalist, and she confirmed that our preferred site for an orchard would likely work well.

Now we just need to find some trees! My mom sent me a link to a place not far from here that has hardy trees raised in our climate, and I definitely plan to check them out.

I knew we could grow apple trees, and some types of cherry, but plums ... grapes, even ... and apricots! I never would've guessed.

I think I just found the next thing to go on my birthday wish list. :)

12 April 2009

One is nearer God's heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.
~Dorothy Frances Gurney, "Garden Thoughts"

I spent Easter Sunday near God's heart, out in the garden.

The local Quaker Meeting is more than an hour's drive away, so we do not attend: it's just impossible to justify the commute. Instead, we 'Isolated Friends' have our own quiet ways here at home. This morning after breakfast I read the Easter story to the kids from one of the Bible story books, and we talked about the various symbols of Easter and what they mean. Then everyone went off hunting for eggs and chocolate.

I did send them outside to hunt for real eggs too - we got eight eggs today! The chickens were definitely feeling the joy of Easter.

The rest of the day I spent out in the garden. The Reluctant Farmer fired up the bobcat and pushed mostly-composted dirt into the dips and gaps of the as-yet-unplanted section of the garden, then drove over it all several times to help level things out (the earth mover had gone through this area when the septic field was laid, and quite a few large divots were left behind). The Boy helped out by getting rid of all the bits of baling twine, fetching cold water, and sitting in the lawn chair supervising the action (his spring allergies are really knocking him for a loop this year).

A few scoops of really nice finished compost were set aside for the tomato beds, but there isn't enough that's properly cooked for us to create all the beds we need. However, the mostly-cooked organic matter we added today will make a good base for the 'lasagna beds' we will be creating in the next few weeks, and it'll finish composting down in place underneath the new garden beds. Even if we need to import a few bales of peat/soil mix for this year, which I think is probably unavoidable at this point, we should (God willing) produce more than enough to make our money back - and all of this infrastructure preparation is an investment for the future. This year, we are once again planting in the soil that was imported *last* year, too. It'll need to be topped up with some good compost, but we have just enough of our own to feed it. It'll be nice when we're caught up with the composting cycle.

The large compost heap from last year has now been fully turned, and it should cook down into beautiful soil by the end of summer, meaning that we'll be able to top up the garden with it come fall if all goes well.

Yes, in the garden we work with the Creator to bring forth good things from the earth. Watching seedlings turn into plants and plants turn into food is one of life's amazing experiences. Eating a meal gathered entirely from your own yard is even more incredible ... I can't wait. :)

10 April 2009

Definitely Spring

It is definitely spring.

Every day, the snow recedes further. Today, I noticed that some of the pasture grass is actually showing green. We also had our first thunderstorm of the season today - it was quick, but there was lightning and thunder and rain, and that definitely heralds the coming of spring.

My parents were here today: Dad and The Reluctant Farmer were working on installing the cast iron tub in the bathroom (and doing the associated shifting of walls). Mom and I worked outside - she fed the bottle lambs, and cleared and dug up the garden beds for me while I ran to town to get Dinosaur Boy and Princess Girl. We had a lovely Easter dinner while they were here (courtesy of Mom, who is an awesome cook and makes the best scalloped potatoes). It sure is nice to have them nearby again (and not just for plumbing assistance and good cooking).

Tomorrow I will probably be back in the garden: I want to lay out some cardboard and newspaper to kill the grass, and get the kids' square foot gardens set up. Some of the compost we piled up last year has cooked sufficiently, so I'll be digging through the piles and filtering out the finished stuff.

It's so nice to be outside in the warm sunshine, even with all the mud. Yup, it's definitely spring.

Fifteen minutes

I survived fifteen minutes on the elliptical trainer, on it's lowest setting without having a heart attack or chest pains ... but I did rather easily get my heart rate up to 176.

Clearly I need to work on my cardiovascular health.

07 April 2009

Ethan and Emily go to school

A little while ago, we picked up two bottle lambs. They are Katahdin/wool crosses, so they are definitely meat sheep (Katahdins are hair sheep, and the cross breed sheep don't have fleece that is useable for spinning) - we aren't having the most productive lambing season ever, so we figured we might need a few extra sheep around come fall.

Anyway, The Reluctant Farmer also wanted to take some sheep to visit the school ... and bottle lambs are perfect for that. He and The Boy took the two lambs to Dinosaur Boy's school a couple of weeks back, and the kids in the class chose names for them. These two are now known as Ethan and Emily!

They will go back for another visit and the kids in the class will measure and see how much they have grown. Hopefully on their next visit they won't eat the artwork off the walls!

05 April 2009

The circle of life

We have too many roosters.

Last week, we actually had a hen killed by the roosters ... there were just too many of the boys interested in her. After putting the poor hen out of her misery, we decided that it was definitely time to reduce the rooster head count.

So, today we did our first butchering. Three roosters had their heads suddenly removed from the rest of their bodies, then they were hung up to drain and were partially plucked, skinned, and the best parts of the meat removed. It's not as efficient as fully plucking the bird, eviscerating it and roasting it whole, but it is a workable process.

The result was about 2 pounds of ground chicken and two chicken breasts (cut into bite sized pieces) in the freezer, and enough cubed chicken for supper for the three of us, with leftovers for someone's lunch.

The meat is definitely tastier than store bought chicken - there's much more flavour to it. We cubed the meat, marinated it in olive oil and spices and then fried it up, dredging with flour at the last minute creating a nice crisp coating.

Rooster for Sunday dinner.