30 December 2010

Part of the next century

One of the wheel wrights on Ravelry said one day, “Have you ever thought that maybe you have added another century to the life of this wheel?”

This week, I got the chance to be part of the next century of another Canadian Production Wheel. I tell you, it’s such a great feeling!

A Bordua wheel showed up on the Alberta kijiji listings, and I posted to the Ravelry board to see if anyone wanted me to pick it up and foster it until the new owner and I could meet up: someone from “the absolute centre of nowhere, Saskatchewan” piped up, so while I was in Calgary yesterday helping my sister and brother-in-law move to their new place, I picked up the wheel.

It’s the same maker as mine – but this one has a mark! I’ve never seen a maker’s mark on the wheel with my own eyes before, so that was quite something.


Here are the two wheels side by side:


There are a few differences – the one in front (that’s the one I picked up in Calgary) has some more detail (extra lines on the wheel rim, wooden ‘toggles’ to hold the uprights and one of the maidens in position, finer turnings on the spokes and maidens). One theory is that over time, the maker dropped some of the finer points of construction. I wonder, too, if perhaps there were different models, like with cars – the routine style and the ‘upgraded’ style.

This wheel was (I shudder to even say it) painted brown with gold trim … the people I picked it up from had bought it that way, and promptly stripped the horrid paint job (and not erased the maker’s mark, which is impressive!) and kept it as a lovely decoration for years. Now, it’s back in service making yarn … and I’ve had a hand in giving it another century of life. Wow.

It’ll be handed off to the new owner this summer, at Fibre Week, when we will both be in the same place … then it’ll travel home to Saskatchewan where it can continue to sing it’s quiet, happy, productive song at the hands of yet another generation of spinners.

20 December 2010

Wheel Alignment

When spinning, one hand is 'forward' and one is 'back' - the forward one controls the twist, and the backward one holds the pile of fibre. I spin with my right hand forward, and the pile of fibre in my left hand. This is fine on a wheel where the orifice is right in front of you as it doesn't much matter which way you twist ... but with the Canadian Production Wheel, it's a bit trickier. They were probably intended for the opposite arrangement of hands – it’d definitely be  bit easier to arrange yourself at the wheel if you spun with the hands in the other positions, anyway.

Still, I’ve discovered that this slightly unexpected alignment of spinner and wheel seems to work quite well:


The wheel is more beside me than directly in front of me, and that leaves plenty of room for drafting.

Of course, in this picture I’m spinning lovely machine prepped rovings so able to do that fancy long draw technique. :)

I also managed to fill a bobbin (i.e. spin up two lumps of roving that were each about as big around as a soccer ball) in an hour. This truly is a production wheel!

05 December 2010

A one-bobbin solution for antique spinning wheels

I have no shortage of wheels (blush) but I wanted to come up with a solution to the 'one bobbin problem' that did not entail winding off from the antique one-bobbin wheel to one of the bobbins for my other wheels and then plying from there.
Translation for non-spinners: Most wheels have multiple bobbins, so you fill one, then take it off and put a different one on, fill that, then put the 2 full bobbins on something called a “Lazy Kate” – no, I don’t know why it’s called that – which holds them steady as you take the 2 single strands of yarn from the full bobbins and ply them together onto yet another bobbin to make 2 ply balanced yarn. If you have only one bobbin (most antique wheels have just the one), you have to put the first batch of single ply yarn ... well, somewhere … while you make the second batch, and then you need both batches of singles to be conveniently unwinding themselves as you twist them together into a balanced yarn. This is the One Bobbin Problem.
So ... I offer *The Lazy Fred* for your consideration.

First of all, it's called a Lazy Fred because although it is *like* a Lazy Kate, it doesn't hold regular bobbins - it's different. And since my wheel's a (presumed) Fred Bordua wheel, and this solution is particularly for the antique wheel crowd, I thought of it as a Lazy Fred. Just kinda stuck in my head that way. :)
Anyway - here's what it looks like:
Those are sorta-bobbins: a piece of dowelling with a wheel affixed partway up the shaft, much like a drop spindle. It's not hollow though, because the idea is that you can attach it directly to your handy dandy drill (you *do* have a drill, right? if you don't, you need one anyway, so quick, go get one!) by just inserting the end of the dowelling into the chuck, like it was a drill bit:

I put one leg up on my spinning chair, rested the drill on my knee, and used my left hand to guide the singles coming off the bobbin so that they went up and down along the length of the bobbin shaft. The wheel at the far end keeps you from going too far in that direction, and you're obviously smart enough not to get too close to the business end of the drill itself. :)

To ply, you place the Fred right beside you on the floor: the yarn comes off the tops of the cones, rather than the sorta-bobbins spinning around and unwinding, as on a normal Kate; or put it in a shoebox Kate and let it unwind from the side.

Construction details, for those who are interested - the bobbins are pretty obvious: the dowelling is a tight fit so some sanding of the end where the wheel goes is needed to get it to slide into place. A bit of wood glue holds them in their final positions.

The base is a piece of leftover wood from my floor installation, actually - I drilled six holes, just a wee bit larger than the dowelling I used, and put those 'feet' that you can nail onto the bottom of your chair legs to help them slide over the floor at each corner. This raises the board up off the floor a bit, allowing the dowels to drop through far enough that they are stable. Any kind of feet would do - you need about a centimeter of clearance below the board for the dowels to stick through, perhaps a little more if you plan to use it on carpet.

Everything was stained with Watco Dark Walnut and given 2 coats of tung oil - and that's all there is to it!
Hopefully this idea is useful to someone else! If you need one and you haven't got the necessary equipment etc to build your own, I've got a handy 15 year old who's always looking for a new revenue generating opportunity …

28 November 2010

Playing with colour

Did you know that you can use Wilton’s icing colouring to dye wool? Not acrylic yarn, or cotton, but real wool takes the colour beautifully. It’s called acid dye and you can get interesting blended colour effects by changing the pH of the solution gradually during the dye process. Remember your primary and secondary colours from art class? Well, different dyes react with the wool at different pH levels, so you can ‘break’ the colour into it’s component parts by inducing some colour to work at one pH level, then another colour at a lower pH.

Yesterday afternoon, Princess Girl and I found the icing colours in their box in the pantry (The Reluctant Farmer is a superb cake decorator, and has all this great stuff in his cake decorating supplies … some of which I think he received from my mom!).The violet colouring jar had leaked at some point in the past, so we decided we’d try that colour first: I immersed the jar in the water (with my gloves on!) and rinsed off the outer guck, and then dug out the cardboard lid liner piece which had fallen in the jar and added it to the pot. The water was a lovely dark purple and this was an experiment, so hey, in the skein went.

The skein turned a bright pink with bits of darker purple, the pink was almost like a highlighter! This was very cool. While it soaked, I plyed up more yarn and then we added more vinegar and voila, the dyebath water turned blue! We dropped in the second skein and it started turning blue with just splashes of a light purple, as the reds in the purple dye had already come out of solution and reacted with the first skein. We left both skeins in, the highlighter-pink-and-purple skein turning quite a bit darker, and the blue-and-purple getting a deeper blue. After a bit we fished out the pink and purple skein and hung it up to dry, and left the other in until the dye bath was pretty well exhausted. Rinsed everything and hung to dry:


While I was in a dyeing mood, I grabbed some horribly-salmon-pink acrylic/polyamide thrift store yarn (nice and soft and halo-ey but what an ugly colour!), skeined it up and dumped it into the pot with Rit Wine coloured dye. The dye took quite well, with the resulting yarn being a slightly variegated maroon shade, almost like cherry cola.  Here you can see the before and after – that little stray bit of pink is the original (it’s a bit more orange in real life):


Since the yarn cost me all of $7.50 for about 10 or 12 balls and the Rit dye was on sale for 25 cents at the grocery store, I feel the experiment to be a success!

27 November 2010

The Lithuanian-Canadian Wheel

The lovely Canadian Production Wheel has been working reasonably well with the original flyer, but as it was cracked and a bit wobbly, I was keeping an eye out for a possible replacement. Several eBay sellers from Lithuania post wheel bits (or whole wheels, some of which are just amazing) for sale … and I found one that ought to fit. It arrived yesterday!

It’s in really good shape - the bobbin is obviously a replacement, and had not had any finish on it at all, just raw wood: I gave it a good coat of Tung Oil and the flyer and whorl got just a light rub - the flyer itself is polished to a hard shine that feels like it’s an oil finish but maybe is just years of lanolin, not sure. Most Lithuanian wheels spent their lives spinning flax, primarily - although out in the country, wool is common.

There was some gunk on the flyer rod, but it came off with elbow grease and some assorted degunking products. The whorl is threaded just like the one on my other flyer, I can interchange them. However, the Lithuanian bobbin has a wider whorl and it’s too close to the size of my original whorl, so they don’t play nicely together (you need one smaller than the other by a decent margin to get the differential rotation effect that is needed for proper take-up). No worries though - the entire assembly works very well!

As for fit: all I really needed to do was to keep the assembly from drifting too far ‘southward’ – the length was perfect, but in use it would slip towards the spinner and that would pull the whorls out of alignment with the wheel and the drive band would fly off in a temper. The solution was simple: wind a rubber band around the flyer rod tip as a stopper, so it can’t sneak back through the ‘north’ leather loop. Tada, fixed.


It spins nicely – very smooth and even, and it’s easy to spin fine yarn (in fact I think spinning anything BUT fine yarn would be a real challenge – incentive to get my other flyer repaired better, perhaps, as I think it would be more cooperative for bulkier singles).

And now I’m off to ply some yarn!

09 November 2010

The Anyway Project: another Sharon Astyk idea

The amazing author Sharon Astyk has started The Anyway Project.

Here are the categories for the Anyway Project:

Domestic Infrastructure - these are the realities of home life, including making your home work better with less, getting organized, dealing with domestic life, etc...

Household Economy: Financial goals, making ends meet, saving, barter etc...

Resource Consumption : in which we use less of stuff, and strive to live in a way that has an actual future.

Cottage Industry and Subsistence:: The things we do that prevent us from needing to buy things, and the things we produce that go out into the world and provide for others. Not everyone will do both, but it is worth encouraging.

Family and Community: Pretty much what it sounds like. How do we enable those to take the place of collapsing infrastructure?

Outside Work: Finding a balance, doing good work, serving the larger community as much as we can, within our need to make a living.

Time and Happiness: Those things without which there's really no point.


So … how are we participating?

Domestic Infrastructure – We are preparing to get the ceiling installed in the south wing (finally), as The Reluctant Farmer now has time for that project. We also have the woodstove installations queued up – not quite certain on the timing of these, but they are the top 3 infrastructure jobs at the moment.

Household Economy – Top priority financially is getting the debts cleared. Construction creates a lot of debt, as did TRF’s retraining – but little by little, with spending less / more carefully and focusing on debt reduction, we’re making steady progress.

Resource Consumption – The woodstoves are part of this category, really – we try to use less natural gas and more wood heat. The new Baker’s Oven stove will also let us cook more easily on the stove when it’s already going for heat. I find myself moving to the South Wing of the house when I’m cold (passive solar gain really works), and we all just put on sweaters rather than increase the thermostat, which is a good start. We have more to do in this regard, but we’re aware – and that’s a beginning.

Cottage Industry and Subsistence – We try to diversify here: we have wool, lamb meat, beef, the ability to produce some of our household milk (can’t sell/share it, but it is okay for us to drink it), and we continually look for ways to diversify our income stream. In this vein, my next action is going to be getting to UFA to pick up the @*(&#$ RFID tags and tagger that I now require to ship the calf and sheep to the butcher. Really, there ought to be small farm exemptions for some of this stuff. Don’t get me started.

Family and Community  - The Reluctant Farmer is a volunteer firefighter, which really gets him involved in our community. No doubt in a low petroleum world, that’ll look different but right now, it means he meets a lot of people who also care about our community, and that is cool. I’m going to be speaking to our new councillor about ATVs and road allowances, as we have a creek that reckless quadders seem to love tromping through and I’m hoping we can get some clarification on what ‘reasonable access’ actually means. And save the poor creek bed from becoming a mudhole for pinheads on bikes. To those of you who ride responsibly: thanks. To those of you who are idiots: think harder about the impact you leave behind, eh?

Outside Work – My outside work supports industrial ag, I might as well admit it straight up. This is a difficult thing for me to reconcile with the rest of my life, but the company I work for is highly ethical, takes very good care of their employees, and allows me to do what I do well without it taking away a good chunk of my soul (all of which are not exactly common characteristics in the IT world). Yes, I’d rather we didn’t support those who sell Roundup and Total, but our customers also sell alfalfa seed, and in the current set up, this is just how things are. The Reluctant Farmer’s new career as an EMT is about to get going (insh’allah) and that will shift the balance of inputs in our household somewhat. It’s a long-term transition: I know that some day, my job simply won’t be there anymore … so we’re working on having Plan B ready for when that happens. In the meantime, we take the Devil’s money to do God’s work, as it were.

Time and Happiness – I spent the weekend doing spinning demonstrations at the local Farm Fair. It makes me happy (and it is a chance to sell The Boy’s drop spindles, too – see Cottage Industry!). I am trying harder now to make the effort to go visit the people who matter to me, because life is short, and you know, I don’t want to miss out on all the birthdays and Thanksgivings and Christmases. Yeah, I have to drive an hour to see them … I’m doing it anyway. Also, at work I negotiated a deal: instead of a raise, I’d take more time off. We worked out an arrangement whereby I can work fewer hours (without causing trouble for my teammates, of course) and have more time for my life. Management is happy, I am happy, it’s a good balance. I said I worked at a cool place. :)

08 November 2010

Purposeful thinking vs. listening

A friend has been working through some interesting books and such on how to make the most of your life. I truly think he’s doing something he needs to do – and I am all in favour of him considering every possible angle and finding the path to his personal best. However, some of the stuff he’s working with has really strong “positive thinking” overtones – and those always worry me. I am willing to accept that when you take the WHOLE book/story/whatever into account, they’re probably not saying what it sounds like they are saying – but ya know, Catholic theology doesn’t actually say what it sounds like it says about a lot of things either if you read the whole thing – but nobody recognizes that fact in general conversation, not even most practicing Catholics.

All of you who’ve read the entire Catechism of the Catholic Faith, raise your hands.*

Yeah, thought so.

So back to the positive thinking stuff. The problem with saying “envision where you want to go, and you will get there” is that it’s too simple – and it’s also false. I know it isn’t likely what the authors intend … but that’s the ‘sound byte’ that it all boils down to and people say “bah, nonsense”. And rightfully so. I’m sure there’s more to it, but whatever it is, I already know it doesn’t apply to me. Maybe it applies to some people, I don’t know – but for sure, it isn’t for me. Five year plans and mission statements have NO place in my life.

I’ll tell you why.

I truly, deeply, do NOT believe in planning. Really, who am I to plan my life? Who am I to say what I think OUGHT to happen? My track record proves I have no business planning my own life. Ugh.

I had a plan, oh yes I did. Everything was going great, dreams all more or less on schedule. Then my baby died, and my heart broke. I healed, mostly, had another baby who was (and still is, actually) everything I had dreamed of, and things were starting to look better … and then my husband turned into a stranger because a tumour took over his brain, and then chaos reigned in my life for several years (literally): getting through the days with the bills paid and my sanity mostly intact was more than I could manage without a lot of help. Knowing me now, you’d never guess what it was like – it was truly, truly awful. I was a mess.

Part of what made that time in my life so bad was that I was struggling with the loss of my plans. That hurt – giving up the old dreams. Plus, I kept trying to make new plans, to come up with a new vision, to find the positive – and all that happened is that I hit wall after wall.

It was only when, in absolute despair and frustration, I threw up my hands and shouted, “FINE, God, YOU handle it, I QUIT, just … fix it! I don’t care how!” … well, things seemed to go even worse for awhile … and then … somehow … slowly, and without me noticing, they turned around. And here I am – and I feel like I had absolutely nothing to do with it. I just went along with the Leadings that came to me so clearly there was no arguing with them.

I did have to participate, though. First of all, I *listened*. I shut up about what I wanted. I stopped demanding that things happen the way I dreamed they should be.

And once I did - dreams bigger and better than anything I could have come up with were given to me. Just … given. Out of a clear blue sky.

Of course, then I had to find the courage to accept the gifts. It wasn’t easy, as these new dreams were way different and big and scary and totally outside my comfort zone – but they would not leave me alone. That quiet, insistent voice said “you need to do this.” I learned what it is to truly hear the Inner Light.

But see, the key was that I had to STOP trying to plan my life. I had to STOP trying to control the outcome. I had to accept that I honestly haven’t got a freakin’ clue about what would be best for me – and to just wait and see what happens … and then, as the Quakers say, to “Proceed as Way opens”.

You can’t hear what God says to you if you won’t shut up long enough to listen. And given how noisy our world is, and how loud our minds are, it can take a long time of purposeful LISTENING to even begin to sense the Leadings that are calling to you.

Hearing that Leading and going through the long process of testing it for truth, then finally accepting it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. It was also the truest thing I’ve ever done, and has opened the door to a life richer and more wonderful than anything I could have planned for myself.

The dreams I could come up with were way smaller than what was actually out there waiting for me.

Don’t plan. Listen. Listen for as long as it takes – don’t rush into action. Stillness is powerful.

When the time is right, you will know what to do. If you don’t know what to do, the time to decide hasn’t come yet.


Proceed as Way Opens.


* Yes, actually, I have. Not in great detail, but I did read it. Comparative theology is a hobby of mine. I know, I’m weird.

31 October 2010

Save its life!

When there’s food in the fridge or on the counter that’s getting weary, it’s time to get creative and find ways to save its life.

I had a batch of pears from our food co-op purchase that were suddenly all very ripe. Those got chopped into hunks and put in a pot with a few wrinkly apples, also chopped into hunks, cooked and mashed with the potato masher. A run through the food mill into the slow cooker with a dash of cinnamon and a shot of honey, several hours heating with the lid off to cook off the excess liquid, and we have 3 jars of pear/apple butter - a jam substitute or flavouring for plain oatmeal.

Earlier this week, half a head of cabbage went in the pot with garden beets retrieved from the freezer and a pot of borscht was made: some was eaten, and the rest packaged into portion sized dishes in the freezer. They’ll make good lunches for me.

The rest of the cabbage, some potatoes, celery and wrinkly carrots are simmering on the stove this afternoon with onion and garlic into a cabbage soup. I may be the only one willing to eat it, but hey, I like cabbage.

The remainder of the weary celery is in the dehydrator, destined to become celery salt and possibly dehydrated vegetable soup ingredients.

It’s just a matter of paying attention and taking a few extra minutes to rescue something that is getting overripe – better that it be food than compost, and better that it be people food than animal food, if possible. It doesn’t take long, if you’ve already got the cutting board out, to chop up the rest of the celery and put it in the dehydrator. If you’re in the kitchen anyway, simmering the fruit and pureeing it is not much extra trouble – and the slow cooker can reduce it down without any real supervision at all on your part.

Having the right tools is a big help – the food mill, slow cooker and dehydrator are important members of the Food Rescue Squad – but having the right mindset is the most important thing.

26 October 2010

Restoring history

The Canadian Production Wheels, like Jaqueline, the newest addition here, were built mainly in Quebec. The Canadian Production Wheel Lovers, on Ravelry believe that this wheel was made by Frederic Bordua in Quebec, likely between 1875-1908. My aunt reminded me that Apple Jack, my beloved grandfather, was born in 1909 – so this wheel is about even a little older than he would be!
With much help from the people on the Ravelry group and other spots on the web, I have jumped in and done the refinishing and repairs on the wheel … and this is the result:

Before & After shot:

Close up of the wheel uprights (and you can see the Babe in the background!):

Cobbled together for a test run:

Close up of the repaired flyer:

… yes, that is yarn on the flyer.
You know what that means? She works.
29 hours after arriving here, Jacqueline spun yarn. The Boy took video … have a look.

24 October 2010

A truly fabulous day: the blessings of friends

I had a super fun day visiting with a fibery friend who drove out from town today with a specific mission: she has decided to make a list of "50 things by 50" (her birthday is in a year). When she was gathering suggestions of things to put on her list (cliff diving and tattoos were definitely out, she said) I suggested shearing a sheep – and offered that she could shear one of mine, and keep the fleece for her present. She thought this would be absolutely fabulous – and hey, if someone else wants to do the jobs I have to do anyway but considers the work to be entertainment, well, who am I to argue? :)

Today, she and her husband came out, along a friend and the daughters of the two families. We had a great time visiting while my friend learned to shear, with hand shears, the old fashioned way. After the first lamb was all tidied up, there was a second volunteer … and since the kids were all out having fun and nobody was in a hurry to go, the second lamb was shorn in a team effort by both ladies – while I sat with my feet up on the barn railings! This is my idea of a great day – someone else shows up to do my work, I get to visit, and everyone has fun! The kids played on the hay bales and went exploring at the creek, the wool was packed into bags, we warmed up with tea, and everyone headed back to town happy. I can’t wait to see what my friend makes with this wool – she is a superb spinner and knitter and will no doubt make something fabulous.

Just as those friends were heading out .. another friend pulled into the driveway. He had been to an auction today, old buggies and horse tack such, and at the end of the auction there was something that he thought I might like. If I didn't want it, I was to say so, but it was a gift for me if I did think I might enjoy it.

Gee, what do you think I said?

It's an antique Canadian wheel - from Nova Scotia, he said, though I looked and it has no maker's mark (not at all uncommon for these wheels). The wheel itself is straight and unwarped (not at all common for antique wheels!), though it sits unevely in the supports and there's one loose spoke, but those are minor issues and easily fixed. The flyer (the piece where the wool is wound onto the bobbin) is cracked and damaged and has no hooks, but I’ve tested the space with my standard Ashford flyer assembly (which is a ‘spare part’ type thing that I can purchase fully made), and it fits! I can see how to fix this wheel up and make her productive again – and I am unimaginably happy. I know my friend was pretty sure I’d be pleased … but I doubt he has any idea how truly, deeply thrilled I am that someone would surprise me with such a fabulous, much-wanted, and absolutely perfect gift right out of the blue!

Many spinners say that their wheels choose their own names – and this one most certainly did: she is Jacqueline (pronounced the Acadian way, Jack-eh-leen'). My generous friend’s first name is Jack – just like the beloved grandpa for whom my farm is named - and so this wheel is named for the thoughtful, open-hearted person who carried her from the auction block to her new home.

I am so blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful friends. I love my life.

09 October 2010

“But it’s all so much work!”

Lots of people shake their heads at me because I “do so much work” – generally suggesting that I’m slightly nuts to do so much ‘from scratch’ or for going without convenience tools like a dryer. So, I figured today I’d document what it is that I really do (on a busy kind of Saturday), and see how much work it actually is and how it feels.

Now, although I plan to get a fair bit done today, I’m not overextending  as I’m still recovering from the flu: although I am overjoyed to simply be upright and mostly functional, my energy levels are still pretty low, so I need to move slowly and not do any heavy physical stuff. So everything I do today will be accomplished in first or second gear only. Also, I’m home by myself, the rest of my nuclear family having headed to Manitoba for a family visit that I opted out of: after 2 weeks off work with the flu, I really didn’t feel right taking more time off, besides the fact that the long drive and whirlwind visit is probably more exertion than is good for me just now.

So …home alone, puttering around, gettin’ stuff done. What’s it look like? Here we go:

To start the day, my parents stopped by to drop off some pies (and ingredients for MORE pies!) for Thanksgiving – they are headed out of town, and this was their gift to us. Cool! So I got to visit with them for a bit, which was nice. By the time they left and I finally got moving it was a little before 9.

First order of business was laundry: I re-rinsed the load I’d forgotten in the washer yesterday and while that was spinning, gathered up some more to go in for the next load. Meandered to the kitchen and started the coffeemaker, then changed loads in the washer and hung up the clean stuff inside (there wasn’t much, so this was a quick 3 minute job).

Now to the kitchen: I retrieved my Carla Emery Encyclopedia of Country Living and looked up some pickle recipes. And browsed, as always (it’s a great book). While pondering my options, I sliced and tossed into a pot the few tomatoes that actually ripened this year (just chunked and threw in the pot with a bit of water), added some seasonings, and set it to simmer. Pondered some more. Put a bunch of canning jars in the dishwasher and started it. Scrubbed off the ceramic water filters (since I will need a lot of water today and I want the Berkey filtering as quickly as possible) and refilled the reservoir. Set one batch of brine to boil and sat down to read my knitting magazine.  By now it’s about 10, and I’m happily sipping coffee and drooling over gorgeous pictures of sweaters and yarn.

The tomatoes finished simmering around the time the next load of wash finished, so I shut off the burner, put more stuff in the washer and headed outside to hang up what was done. It’s a lovely day outside, and perfect for drying clothes – there’s a bit of a breeze and it’s cool … they should be dry in no time … although they’ll just stay on the line until I feel like taking them down, I expect. Which might be tomorrow.

Back to the kitchen to run the tomatoes through the food mill (I love, love, love my food mill – it saves me so much food prep time), pour the resulting sauce in a jar (retrieved from the dishwasher, now steaming), scrape the seeds and peels into a bowl for the chickens, and rinse off the things I’ve used so far.

Poured another cup of coffee and read some more Vogue Knitting. Realized I probably need more brine than I made, so added to the batch and boiled it up again. Topped off the coffee and sat down to read some more. Just as the brine boiled, I finished my first pass through my magazine and decided I should actually eat something before I go outside. Shut off the burner, poured a bowl of cereal and another mug of coffee and came to the computer. Time now: 11 am.

I’ll spend another forty five minutes or so here while I have my coffee, check Facebook, and write this … then I’ll head outside to pull up carrots. I really need to hack all the quackgrass out, but I’m not up to that yet, so it’ll just be a carrot-harvesting day. Well, carrots and the quackgrass and weeds in their immediate vicinity, but no big mattock work today.

How do I feel so far? Very relaxed. I haven’t moved at more than a comfortable meander all morning and I have a jar of tomato sauce, a batch of pickling brine, clean canning jars, and some clean laundry to show for it.

The laundry’s done and my coffee mug is empty, so it must be time to go outside.

I came inside at 1:20 with a large bowl of carrots (the weeds and carrot tops got fed to the sheep). By 3:30 the carrots were all washed, sliced, loaded into jars (with jalapenos, garlic, and onions), doused in brine and in the canner boiling. While the canner bubbled away, I tidied up and swept the floor … and noticed the crock of lacto-fermented pickles. I had intended to stop at 4:00, but it takes a lot of time and natural gas to heat up the water bath canner, so I figured I might as well can some of those pickles while I had everything going. Rummaged around for more jars, loaded them up with pickles, and started the next batch processing. Put even more pickles in jars, and finished cleaning up while the water bath burbled. By 6:00, everything was done and cooling on the counter – except for the jar that broke. (Never had that happen before – it broke in the canner, and I came back to discover pickles floating around in the water bath. Weird.)

So, it’s 6:06, all the work for today is finished, and my evening is free. I think I’ll check out some things on the web, eat some supper, and do some knitting while I listen to my audio book. I

Today was a fairly busy kind of Saturday, but I’m not exhausted and there was no stress at all: I took my time doing every job, and the only significant physical exertion was lifting the pickle crock up off the floor, that and the fact that I was on my feet quite a bit. Still, there was never any pressure, no rush, no hurry, and I had the freedom to choose which of the many jobs that need doing I would do today.

It’s a good way to spend a day.

04 October 2010

Being a soft-hearted farmer

Sharon Astyk posted this today:

Blackberry is elderly, and there's a good chance he'll spend this winter the way he did part of last winter. Victim of the other roosters, and run down by the cold, eventually I moved him into a box in the woodshed with a bantam hen to keep him company. I don't really want a rooster in the woodshed for the winter, any more than I really wanted to go out in the pouring rain to gather up soggy poultry. But the chances of Blackberry going under the knife are nil. If the woodshed it must be, so it will be.

The real farmers who read this may well be rolling their eyes at me. This is proof I'm not a real farmer, right? After all, real farmers have to make their bottom line, they don't have room for all this messy sentiment.

Blackberry, however, is special. He is beloved. And the very fact that a rooster could be beloved, to me, seems a good sign - it means we are being attentive. We are watching closely enough, that we know our creatures well enough to develop relationships. And we know our economic realities well enough to know that we cannot allow relationships to emerge in every case.

I do want to stand up for sentiment in agriculture because I would argue that our industrial society discourages real sentiment, the emotion that emerges from knowing things, and exchanges it for sentimentality. This is an exchange that runs deeply to our detriment, in part because it enables us not to know things.

The love my children and my husband and I have for a rooster who gives back more than ordinary chickens is a way of expressing the love we have for our farm in general - fierce, protective, passionate. The whole thing is alive, and sometimes to keep it living we cannot do everything we'd like to. But we can pour out our love in selected places, keep an honest and just relationship with even the animals that don't get all our love, and pour into the land and its creatures the complex realities of our passion and sentiment.

Oh, yes.

I replied:

Around here, we call it 'winning the Immunity Challenge' (not that we ever watched Survivor, but we did get the general gist of the concept around the water cooler at work). There are some animals that just ... earn their retirement.

We have a hen, "Little Red", who is ancient by chicken standards (she was probably 2 when we inherited her from neighbours who were moving away , and that was 5 years ago), and she'll never go in a pot. When she passes on, she'll probably get a marked grave, of all things. Most of the other chickens we don't even recognize much less name - and if they die, well, the carcasses get tossed on the compost pile with minimal ceremony. But not Red. She is a character. Just the other day I was outside knitting and she actually jumped onto my lap! What a cool chicken she is. I’ll miss her when she’s gone.

And then there is the LGD who is getting on in years ... he will be given a dog house with plenty of straw and 'senior dog rations' until he breathes his last, even if he hasn't got it in him to chase coyotes anymore – because he has earned that through years of service to us and his flock. If his life becomes nothing but suffering, we will pay the extra to have the vet come out here to ease his passing, rather than subjecting him to the trauma of leaving his home, so that our guardian dog's last sight is of his beloved flock and his people. He, too, will have a marked grave, and we will cherish his memory for years to come.

The sheep ... well, they're too valuable as meat, even the ones we love - so the wonderful ewe with OPP will have a quick and merciful death at the hands of our trusted butcher and we will honour her life by making the best use of all of her ... maybe we'll ask for her horns so we can make buttons or something, but she has to go. It would not be a kindness to let her slowly suffer from lung troubles, and OPP does not affect the value of the meat - so we do her the most honour by making full use of all she has to offer us, and keeping her suffering to a minimum.

It seems silly, on the face of it, to care for our creatures so. We are soft hearted, but I don’t think that is a bad thing – it helps us to honour the animals in our care. I think it was your kids, Sharon, who said "all meat has faces". When we know the faces of our meat, when we honour them with a clean, quick death and our gratitude at the table, we do right by the creatures we are responsible for. When we grant retirement status to those animals we have a soft spot for, it's part of the same attitude: we remind ourselves that these creatures have value, that their feelings - even as animals - matter to us, and that we wish to give them the best care we can.

I think it makes us better farmers, if we care for our animals' comfort. It helps us 'hear' them when they voice their distress, because we are used to listening to them as ‘real voices’ – not just a mindless bellow. Keeping their feelings in mind when we design their shelters and plan their feeding ... caring that they have good lives - even if they are normally short ones - means that we are good husbandmen (is there a gender neutral term for that?).

Industrial scale farming has no place for caring for the animals. Real, family scale farming does. I think it’s a good thing.

02 October 2010

Knitting: Swirl Neckwarmer

A Facebook conversation about knitting turned into a trade: she’ll sew a skirt for me, and I’ll knit a neck warmer for her! We both feel like we’re getting the better end of the deal – which is pretty much the definition of a successful swap. :)

I knit from the Swirl Neckwarmer pattern – and may I just say how truly awesome Ravelry is for finding patterns! I used some heather green 100% wool yarn that I had in my stash: 2 ply mule spinner yarn from Custom Woolen Mills, made from local wool on antique equipment by really neat people (I’ve been there for a tour … awesome place).

I only used a single strand of wool, unlike the doubled strands the pattern recommends, as the yarn I had was sufficiently bulky on it’s own. The Brioche stitch is amazingly voluminous, which means it will trap air and be nice and warm, which is the point. My crochet skills are not quite as amazing as one might hope, so the edges of the finished product actually swirl out a little more than in the original, but I’m considering it a design feature.

Will post a photo when I get one uploaded. It was really a fun knit, worked up very quickly and easily … highly recommended.

27 September 2010

The Six Month Rule

This came up in conversation I had with a (much younger) person yesterday … I thought a lot about my response, so I figured I’d post it here.

If you just want to go on dates, have fun, hang out, and enjoy life in the company of others, and if you end up with someone long term, well, cool, if not, ah, well, no biggie …. then this isn’t for you. But, if you have looked around and seen how often couples end up together who are, in fact, terribly mismatched and deeply unhappy in one another’s company, and you’ve decided that isn’t the kind of partnership you want – then this is for you.

First, you have to acknowledge that dating is about actively looking for a life partner, a spouse - not just choosing someone to hang out with for awhile, or someone to go to the dance with next week. In this perspective, ‘dating’ is intended to see if the person is a good fit for you as a partner for the long term – not just “someone I really like to hang out with right now”. This is very different than the way most people see ‘romantic attachments’ these days.

The short version of the rule is this: never date anyone longer than six months unless you are absolutely certain you want to marry them. There’s no point tying up fragile hearts and wasting their time and yours if you aren’t actually going to go through with getting married.

So, the corollary is, if you aren’t looking for a spouse, then don’t date anyone exclusively – or if you do, at the very least, don’t let it go on more than six months. It’s not fair to you or them, because your heart gets all tied up in the relationship, inertia takes over, and your lives get entangled (you share the same friends, you are used to doing everything together …) and then breaking up later is even harder. This is how people end up married to people they aren’t matched well with: it was fun at the beginning, nobody was taking it seriously, then somehow, a year or two had passed and being together got to be a habit, then more time went by and breaking up was more trouble than it was worth, or a pregnancy happened, or it just seemed like getting married was the next thing to do … and here they are, married to someone they liked enough to date for awhile, but not someone they ever really intended to marry. Or they don’t get married, but they spend three years together … then three more years in another relationship that fizzles out … then a couple more somewhere else … and you’ve wasted years on relationships that didn’t click at the start (waiting longer doesn’t make things better – it just wears you down).

So if you’re looking for a partner for life, then accept that that’s what you are doing, and go about it with your eyes open. Don’t just “end up” getting married to someone you dated for years ‘cause they were familiar, comfortable and … well, it seemed good enough at the time.

This is where it becomes obvious that it is important to know what you are looking for, and that means you need to know a lot about yourself: you need to know what kind of person you are to live with, and you need clear ideas about the kind of person that you want to live with. (For instance, I know I’m really, really hard to share space with – and so I need someone who is pretty easy going about most things around the house, but who is also strong enough to tell me when I’m being unreasonable and to cut it out.) So you need the ability to objectively assess both yourself, and your potential partners. This is not something that is easy to do, and it takes quite a lot of practice. And, learning to do it tends to sting quite a bit – as most of us aren’t anywhere near as ‘nice’ or ‘easy to get along with’ as we’d like to think, and admitting those kinds of things to ourselves is very difficult.

Start with yourself. If you’re still young, then it is almost certain that the person you are is a rapidly changing landscape and from one week to the next your ideas of who you are and what you like to do and how you like to spend your time are all over the place. That’s a normal part of growing up. Don’t tie yourself to anyone else until that crazy “try everything on and see how it fits” phase has settled down! Trying on different kinds of partners might be part of this – maybe you go out with a ‘quiet sort’ for awhile, and see what that is like, then someone more outgoing, then someone kind of in between … but never more than six months. You’re testing things out, seeing what works … and refusing to get yourself caught in the wrong place too soon.

You’re going to say “but what if the quiet one I started off with turns out to be exactly who I end up needing five years down the road … I’ll regret letting that go!” Well, maybe – but more likely, things will sort themselves out and you’ll find yourselves back together, having each learned more about yourselves in the time apart than you ever could’ve learned had you clung to each other hoping and praying that “this is the one”.

If you let time do its work on you, if you pay attention to what works for you and what doesn’t and then you start actively seeking out people with the characteristics that bring out the very best in you … you’ll find the right match. Maybe not as soon as you’d like, but then, the old saying is “marry in haste and repent at leisure”.

It’s tough taking a realistic view of dating and relationships in our crazy society, which talks up ‘perfect dream romance that lasts happily ever after’ as though this were the normal thing everyone should expect to have happen to them by the time they are eighteen. Then again, just look around – buying into this fantasy hasn’t exactly gotten us a bunch of stable, happy households, has it?

Maybe it’s time for a change.

Six months. Might be an idea.


For those who have watched my life and say “hmph, a whole lot you know” … yeah, you’re right. This advice came to me too late to change my path, but the woman I learned it from has a rock-solid marriage and is a totally amazing person to boot, and I think she’s really on to something here. Perhaps, had I thought about things this way earlier on, my life may have taken a different route. Ah well, our lives make us who we are and I’m content to be who I am after all the adventures … but perhaps this advice will be of use to someone in the next generation.

06 September 2010

Woad: blue stuff from green stuff

This year, I grew some woad in the garden (seeds from Richters, of course).

Translation for non-fibre artists, and those unfamiliar with Celtic warriors:

Woad is a plant that contains the same blue ‘stuff’ as indigo, which is what your blue jeans are dyed with. Celtic warriors painted their faces blue to scare the enemy (Braveheart, anyone?) and as the indigo plant, which has higher concentrations of the dyestuff in it, won’t grow in colder climates, woad is how blue dyes and paints were made in the northern parts of the world for centuries.  

Yesterday evening, I picked some  of the leaves from the garden… and a good thing, too, as we had a hard frost last night (and woad doesn’t do blue after frost). This morning, I followed the instructions from here and here to extract indigo out of the woad.

The first batch I did turned out … the second didn’t. I heated the second batch differently, but more than that, I think it was that the leaves for batch #2 were harvested this morning … after the aforementioned killer frost. Hmmm.

The successful method worked like this:

  • harvest the woad leaves: in my garden, all kinds of stuff got mingled together so I wasn’t always sure what was woad … if you squish the leaves they bruise to a blue-green colour, so you can confirm what you’re working with
  • leaves sat on the counter overnight, wrapped in a damp tea towel
  • tore the leaves into bits
  • boiled a pot of water and when it was good and bubbling, scooped some into a glass jar which I set in the pot as a double boiler type contraption
  • added a glug of vinegar to the jar of hot water
  • added the leaves, handful by handful, stirring in with a spoon
  • got a bowl of cold water ready in the sink
  • after all the leaves were in and the whole mess heated for about 5 minutes, transferred the jar to the cold water to chill
  • stirred, added ice cubes to the water and replaced with cold water for about 10 minutes until the liquid was noticeably cooler
  • got the soda ready: dissolved a generous scoop of washing soda in hot water, cooled that as well
  • let the leaves sit in the cool water bath for a total of 20 minutes from when they left the hot water
  • strained the leaves out of the cooled mix
  • added soda mix to the leaves: everything went from green to brown!
  • poured from one glass jar to another back and forth until the liquid was very definitely blue
  • poured into 2 jars and let settle
  • 2 hours later, precipitation was obviously happening: blue granules were settling on the bottom

We now have 2 jars with a greenish liquid on top and blue granules on the bottom! Very awesome. I’ll let it sit overnight and then the instructions say to rinse the top liquid (remove and replace with clear water) repeatedly until it is clear on top and blue sludge on the bottom. Then we’ll remove the last of the water and let the powder dry out. I’ll probably try doing that directly in the glass jars.

This was the coolest mix of gardening and chemistry ever. I’m definitely growing more and trying this again next year! Of course, to dye wool or fabric with this requires a whole ‘nother adventure, but wow … I made blue stuff out of green stuff that grew from seeds! Too cool!

28 August 2010

If *this* were my job…

… I tell ya, things would be different.

If my job were keeping the house and farm running, keeping up with everything would be so much easier. The fences could be mended as the problems are noticed, the heavy lifting could be done a little at a time, and the garden could be visited and weeded every day. Of course, the bills would rapidly overwhelm us, which is why keeping the house and farm running is *not* my job … but boy, it would be nice to be able to do the house and farm work every day, instead of all crammed into the weekends or evenings.

What amazes me is that I feel this way even though I have a kid and husband at home during the week who actually do take care of the majority of things! I must be getting old.

Today’s mission was to start on Chickenville. We’ve been lucky enough to free range our chickens for the past several years, and have had no noticeable losses (we lose a few, yes, but nothing substantial). This summer, though, we had about 30 chickens when everyone got let out of the winter coops … and now we have fifteen. There’s been a hawk circling the property and The Reluctant Farmer saw a coyote sneak in by the garden the other day when the dogs were all on the other side of the house … so those two critters might explain our dramatically reduced chicken count.

Thus, Chickenville is in progress: a pen over by the barnyard, within sight and smell of the dogs’ usual sleeping spots, and in the centre of the pastures, so that no matter where the sheep happen to be (which is where the dogs will be), the chickens aren’t far. We’ll still let them out to roam and scritch in the dirt, but we’ll be bringing them in at night for their own safety.

The Boy and I also realized today that we’ve not seen the littlest bottle lamb at all. She was weaned a few months ago, but would still come up to you if you were outside. The Boy and I saw her ‘adopted sister’ (the two usually hung out together) today and realized that the bottle baby was nowhere in sight. We can’t seem to find her – so perhaps whatever took the chickens took her too. She was tiny enough to sneak out of the fences if she wanted to, but she always went back in on her own. I suppose without a mama to keep an eye on her, she wandered off too far. <sigh> Farming has rough spots, that’s for sure.

The bright spot, though, is that the demand for local, grass-fed meat is huge! We could easily have double the flock we’ve got and still sell out every year. Unfortunately, as this is *not* my job, we can’t scale up … not yet, anyway. Maybe someday, though …

Maybe someday, when I finally grow up, I can be a farmer.

19 August 2010

Independence Days Update

Wow, not even sure when the last time I posted one of these was. I’ll just kinda go from ‘recent memory’:

Planted: I put in more beans, and found some potatoes that were in a bin with sawdust and sprouting so I put them in the ground and I see leaves coming up. Cool.

Harvested: Pulled up some carrots (oh, there’s nothing like carrots fresh from the garden!), some lettuce, radishes, and the first fresh green beans. I took carrots and beans to work, sliced them, microwaved them, and served them over rice (we actually have a rice maker in the office kitchen – I work at the coolest office). Oh, and some onions.

Also harvested some more herbs – calendula blossoms, plantain leaves, more yarrow, and some red clover (some of which I shared with a friend who is suffering terribly from The Change). The plaintain leaves are awesome for bug bites and burns.

Preserved: Mom brought me a new hot water bath canner (huge, and on sale for $17 in her small town store!) and several baskets of peaches, so I made peach/strawberry jam and peach syrup. Dehydrated the aforementioned herbs. The greens from the carrots are dried and crumbled into a big bucket for the chickens over the winter – no point composting them when we’ve got critters who would think they were a treat come the snow.

Waste Not: I suppose drying the carrot greens probably counts. I’ve also conditioned my coworkers to keep leftover food and such for the chickens, so we’ve had several ‘gifts of leftover rice and snacks’ for chicken food. The dogs have also been eating bones and scraps from the freezer. Ah, yes, The Boy took apart an old chicken coop in such a way as to salvage the metal roofing that was used (the wood bits were all sent to the dump for burning, but they were beyond recovery).

Want Not (Preparations): Not much happening that fits this precisely: The Reluctant Farmer did get the siding completed on the outside of the house (which will help with heat loss, aside from looking much nicer), we have the second woodstove here (but still not installed)… oh, we did chop and stack more firewood, that counts. I actually moved the existing piles to a new location, raised off the ground (for better drying) and closer to the house (better accessibility even in winter). The fourth pasture was also enclosed for sheep this spring, and I always include infrastructure work in this category, so that counts too. Oh, and the new sheep shelter has all the walls built, it just needs a roof.

Community Food Systems: Had a contact from a local farmer who has a ‘Garlic Festival’ at her place in a couple of weeks – haven’t actually responded, but I hope to attend. Have had more people looking for grass-fed lamb – we could have twice the flock we have now and still sell out every year, it’s amazing.

Eat the Food: Carrots and lettuce, beans and carrots. Not a lot else just yet. Oh, I have used sleep tincture made from the wild lettuce and catnip I’ve grown, that counts.

06 August 2010

The shoulder is not safe: get right off the road!

Today’s lesson: if you stop to help at an accident, PULL RIGHT OFF INTO THE DITCH IF YOU CAN!

On the highway today, I noticed a dust devil in the centre median … which seemed odd as there was no car around. I looked into the median … nothing. Looked in the rear view mirror at the ditch … ah, there, way in the trees, down the ravine, was a car, stuck. Clearly they’d just gone off the road.

We had time, we had a cell phone, we knew what to do, so we stopped.

The people were okay – banged up and shocky, and their car was embedded in trees and swampy muck, but they were okay. We called 911, got them checked over, got the RCMP on their way, and The Boy (who was in better shoes than I was) cleared a path from their vehicle up to the side of the road.

As we were waiting for the RCMP to arrive, we heard a bang.

Even with our flashers on and being well off the road, our car got nailed. A big semi (we think it was a flat bed with a second flatbed on top) was, presumably, checking out the original accident, looked up and saw he was almost in top of our little car, swerved to miss it, didn’t miss it, swerved back into his lane … and then didn’t stop, either. We looked up to see him weaving a bit and were all expecting to see him pull over … his brake lights were on, then off, and … and he kept going! Wow. Bad choice on his part. I mean, maybe he didn’t hear the bang (hauling a big trailer is noisy business), but, he should’ve checked to be sure. A commercial vehicle stopped later and radioed other trucks in the area to be on the lookout for sideswipe damage, so maybe the driver will stop later on and turn himself (herself?) in.

The whole passenger side of the car (given the reverse orientation of our Japanese vehicles, the passenger side was next to the road) is scraped, the rear corner is dented in, the front passenger tire is completely flattened and whacked out of position, the mirror is gone … it’s rather nasty. Had The Boy been in the car he probably would’ve been hurt (but he was out with me, helping the original folks).

We did have an EMT stop by and check out the accident victims (nice lady in an industrial EMT vehicle - good of her to stop on her way to or from her other job) and the RCMP officer who came by was very helpful as well.

So, no damage except to vehicles, thankfully – but the lesson is clear: park *ahead* of the original accident (in case someone hits you and does a bump and raise) and even if you think you’re far enough off the road … you probably aren’t. Get RIGHT off if you can: onto the grass, the dirt, whatever. Be way out of the way.

A few minutes or a few feet different, and our family could be in a waiting room at the hospital, wondering.

Be careful – slow down and go around accident scenes!

25 July 2010

Working in the Garden with God

I usually spend summer Sundays in the garden – the nearest Quaker Meeting is more than an hour away, and as that doesn’t seem like a good use of fuel or time, we are “Isolated Friends” … still Quakers, but not in regular attendance at our nearest Meeting.

So, I listen to God in the garden while I work.

Today’s message was clear:

Genesis 3:19: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

See, in lots of gardening books, they say “just turn over the sod, and next year, you’ll have a perfect spot to grow your garden”. So that’s what I did. I turned it. It was pretty and brown. Then, before I knew it, I had knee high grass growing where I meant to put plants! I didn’t realize until just this year that it’s not sod that I am working with … it’s ancient pasture grasses, with a thick matting of roots sheltering the rhizome root system of quackgrass.

Now, I readily admit that it’s lovely stuff for the sheep to eat … but this stuff does not go away just because you faithfully turn the soil over. It spreads by the roots – so any little piece of root left in the dirt just becomes another plant. Rototilling is a means of plant distribution – not destruction.

So, I spent the day as no doubt many of my ancestors have done, on my knees in the dirt, digging up invasive roots with a mattock and my gloved hands. Once an area of dirt is mostly cleared of roots, you can grow other things there. You’ll have to keep pulling the quackgrass that makes it through, but eventually, it’ll die off if it hasn’t got any leaves above ground. The runners spread up to a metre though – so you need a good clear boundary around your plants.

Now that I know what I’m dealing with, I’ve got a plan. It involves a lot of digging, mostly.

I did pull out some high-tech tools – I’ve put landscape fabric down in many spots. Some of the fabric is covered with raised beds filled with screened dirt (filtering out the quackgrass rhizomes, so that the plants get a bit of a head start and can hopefully outcompete the grass), and some – particularly the areas along the of the garden (where the grass works it’s way in from the adjoining pasture) are covered with a heavy layer of straw mulch, with a spot of dirt every so often containing a transplanted calendula flower and sprinkled with a few more flower seeds in hopes that something pretty will grow.

So, it was a long day of digging, but it’s the first step towards a truly productive garden. Get the nasty stuff dug out now, and although I’ll always know the sweat on my face when I work in the garden, there’ll be a little less of it – and a lot more harvest.

The garden teaches both consequences and grace: don’t keep up with the weeds, and as a consequence, there’ll be less food to eat … but then, even if the weeds have gotten ahead of you, you can change your ways now and see a better harvest. Grace.

23 July 2010

Blog people are real people too!

I got to meet a fellow blogger in real life this past week – she was looking for some wool to try felting with, and she lives not too far from me … so … I got to meet her live and in person, demonstrate a bit of spinning, talk about felting, see her amazing front yard garden, and barter some wool for (truly amazing) fresh veggies, jam, salsa, chutney and pickles! (Her spicy bean pickles are reaaaaaaally yummy.)

Check out her fun blog – complete with a ‘test hat’ made from our sheep’s wool -  here!

18 July 2010

Sometimes, things just move slowly

This year, lots of things seem to be moving very slowly. The garden is taking ages to get up and running – things don’t want to sprout (except the weeds, they do fine), and the stuff that does come up grows in itty bitty fits and starts.

The lambs are getting bigger, but Icelandics are slower growing than the Columbia/Hamps we had before, so it looks like they aren’t growing at a good pace (even though they are fine).

The knitting projects are coming along, but I spend so little time actually with needles in hand, that there’s not a lot of progress (go figure). I did get a good chunk of knitting time in today – I needed a day of peace and quiet, The Boy needed money, so I paid him to do the jobs around the house I would’ve done otherwise. He was happy, I was happy, knitting was accomplished. Yay.

The chickens are hiding their eggs, so egg production appears to have slowed – which is not, of course, the real problem (there is no way that the number of hens we have laid only 5 eggs in one day) … but where are they hiding them? Haven’t found them yet … I put a bounty on the nest, maybe that’ll encourage more searching among the younger members of the household. :)

Mackenzie’s wounds are healing slowly – but his condition is improving noticeably. He’s on the doggie version of Keflex, which knocked me on my backside the last time I had to take it, and may explain why he is so tired and lethargic (I could barely walk from one end of the house to the other without needing to sit down and rest, and that was after the infection was under control and all I was dealing with were the drug effects). Mac’s wounded skin is looking healthier by the day, though, lethargy aside – I believe the intensive treatment with steroid/antibioitic cream (the first day) followed by calendula/plantain ointment several times a day for the next four days helped get things off on the right track, and all the resting he’s been doing has surely allowed his body to put all effort towards healing. I’m fairly sure the mudbath Mac gave himself on the second day (when he worked up enough gumption to chew through is leash and go walkabout) did not help matters, but he probably thinks that’s the secret to his healing. Hmphm.

Ah, another thundershower has arrived. Thanks for watering the garden, God, I didn’t get to that today. Appreciate the help!

13 July 2010

Do you have a dog with lots of fur who spends time outside? Had wet weather?

If you this sounds familiar … please do yourself and your dog a favour.

Check through his coat. Just … go look. Really, it’s a good idea.

See, I have a dog with lots of fur: Mackenzie, the Great Pyr. Mackie is a livestock guardian dog, so he spends all of his time outside. He lives with the sheep: they are his pack, he loves them and he protects them. He spends all his time with them. Buildings freak him out – usually, he won’t even go in the barn – he’d rather be with his sheep.

And, we’ve had lots of rain. Days of rain, then hot humid dampness, then more rain. This much humidity is really unusual here – I had noticed the humidity because the herbs I hung up to dry seemed way too soggy for the amount of time they’d been hanging. And, of course, my hair is out of control with frizziness. However, I still hadn’t put two and two together.

You see, when you have lots of rain and then some warm days and then some more rain, those outside dogs with lots of fur don’t really get a chance to dry out completely. This is especially true if, like our Mac, they are in the process of blowing off a winter coat and have patches of thickly matted fur that hasn’t quite worked it’s way loose yet.

What happens then is that the flies arrive. The flies see this nice warm damp spot and …

I’ll spare you the details. It’s horrible. It’ll give you nightmares. Everything that brushes against your skin will make you squeal like a teenage girl at a horror movie. And that won’t be an overreaction.

Mackenzie is now in the barn, willingly (which shows you how sick he feels), with the worst haircut you can imagine and huge patches of raw, sore, damaged skin. Home made salve (olive oil, calendula, mullein and beeswax) plus oral antibiotics and topical steroid/antifungal/antibacterial ointment (courtesy of my fabulous vet, who will provide me with medication and guidance based on a phone conversation, rather than requiring us to transport a 125 lb dog who panics when he is confined or forced to walk into a building) are easing his pain and helping him on the road to healing.

So, yeah: today’s message is check under the fur.

If the worst you find is dirt and guck and maybe leftover bits of grass … be grateful. If you find something worse … well, at least you found it and can treat the problem.

Sleep well. :)

05 July 2010

Freezer as Fridge, Revision 2.0

This post is a belated response to a question from Chile, over at Chile Chews, about our freezer to fridge conversion.

Many folks trying to reduce energy usage (for running on solar power, or just to be more responsible) have used a chest freezer converted to a fridge via external thermostat.

We used ours for four years, and it did work well - however, getting food out of the bottom was always a challenge, and the moisture that gathered in the bottom was a hassle to deal with as well (a centimeter or so would collect every few weeks, and it had to be sopped up with a towel ... after gucking up a bunch of stuff that was in there). Plus, it was a bit small for our family (which grew by one adult and 2 kids when the Reluctant Farmer and I got married).

What we ended up with is a bit of a compromise: we have an upright freezer, the kind that looks like a fridge, and are using the same thermostat widget on it. The ice forms on the top shelf, and moisture that drips down is easily wiped out by just pulling out the bottom drawer and swiping a towel along the base. Everything is easy to reach, and we even have door shelves for the mustard and pickles, yay! I missed those.

Power consumption according to the Kill-a-watt meter is 6.12 kWH over 351 hours ... which is, 6120 watt-hours/351 hours = 17.4 watts, or 418 watt-hours per day. If you work it out for the year its (0.418 KWH/day)(365 days) = 153 kWH per year. An energy star fridge (no freezer) of about the same size is listed at around 315 kWH/yr.

Half the power consumption is good. :)

Now, for a comparison from the old chest freezer/fridge to the new one:

The old freezer was a Kenmore 7.2 cu ft plain jane chest freezer, rated at 279 kWh/yr used as a freezer.
Used as a fridge, it needed 1 kW over 79 hours, which would be 1000 watt-hours/79 hours = 12.65 watts, or 303 watt-hours per day.

The new one is also a Kenmore, but bigger: it's 13.7 cubic feet, so almost double the size, and rated at 442 kwh/year used as a freezer.
Used as a fridge, at 6.12 kWH over 351 hours, we got 17.4 watts/hour, or 418 watt-hours per day.

So yes, overall usage went up … but on a per cubic foot basis:
Old freezer: 12.7/7.2 = 1.8 watts/hr/cubic foot
New freezer: 17.4/13.7 = 1.3 watts/hr/cubic foot

03 July 2010

These boots were made for walkin'

(That was the title of our boot making class at Fibre Week, taught by the fabulous Tracey Kuffner.)

The boots now have the completed outsoles in place:

Outsoles are cut from a sheet of felt (not quite as hard as the boots themselves, but definitely felted to a tougher consistency than the insoles), and have a thin layer of silicone spread over the bottoms for traction.

Attaching them to the boots was fairly easy - starting on one centre side, they were stitched down with blanket stitch, then folded across the sole and measured (and trimmed as need be) then attached to the other side. I gradually worked forward and back to the toes and heels, and stitched those last, easing in the fullness and stitching well.

With about a centimetre of wool between my feet and the floor, they feel fabulous.

02 July 2010

Images from Fibre Week

I want to write more about what I learned, but I’m a bit under the weather so the pictures will have to do for now.

Felted boots start off like this:

Then after much smushing and rolling, they look like this:

It’s difficult to tell the scale, but that boot would be too big for my Dad. Dad has big feet. I do not.

The little wooden scrub board thing fits comfortably in the hand, it’s a little bigger than a full bar of soap. That’s a huge boot.

After more rolling and squishing and rubbing on a washboard and scrubbing with the wooden thing, you get this:

Almost  the size of my shoe, now.

Further scrubbing (while wearing the boots, actually – I had no idea foot massages were included in tuition) you get this:

A pair of boots perfectly moulded to my feet. I also made enough felt for a pair of insoles, and a pair of outsoles (which will be coated with anti-slip stuff).

The whole class had finished boots when we were done, all different:

And, as a representative sample of what you see all over campus during Fibre Week, here is a happy knitting type person, showing off a stocking she made:

She said, “Making it took me to my happy place.” It shows, eh?

Fibre Week is awesome.

01 July 2010

Without fibre arts, we would not have civilization

So said Cat Bordhi, in her keynote speaker address at Fibre Week.

You don’t agree?


Fine, take off all your clothes.

Still feel civilized? :)

12 June 2010

The best way to grow an amazing crop of hay…

… is to surround part of your pasture with fencing and call it a garden. All the rest of the pasture will have grass 2 cm tall at best, but in the garden, the stuff will be knee high. Mow it down and feed it to your sheep, it’s the best stuff on the acreage.

I’ve been battling the grass in the garden for a long time now (hmm, three years I guess) and it’s still putting up a good fight. Today required the use of the gas powered weed whacker just to find some of the raised beds … yeah, things have gotten out of hand. It comes on so quick … one day it’s ankle high, the next day, it’s shot up into this miniature forest of greenery that hides thistles and assorted things that were left on the ground. The results of the mowing were delivered to the sheep and filled two (yes, two) quad wagon-loads.

At least the sheep were happy.

I had cleared several of the garden beds early this year and planted some ‘head start’ things, during that unseasonably warm spring weather we had a couple months back … but I have come to realize that while the garden plants may appreciate a head start, they absolutely cannot compete with the weeds in those chilly spring temperatures, so if you haven’t got weed-free soil (or the time and knowledge to identify and remove the weed seedlings while not removing the plant seedlings) … give your plants that head start indoors. I couldn’t even find any mullein where I’d planted it … nor the chamomile, poppies, meadowsweet and other herbs. I did find a few beets and a couple of carrots … and the onions and garlic are okay, but for everything else, I ended up just digging the beds up a second time and replanting. Next year, I will hold back from the temptation to start early (or, more likely, start more things indoors). Outside early starts just don’t work, not with this climate/garden combination, anyway. Maybe after the pasture grasses are all gone it’ll be different. You’ll have to come back and ask my grandchildren … it’ll probably take that long for the stuff to finally go away.

However, I did manage to get about half of the garden weeded and cleared of grass, two rows cleared and planted (tomatoes transplanted from inside, and a row of heritage beans, the kind for drying), and more beets, carrots, leeks and radishes put into one fully-cleared raised bed. I found some volunteer mullein plants and transplanted them to where the others were supposed to be, and put in some calendula and poppy seeds. The one small raised bed that had serious grass problems is now host to several zucchini plants: I figure if anything can outcompete the grass, it’s probably a zucchini. :)

Tomorrow – assuming I can still move – I’ll tackle the herb beds, transplant the stuff that is still inside and waiting to go out, and hopefully get the other large raised bed cleared for planting.

Of course I now have no idea where my garden plan is. I’m making it up as I go. :)

09 June 2010

Cheerful tomato plants

Been tired, wrung out and busy of late … so not writing much.

So, here is a cheerful picture of tomato plants to tide you over until I come back with something more profound:

They’ll be moving outside to the garden this weekend, if all goes well!

08 May 2010

That’s not drudgery … THIS is drudgery!

I worked with someone a few years ago in a cube-farm industrial IT environment. You know the kind of place … it’s the land of Dilbert. Yes, there really are places like that, and way more humans are confined to them than is just and proper. The environment doesn’t seem to destroy absolutely all of the inhabitants, but there are a lot of casualties, and the toll on the human psyche is pretty significant.

Anyway, one day on a short break in the ongoing slog of our software project, she mentioned her dream of a little house by the sea – all she ever wanted, she said, was a little house by the sea, with a garden and a few chickens.

“They told us that mucking out chicken coops and chopping wood and hauling water and cooking on a woodstove was drudgery.
They were wrong.
That’s not drudgery … THIS is!

Now I’ll readily admit that mucking out chicken coops isn’t fun. Chopping wood and hauling water is hard work, and it’s unpleasant in bad weather or if you are feeling ill. Cooking on a woodstove takes time and planning and practice. Yes, it’s all work, definitely.

But it’s not drudgery. You muck out the coop and you stand back and say, “There! That’s better.” You chop the wood and say, “Good! We’ll be warm this winter.” You haul the water and say, “There, those plants are not thirsty anymore … ooh look, a tomato is ready!” You cook on the woodstove and have the opportunity to actually think about what you are making, to slow down to the speed of life, and acutally be present while you do the necessary task of feeding the crew. And you get to taste the stew while it simmers.

This is nothing like cube-farm IT work. For that, you get out of bed, make yourself presentable for a Business Environment and drive an hour through rush hour traffic to get to the office. You swipe your passkey to get in, and stash your lunch in the desk drawer, hoping you remembered to stick the ice pack in or you’ll have to go out for fast food. You log in and start work, knowing that every keystroke can be monitored by the Powers that Be if they feel the need, and you spend the day creating and/or breaking stuff that exists nowhere but in cyberspace, and which, in all likelihood, is going to annoy the people who are paying for it because although it does everything the documentation says it has to do, there are half a dozen common-sense oversights that stare you in the face all day and drive you nuts … but you can’t fix them, because the documentation was signed off as it is, and if the customer wants something other than what they signed off on, they’ll have to submit a change request. Oh, and pay for the modification they are requesting, to add the really obvious thing that was either assumed or forgotten in the initial round of design. By the time you start the trek back to your vehicle (parked ten minutes from the office building, because anything closer costs an arm and a leg) you are wrung out and frustrated, uncomfortable in your now-wrinkled business clothes, and overdosed on caffeine and junk food. You drive back home through rush hour traffic, find something to microwave for dinner, and crash in one fashion or another for the evening – assuming you don’t have errands to run or places to shuttle your children or homework to supervise or some emergency work project that absolutely has to be done before morning so you brought it home and will do it on your laptop. Then you fall into bed, get up the next morning, and do it all again.

Now see, THAT is drudgery. That kind of existence eats you up from the inside, knowing that all the hours you spend at work every day amount to nothing more than shuffling pixels from one screen to another, and making money for several middlemen while you are at it. You die a little at a time on the inside, day after day, until you’re just a drone on autopilot, periodically waking up enough to wonder why you bother with all this hurry and hullaballoo.

Thankfully, I did manage to escape the cube farm five years ago,  just in time to prevent me from going right off the deep end into despair, and right around the same time I found Apple Jack Creek. I do still have one foot in each world – my day job is still in IT (with a small, honest firm that takes excellent care of their staff and customers – and where the stupid annoying stuff gets fixed without anyone demanding paperwork first!) … but my heart is at the farm.

So, yeah, I have extra work to do – I have to keep track of the schedule for the farm jobs, work on infrastructure like fences and gates, shear sheep, plant and harvest in the garden, and deliver eggs and meat to our customers … but I have a lot of help. The Boy and The Reluctant Farmer carry all the day to day tasks, bless them both (The Boy says, “Yeah, it’s work, but it’s not all that bad … well except when it’s a blizzard or something.”).

Most of all, it doesn’t feel like drudgery, most of the time. Oh, it’s work, I don’t deny it, and yes, there are days when nobody wants to haul hay (again) or figure out why the tank heater isn’t working (again), or round up the escaped animals (again), or pound in fence posts (again).

But there aren’t any days when nobody wants to watch the lambs bounce around in the pasture, or be entertained by the chickens scrambling for the kitchen scraps tossed out the door, or enjoy the bounty of our own harvest at dinner.

It’s not drudgery. It’s living in the real world.

01 May 2010

I want a farm just like Isaiah’s

Sharon Astyk writes of her son Isaiah’s wish for a farm:

I know, because he tells us, what Isaiah’s farm dream is – he wants more animals, more kinds of creatures.  He wants a tall, two story barn with a hayloft, and ideally, barn cats to chase and bales of hay to climb in.  He wants more of the animals to be his own special ones, his to care for and choose.  He wants to sell more things, be a true working farm with people coming down the drive to buy eggs and plants – and sometimes from him.  He wants it to be beautiful to others, beautiful to us, integral to the landscape and to the community – the place our neighbors come to buy what they need that we can provide.  He wants to be part of the diversified small farm of every child’s dream.

All I can say is … Isaiah, me too. :)

18 April 2010

Independence Days Update

Where are we at now that spring looks like it’s really here?

Planted: Oh yeah! Planting time, finally! Today I put out beet seeds, carrot seeds, and leeks and cabbage. Watered everything that is outside, and continue to care for the indoor seedlings. Just 4 weeks to ‘Official Last Frost’!

Harvested: Lots and lots of eggs, and some fleece from the sheep.

Preserved: Nothing that I can think of here … 

Waste Not: The usual feeding-leftovers-to-other-creatures (including putting my apple cores in a ziplock and bringing them home for the chickens, instead of just tossing them in the garbage at work). Made fresh pasta as an ‘egg saving experiment’ (see below)

Want Not (Preparations): Tried home made pasta and posted about the experiment on Facebook … and a friend offered me an unwanted pasta machine! Traded some lamb chops for said pasta machine and have made wonderful fresh pasta (doubles as entertainment for small children who think pulling noodles out of the machine is really cool).

Community Food Systems: Lamb sales have been so successful we are down to just sausage in the freezer! Have a couple more ready to go to the butcher, and will be restocked soon. Set up a Facebook page for the Apple Jack Creek Family Farm.

Eat the Food: More fruit in the WECAN basket this month, and cauliflower and potatoes. Have ‘cowboy pie’ in the oven right now – ground beef cooked with spices & HP sauce, mixed with a tin of mushrooms, topped with mashed potatoes and baked. Baked with the bulk flour purchased at the mill – nice bread! The flour is a different shade, not quite as white as the ‘store stuff’, and the bread has more flavour. Yum.

05 April 2010

More progress in the garden

Ev asked for pictures of the garden, so I had The Boy (who is a great photographer) take a few shots today while I finished raking the wide beds.


This shows the new ‘mini-raised beds’: large tin cans with the tops and bottoms removed, filled with soil and planted with herbs that should be kept from spreading (or clearly identified). I have no idea how well the cans will hold up to the weather, although all of these are enamelled on the inside, so perhaps they’ll be more durable than the usual sort. Trying them out seems a good way to discover the outcome – they were free, after all! (Thanks Mom!)

If you look closely you can see the wooden plant labels – I splurged and picked them up at Lee Valley, having grown tired of cutting up yogurt containers into strips that just get lost in the dirt. The orange thing is a spike waterer: you put a pop bottle on the top and it’ll slowly water a plant (another Lee Valley widget).


And here you see yours truly, decked out in garden gear, raking the wide rows. The straw cowboy hat keeps the sun out of my eyes and off my fair skin, and the rubber boots are lined with sheepskin which makes them both warm and cushioned. The belt is my “Quaker Sword Belt”: it’s a thrift store D-ring belt to which is attached my Japanese hori knife (for weeding), a sheathed dagger (I’m useless with a flip blade, and there’s always bale string that needs cutting if I haven’t got a knife with me), and a net bag containing the house phone, my cell phone, and a family radio (I was on call today, and The Boy was out and about). It’s very handy having all the ‘usual tools’ attached to a belt that can just be added on to whatever I’m already wearing – although I do need to replace the net bag with something smaller … it was what was handy today, but it’s too big to really work well.

Anyway, the white arch is plastic tubing (previously used as row cover supports) which is marking where the rebar row-markers are placed (I discovered that rusted rebar isn’t particularly visible against a dirt-and-straw backdrop, so these are serving as safety markers). The wide rows are measured very scientifically: they are just as wide as I can comfortably step across. I figure I won’t always want to walk around to the end of the rows, so if I can take one big step and get across, that’s about how big it ought to be. The pathways between the rows are about as wide as I am, on the assumption that I won’t be taking a wagon down between these paths, just walking (the raised beds are spaced so that the wagon fits between them, but then, those are rather solid fixtures, and it’s best to have a bit of room to manoeuvre).

There are only 5 rows for the wide beds, which doesn’t seem like it could possibly be enough. However, with the wider rows, there’s room for more plants – it’s not just one long row of tomatoes, they can be staggered so that each still has enough room to breathe, but the total number of plants is almost double what we’d get if we just had one single row.

I’m sure I’ll still find that I need more garden space – as I learn to preserve what we grow, I’ll want more available to put up for winter, plus our summer eating, but for now, it sure feels good to have all that compost spread out, raked mostly smooth, and marked out for planting.

03 April 2010

Finally getting dirty

At long last, it’s time to get good and dirty in the garden!

Yesterday, The Reluctant Farmer fired up the bobcat and brought in about 20 bucket loads of 2-year old compost from where it had been piled to age. The resulting mix of mostly-dirt (the pile wasn’t turned or cared for in any fashion, so there are still some spots where the hay/straw is clearly recognizable) was rather haphazardly spread in the south area of the garden, where the row crops are going to be planted this year.

We follow two wildly different gardening strategies: we use both Square Foot Gardening and Gardening When it Counts. The root vegetables and small things like lettuce go in the square foot beds, and the tall and spreading things, like potatoes, peas, and beans, go in wide rows. Since we have a good, steady supply of soil amendments (barnyard waste is not waste around here!), square foot gardening isn’t as resource intensive for us as it is for people who have to buy their compost at the store; and since we actually do have a lot of room for our garden, we also have the option of wide rows for the kinds of things that do well in that system.

So, needing more raised beds for the herb garden expansion, I got out the air nailer and the skill saw and knocked together several more frames – we have plenty of scrap lumber, and as the garden used to be pasture (and thus is well populated with insanely stubborn grasses), it’s very useful to get the growing areas clearly marked off from the paths. Besides, the actual topsoil layer is very thin, and the borders for the raised beds hold in the upgraded dirt.

The garden plan was up to version “E”, and the actual implementation is, as always, turning out to be different yet again from the last iteration of the plans. It’s not too far off, though, and I’m finding that the work that went into the various drafts is, once again, saving me time in the actual implementation … even if it is different than it was on paper.

So, what’s out there so far?

Well, there is a 4x4 bed of onions planted: I had a bag of onion sets that I picked up last year and never planted, so those went in today (onions don’t mind being planted early). There were a lot of herbs that needed stratification, and so several of those went out today as well – there’s no point fussing with starting them indoors if Mother Nature will take care of the stratification for me. So, in a new 5x2 herb bed we have Meadowsweet (used as an anti-inflammatory and stomach remedy), Evening Primrose (an edible plant that is used for a number of medicinal purposes, including soothing muscle aches), Borage (for skin and women’s concerns), Lovage (a celery substitute that is also good for an upset stomach), Elecampane (for bronchitis and congestive coughs), Vervain (for fevers, and as a relaxing tonic), Coltsfoot (for dry coughs), Hawkweed and Horehound (both for congested lungs and coughs). Most of these I haven’t grown before, so we will have to see how they do.

In a new 3x3 bed we have Chamomile (for tea) and Mullein (for coughs and ear infections), and in another we have Poppies (for seeds) and Calendula (for soothing skin salves, and in tea for upset stomachs).

There’s also space set aside in a second 5x2 bed for the herb seedlings that are still indoors: chicory (for drinking as a coffee-type beverage which is also good for the liver, and as a dye plant), Wild Lettuce (which is a fabulous sedative that gives pleasant dreams and deep, satisfying sleep), Betony (a black tea substitute that also has some medicinal uses), and St John’s Wort (used in depression, but also topically for arthritic pains and as an antiseptic).

Up along the fence, I am trying a new strategy: my mom works at a camp kitchen where they use lots of gallon-sized tin cans. She saves them for me, and I’ve been using them as temporary plant pots for seedlings. Today, though, I took some outside and used the can opener to remove the bottom as well, making a tin can tube. I dug out a section of grass and twisted the can into the dirt, then filled it with good compost and planted seeds in the can. Basically, I made small round raised beds. I have some very old seeds that may or may not still be viable, and some other plants that I want kept separate - those that can cause skin irritation if handled in full sunlight, for instance, or those that I want to be sure nobody picks by mistake. So, in the tin cans I’ve now got dill (for cooking, and as a digestive aid), columbine and sweet peas (flowers from my ancient stash of seeds), two kinds of poppies (which may be seed poppies or may be the California kind, we’ll have to grow them and see), Rue (used as a dye plant, mostly, or very cautiously as a herbal remedy), California bluebells (more flowers), and Feverfew (for migraines and fevers). I also plan to put cilantro, chives and basil in tin beds (all herbs used for cooking), as well as woad (which is a dye plant).

This is most definitely the year of the herb garden: I like learning about the various herbs and their uses, and I have found them to be quite effective, even if my family makes fun of me for using ‘snake oil remedies’. The herbs do have to be used with knowledge and respect, of course – just because it grows outside doesn’t mean it won’t hurt you – but with a reliable herbal guide and careful selection of plants, you can make life a little more comfortable without spending money on ‘over the counter’ remedies. I mean, why take Nytol if a cup of strong wild lettuce tea will knock you out for the night, and let you wake up without a hangover the next day?

Besides, growing stuff just feels good.

Up next: veggies!